The Marathon of Hope

Winter, 2017–2018 / No. 40
Illustration by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

He stood clad in bronze, ten kilometres outside of town.

On Saturday nights, during our short, frenzied summers, we’d convene here at the feet of his life-sized statue—one calf flexing, hairless, like our own, the other replaced by a medieval-looking artificial limb, its top end disappearing into his short shorts, its bottom end jammed into a vintage Adidas runner—and try to siphon as much alcohol into our bloodstreams as possible without waking to the tube of a stomach pump down our throats. Saturdays were a night of abandon, of mythmaking, to be discussed in the halls of our high schools through the following week: who puked, who cried, who sucker-punched who, who fingered who, who had their mind stolen by acid, who nearly died of alcohol poisoning, who professed love, who refused it.

The monument was too far up Highway 17 to reach by bike, so you needed a car to be there, lending it a certain exclusivity as a party location. And with no houses around, the O.P.P. never got called. But when I think of it today, now that I live in relative peace near the ocean, on the other side of the country, I’ve come to believe that, more than the monument’s seclusion, it was the statue itself that drew us.

You already know this, but in the summer of 1980, when Packer and I were just toddlers, a young man who’d lost most of his right leg to a cancer growing in the cartilage of his knee, dipped his artificial leg into the freezing Atlantic, at St. John’s, Newfoundland, then proceeded to run west for fifty-four hundred kilometres—forty-two kilometres a day for a hundred and forty-three consecutive days, we’d been told countless times by our gym teachers and parents—to raise money for cancer research. In fact, Terry Fox ran to this very spot on this very highway, where he was forced to stop after the cancer had finally metastasized into his lungs, and died shortly after. His Marathon of Hope captivated Canadians; it was the kind of story that turned even our most alcoholic parents and our most draconian gym teachers all misty. Even today, it’s the closest thing this country has to a unifying narrative. The sacrifice. The selfless perseverance. The chafed stump. The rivers of sweat. The conquering of our vast distances. To young people like us, here at the foot of his monument, his story ought to have been inspirational, it ought to have convinced us we could accomplish anything we put our minds to.

But we weren’t so sure. There was always something fishy about the story. We couldn’t help but suspect that it wasn’t actually the cancer that made him stop, but rather that when he hobbled up over the rise and got one look at our ugly little city—with its rusted half-tons and abandoned grain elevators standing near the lake like the castles of some ransacked civilization—and, after limping his way through five thousand kilometres of agony, he was swamped with despair and called it quits right there. In our hearts, we knew that our city could make even a great Canadian hero realize he could no longer fucking take it.

And really, we couldn’t blame him.

Anyway, this particular Saturday, twelve of us were sitting on the statue’s granite base, including me, and my best friend, Chris Brunspacker, who everyone called Packer. He had one of those names, one of those bodies, one of those warrior souls that seemed almost purpose-built for the N.H.L. A defenseman who could skate and shoot and hit and move the puck around the ice at will like a cursor across a computer screen, he was the best player our hockey-obsessed town ever produced. A player who surely would’ve sold a million jerseys—I can still imagine the brunspacker crammed in across his wide back, the letters crowded to near illegibility—that is, if his right knee hadn’t been blown to bits by a low hit from another player during his first Junior B game and his dream ended in a symphony of popping cartilage.

Before doing his knee in, Packer would’ve never so much as spoke to someone like me: an unathletic nobody whose mother was in and out of the insane asylum, and who smoked half the weed he was selling and needed to pawn his dead father’s tools to make up the shortfall. But the crippled giant took a liking to me, shielding me from all the high-school monsters who would do me harm. But more than that protection, it was our shared frequencies of rage—directed at everything and everyone—that drew and kept us together.

We’d come that night because Packer was after a girl named Amy. He’d borrowed his father’s car, a rusted Pontiac Firefly that we called the Superfly, and bought us a case of Labatt Ice (even at sixteen, Packer never got carded) because it had the highest alcohol content available. Amy was short, nearly half Packer’s height, a former gymnast with a triangular, foxlike beauty to her face. Packer claimed they’d hooked up a few times before his knee went kablooey, but now that he worked weeknights at a grocery store—the depressing kind where only old people go and everything is shrink-wrapped—a place where he’ll work, I’ll later learn, for the rest of his adult life—Amy’s interest had flagged.

