This is the eighth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them not familiar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 8 Title — Dear John — was chosen by Gary. Perry will choose the title for the next round.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
And, here’s the blurb for this story:
No need for an intervention. Just because I’m also an 8th-grade teacher doesn’t mean I’m suicidal like my protagonist in this story. John’s been down a rough road and has had a really crappy role model. Will he let his past define his future? Read on to learn his fate.
Copyright 2022 — R. G. Broxson
(3,470 words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Yes, you preferred Johnny, as in Uncle Johnny, and sometimes Fun Johnny, but never Funcle Johnny. You were never formal; you were always the life of the party. But that was almost 50 years ago. I was a kid then and you were that fun uncle I’ll never forget. A lot has changed in half-a-century, so I thought I’d fill you in.
For starters, I am typing this letter on a computer keyboard, not a clunky typewriter. Think old-school Star Trek, Cpt Kirk talking to the computer. This revolutionary hunk of hardware can show me the dietary requirements of a Koala Bear, or the weather patterns on Jupiter. It contains all the Encyclopedia Britannicas ever sold at housewives’ doorsteps, and it’s squeezed into devices that can sit on your desk or fit in your palm. These are amazing times. I wish you were here to see them.
But you are not, John…Johnny…Funcle? As you are no longer my uncle and I am older than you ever were, I will call you by your given name, as it is also mine. Your sister, my mother, loved you so much, she named me after you. So, this Dear John letter is not only written to you, it is also a homework assignment for me. Seems I got some of what you had, you know, the bad thing. But I’m getting therapy now, and my doctor told me to write about those days of yore, the ones that built me. I’m stuck with your name, but I dearly hope that I am not destined to follow your fucked up path.
You chose the path less traveled. Frost’s improbable path. The wrong path, the stupid, selfish path; the path of the weak and the damned—Suicide. I hated you for that. The funny thing is, we were selfish just like you. We all wanted; we demanded more Fun Johnny; not knowing that you wanted less. I guess it’s hard to keep a wall-to-wall grin, even under that porn-star mustache of yours.
Alright, I’m obviously not writing this in an effort to get your attention or change your mind. Way too late for that. I would sooner slide a widget across a Ouija board or join hands in a silly séance even if I thought it might conjure up my favorite drunk uncle…drunkle?
But you aren’t coming back. I’ve been to your stone, stood over your pine toy box of broken bones, and that’s all that’s left of you. Your ghost only lives now through the memories of those that loved you…and the others. Don’t forget the ones that hate you. If people, down deep, really understood that singular concept, that they can only truly outlast the worm through the memories of those they have impacted, the good and bad, they would truck their treasures to the Good Will Store and replace them with powerful relationships that just might last forever. Put simply, it’s not vampire blood or Ponce’s fountain, but solid handshakes, sincere smiles, helping hands, and good will that just might be the real link to immortality. You heard it here first. If only I could bottle it.
Like most of us growing up in the 60s and 70s, our lives were fucked up by today’s standards, but really cool in the rear view mirror. Many Baby-Boomers like me look back on those narcissistic days with nostalgia now; we overwhelmingly take pride in drinking out of water hoses, jumping sissy-bar Huffies over plywood ramps; welting each other in acorn wars, playing tackle football in the local cow pasture, daredevil jumps off the roof of houses into piles of leaves, riding and sliding in the rear of our father’s Mercury without seatbelts, stalking birds and squirrels with BB guns, overnight campouts in the woods, and drinking or smoking funny things on those teenage nights by a poorly stoked and stinking fire.
We like to laugh at the Millennials and quote Nietzsche about those things didn’t kill us, but only made us stronger. But statistically speaking, a lot of the above crap did kill us. I personally think those water hoses lead-poisoned us sixties-kids and caused brain damage (that would explain a lot): drink bottled water.
Uncle Johnny, you survived a lot of shit, and I’m sure it took its toll. But you didn’t get stronger, you suffered, weakened, and died miserably, and you’ll never receive this letter unless the US Postal Service starts delivering to Hell (maybe you’ll get it through Hotmail.com…LOL). Yes, according to most of our punitive religions, your choice to clock out of your minimum wage life early earns you a one-way ticket to eternal damnation. Helluva a price to pay for a middle finger to God.
