John-John was the first person I met when I rode to Port Hudson, Washington. I met him before I reached the town and harbor. My BMW motorcycle blew a rear tire a few miles out of town, so I pulled over onto a gravel spot beside the two-lane road. Across a field and against a barn rested a strange black boat.
I felt stupid not being better prepared. I left that morning with only a small bag of clothes and rain gear. I did have tools to get the wheel off. I set the bike on the center stand. I’d just detached the wheel when an orange GMC pickup stopped behind me. It carried a big over-cab camper. A young guy bounded out, smiling, and walked up to me. He had a round face and short fuzzy blond hair. In a voice a decibel louder than necessary in the quiet farmland, he said, “Hi. I’m John-John. Need a ride into town? I’m headed there. Looks like you have a flat rear tire huh I’ll bet that wasn’t something you expected huh?” He looked at me, waiting, blue eyes intense because he didn’t blink.
Sarcastic me thought, “So you noticed it’s the rear wheel.” But I said, “No. I mean no, I didn’t expect it. And yes, I would like a ride.”
“Great, great,” he said, as though I’d offered him a favor.
Carrying the wheel, I followed him to the back of the camper. He opened the door, took the wheel with one hand and set it in. He was muscular, about my height, six feet. Sunburned.
I locked the BMW. As I got into the cab I said, “I need to find someone who can repair the tire. I don’t have tire irons or a patch kit.” Again I felt dumb, and now embarrassed.
“Oh I know just the guy. Harold. Harold will do it. Harold fixes all kinds of tires, even tractor tires. Harold is just the guy you need, Harold is.”
I absorbed what I had seen walking to the passenger door. It was a plywood sign fastened high on the side of the camper. Spray-painted in childish letters was:
“WANTED!! FEMMALE Traveling Companion!!!
John-John wanted to know where I was coming from (Seattle) and where I was going. My answers were curt, just barely answers at all, but my manner seemed to leave him just as cheerful. He smiled happily. I damn sure wasn’t going to open up about my reasons for being in Port Hudson.
In a few minutes we were at a small farmstead beside the highway. He turned right into a long driveway ending at a metal garage twice the size of the house next to it. I saw a man bent over— indeed—a huge tractor wheel and tire. He looked to be a farmer. He wore bib overalls and spit into a coffee can without stopping what he was doing. I thought about the difference between a tractor tire and my motorcycle tire. I pictured taking a canoe to a shipyard for repairs. Approaching the shop door, I imagined Harold’s reaction. I imagined the scorn that was about to meet me and my little wheel. I did not take disapproval well. I knew it was my ego. I knew that spiritual practice is basically to get beyond “self.” After all, I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I knew all that stuff about ego, yet it would not soften what I anticipated.
“Hey Harold, this guy had a flat rear tire on his motorcycle and needs it fixed,” John-John said, holding my wheel as if it was from a bicycle. “I stopped and gave him a ride and told him you’re just the guy who can help, Harold, just the guy who can help him, huh?”
Harold straightened up. He was taller than us, lean and younger than I had assumed. He wore a billed feed-store hat and seemed amused, crinkles beside his eyes. His face had seen a lot of sun from when he rode on the seat of his father’s tractor as a little boy—probably thirty-plus years ago.
“Thank you John-John. That was nice of you to help uh…what’s your name?”
I told him my name. As we shook hands I realized I hadn’t offered my hand to John-John. In that second I was chagrined. The term “dissed” hadn’t been coined yet, but I had dissed the guy who stopped to help me.
“I have to finish this tire,” Harold said to me. “You can wait or you can use those tire irons to get the tube out. Do you know how to do that?”
I felt as though Saint Harold, pointing to the tools, had blessed me. I was relieved of standing around talking to a man-child (now my opinion of John-John). Trying to sound casual I said, “Yeah, I can take it apart,” as though finishing my part of a catechism. I moved the wheel across the shop floor and picked up the Blessed Tire Irons.
