In the summer of 1981, two months before my family landed here, a man fell from the sky over Nanticoke and hit the roof of the mall seconds before his parachute blossomed out of his pack like a red and white silk handkerchief. The rest of him pollinated the employees’ parking lot–A&P cashiers’ hatchbacks, managers’ sedans, a dumpster–but the whole county felt the aftershock. When Dad took up a job offer from SteelCan, packing up me, Mam and Sal and leaving South Wales for the north shore of Lake Erie, the skydiver was still falling. Always in the same rehearsed, hushed tones from the locals’ lips: Nice guy. Good friend of the De Konnings who run the airport. Had a wife, couple of kids. Gave lessons out there, real safety-first fella. Packed his own chute every time. Said he was even in the running for the national team. Wouldn’t you just figure, eh? Made the same jump a thousand times.
These words were wrapped up by a quiet nod and a stare that left your face slowly before it settled into space. Later we’d hear how the skydiving school was in financial trouble, how Nanticoke Public Works guys were busy out back at the mall for weeks afterwards. Steamrollers, mops, sprayers. Gallons of paint and tar. Yet in early August, when my sister Sal and I walked our brand new Supercycles over the yellow lines of the employees’ parking lot, the blood still showed there.
* * *
My family didn’t land
in Nanticoke exactly. We were in an Oldsmobile travelling west on Highway 3, crossing the upper lip of Lake Erie through a moustache of tobacco fields and sky. My head was still full of the exotic cars I’d seen since landing in Toronto. Back on the 401 they hissed under street lights that bowed over the superhighway like sunflowers of steel and glass. But gradually, over two flat hours and a series of exits and off-ramps, cars gave way to pick-up trucks gave way to open road, until we encountered only the odd blare of headlights every few miles. Wind was a blow-dryer through the back window. And I was drunk on countryside, the flatness and ragged symmetry of it, the names of the small, foreign towns we passed through–Caledonia, Garnet, Hagersville, Jarvis–which, index and all, were nowhere to be found in my Collins Illustrated Atlas
Twenty minutes west of Jarvis, our driver pointed over the steering wheel at a blush of pink on the horizon. Pink street lights that, though miles ahead on the flat highway, flared up into the darkening sky. “There she blows,” he said. His name was Tom Gadd and he’d driven us a hundred and forty kilometres down from Toronto in the plush burgundy interior of a Delta 88. “There’s your new home.”
Sal, curled up on Mam’s other side in the back seat, surfaced from sleep and panicked at the fields outside the window. “We’re lost, aren’t we?” She broke into tears. “We’re lost. We’re lost.”
“No, Sal. No.” Mam smoothed down my sister’s long dark hair, the soft melody of her voice leaning. “Bad dream, that’s all. We’ll be there soon.”
Gadd looked in the rear-view, then laughed amiably at Dad sitting beside him. “Cute,” he said. Dad laughed politely back.
After a minute Sal fell back asleep, her cheeks still damp. She was only nine, a year and a half younger than me, and because of her birth defect, I was never allowed to forget I was her big brother. When she was delivered her left eye swung inward so her pupil was facing the bridge of her nose. Mam and Dad waited till she was three–for her skull to grow, I figured–to okay the operation. The doctor plucked her eyeball clean out of it’s socket, set it on a metal platform at her cheekbone, pivoted it around and placed it back in her head. Voilà
. In memory I was sitting at the foot of her hospital bed watching the whole procedure, Sal’s eye staring back at me from its own little steel podium. But Dad said no, I was at Nana and Grampa’s house watching wrestling. Even he wasn’t allowed in the operating room, he said.
He was in there for Sal’s delivery though. When Mam was in labour with me, Dad was off in the north of England with his Swansea rugby team. He was almost famous back home. He played twice for Wales back in 1971, and swore he would’ve got a string of international appearances except he broke his leg in the first half of his second match. “Your father missed your infancy playing that bloody game,” Mam said. Dad said she was bitter; rugby was always the other woman.
But afterwards he made it up to her through Sal. He was there to hear how, during her surgery, Sal’s retina was jarred a little by accident, stretched, so that later in life she could lose sight in her bum eye altogether. And how six years later the eye acted up whenever Sal got overexcited or, as Mam said, “all of a doodah.” Not only did her eye swing back to its old haunt like an alcoholic, but her hands shook as if drying nail polish and her mouth tightened and froze in a severe pucker. It was a sort of giddy trance. Embarrassed the hell out of me. But Dad said, “Just pretend she’s sleeping,” like she was now, in the back seat of a fancy American car purring down a black crickety Ontario highway with Mam singing “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” into her hair.
Excerpted from Sputnik Diner by Rick Maddocks. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Maddocks. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.