But on this particular night, things were looking up. There was a party somewhere across town we hadn’t heard of, and the other guys assembled at the monument were all at my level or beneath, leaving Packer to assume the slot of most desirable guy by default.

“How long did he run for again?” Amy asked, sipping her pink wine cooler as we all stared out over the jawbone of the bay.

The lake was huge and freezing. Even in summer, none of us would dare swim in it unless we were much drunker than this. Our parents were raised in this horrible place because their parents worked in the grain elevators, or the shipbuilding factory, or on the railroad, or they made airplanes for the war. Their parents came to trade for furs, to mine, to log, to otherwise fuck over the landscape and trample Indigenous culture in the process. I’ve only realized now that it wounds you deep down to live where there’s nothing to be proud of, not even your own family’s way of life.

“He ran for three months,” I said, and we all craned our necks up at the statue: sweaty curls, elbows hugged tight to his sides in mid-jog, greenish face twisted somewhere between agony and ecstasy.

“That’s a long fucking time, man,” said Amy’s friend Melissa, a girl I would later date, and who would carve my name deep into her arm with a seam ripper after I dumped her before leaving for university.

“Aw, three weeks isn’t that much,” Packer said. “You can do anything for three weeks.”

Often, usually when I was stoned, I’d attempted to imagine running across a country as big as Canada. Because of how much I smoked, my lungs neared implosion if I even jogged for a bus, so the thought was daunting. But maybe Packer was right, I now thought. Maybe it wasn’t that much. Packer was the athlete. He’d know.

“Oh yeah,” Amy said caustically. “Well I can think of a few things that you couldn’t do for three weeks, Chris.”

Packer sucked air between his teeth, and I worried Amy was somehow referring to one of their previous interludes. Sometimes, Packer would smoke an ounce of my weed and get so stoned that I’d become suddenly afraid of him, this big bull lying in my room on the couch that I’d found in the alley and dragged inside. But his ramblings remained peaceful, and would always return to Amy and how much he loved her.

“And seriously, how do you get cancer in your knee?” I asked, trying to back up my friend, taking what I hoped was a cinematic pull on my third Labatt Ice. I was already drunk to the point of slurring, and my face felt like I’d snorted a tablespoon of novocaine.

“Yeah,” Melissa said. “I mean, like, knee cancer seems so fake. Maybe he faked the whole thing!” she declared, before descending into the endless giggles of an inebriated teen.

We all knew that Melissa’s mother had died of stomach cancer the year before, which rendered her laughter all the more grotesque. Still, she had a point. Lung and stomach, lymph and brain, liver and pancreas—these were cancers we knew. Statistically, cancer was more common in our town than anywhere in Canada—because of poverty and the mill and the lead in our pipes—and these cancers were dropping our parents and teachers and grandparents like flies.

“He didn’t fake it, Mel,” Amy said, with something like pity in her voice.

“Well, I heard he didn’t even stop here,” Packer said in his loud, booming voice. “That it was actually four miles up the highway where he officially gave up. But this is a better viewpoint, so the city put the statue here. Meaning: this whole place is bullshit.”

“Well, I like bullshit,” Amy said as she climbed the statue’s big base, the enticing foothills of her butt just visible beneath her cut-off jean shorts, her high-heeled sandals clicking on the granite slab inset with amethyst. “And dead guys are hot.”

We’d seen this before. Sometimes drunk girls would climb up there and hump against the statue’s good leg and sing Mary J. Blige songs in fake American accents, and this was what we all expected. But this time, Amy bent low, and with her long strawberry-coloured tongue, licked the bronze bulge of his eighties running shorts with impressively simulated passion.

“Get down, Amy,” Packer said, after she’d gone at it for a few seconds, almost like a father would to his daughter at a strip club. Packer had a sad, stifled look on his face, and for a second I was relieved he couldn’t climb up there as well, because of his knee.

Amy’s eyebrows went up. Two penciled arches.

“You know, you and your little drug dealer friend talk a lot. But what’ll you ever do that will be worth a monument, Chris?”