I guess I inherited your sense of light and dark humor. You were always the life of the party. I can do that too, turn it on, turn it off, but it takes a toll, and we can go dark; we can laugh in the shadows. Yeah, I guess I also caught the depression bug too. It comes around like the flu, except there is no seasonal shot for it. It seems to break bad just when you think you’ve got your shit figured out. Reminds me of that mythological guy that was cursed to push that big-ass boulder up the mountain every day, only to have it roll back down the next—Sisyphus (yes, I had to Google him).
My VA appointed psychiatrist said I only had to write a one-page letter to my fucked up uncle. But you sir, the Great Uncle Johnny, deserve my literary best. She was write of course (spelled wrong for ironic effect), I actually feel better as I pen this ‘Dear John’ letter.
Sorry if this missive is getting surly and maybe even slurry. You see, I drink a lot, as did you, my namesake. I remember a long ago family reunion when I was only a boy; you drove up to my granny’s house, your home place. You popped open the trunk of your car. It contained box after box of Royal Crown’s best, your favorite. You passed the boxes out like ammo, to friends and relatives alike, laughing and joking all the while. You had already sampled the goods.
I remember my mother and yours, generational bookends, frowning from the porch as toadies gaggled around to grab a gift from your stash. You sang Christmas songs as you handed out shiny, indigo boxes, holding your back like it was killing you each time you dipped into the trunk to pick one up.
My mother explained later that you had found a sleazy lawyer (is that redundant?) to help you sue for workers compensation from your government job, stating that you had slipped and injured your back. They had finally settled with your ambulance-chasing attorney, and you started by spunking your wad on a trunk-load of Crown Royal whiskey. On that day, as many others, you did not make your mother, nor my mother, proud.
You weren’t always a clown. I remember a bright day at our grandpa’s house, your home-place again, where the oldest of our gang, Cousin Robert, brandished a Daisy BB gun. We followed the hunter through the scrub brush, braving stickers and prickly pears, always barefoot in those days. Somehow, despite our rowdy racket, Robert got a shot off at a white egret, overly intent on stabbing at frogs in the marsh. He must have broken its wing, because we broke into a crazy chase after the injured, flapping bird. We probably looked like wild Indians running through those brambles, bounding over palmetto bushes, whooping and wailing.
It wasn’t a sticker or a prickly pear, but a broken Crown Royal whiskey bottle that wounded me as I lagged behind the others. I screamed at the puncture, and went down on my ass, I clinched up, holding my bloody foot and crying. I was taken out of the game and sidelined while my siblings and cousins relentlessly chased after the broken and bleeding bird.
With the help of my cousin Greggy, a boy with bowed legs, I limped my way back down the hill to the home-place and mewled at the screen door like a stray cat. Greggy hesitantly tapped at the glass. Granny, Mom, and all her sisters came tumbling out and tended to my bloody foot.
Against my mother’s advice (she was an LPN at the time), my Granny insisted on pouring a half-bottle of turpentine into my open wound. I screamed bloody murder. But the cooing women soothed me and patched me up and propped me up in a cozy beach chair on the porch with my foot elevated. I felt like a soldier, a hero, not having done anything to deserve such attention, other than step on a stupid jag of glass no doubt chucked into the brambles by a drunk uncle.
My heroic glow didn’t last long. Uncle Johnny arrived; he followed my bloody footprints onto the porch, and then sat in a rocking chair beside me. Sipping on Crown, he waved the ladies away and asked me what had happened. I breathlessly explained about Robert, the BB gun, the great white bird, the wild hunt, the foot wound, and my brave retreat from the melee. He nodded and practiced smoke rings from a Camel as I began to embellish my tale, adding impossible sniper shots, arching spurts of blood, and my foot caught in a bear trap. He nodded, toked the Camel until it flared and crackled at the filter, held it, and then blew a chimney stack of smoke into my face. “Bullshit!” he said, then laughed.
The gang arrived at that moment, fresh and flush from the hunt. Robert was in the lead, holding his BB gun at port arms like a soldier. The Vietnam War was waning but soldiers were still in style, at least for many kids with fathers still overseas.