“Do you want me to stay, Harold, and take him back to his motorcycle so he can put the wheel back on his motorcycle? Do you want me to wait?”
Harold asked, “Where did you find him?”
“He was up the road near Denny’s boat. He was in that wide part, near Denny’s boat when I saw him.”
“Oh,” said Harold, “that’s not so far. I’ll give him a ride back after we fix his tire. You can go on. Thanks for bringing me a customer, John-John.” Harold smiling, no scorn, no sarcasm.
John-John said, “See. I told you Harold was the guy to help you.” Before I could reply he turned and strode back to his truck, the truck with that sign on the side.
“Thanks John-John,” I yelled, uncertain whether he heard me, but hoped he did not hear shame in my voice. I wondered what Harold heard, but he was concentrating on his tire.
I was in Port Hudson for three reasons. My girlfriend decided it was time for us to break up and we were living in her house. Second, I’d been fired from my job at a motorcycle shop. The two were related. Third, a week earlier I was offered a chance to house-sit a place outside Port Hudson for the summer. I had money, shared with my girlfriend, from selling my car. The offer to stay in the house was out-of-the-blue unexpected. Being newly-spiritual, I thought of karma. Or was it Karma?
We found the nail and Harold patched the inner tube. In a faded blue pickup, he drove me back with the inflated tire. Harold waited as I put the wheel back on.
Then, “What do I owe you?”
Harold said, “Oh, you did most of it. Let’s say five dollars.”
“No, Harold. If you weren’t here I would have been up a creek. (“You and John-John,” I thought.) “Please take twenty.”
He accepted. I kicked the bike awake and rode off.
Soon I met John-John again. I was on the beach below “my” new house, becoming more spiritual by reading “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass. John-John walked by heading north. His house was next door to mine. He turned and said, “Hey, aren’t you the motorcycle guy?” He was wearing tan shorts and carrying a yellow plastic bag over his shoulder.
“Hi, John-John, I am. How are things?”
He tilted his head and said, “Well, I don’t like snooty girls. I tell you, I don’t like snooty girls.”
“What do you mean?”
As he looked at me I remembered that sign on his camper. He said, “I don’t like the snooty ones,” and walked off. A few minutes later Donna walked up from the same direction. Donna was on the beach many days and I liked her style. OK, I liked her body. Also, she was intelligent and easy to talk with.
Donna was a college student with prominent breasts that she knew were attractive. I learned that fact when we were at a beach party and she brushed against me. More than once. I thought it was unconscious until a boat woman whispered to me, “She can’t seem to keep ‘em off you.”
Now Donna was in front of me. I stood.
“John-John exposed himself to me. He exposed himself!” She was wearing a bikini with a big towel draped in front.
“Where did it happen?” Oh, stupid, stupid question. I didn’t know what she expected, but knew I should say something.
“Right down there where I was sunbathing. He walked up and dropped his shorts and there it was—I mean sticking out. He was smiling.”
“Did he say anything?” I asked.
“He said “’I like you’ or something disgusting like that.”
“What do you think you should do, Donna?” I was sympathetic but also sympathetic toward the man-child. He apparently didn’t suffer from the usual social restraints.
Donna paused, considering. She said, “Well, I’m glad you’re here. I’ll just stay away from that freak. Thanks.” She stepped forward and hugged me.
Thanks for what? When she hugged me I was moving toward erect myself.
A few days later I met the guy from Veterans Affairs. He parked next door. He wrote something on a pad and left it. I knew John-John wasn’t there because the camper with that sign wasn’t. My instinct was to just watch, but something stirred me and I walked to where he sat in a plain green sedan, writing on a clipboard. I tapped on the window. He looked up and opened the door. “Yes?”
“I see John-John occasionally. Are you looking for him?”
He appeared middle-aged and middle-management. “I’m from the VA in Seattle. I check up on him once a month or so. Sad case, but we try to help.”
