"Dear John"

Alexander Carey

Alexander Carey’s fiction has previously appeared in The Danforth Review and Cosmonauts Avenue. He lives and works in Niagara.

“This short story responds to Alistair MacLeod’s short story ‘The Boat’ and to Deer Tick’s song ‘Goodbye, Dear Friend’ — in the sense that ‘Dear John’ is an elegy both for a loss of life and for a loss of a way of life.”

1.

The night nearly over, my last Fresca down to warm dregs, the messages on John’s Facebook wall fill my timeline when I pick up my phone and put it down. I’m slumped on the sectional I keep on my porch and coyotes howl beyond the treeline. Inside my house, I hear Chris claim the foldout couch and Kyle accept the mattress on the floor in my spare room. Kyle turns off the Bluetooth speaker he’s brought, interrupting Toby telling us he ain’t as good as he once was. Tomorrow Chris will take the Go train back to Toronto to code biometrics, and Kyle will drive home to Ottawa and bury himself in city ordinances.

Tomorrow I will be here, in the abandoned husk of the summer camp where I worked years ago, now its only tenant, squatting with permission across one hundred acres and change of rotting cabins, a spring-fed creek, an empty mess hall and outbuildings. Proud weeds shoot through cabin decks and birds build nests in pointless rafters, rafters that still bear John’s name and my name from a time I hardly recognize.

On my phone screen, the condolences for John continue to pile into the timeline: wow, cant beleive it, broh; Rest in paradise brother, i remember like it was only yesterday when me and you were wrestling and playing around back down gordon behind the mart; and Maaann this isn’t true is it? 😢 😢 😢 😭 😭 . And so on.

The posts on John’s page both address him directly and ask the collected, newly grieving mass of us the details and the validity. I want to tell Chris or Kyle, but the timing feels wrong, the end of the night, the end of their visit with me. Chris and Kyle come from a different room in my past, complete with its own fraught furniture, its own black mould peppering the studs of a house in a university town that’s forgotten we were there. The boys came here to toast then. John, and the activity on his social media, matter to them only in the abstract, in the wanting to be my friend.

2.

Dear John:

I remember our parents dropping us off at the same time at the co-op daycare and the goodbye we came up with together, our dads having to wait while we grabbed their hands and flipped ourselves, running unafraid up their sturdy thighs.

I remember us playing Neverending Story fanfiction, battling invisible Nasties in your backyard, us hunkered behind the tent trailer your parents pulled to all the provincial parks with mine.

I remember all the Christmas Eves when our parents traded hosting duties one year to the next, your mom’s tourtière crumbling into our shirt folds and The Simpsons playing in the room in your basement, our parents’ muffled feet overhead.

I remember playing manhunt at this summer camp, and how you didn’t tag me when you got caught, backing off so I could cut through poison ivy behind the outdoor chapel, away from the older kids snapping at my heels, me cutting next to the creek to run down the property line.

I remember hotboxing that lady’s Civic on Arkell Road, how your friend Ethan brought the lady’s puppy in the car to see if it would get high.

3.

Morning breaks. Chris and Kyle and I slap each on our backs, even though the official health warnings tell us we shouldn’t. I have nothing to feed them, but they each leave with Folger’s in travel mugs I won’t miss.

After they leave, I begin my day’s work: the summer camp has new owners since I worked here last, four real estate agents playing monopoly with the memories of kids who spent their weeks here, the Family and Child Services and Lutheran children from Kitchener to Ottawa, some of these children with parents unwilling or unable to care for them, the children of adults held hostage by their worse natures and kept close to their chemical bonds.

Last month, a new owner bought the camp from the realtors. The former wants to partition the property where the clay road turns to asphalt. The back half of the property, with the empty pool and cabins, the creek and the pond, remain protected under an environmental law I tried to Google last week on the unreliable connection for which I pay.

Until the end of September, when the sale’s paperwork pushes through and I am asked to leave, part of my lease discount includes that I maintain the trails and check on the buildings. I send the realtors an email every Friday, telling them what I’ve done and what I cannot do that needs to be done.