My siblings and cousins streamed in, sweaty, scratched up, and exhilarated from the pursuit…and the kill. Only it wasn’t a clean kill. My cousin Amy held the limp egret out to Uncle Johnny. Rose red blooms pocked and marred its pure white feathers. One leg swung and swayed on a bone-broke hinge—snapped like a reed. Its golden eyes rolled like a gun-shy horse, resting for a moment on each of us, accusingly. Its yellow beak opened and closed rhythmically. No sound.
Amy handed the limp ‘S’ of a bird to my Uncle Johnny, like a priestess might present an offering to the gods. Johnny sipped at his tumbler, grabbed the bird up by its throat, just under its head, and declared, “It’s done for. Time to put it out of its misery.” Setting down his drink, he unflapped a case and retrieved a folding knife off his belt and flicked open the blade with his thumb. “It’s for the best,” he slurred, and he cut the throat of the white egret.
Sitting there, helpless in that lounge chair, my white flag of a bandage now crimson red on my foot, I thought: Put it out of its misery. It’s for the best. My seven-year-old brain screamed: “Don’t kill me!” Only it wasn’t just a thought—I actually screamed those words.
Uncle Johnny turned from the feathered dead. He looked at me with a bloody knife in one hand, a headless bird in the other, and laughed. He walked over to me, zombie-like, shaking his head, always smiling. I was really, really afraid. I was only seven. “No, no, Little John.; nobody kills kids, or anybody else, for being,”…he waved the bloody knife over my foot, “injured, or gimped up.” I didn’t believe him then, and I don’t believe him now.
You weren’t the best uncle, but you soon redeemed yourself, at least in my eyes anyway. As our nuclear family settled down on a school night in front of “The Waltons” rerun, the roar of a muscle car outside interrupted our routine. You walked in without knocking (we didn’t secure doors back then; you entered at your own peril as every house was packing). We ran to you, searching your pockets for goodies, like we always did. I found a pack of Camels and gave them back. Davey found a dime and kept it. You asked, “Who wants to get ice cream?” and we all screamed for ice cream.
My mom and dad, for some reason, shrugged their shoulders and supposed this might be a good idea. Mom’s drunk brother showed up unexpected and wanted to take her four kids out for ice cream in his new Trans Am. Perhaps Mom and Pops needed a little ‘alone’ time; I don’t know. But we loaded up in our Uncle Johnny’s new Smokey and the Bandit rocket and peeled out toward town, to the local Tastee Freeze in our pajamas. I remember sticking my head up through the T-top; I remember living my dream.
We smeared our snotty noses against the cold glass and pointed to exotic treats. We only knew the cardinal flavors of ice cream at home—chocolate and vanilla. Uncle Johnny allowed two scoops per kid, throwing in as many sprinkles or chocolate chips that could fit on top. He kidded and played with us as we gobbled the goodies, wearing much of it on our faces. He also flashed his wall-to-wall smile at the young lady behind the freezer, his eyes and turned-up moustache hinted at more than just sprinkles.
We never thought to ask the most obvious question—why? Sure, some uncles just did nice things for nieces and nephews, but this, this grand gesture had never happened before. Why weren’t we curious? I think we didn’t ask because we sensed something serious and we really didn’t want to know the final answer. For us, ice cream was the answer.
Looking back on it now, it’s obvious. Just check out any suicide prevention pamphlet. Suicides seek closure. We all do, but if you have a self-shortened timeline, you make a quick list and you try to go out on your terms, on good terms. Nobody wants to go out an asshole. I’ve made that mental list myself; only I haven’t checked all the blocks…Yet.
I remember seeing a photo of you. My mother still has it. It shows a soldier in full gear, descending from the heavens under a mushroom-shaped canopy. In the corner of the frame, a rakish Cpl. John P. Hurst shows off a pair of silver wings on his chest. This photo encouraged me to join up when another uncle needed troops to fight in a desert.
I wanted to be like you, but broke my ankle on my first jump. I never got my wings. My consolation prize was Gunner in an Abrams tank. We rolled right up into Kuwait, smoking T-54s left and right. We fired sabot rounds so powerful we called them God-killers. But I never caught Allah in my crosshairs, only a bunch of his raggedy ranks trying to surrender. We made martyrs of them; Allah had to work overtime cranking out virgins like crazy. I’m not proud of that, and every time it storms, I hear the thunder of my main gun and the chatter of our Ma Deuce 50. It storms a lot these days.
