My parents always listened to CBC Radio in the car – all talk, no music, bor-ing – the whole twenty minutes out to camp. We called it camp. Cottages were for snotty rich people with bathtubs, flush toilets and air conditioning. We had a camp built on cinder blocks and a biffy. But that’s not the point, the point is that I should have known about Terry Fox because my parents always listened to CBC Radio, but I didn’t. Until I saw him running …from the back seat of Lisa’s dad’s car. He was driving us to a sleep-away camp down east. It was a crazy scorching hot day. Lisa, her sister and me in the back seat, windows open, three pairs of bare legs tangled together, thighs sticking to the vinyl.
It never got hot like that at home. Even on sunny days, there were always huge fluffy clouds drifting across the blue sky blocking out the sun and heat so you couldn’t get a suntan or anything. But that day in the car there were no clouds, no wind, and Lisa’s little sister kept squishing me…jeez, how much longer… and why couldn’t any of us be rich enough to have air conditioning? Or plane tickets? I drifted into a sticky half-nap, hoping I could sleep until we got to the campgrounds and go swimming.
Suddenly the tires crunched onto the gravel of the soft shoulder and the car stopped. I kept my eyes closed. Twenty or maybe fifty car horns honking, grown-up voices yelling. Uugh…Car accident, we’re going to be stuck here forever.
“Wake up girls…WAKE UP!” Lisa’s dad yelled. “Here comes Terry!”
Here comes who?
My dad yelled a lot, but Lisa’s dad never yelled. Weird. I sat up wondering why he was yelling and who was this Terry person and why was everyone yelling and clapping instead of driving on the highway. All the cars were stopped on the shoulder. A little girl in dirty shorts and a halter-top was riding her bike up and down the empty highway. The air above the blacktop shimmered. The girl rode around in circles, her tires wobbling through the heat shimmers.
“Mister E, can we get out?”
The yelling and whistling got louder and louder. Someone was coming. Probably the stupid Prime Minister or something. Then there was the dark shape of someone running but not exactly. More like skip-hop running in the car-lane…on the highway. And grown ups hanging out open windows waving money, screaming, “Terry! Whoooooo!!!”
“Get your money out girls!” Lisa’s dad ordered.
I sat, staring, like what? Mr. E recognized the look of the tween stupefaction/embarrassment and explained; fast because Terry was coming. Terry — Terry Fox had cancer…the doctors cut off his leg…now he was running across Canada to raise money for cancer on one leg. Lisa, her sister and me dove for our money, pushing and shoving our way over to the window, squeezing pre-teen torsos out the window …because it’s dangerous to be out on the highway where cars drive fast, even when they aren’t driving.
“Terry! Terrrry!!” we waved our crumpled one and two-dollar bills. He was running right past our car, “TERRY!!” We screamed in unison. His brother jogged over with a grease-stained cardboard food tray. We craned our necks for one more look at “TER-RY!” ignoring his brother completely. And then it was over. The cars started their engines and pulled out onto the steaming highway. Terry was going west, we were going east. As the distance between us increased, I grew quiet, sad, happy, inspired, confused. Terry Fox was fully grown, but not a grown-up. He wasn’t a kid either; but more like a kid than grown-up. He wore grey, kinda dirty sweat-shorts and a t-shirt, and his hair was messy-curly – no grown-up would go out like that. And he was running across the country to raise money for cancer. I didn’t think any grown-up would do that either. And he was just doing it…I bet he didn’t even ask for permission.
Grown-ups were too scared to say ‘cancer’ out-loud. They whispered it, pointed to a body part, then shook their heads; as in, he’s a goner. But Terry was raising money so people wouldn’t always be goners. And he was just saying it, cancer and he already had it and he wasn’t dead. And he wasn’t scared.
On the way back home, we didn’t see Terry running, but we listened to the radio and heard about where he was and how he was doing. As soon as I got home and finished answering all my parents’ questions about how I thanked Lisa’s parents for driving me, behaved myself and made friends at camp, I told them about seeing Terry Fox. And, that I was going to ride my bike out to the highway to see him. Maybe even run with him. I wanted to do something. Something important, like Terry. Maybe I could collect money.
“What for?” my mother asked. “You’ve already seen him.”
I looked to my sports fanatic of a father for backup, but he looked even more baffled than Mum. I repeated the main points: one-leg, marathon every day, raising money for cancer.
“I know when he’s coming, I’m going to ride by bike to the highway and see him again.”
My parents countered with: the highway is dangerous, I already saw him, what good would it do, and that was the day for back-to-school-shopping. They were traitors. Two weeks later I sat sulking in the car as we drove home from shopping, new clothes and school supplies rustling in their bags on the backseat. The radio was on CBC as usual and a special report cut through: Terry Fox had stopped his run outside the city. He was in the hospital. A doctor was explaining the cancer was back, and I could tell by the sound of his voice that he was trying not to cry.
“Well then,” Mum said, “it wouldn’t have done any good to be out on the highway today.”
I slammed into the house. Fury at my mother, cancer, the stupid highway being so hot, not seeing Terry, letting him down by not being on the highway. My insides twisted into a spiked knot. Guilt came belching out. We killed the Marathon of Hope. Thunder Bay was the worst city in Canada…and I was worse for not being on the highway to show him that we cared about him and what he was doing. I hated my parents, my city, and myself in the way only a twelve-year-old girl can hate.
September was unseasonably warm and one weekend I was back at camp with my parents back in town, leaving me in the care of my babysitter and her pedophilic husband – my pedophilic abuser for as long as I’d had memories. He called himself the grey-fox. And he was – a fox that could outsmart anyone. He never got mad or yelled. He could grab Mum’s crotch in front of my Dad and everyone would laugh. He had a tattoo that he made dance, sparkly blue eyes and the protruding belly of a committed drinker. He walked around all summer with his shirt off, a drink in his hand and a smile on his face. He was the devil.
I stretched out on the cool grass in my favorite one-piece bathing suit. A stiff breeze off the lake pushed the clouds across the sky, drifting between the sun and me, forcing goosebumps on my arms and legs. Then there was a wide patch of blue sky and sunshine. And he was there, sitting next to me, a sweating glass of bourbon in his hand.
“You can’t get a tan like that, Jan,” he said.
I closed my eyes and ignored him.
“You’ll get tan lines…you have to roll your suit down.”
I ignored him more.
“Are you too shy to show your old Unc your body?” he taunted.
He swirled his drink, ice-cubes clinking, staring down at my pre-pubescent body.
I stared up at the drifting clouds remembering that sticky-hot cloudless day, steaming asphalt, the girl in the on her bike, screaming, cheering, my two-dollar bill waving outside the car window, skip-hop running, a marathon every day …never quitting, never stopping…only being stopped by the scariest word in the dictionary. I needed a word like that.
“C’mon Jan, roll your suit down.”
I sat up, looked him in the eye…