Introduction I wrote this story in 2012. Like I always do, I started the submission process optimistically--"Strap Me In" went straight to Walrus. Implausibly, Walrus liked it instantly and a lot. It got kicked up the chain all the way to the Fiction Editor, Nick Mount of Kamloops, who wrote me a nice letter saying very nice things, but only as a way of softening the rejection. I was pretty happy how close I got with Walrus, and assumed "Strap Me In" would be accepted by whichever literary journal was lucky enough to receive it next. As it turns out, the three journals that next got a crack at this story, were perfectly uninterested in it. Actually, two were indifferent. Grain, the pre-eminent literary journal of Saskatchewan, actively disliked it. They sent me a rather lengthy letter telling me how much they hated the story, and also me for having written it. Grain's response was nearly an entirely refutation of Walrus's response. They hated precisely the elements Walrus has praised. I would probably have kept sending it out anyway but a story I published in The Danforth Review was blowing up in my face by this time. Several members of Okanagan College's English Department, published writers all of them, objected to certain word choices in that story. Their objections were strong and forcefully made; they did not like the way they felt I was "sneering at them." Colleagues in my own department, Communications, asked me to take it easy for awhile. Don't add fuel to the fire. I listened, and retired this story. I retired a lot of my writing from 2014 to 2018. Getting beat up physically by grown-ass men with advanced degrees is something I guess I am prepared to do, if the cause is just and the time is desperate: but not over a short story.
No, of course not (I’ve got a well-tuned inner filter), I never uttered a single disparaging remark about Terry Fox. But if you want to know the truth, ask any of us who’ve embarked upon a cross-Canada fundraising jaunt, and it’s always the same thing: fuck Terry Fox.
I was four, a single child, when my parents moved us from Lima. My dad’s two brothers – Enrique and Oscar – had together moved their families to D.C. in the mid-1970s. I think, if he was being honest, it was an impulse to chart his own path that really propelled my Dad to shift us further north, but the reason he offered anyone was Terry Fox. You simply cannot over-estimate the effect Terry Fox had on the Peruvian national imagination, in the days of my youth. Terry Fox the front page of every daily in Lima. Terry Fox on the radio, announcers competing with one another to exoticize his name, to spread it across the land like a benediction. In Spanish the name “Terry Fox” guns from a gattle towards an ‘s’, that, like Terry Fox in Victoria, never arrives. This fortune of foreign mispronunciation cannot be easily detached from the way Terry Fox, with each half skip ever Westward, drew in our minds the very shape of things to come. Terry Fox didn’t, in any conventional sense, put Canada on the maps of the extended Lorca-Araque family. Terry Fox was himself the map. Each limb to us seemed a province, the missing leg like a promise of a culturally unified future, in a country that would not allow linguistic and cultural fester to destroy the body politic from within.
When my Dad passed away last March, it was cancer that got him, and even though it was lung cancer, on account of my Dad could never countenance the modern North American covenant that smoking is a habit that civilization should shed, we all were a little pissed at Terry. Hadn’t I grown up in a household where Terry Fox, on the front page of La Razon the day after his death, hung framed over the mantle? Hadn’t my father believed in the idea of Terry Fox enough? What hadn’t my father done for Terry Fox? The good in my Dad, the good I glimpsed on occasion, I sensed had never been natural, had never been in him. Any good in my Dad had been born in contemplation of this ideal, and every good work my father did, every charity and walk-a-thon, all of it was for Terry. The cancer that came for him didn’t come for his lungs. Even though it settled there, it didn’t even seem to work on those too much. It was like death, when it came for my Dad, known to his Canadian friends as Matty P (the ‘P’ was in honour of Peru), came first and with finality by showing my Dad that the cancer that came for his idol was one and the same as the cancer that came for him, and that to regard this as some sort of continuity, or, worse, an honour, was the facile impulse of the doomed. Where had all of the money we’d donated gone? What good, then, Terry Fox, if his image offered no shelter from mortality’s storm, and the funds in his name merely provided us with a dry run of how it would feel to be drained of vital resources – first money, later energy? Each depletion seemed to leave my dad similarly exhausted. The fire underneath Terry’s image cracked complaints like votive voices, blazing their way to Terry with cross-Canada fervour so hot it was always only ever force majeure that could dampen things down.