But war is give and take. Even the cannon fodder can find a way to inflict casualties on the infidels. Men are clever when it comes to killing each other.
Abrams tanks are great, but they don’t have a latrine. After making Swiss cheese out of dozens of old Soviet tanks, I needed to take a piss. I dismounted, stepped to the back of the tank for propriety, and unbuttoned. Like a good Gunner, I chose a target and engaged. It was a scrap of Iraqi flag, perhaps blasted off a tank or a shoulder insignia. As I pissed on the green Arabic chicken scratch, I noticed a red wire disappearing into the dirt beneath it.
IEDs were new to us in 1992. So I became an object lesson, a poster soldier, for what-not-to-do in the annals of Army lore. I paid a high price so that others might learn not to piss on their foe’s flag. I lost my right leg in the explosion, and yes…Johnny Jr (JP) will be an only child, if you know what I mean. That started my decade of loss.
Like you Uncle Johnny, I lost my wife. No, not in the tragic sense; she wasn’t struck by lightning or cancer; I lost her like I might lose my car keys after a night of drinking, or even my car for that matter. I just woke up one day and she was gone. I missed her when I was sober, so for a long time, I refrained from sobriety as much as possible.
But unlike you, dear Johnny, I got counseling. It wasn’t my wife, my mother, or my chaplain that finally got me off my ass. It was my boy, Johnny Junior—we call him J.P. You see, he looks up to me the same way I looked up to you. He’s only 12 and he’s got a bright future. He lives with his mom in Austin. I see him when I can, but you know how that is. It can be frustrating. Sometimes I just want to…you know…put me out of my misery, like the damn bird.
My therapist says those thoughts are okay. That I should own them, and explore them, even write them down. Did you ever try that trick? I wish I could talk with you over a cold bottle of…Dasani. Heh, you’d turn over in your grave. These days, they sell more bottles of water than beer. It’s a racket. But on stormy nights, I might drink a six-pack. Like I said, I drink a lot.
Here lately, I’ve had a hard time with life. I think back to that bird, that beautiful egret and how you declared it done for, and should be put out of its misery. I think; could we have saved it? Patched up the wounds, splinted the broken leg. Then what? Care for it for years in some bird sanctuary for shot-up birds? Would it prefer your buck knife to fake life? Sometimes I’m that bird and I’m just looking for a way out of all this…this…
But then I think of you, dear Johnny. How you inspired me. How you showed me what suicide really looks like. It’s not a Shakespearean swig of poison or a swift dagger to a broken heart; it’s pain and agony and that why-didn’t-I-do-something loss you left in the haunted hearts of your family and friends. FUBAR—yes, somehow they feel responsible for your dumb ass mistakes.
And don’t forget the collateral damage—innocent victims. Suicide is swerving your sports car into oncoming traffic, careful to pick out a large VW van for maximum damage. Suicide can easily turn to homicide. It’s not realizing or caring at that point that there was an entire family riding inside that van en-route to a family reunion. Perhaps they’ll all reunite again someday in the sweet by and by. You just can’t make this shit up. Life is the greatest shit show on earth.
So, Dear Johnny, John, and J.P.,
I suppose this letter is to all of us. I’ll play the Father, J.P. is the Son, and you, Uncle Johnny, are the Holy Ghost. If the world is indeed a stage, and we all merely players, I want to play the lead. I’ve endured the longest. As you might have surmised from this letter; I’m holding on to dear life, with all I have left (I’ve lost a few parts and pieces along the Road Less Traveled) I dial 988 every night and talk to heaven. That is the new suicide hotline that connects me to angels, the earth-bound type. My favorite is Sam.
Every time I call the hotline and wail my tale of woe, Sam laughs at me. When I whine about how I’ve lost a leg and my dick, he tells me about callers that have lost babies, brothers, sisters, sanity, and so much more. “We all lose something,” Sam says, “but let’s look at what we have left.” He puts me in perspective—taught me to live one God damn day at a time.
So here’s my best advice to myself. I put it on a sticky note on my fridge.
Dear John,…Dear Me,
Don’t do it tonight. Wait until tomorrow.
See, I learned something from too many nights in the dive bars. I read the signs of the prophets: Free beer…tomorrow.
One day at a time, my friend. One fucking day at a time.
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link, and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
E. J. D’Alise submission<<link
Perry Broxson submission<<link
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