As promised, here’s “Wild John”, the story that won the Elora Writers’ Festival Writing Contest. You can find another story from the same project called “Julia’s Garden” posted on Dreamers Creative Writing, a writers’ resource site based in Guelph and run by Guelph author Kat McNichol. You can also find the original version of a story (much edited since) that inspired the project, “Mister Laurence Bailey“, posted earlier on this site.
John, who was usually called Wild John, or Wild Man, or sometimes, unexpectedly, just John, which he much preferred because he didn’t think of himself as particularly wild, not in any way that mattered, sat on the bench and checked the stock in his backpack. He’d begun the day with six bus tickets (one of them youth), three food bank vouchers, two coupons for a free small ice cream cone at Dairy Queen, two tickets for the merry-go-round at Riverside Park, six packs of cigarettes (two Players and four Du Maurier, one missing three smokes), two lighters, a small bag of Doritos (Nacho Cheese flavour), three chocolate bars (Mars, Caramilk, and Twix), three bottles of water, and a can of Coke. This was more or less typical of his knapsack’s contents at any given time, although he generally preferred to have something special also, a gift certificate to a restaurant maybe, or tickets to the Guelph Storm game – you know, something he could really sell.
Checking his stock was not something John normally did. He didn’t have to. He hadn’t done terribly well in school (even in math, where he seemed to have some natural talent), but he had a prodigious memory, and he prided himself on knowing exactly what was in his backpack at all times. His great satisfaction each night was the moment when he unpacked his things to confirm the accuracy of the mental account he’d been keeping all day. Those who were close to him (or as close as he ever permitted anyone to get, which was something more than an acquaintance and a fair bit short of a friend), knew that pride in his memory could even be used to drive him out of the transient depressions he suffered. They only had to ask him to list his inventory from memory and then empty the backpack to show his accuracy, and Wild John’s mood would afterward be noticeably lighter, though this technique could at best be applied once a day, perhaps not even on two days running.
The reason John was just now taking the abnormal measure of checking his bag – as much as he hated to admit it – was that he’d become uncertain of what was actually inside. The doubt had first crept in when Terrance came by the fountain where John usually sat. “Do you have any water in there?” Terrance had asked, his hands pressed so far into his pockets that he could straighten his arms. “Sure,” said John, taking his customary look around him, just to be certain that nobody was watching, though he knew there was nothing illegal about reselling things. “I should have one more water,” he said, and that was true, he should have had exactly one more, since he’d already sold two bottles to a pretty girl in a pink tank top who’d never bought from him before. When he went to get Terence the last bottle though, there they were – all three bottles of water – as if he hadn’t sold any yet that day. It took a “Well-do-you-have-one?” from Terrance before he could collect himself and make the sale.
It occurred to John that he had perhaps imagined his earlier sale, that he had daydreamed the girl with the low cut pink tank top and the short blond hair around her face like a halo, but the memory seemed plenty real, and he’d always been able to trust his memory before. He took a mental stock of things. Assuming that he was remembering correctly, he calculated that he should have thirteen dollars: one each for the three bottles of water, plus two for the bus ticket and nine for the pack of smokes, a total that a quick check of his pocket confirmed. He considered whether he might have packed five waters instead of three by mistake. This seemed unlikely, but he couldn’t imagine how else an error had crept into his accounting, and he felt a sudden panic that only a thorough check of his backpack could allay – but again! – three water bottles remained, and a further check showed that he still had all his smokes and his bus tickets too.
This was impossible, of course, and John knew it. But calling it impossible didn’t really change the facts very far, which left him in a conundrum. And he didn’t like conundrums. He’d led his life in exactly such a way as to avoid them, to keep things as simple as possible. Everyone was always wanting to complicate their lives with families and careers and well… stuff. They seemed to spend an extraordinary amount of energy on stuff, buying it and worrying about it and putting in alarms to protect it, even though most of it was pretty well useless. Better just to take things easy. Unless, of course, water botles started showing up magically in your backpack.
The only thing to do, he decided, was to walk around a bit and have a think. He wandered back through the tunnel by the post office and through the Baker Street parking lot, along the backs of the Wyndham Street stores, where the graffiti was allowed to linger and where the stores piled their junk beside the dumpsters. By the time he rounded the corner onto Woolwich, where the street was pretty again, with planters of flowers on the sidewalk and the war memorial on the corner, he’d decided that he needed an experiment.
He sat himself on the edge of a flower planter, almost surrounded by tall pink flowers, and he dumped his knapsack out onto the ground, gave it a shake for good measure, peered inside it just to be sure. He had no paper for list making, but he did have a sharpie in his shirt pocket, so he started writing the list in permanent ink on his forearm – six bus tickets, three food bank vouchers, two ice cream coupons, two merry-go-round tickets, six packs of cigarettes, two lighters, a small bag of Doritos, three chocolate bars, three bottles of water, and a can of Coke. It was all there.