When Cancer came it killed my Dad by killing inside of him his Terry Fox heart, the pulse of every good work my father had undertaken. It was sadness over having come so far only to watch Terry Fox die again, but this time from the inside out, that did my father in. When Cancer came, it seemed to come from the Peruvian vestigial, all those things that Matty P had once been, but, through Terry, had hoped to be no more. Why couldn’t it have been Diabetes or a dank alleyway, killed by whatever political faction it was that the Lorca-Araques regarded with ancient enmity? Cancer was a betrayal. Suddenly asunder from the sun that from Terry’s beatific image had shone with newsprint rays – all about how a man here could do more with less, and how vastness could make of half men and half journeys something heroic for all time – it was over before it began.
It was just me and my Dad at the end, my Mom having divorced him and returned to her family in the posh Miraflores district of Lima in 2000. Like his three neighbours in palliative care, Dad seemed to have studied the customs of the land to which his embarkation was imminent. He looked more alive than dead, like he’d applied make-up in anticipation of his arrival, had perfected his gaunt in front of a mirror. It felt odd to hover over him when so clearly his ghost was ready for the hallows, keen upon the haunting in-between. When the rattling came to his lungs, no surprise except the size of his eyes, which momentarily, became huge as though wrenched with more matter than the sockets could bear. I leaned forward anyway, in case there was a final word, some sort of last instruction as to how to invite the wind into my own life, becalmed so long I doubted the existence of the elemental. There was nothing.
The only wind, and I mean this with no disrespect, came from my Dad’s final flatulence, something André, his nurse, called the “death toot”. I know that sounds callous, but Andre was a prince, and if you’re asking me to choose, it’s André over Terry all the way. Making a fart joke sound sacred over the body of the beloved is way more difficult than running, two limbs or one, I don’t care.
Dad said nothing, but I stared into those eyes, small in death, and I could tell that his Terry Fox heart hadn’t stopped beating, that it beat now in me and that the torch of Terry had never belonged with Rick Hansen, that pretender, that fraud. Terry’s fire was mine, it was my birthright. Were I to fail it was not myself I would upset it was the destiny of this new world, like some sort of Terminator project, a half-man, half-machine compulsion, as though my charge was not simply to cross provincial borders but to reverse time’s fabric, to restich the ideal by unstitching the decades, to breach, with brief 1970s style gym shorts, the laws of the cyborg, to bear once more the promise twice gestated, never fulfilled.
I began to train.
I joined a pick-up hockey league Sundays in the Walmart parking lot. I don’t know if you’d really call it a league, but there were seven of us regulars, and because I was the only one with goalie equipment and two full-sized nets, my neighbour Jerry gave me a ride. Growing up, I’d long admired the athleticism of Mike Palmateer. Even when he let in soft goals, he seemed unable to avoid achieving a Dunkirk pose for the morning papers. It was as though he understood that the symbolic would outlive the statistic. I took pride in my replica jersey, my replica mask. Blue leafs on either cheek, the inevitable pain from the fibreglass shield thin like another skin, born fragile so none of us could forget the sacrifices made in the name of this great land, the way we were born into suffering, each of us, that the jugglement of scars was never meant to be overcome, that the theatricality of regulated physical trauma served to protect us from things more severe. I’d come to hockey late and never learned to skate, but stopping shots came easy to me, even if that orange ball hurt like hell when it struck my mask, and after the second game I told Jerry I wouldn’t play anymore unless we all agreed that slap and snap shots were off limits.
There was a lot about the game I didn’t understand. I didn’t know how Mike Palmateer put his pads on by himself, because, for me, that proved physically impossible. I was glad I knew Jerry because each game I had to lie face down in the parking lot and call on Jerry for help. My arms, maybe, were too short or my fingers too numb on account of the cold, but how could anyone reach around their own legs and pop those plastic clasps into place? “Jerry!” Every week it was the same cry. Jerry always seemed to be by the opposing net when I was getting my gear on, and so I always had to yell.
“Jerry!” I cried, “Strap me in!”
And so Jerry would crouch over my backside, as I stared at the gravel and the slush, and I’d tell him to make it tighter, I could stand it if he could. Usually, while he was there, I’d ask him to fasten the back of my mask, and once I was strapped in, Jerry would roll me over and help me to my feet. You could beat me with a stickside deke, but I stopped shots from two guys who’d played ECHL, and you could feel frustrated career the way the ball seemed determined to crush tiers, to fly, for once, to just not have to ride the bus, not even once more, not to towns that never cared. The way my cheeks would sting, it was like singing the national anthem and not caring who heard you mess up the words.
My mom had never fallen out of love with my father. But she`d never fallen in love with Canada, either. The ignominiousness of our suburban existence travelled surely the path from disdain to disgust, and for the last several years she refused to do the shopping, claiming the sight of dishevelled women in their sweatpants was a horror too great for a civilized woman to bear. She said that the love she bore for us could flourish only in the land that had born us, and off she went to Miraflores, taking with her nothing but a carry-on.