Packer’s face turned to stone and he locked his eyes on the bay. We all watched Amy climb down and soon she and Melissa disappeared into the Acura of some other guys who’d been watching Amy’s performance.

After they’d gone, Packer kept his eyes on the bay while he shotgunned three drinks in quick succession, the beers looking like those little airline bottles in his big hands. But after that, his eyes were aiming different directions, and the other teens gathered at the fringes of the monument seemed to sense his intensifying dark energies and retreated to their cars and trucks. When everyone else was gone, we sat alone, not saying anything. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, and said, “Well fuck her.”

Packer laughed. A loud bark that didn’t befit the situation.

“You know, Mike, the human knee is the most complicated piece of orthopedic hardware in the entire animal kingdom,” he said, rubbing his own shattered knee with his big palm. “More complicated than the eyeball. The brain even.”

He rose from the statue’s base and limped over to the parking lot. His physiotherapist always told him to use his cane, but he never did, not even while stocking shelves at the grocery store, and his great girth only made his limp more pathetic, more sad, like a grizzly with a wounded paw. Packer reached a truck somebody had left parked in the lot, the kind of truck that was ubiquitous in our town, a work truck with a locking chrome tool box in the bed. It’s the kind of truck owned by a man you definitely don’t want to fuck with, but Packer didn’t care. He took up a big rock and hit the box’s padlock a few times until it popped open. After rummaging around a minute, he started hobbling back. At first it looked like he was carrying some kind of machete, but as he drew closer, I saw it was a hacksaw.

“Watch the lot for me,” he said.

With some pain, Packer ungracefully heaved himself up onto the monument and stood staring at the statue, the saw in his hand. Packer was at least six inches taller, and it may have been the weed, but I realized then my friend was the exact opposite of Terry Fox. His shadow. But also his twin. His enemy and his brother. I remembered that in the Bible brothers were often sacrificed on cliffside altars just like this.

Packer, however, wasn’t thinking philosophically at the time. I know now he must’ve been deciding which part of the statue to remove. And even today, I can still hear the sound of the saw, the way the statue started to ring like a giant cymbal as Packer hacked at it. Initially, I was surprised he didn’t go for the leg. The artificial one seemed too obvious, but I realize now that the legs would’ve required two cuts, so the left arm was the easiest target.

The bronze had stainless steel support rods inside it, and the sawing took longer than expected. Packer was already sweating and peppered with shavings when he was only halfway through. But he pressed on. I would like to claim today I was filled with horror during this process, that I told him to stop, but that would be a lie. Because I said nothing. There are some things that seem inevitable, especially when you are young, and this was one of them. And to be honest, I hated the statue just as much as Packer did. It was built to remind us we hadn’t suffered, not like him. This young, beautiful torture victim. This Jesus. Who was better than us all, dying so we could all be saved. Though she wasn’t religious, my schizophrenic mother sometimes saw Jesus in the clouds, which I hated, mostly because none of her delusions were ever about me.

After the arm detached, Packer held it by the hand, like a giant from Norse mythology with a bronze club. Then he raised it up in the moonlight like the head of an enemy king, and screamed out over the frozen bay.

“You want this?” he asked, after I helped him down.

I shook my head.

Unsure what to do with it, Packer wound up and hurled the arm over the highway and into the bush below.

“Let’s go,” he said.

All that week, the police questioned kids who were there that night, including Amy, who all identified Packer as the likely culprit. But when they pulled me out of math class I told them that I was at home, with Packer, watching Chariots of Fire. In the end, they found the arm in the bush two weeks later and had it welded back on. The police knew Packer did it, they just couldn’t prove it because I wouldn’t talk.

But I didn’t speak to Packer either after that, just the occasional nod in the hallway, like two prisoners who’d once shared a cell. I passed the rest of high school in a kind of bitter tortoise shell fabricated by weed, books, and a big pair of blaring headphones. Somehow, probably because of the books, I managed to do the impossible and escape our town and go to university. Yet I still managed to fuck my life up, almost as thoroughly as I would’ve if I’d stayed. That is until I met a woman, a woman who didn’t harbor a secret desire to destroy herself, like me and Packer did. With her help I was able to cobble together a good and hopeful life, or at least one that felt like it.