It’s the kind of August morning where you sweat where you stand. In my kitchenette, I down a warm plastic water bottle from the case by my front door and then I make for the small shed where I keep the riding mower, the weed whacker, the brush saw, and other rusting and useless tools unorganized on shelves next to half-finished paint cans. Riding the mower, I pass the outdoor chapel where the rope to pull the bell still hangs, the rope John and I pulled when we worked here, the bell waiting to sound for a morning swim, for dinner, for everything that’s never going to happen here again.

Blade off, I follow the gravel path to the pond and pull the lever when I reach where I’m needed. I lose myself in the effort to keep the mower in the imaginary line, shifting my weight off each ass cheek around divots in the trail. A jogger, a man in his fifties maybe, passes me halfway around my loop of the pond. I pull over, blade off, motor running. We nod to each other. I haven’t seen him before, and most of the villagers’ faces I know, if not their names as well. I wonder if he knows the new owner, a spy sent on reconnaissance.

What the realtors didn’t tell me, and what I strongly suspect, is that new owner plans on paving the clay road to allow for the most semidetached living they can push past wetland conservation concerns and the adjacent village association’s reticence to development. The new owner is also trying to get the licence to finally have commercial space in this village, to sell croissants and coffees and cakes at what are meal costs elsewhere; in the land around the business, the new owner will frame and fill these semidetached monochrome houses, the kind where you’d hang a Canadian flag from your garage to tell your building apart if everyone else wasn’t already doing the same.

When the fear of getting sick eventually, eventually, ebbs and the villagers, including those in the new subdivision, can congregate at the coffee shop to work and to visit and to listen to the Spotify playlists nose-ringed baristas will play from their carefully curated algorithms, I won’t be here.

The water in my house, the camp director’s former house, isn’t potable anymore but I can still run a shower. I park the mower in the shed and peel my shirt from my chest, checking my email: Indeed.ca tells me I can teach English in China if I want to.

I text my father the news about John; we wait for an obituary.

4.

Dear John:

I remember slicing pool noodles with your Swiss Army knife and duct taping them to our bike frames, pedalling hard down the dirt path to the Eramosa, gaining as much momentum as we could before letting go in the air, the city river water resplendent with pesticides.

I remember your mom making us toad-in-the-hole after sleepovers, how the yolk ran down my plate and how I gave your dog the rest.

I remember when you gave me that knife the day I turned twelve, even though your parents already got you NHL 2003 to give me, and how you said I could scratch out your initials and put mine on the other side, and how I didn’t, and how I haven’t.

I remember you showing me that porn where the guy shot the girl in her chair and how real it looked, even though you said it was fake.

I remember the last Christmas my family came to your house, me home from university, how the one friend of your parents at the party asked me what do you do with an English degree and how I didn’t have answer and how you and I sat in your basement trading drug stories and you asked me if I ever poked and you had to explain to me that that meant needles.

I remember the fort we built at this summer camp, when we made the ‘loft’ we shared, and how you pooped in the ‘bathroom’ and how when the counselor found out you got sent home and how boring and empty the rest of the week was for me after that, without you around.

5.

In the weeks since John’s Facebook page became a memorial account — Remembering John — the world has changed unimaginably but, for me, has changed little. The camp hasn’t operated for three summers now, and I find no comfort in knowing no camps are running this one. School building doors stay locked and restaurants now negotiate how to reopen, while their patrons navigate the ethics of having fun together.

I check the property for signs of overnight trespassers, for vandalism beyond the smashed cabin windows and penis and swastika across the kitchen entrance to the mess hall I covered with spray paint back in April. While the world outside stutters to a stop and struggles to start again, I finish my maintenance to-do list and watch Wedding Crashers. Again.