From her condominium overlooking the Pacific Ocean, she contested my late father’s will. She argued, through her attorneys, that no one compos menti would ever abandon the privilege of upper-middle class Latino life for a split level not even spitting distance from a great dead lake that fairly reeked of mediocrity, that the act in itself had been a form of psychological abuse.
Return to the land of your people, my mother enjoined me, but how could I? What good my Mike Palmateer jersey in a land without ice? In truth, I’d bought that jersey, and all the gear I’d acquired in the months after my father’s passing, on the advice of my lawyer. She told me that my mom’s case was strong, her legal representatives of international pedigree, and that the more I spent now the less I’d lose later, should my mom’s suit prove victorious. I didn`t like being pitted against my mother, but the appeal of wanton consumption had, since coming to Canada, long lurked in me, and in truth I`d never felt so much affinity to my neighbours as when I first shopped with abandon, enjoying the act of collecting far more than the contents of the garish bags I lugged home from the Oshawa Centre.
At first, I bought an electric bicycle because it was expensive – this was the appeal. It was only after I got it home that I began to see in it, the same potential I had inside me: the power of the hybrid. I could ride across this country on my new bike, but where I would really pedal (only on flat stretches; I never had any intention of trying even a single climb) was home to a mother`s heart which had abandoned hope that here in this land habituated to the unexceptional, anything but more of a bland same could ever take root. I saw that it required not just another half man and half machine journey. It required also that this half man be halved again between culture and country, and I saw that my solitude here served a purpose, that to foray Westward was no mere bagatelle but the fulfillment of a destiny that had begun when Terry`s face had first travelled to Lima, that had continued when Cancer ravaged my father`s lungs, and that to complete the stalled dream of a stagnant nation was not an ancillary undertaking or a flight from responsibility; it was the one chance I had to restore honour to my family`s name and in doing so remind my adopted homeland of the promise it had (at least in my mother`s reckoning) betrayed to oblivion.
I had seen men in spandex ride past me on these bikes and for the longest time I just thought some people could really haul ass. I mean, it was impressive the way some guys could pedal a single rotation and boom, four flat blocks away, fast like they’d been shoved downhill by a competitive father in some unregulated Tub Kart race. Before I figured out the bikes, their speed was something I attributed to the attire of the men who mounted them. These guys were aero-dynamic, like they longed to be undone by a doping scandal somewhere in the French countryside. I envied them their tight shorts, the verve to wear minis so gaudy. So fine was the definition of a hamstring I thought I could hear tautness hum from somewhere inside the flashy fabric.
It was only after I`d bought my Styriette that I learned the humming sound was the motor. The guys at my cycle shop tried to talk me out of it, but when I told them the bike I was buying was the same bike I would ride across Canada, to raise money for Cancer research in the name of my deceased father, they geared me up good. Cost me just over five large. The 37 volt rear-mounted battery and the ergonomically designed Pearl Izumi spandex shorts needed each other as much as they needed me. I never wanted one without the other. The public generation of energy through the appearance of exertion: It was everything I wanted. Oh how free I felt when first I feigned duress. I watched with wonder the sheer athleticism of my own neon thighs as they pushed against nothing. Magnificent sinew strained, even when still, to free the fount of a marrowed core, and what was best – it was all for show. Spandex was not the caress of the ancient, the friction of a fate revealed. It was more like shoulder pads, only for your legs. I didn`t see how I could lose.
At the pub after Sunday shinny I signed a serviette, shoved it to Jerry and told him to hang on to it, it’d be worth something someday soon. He used it to wipe the ketchup off his upper lip before he saw I was serious. His mouth was full of fries, but his eyebrows said continue. I told about the Styriette, about Terry Fox. “Ah hell, Charlie,” he said. “Your heart’s in the right place, but who`s going to give money to some guy they never heard of? You need an angle. Maybe even an amputation, but even then, it`s been done, that`s the thing right?”
I told Jerry he`d see.
Jerry put down the napkin and picked up the tab. `”Consider this your first donation,” he said.
I told him that was ridiculous, he`d just been laid off from GM, where he’d worked assembly on heavy duty trucks, hadn`t found work in over a year.
“I know,” Jerry said. “But your Dad just died, you son-of-a-bitch, and that`s the only thing worse than getting canned. Besides, I`ve been getting so many sympathy lunches since they locked us out, you have no friggin’ idea.”