When the list was done, he went to replace everything in his backpack, but – what the actual shit! – it was full again! As if he’d never emptied it!
A panicky feeling started to grow in John’s stomach. He grabbed all the stuff on the ground and chucked it back into the bag, just throwing it in, but when he was done it was still exactly as full as when he’d left the house that morning. Not even a bus ticket more or less.
He looked around. He didn’t normally go in for hawking his stock. Everyone knew the sort of stuff Wild John was packing, and they knew where to find him. There was no need for yelling on the street corner. He preferred to sit back and let customers come to him, and if they didn’t come, well, that was fine too. It wasn’t cool to guilt people into buying stuff they didn’t want. Might as well dance around wearing one of those stupid pizza signs – not John’s scene.
In this case though, he made an exception. “Hey,” he said to a guy waiting for the pedestrian signal, “you want to buy a Coke or a chocolate bar? I can give it to you cheap.” The man shook his head and set out across the intersection.
“How about you?” John asked another guy who was leaning against one of the planters, fiddling with his phone. “You want to buy a drink or a snack or something? I’ve got water too, Doritos…”
The guy hardly looked up. “No thanks, man. I’m good.”
Two young kids approached on their bikes, young enough that they should have been in school, ten maybe, twelve at the most. “You kids want to buy a chocolate bar?” John called. “Fifty cents. I got Mars, Caramilk, Twix…”
“I’ll take a Caramilk,” the one kid said, carefully smoothing the sides of his flat top. “You want one, Jesse?”
“Sure. A Twix.”
The kid with the flat top dug in his pocket for a loonie, tossed it to John, who handed him back the candy bars, then looked back into the knapsack, where – of course – all three bars still remained. He took the clearly impossible Caramilk in his hand, looking closely at it, turning it over, as if the secret of it might somehow be written in the ingredients or hidden in the seams of the wrapper.
“Hey, boys,” John said. The kids had already opened their candy. “Have another one on the house.” John tossed them another bar each. He grabbed the bag of Doritos next and shoved it into the chest of the guy playing on his cell phone. “Free,” he said. “It’s like a sale, or something.” The guy looked up, confused, but John was already pulling out the next bag of Doritos for a woman approaching through the intersection. He gave another to the old lady a few feet behind, offered her a Coke too, ended up substituting it for water when she said she was diabetic. He actually gave her all three waters, put them in the basket of her walker. None of which emptied the knapsack at all.
He began walking back down Wyndham Street (the front side this time), back toward the fountain, pulling stuff from his knapsack almost at random, handing it to anyone he happened to pass. By the time he got back to his regular spot, there was a crowd of people following after him, mostly the regular under-occupied inhabitants of the square, but also the business-suited denizens of office buildings, moms with strollers, just about anyone who happened to be walking through the square with enough time and curiosity to spend on a guy shovelling free snacks out of a knapsack. They pressed in on him from all sides, their hands held out like pop fans along the stage of a concert, calling out for whatever he could give – “You got Mars bars, man?” – “Twizzlers? Any Twizzlers?” – “How about some beer? Can you pull beer out of that thing?”
The frenzy seemed only to grow, and John’s panic grew with it, into euphoria. He no longer handed snacks to individual people, didn’t even throw them in any specific direction, just scattered them like edible confetti to anyone who managed to catch them or pick them off the ground. People scrabbled on their knees to stuff chocolate bars and cigarettes into their pockets, bumping into one another, getting so caught up in the amazement of it all that they started shaking Coke cans and spraying them into the crowd. The air was full of misted malt sugar, people turning up their faces to catch the drops like snowflakes on their tongues…
And then, in the midst of everything, he saw the girl – the one in the pink tanktop. She was tilting her head back to drink from a waterbottle, the sun haloing droplets of cola around her face. She finished the bottle, looked straight at him with a little check-you-around-some-time smile, and then she disappeared through the crowd.
Wild John had paused when he saw her, and when he returned to the backpack, he discovered that it was now, suddenly, entirely, emptied. All of it gone, and only fourteen dollars in his pocket.
It took only a minute or two for the delirium to subside, as people gradually realized that the bottomless backpack had finally found its bottom. A few remained behind to gather the last of the coupons and the bus tickets that were sticking damply to the sidewalk, but most soon moved on with looks of bemusement. Wild John jumped up on the edge of the fountain, looking for a glimpse of the girl again, but she was gone, and soon he was alone – open-palmed, soaked in soda, treasuring up in his heart all that he had seen.