Many summer camps, at least ones like this one was, are not for profit. But Synod, who owned and operated this place since before the second world war, couldn’t eat the cost of replacing five septic tanks that the county determined were fissured to the point of replacement. With the septic tanks leeching too fervently into the soil, with the worthless cabins and pool, the property is worth less than you might imagine, given its terrific location a half hour from three mid-sized cities and the evergreen hum of the 401.

*

This Saturday, I lock the large gate where the clay road turns to asphalt, and I drive into the city where John and I grew up. I meet my father and we drive to John’s parents place. My father stays in his Dodge while I walk to the mailbox, in my hand a letter I wrote addressed to John’s mother, father, and younger sister. I leave the letter and walk on the balls of my feet back to the Dodge parked out of sight of the front window with its closed curtains.

That night, I open a can of Fresca and pour it into a red solo cup. On my front porch, I wait for a YouTube video from 2009 called GC vs. HIEGHTS to load. A grainy image, likely shot on a flip phone, shows John in high school, his pants falling around his asscheeks, and another kid I can’t make out well in a circle of kids, maybe twenty of them. John takes a large, looping swing at the kid and misses. The other kid backs up anyway, the raw energy forces him to, and John advances. His next swing connects to jawbone. The video follows them both to the gravel where John’s pants reveal boxers and his fists meet the kid’s wrists and forearms covering his face and head, while the audio screeches with the cries of teenagers long since ushered, some of them unwillingly, into adulthood.

6.

Dear John:

I remember the Halloween party on Oxford I invited you to when I lived with Chris and Kyle, how you came dressed like a mime and how you said that guy from Sarnia called you a faggot and you told him to get fucked and how you both started swinging in the doorway to the kitchen, how you broke your glasses and we walked three blocks the wrong way home with white paint smeared down your neck stubble, the paint mixed with your blood and the blood of
the guy from Sarnia.

I remember when your parents hosted Ribfest and we played football until the streetlights came on, how it took all three Redwood brothers from Maple Street to take you down, and even then you carried them on your shoulders and back, satchels, for a good ten yards to score.

I remember when we took your parents’ Windstar when you only had your G1, and we got pizza and then egged Jason Kelly’s house and how Jason shot a paintball gun at you from his porch while you ran and how his dad chased us down Gordon, two minivans doing one-forty in a fifty and how you took out each headlight after we lost him, rounding blind corners, and how you dropped me off before you went home, telling your parents I’d started work at ‘our’ summer camp already.

I remember when I got that job in Liberty Village, and rented that apartment in Mississauga, and how one Wednesday afternoon when I was supposed to be making a PowerPoint, instead I read about your arrest in our hometown’s newsblog, how it said you gave the police a fake name and you had break-in tools in the Windstar your parents were still letting you drive around.

I remember when you wrote me that message this January, asking me if you could come out to camp and stay with me when you got out, and how I left the message unread, checking it every morning before I left my bed to begin my day.

I remember the month before all those condolence messages piled into my timeline, seeing your Facebook status—Freed Up!!!—and toggling over the Like and Heart reaction emojis, before settling on neither, instead wheedwhacking around the dock from which the canoes used to launch into the pond.

7.

On the weekend John died, the newsblog reports eight overdoses and four deaths in the county from a new and particularly potent batch of fentanyl. His parents cannot hold a visitation, or a funeral for him, while the province, the country, and everyone else, figures out how to live under the weight of the threat of disease that, abetted by our collective unwillingness to change, will not yield.

8.

It is the last morning before the realtors relinquish ownership of the summer camp. My father lent me his truck, and I have the little I brought here after leaving rehab last January, the things I carried from my apartment in Mississauga stuffed in the Dodge cab and bed, underlaid with an old camp tarp: my favourite books, a guitar I don’t know how to tune, a blanket from an ex-girlfriend I can’t throw away, and a few half-washed camp sweaters.

I walk the trail a final time. The air is crisp, but the leaves have yet to fall from the treeline running adjacent to the clay road to the asphalt and into the village.

With John’s rusted Swiss Army Knife, I cut the rope from the outdoor chapel bell, understanding that if I can’t take the bell with me, I will take what we once used to pull it.