When my family first moved to Oshawa I lost track of the number of times friends just returned from all-inclusives to Mazatlan would hold up two fingers and tell me “dos cervezas por favor.” The casual ignorance of Canadians dismayed my father a great deal, but not because they alone were racist, but because he was racist, too. It pained him no end to live in a land where no distinction was made between itinerant Mexican fruit pickers, and a man from the middle classes, whose great grandfather had served with San Martin in the Army of the Andes. I minded less. When girls asked me to say things to them in Spanish I did, even though I didn`t really know how; my father insisted we speak English at home. I was relieved that throughout my schooling in Oshawa I remained the lone Latino save for Nico Bartozzetti, whose parents had emigrated from Tandil, Argentina, and who joined our class in Grade 12. On account of his surname, and because he stood over six feet and had blonde, curly hair, he fit no cultural stereotype easily. Bartozetti captained our high school rugby team. We seldom spoke.
Jack Black and I shared a body type, and although I knew nothing whatsoever about Mexican wrestling, I recognized that on the back of Black’s 2006 release, Nacho Libre, I would be able to sneak across yet another border. For Halloween that year I went as the lucha libre icon Atlantis, whose blue and white mascara bore an uncanny resemblance to the mask worn by Mike Palmateer. I was just one of the guys after that, like I had never been Latino at all. As I mulled over Jerry`s words, and I began to plot my journey, I saw in my Atlantis mask the hand of my dead father and the leg of dead Terry guiding me towards that sunken place where time and culture fused.
I received notice that our Oshawa house was in foreclosure, that I had until the end of April to vacate the premises. My lawyer said the estate seemed headed South, and that she recommended if I wanted the money I pack up and head there also. Shee said the cash assets were now frozen, and that except for a small allowance, enough for food and sundries, my spending spree was probably over. I acted quickly. Stuffed inside my father’s old golf clubs, warm from where they leaned against the furnace, I found the Atlantis costume; I set up on the ping pong table, and with needle and thread from a Red Cross emergency kit I sewed the Atlantis mask onto the neck of the Palmateer jersey, which I had shrunk by tumbledrying for three hours on high. I wore this over a pair of navy goretext leggings which I made into horizontal stripes with thick strips of white duct tape. Shorts over the pants, naturally. Also using duct tape I crossed out the words “Ateer” on the back of my jersey and made strips form the word “Atlantis.” I tried the costume on and I looked myself in every full length mirror in the house. I was not unhappy. I had been willing to settle for a gimmick, but as Miguel PalmAtlantis I knew I had found what I had been searching for – the iconoclastic coming together of two new worlds, each of which had found its greatest display of masculinity through the gaudy and the anonymous, where a true man must wear a disguise to better stop an onrushing object with pain and a dropkick.
The GM layoffs had been steep, and Jerry said he knew some guys from guys from head office who were doing nothing but drinking their way through their packages, the jerks, but he’d make a couple calls. Said the whole idea was idiotic, but that he had to hand it to me, it was something and it beat the nothing he`d been doing.
Buddy of his came round the house, snapped a couple shots of me as Miguel PalmAtlantis, posing beside my bike in the backyard, and by the end of the week, we had a press release to go with the publicity stills. I flexed in my goretex, out by the back fence, and in the end we went with my chest pumped out, hands on my hips the bike kickstanded in the background. There’s something about the way the camera caught my face, like my face was about to catch a terrible blow. Half turned to deflect it, my chin juts up defiant against the onrushing bruise, in the direction of a Peru towards which my sinews strain, and it’s like my painted eyes search the sky for my father, and I wonder if he can see me through the clouds.
Put my bike in the back of Jerry’s truck, with a two-person pup, and a case of water bottles the first week of April. “A butt stupid cause,” he said. “But I`ve got tinted windows so it`s not on me.” Jerry’s cell was the contact number, and he said why wait. We put the ringer on high, and didn’t listen to the radio during the two days it took us to drive to Thunder Bay, but we might as well have because Jerry’s phone rang only once, and it was his ex, Laureen. I didn’t ask what it was about, but you should have seen the vein on the right side of his neck, friggin’ anaconda just from the sound of her voice. I started out wearing my gear, but an hour or so past the Sault, Jerry pulled over and said he couldn’t drive like that, my mask was freaking him out. I changed in the cabin while he waited outside and the truth is I was relieved; I had had no idea just how much heat Goretex preserves, truly a wonder fabric, like my legs were rotisserie chickens. I started to get nervous about two hours outside Thunder Bay, and Jerry calmed me down by making me practice interview questions.
“So, Miguel PalmAtlantis, you’ve come to complete Terry Fox’s run from Thunder Bay, the exact spot where the run ended 30 years ago, is that correct?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You can’t just say ‘yes’, Charlie,” Jerry said.