Then last year, while driving across the country, moving from one city to another, as artists tend to do, in the flawed hope that constant relocation could fix what was wrong with me, I saw a sign for the Terry Fox scenic lookout. Without thinking I veered the whale of my U-Haul to the exit.

I pulled into the old parking lot. It was winter and it was late, and there was nobody there. But they’d prettied up the monument since that night with Packer: expensive halogen lights and video cameras and big, wheelchair accessible washrooms. I climbed up onto the statue’s icy base and ran my finger along the seam on his bicep where the arm had been welded back on, and thought of Packer for the first time in years.

I’d recently read in the newsfeed of a friend from my hometown who I still kept in touch with that someone had tried to saw off the statue’s head. They’d got halfway through his neck before abandoning the grim project, possibly, the police thought, because it was too difficult, or possibly out of remorse. I read all the on-line editorials of outrage, which included allegations that this was akin to an act of terrorism, an attack on the very fabric of our nation.

Though we’d fallen out of touch, I looked Packer up on Facebook and was pleased to see he was still alive, and now managed the grocery store where he’d worked. Neck tattoos. Goatee. Backward hat. The kind of fat that looks more strong than unhealthy. Four children, all boys, all of them huge, and an ex-wife with fake breasts (not Amy), who takes blood at the new hospital and goes on many tropical vacations. Packer posts infrequently, mostly about weed legalization and Maple Leafs draft picks. And though he looked happy enough, there was still that old sadness in his eyes. The wounds of disappointment. The fatigue of having touched greatness then lost it forever.

I’ve often wondered if it was Packer who went back for the head. Or whether it was his big, angry offspring, the eldest of whom was approaching the age we were that night. And is it shameful to admit that there’s a part of me that hopes it was? That he did return to finish the job, but couldn’t go through with it because, he’d realized, standing up there beside his twin for the second time, that even if he did saw off the statue’s head and throw it into the lake, they’d just make another one and weld it back on, like some mythic monster that could never die.

I’m remembering all this because, just this morning, my eldest son participated in the Terry Fox Run. He was born here on the West Coast, quite near to where Terry went to school, in fact, and the place he would’ve completed his run if our town hadn’t forced him to give up. There’s a bronze statue here as well, but not nearly as grandiose as the one marking the place his Marathon of Hope ended. In this rendering Terry looks happier, less anguished. Less like Jesus and more like a fine young man out for a restorative Sunday jog. I can’t help but shake my head at it. It looks nothing like him.

“Did you see me run, Dad?” my son asked today, after crossing the finish line with the number 273 safety-pinned to his shirt.

“You were amazing, buddy,” I said, distractedly scruffing up his only slightly sweaty hair. Recently I’ve developed a bad habit of offering bland and thoughtless encouragement at almost everything he says, including when he tells me something awful has happened.

But this morning, it wasn’t just my usual distraction. This morning my mind was four thousand kilometres away, back at the monument. Because how could I possibly tell him that Packer had been right that night: it wasn’t amazing, what Terry Fox did. That it’s nothing to run. Two kilometres. Or ten. Or a hundred. That it’s all the same. Because compared to living, running is easy. Even with an artificial leg. Even five thousand kilometres at forty-three kilometres a day for a hundred and forty-three days. Because all you need to do is keep taking steps and breathing, and keep doing that one thing over and over, ignoring pain, collecting adulation.

Try not running, I wanted to tell my sweet little son as he thoughtfully stabbed the straw into the organic juice box I’d brought for him because I don’t want him riddled with the same toxins me and Packer and our parents were. Try staying in one place. Like Packer did. Like that tortured statue does still. Like I did, even though I left, and brought the torture with me. Then try that for thirty years. Forty. Fifty.

Try staying in a place that wants to sacrifice you like a lamb on a big granite altar overlooking a frozen highway.

Then we’ll see how far you get.

Michael Christie is the author of the story collection The Beggar’s Garden, the novel If I Fall, If I Die, and a forthcoming novel that may be titled Greenwood. He has contributed to the magazine since 2012. Last updated winter, 2017–2018.