Fifteen years old. Working for the summer at Monarch Pizza on Connaught Drive in Jasper. Busboy and dishwasher, and sometimes allowed to help with the cooking, when Nick and Antonia Demetrios, the owners, found themselves shortstaffed. And they were often shortstaffed, with all the restless young people coming and going, stopping in our town on their way elsewhere.
I remember the broiling sauna of the kitchen, the back door open to let in the breeze off Bear Hill. The tiled floor slick with a film of dishwasher suds and grease splatter, and no-nonsense Antonia at our heels with her mop and squeakywheeled bucket. Nick’s was the day, hers the night. She took orders, served meals, handled customer complaints and yet she always found time to clean, a job that was supposed to be mine. She preferred to do it herself, to make sure it was done right. Antonia never stopped moving the whole time she was on shift, and the same was expected of us. All evening I shook cold pizza rinds off plates and sent sticky dishes and cutlery through the huge dishwasher and hauled them out again, abashed and steaming, stacked them on the countertop for the harried, incessantly cursing cooks and waiters. And if Antonia overheard the muttered profanity, at our ducking heads shot a torrent of mediterranean imprecation. What was that? Do you talk like that at home, in your mother’s kitchen? What’s the matter with you people?
Earlier that year Nick bolted a television high in a corner, to add the excitement of Wayne Gretzky’s rookie season with the Edmonton Oilers to the dining experience. Customers with their mouths full of pizza, roaring at an Oilers goal with jaws clamped shut, cheese clinging to their chins. The soundtrack of hockey play-by-play like a homey fixture in the room, like familiar wallpaper. And then that summer all of us turning to that small high-up screen to monitor the progress of Terry Fox.
I would be on a break, talking with my friends in a booth by the window so we could watch for girls, and I’d glance up and see this freckled boy on the screen, toiling up a long stretch of highway. He was going to run all the way across the country. He had lost a limb to cancer and he was going to run across the whole entire country. No one had ever done that before, that anyone knew of. Every night, the updates on his location. How close he was to the halfway point, which to my surprise turned out to be somewhere in Ontario, when I had always thought maybe Manitoba. His run making the country larger, more real.
We got used to seeing him up there on the little screen, the matted curly hair, the permanent wince. His outdoor sweat seemed to be in brotherly concord with my kitchen sweat. The stride and the hop and the sideways heave of the body as the dead artificial leg is thrown forward, stride hop heave, one more time and one more and one more, measuring the immensity of this country in jolts to the pelvis, the spine. We would all watch him for a moment and not say anything, maybe laugh uneasily or say look at that poor bastard and then one of us would slide out of the booth to go pick up an announced order and imitate him on the way, stride hop heave, and this of course would set the table on a roar.
I can see it in my mind’s eye now, as I write, hardwired permanently to who I am. That agonizing lopsided jig. The national dance.
The cancer returned and stopped him in Thunder Bay, and the next year he was dead, at the age of 22.
-- from The Logogryph