“You just can’t, ok? You’ve got to keep the motor running.”
“Continue,” I said.
“As we all know, Terry Fox ran. Yet you are riding a bike.”
“That’s not a question.”
“You are riding a bike?”
“A bike with a motor.”
“That doesn’t make it better.”
“That is correct,” I said.
Jerry said I needed to work on my answers, and I could see his point, but I knew that people would understand my mission once they saw me in action and, although I was worried, I was not worried about that.
Jerry said the tent was for emergencies, but otherwise he got a discount from the Super 8, and if he checked in on his own we’d save $20, single occupancy. While Jerry checked in, I locked my bike to a rack in the parking lot and then waited in the lobby. From a hotel phone I dialed his cell and he told me room 320, but to give him 20 minutes, he was taking a bath. Over hot buffalo wings and a six-pack of Keith’s we practiced interview questions on our double beds. Jerry told me it wasn’t too late to turn back, we could put the whole thing down as a caper, and guys like us needed to get out on a road trip once in a while, anyway.
The next morning, I put my gear on in the hotel room, but the lady from housekeeping must have been Mexican because when I left the room she screamed, backed hard into her cleaning cart, and I tripped over twenty miniature conditioners. “Ay dios mio!” she exclaimed, “El luchador Atlantis!” She was still crossing herself as I picked myself up, and rounded the corner towards the elevator.
The plan was to start out straight from the parking lot, but my encounter with housekeeping had caused quite a commotion. “Sir,” a man at the front desk clerk said, “Sir, guests of the hotel are not allowed to wear masks on the premises!”
There was a security guard in a black blazer and a red tie talking on a cell phone, just inside the lobby door. He didn’t stop me from leaving, but he followed me outside. The front desk clerk came around from behind his desk and trailed me too. I stood there, just outside the front door of the Super 8 for a second, trying to collect my bearings. Jerry had left the room fifteen minutes or so before I did, and I was supposed to meet him out front. I didn’t see him, but I could feel hostility from the Super 8 security guard. Thunder Bay in April was cold, but Gore-Tex and a terrified housekeeper caused my cheeks to burn, and my Leafs jersey, in combination with my Atlantis paint, seemed to have the same effect on the Super 8 security guard.
“Sir!” A voice that could snap a syllable like that wouldn’t be confined to a discount chain for long, and I regarded the bald man inside the black blazer with new respect. I wanted no truck with him.
With a squeal, Jerry jammed the brakes right in front of the lobby doors.
“Sir!” the guard said again. It was stone cold the second time, like you knew a smackdown had to follow, and everyone around stopped to watch.
“Jesus, Charlie, get in the truck!” Jerry yelled. With his right arm, he held the passenger door open.
A crowd had gathered and I stood inside this triangle, equal points distant from my bike, from the truck, from the commotion. I must have stood there too long because Jerry gunned the engine and I heard him say, “Just go!” He followed his own advice.
“The bike!” I called after the truck. “It’s my new bike!”
I ran towards the bike rack. I fumbled a bit with the bike lock, but once the guard saw me mount, he lost interest and I set off on my trip. One thing I will say about Thunder Bay in April is that I didn’t take into account all of the slush. I didn’t have my phone or my wallet or any sense of direction and by the time I’d found the highway I was covered in mud and nobody looked at me except the way Canadians in cars always look at cyclists, like give your head a shake, there Chief.
I guess I knew my trip was over because it wasn’t any sort of crossroads moment, the decision to head West or East, and choosing the latter didn’t feel like a retreat, it felt like relief because I wasn’t cut out for the epic and I knew finally why my dad had looked at Terry all these years. Jerry found me at the John Street intersection and before I could tear him a new one, he jumped out of the cab, leapt around the grille and wrapped me, muddy Miguel PalmAtlantis, in a hug so strong it was like love lifted me into mid-air. “Never happen again, Charlie,” he said, “never again.”
He threw my bike into the back, and said if I wanted we could keep going, said he was sorry he panicked, but when he saw the security guard and the kerfuffle, he thought it’d had been about him. He said Laureen had a restraining order against him, and if I remembered that phone call yesterday, it was her calling to tell him that he’d blown the court date, there was a warrant out on him now, and that she’d had the locks changed, this time she meant it.
“I got nowhere to be, buddy,” he said. “Everything I got in the world is right here.”
I said make that two, and maybe make it about two dozen wings, because riding through the mud, electric motor or no, for four hours really takes it out of a man. He said I didn’t need to tell him twice, but that maybe we should look for a Comfort Inn, because the Super 8 was bound to be pissed.