“Why sad?” I asked, expecting him to answer that it was private, and it was none of my business. He surprised me.
“After the incident, John-John has a child’s mind in an adult body. And it took a long time for him to get back to where he is. Doctors expect him to develop mentally, and it seems to be happening. But he’s a bit impulsive. You know, like a teenager, but in a healthy adult body.”
Yes, I knew. I thought about Donna.
Maybe the VA guy was tired; maybe he just wanted to unload. It didn’t take many questions to prime the pump.
John-John was the son of a fisherman with too many kids and too little money. In high-school John-John was just John, a good football tackle and mediocre student. He became enamored, maybe obsessed, with Ellen Jean, daughter of a prominent timber family. She was a junior when they began dating. By the time John graduated they were rarely seen apart. Vietnam was a full-on war. Before he graduated, John enlisted. He proposed to Ellen Jean and she said she would marry him after she graduated and after he came back from the Army.
Ellen Jean’s family recoiled in shouting arguments. She could not marry that “fisherman’s boy.” She was destined for an east coast school and she would have to break it off with John. She sent him letters. VA guy didn’t know what was in the letters but said John returned to Port Hudson after boot camp, still expecting Ellen Jean to marry him after his hitch.
When John showed up at Ellen Jean’s house, her family refused to let him see her. Father, uncle and her two brothers stood in a phalanx across the wide porch, grim, arms folded. John saw Ellen Jean standing before an upstairs window. He yelled, “The usual place, the usual place.” A cop who arrived shortly was caught between the Important Family and a new warrior. To everyone’s relief, John walked to his pickup and drove out the long curved driveway.
The last time anyone saw Ellen Jean and John together, they were in the cab of his pickup, parked at the end of a remote dirt road. A green garden hose with white stripe was duct-taped to the tailpipe and ran into the cab—the snake that bit them. They sat blue-lipped, slumped heads forward, arms limp around each other. The pickup was running. Ellen Jean was stone dead. Athletic John, though damaged, survived. After months in a Seattle VA hospital he was released.
There were incidents. Once, while the Important Family was gone, John-John cut down all the elegant spruces lining that curved driveway. He walked along, a Stihl chainsaw screaming, cutting each tree at about shoulder level. A postman, the only person who saw the scene, said John-John cried as trees fell across the drive.
One of Seattle’s best legal firms advised the Important Family it would be futile to sue, based upon “diminished capacity” and based on the well-known Blood v Turnip case.
And so it went. John-John did find some “FEMMALE Traveling Companions,” but they mostly traveled to his house, mostly young, sometimes in pairs. Those days I heard a lot of squealing and laughter.
The last time I saw John-John was at the Split Table Café. Summer was over. The owners of the house were back from Europe and I was a couple of days from starting a new job in Olympia. Donna was already there, going to classes at The Evergreen State College. She rented us an apartment.
John-John came in and sat opposite me at the big table. “What’ve you been up to?” I asked.
“I went to Seattle to see that new movie.”
“You know, Romeo and Juliet. That one, the Romeo and Juliet movie.”
I did know. An annual film festival featured Shakespeare plays. That’s where I saw Orson Welles as Falstaff in “Chimes at Midnight.” I hadn’t seen Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It wasn’t new, but I guessed it was to John-John.
“So what did you think about it?” I asked.
“It was sad, real sad,” he said. He looked at me, not blinking. He seemed to be searching for something he was missing.
Max White retired from high tech—programming, teaching and writing technical manuals. For twenty years he was the Indonesia and East Timor Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA, and an advisor for other human rights organizations. He hasn’t published creative writing. He lives in Portland, Oregon. His previous writing is not of interest to a general audience. For example, “Interrupt Structure of the RMX86 Real Time Operating System” (Intel), or, “Rising sectarian violence in Indonesia after Suharto resignation” (Amnesty International USA).