Mar 13, 2008
Johnny Donutseed is 30 foot tall. He's also make of fiberglass. He stands mutely facing the east and state road 59 in Lloyd, Florida, a throwback from a more prosperous, or certainly more ostentatious time, presumably advertising what is now the Big Bend hotel/motel/snack bar/gas station and restaurant. He wears blue jeans; has a cup of coffee in one one hand; and a donut in the other. His hat is a brown affair that resembles a cross between an upside-down cooking pot and a beaver-skin cap, but this thing on his head might also be his hair tied back in a ponytail that sticks out straight back. Over his shoulder is some odd mail sack - a square knapsack that I've decided is where he keeps his donut seeds. His expression rivals the strange dour and frozen look of Easter Island statues, yet with a country bumpkin flair. Now that Johnny Donutseed is aging poorly from over 25 years in the humid Florida sun, his face seems somehow pained.
Jennifer and I are driving from Tallahassee to Lloyd, Florida to get our first glimpse of Johnny Donutseed, but with the overt purpose of seeing Jay. Jay is a truck driver and the Jennifer's ex-lover. I am her current one, though it doesn't seem that casual because I believe that i am deeply in love with her and hope to marry her. She's driving, and I'm staving off an afternoon nap by trying to focus the A/C vents properly at me while I smoke marlboro lights. I am wearing shorts, sandals and a t-shirt and for a moment feel silly like a tourist - but this passes.
Interstate 10 stretches out of Tallahassee and the rolling panhandle country takes over quickly. It is green and lush with nearly always something in bloom. The conversation between Jennifer and I is sparse because we both need sleep, and we both hold some strange anxiousness for the meeting with Jay - each for our own reasons. Jennifer drives firmly, the short soft hair under her hat wagging in the cars artificial breeze, and her small dark sunglasses hiding her expressive blue eyes. She looks beautiful to me from her dark hat to her turned down socks beneath tennis shoes, but I'm cautious not to tell her because I fear repeating it will sound like an insincere and offhand remark and I know it will only embarrass her. I'm also less sure of what it means to be in love anymore. So I keep my appreciation of her to myself. By the time Jennifer points the car down route 59, she mentions that Lloyd wasn't that far away, really.
Parked facing Johnny Donutseed is a large tankard truck, with the tall frame of a man wearing a dark T-shirt, tight jeans, small sunglasses and leather Harley-Davidson boots getting out of the cab -- the familiar look of Jay, and his dog Scout. We park between Jay's truck and the odd visage of Johnny Donutseed. Jennifer and I get out and I am greeted by the dog while Jennifer and Jay hug warmly yet a bit stiffly. The dog's coat is thick and husky-like which seems inappropriate for the weather, yet, neither does he look uncomfortable. I shake hands with Jay and we stand, two tall men and a small woman in the short leg of a triangle while the Florida sky rains heat down us and evaporates any extra energy the moment might give us.
"I was about to leave. Didn't think you'd get here." Jay's warm half-smile, half-smirk leaps out at you and is naturally infectious, yet it's hard to read as always.
Jennifer explains our theoretical tardiness and is smiling somewhat, as I suppose I am smiling somewhat also. It's good to see Jay, and even more impressive to see him in the different environment of his work rather than the parties we've shared. Jay shows us the scars of of his recent arm-wound and the place he received the indignity. Jay can talk about slipping and falling out of the cab of a truck without making it sound like he's a buffoon. Simple fact. He fell. Scraped his forearm here where the sharp edges of metal are designed for stable footing. He describes his ordeal of blood-stained sinks and running red water without much positioning for anybody's pity. How some lady at the weigh-station told him to get it looked at. Jays scoffing expression is one of male bravado tinged with a fatalistic shrug.
The conversation lulls and I mention something about the dog who is wandering over towards the legs of Johnny Donutseed. The three of us still talking, probably about the dog, mosey in that direction, each feeling the need to keep up the talk lest a momentary lull blossom into an uncomfortable silence.
I regard the 30-foot being. From a distance he seems poised, but up close he is pitiful. Natural fiberglass patches are covering decrepit sections of his legs and shoes. From below and this close it seems as if you could fit a man's leg between his pursed lips. His eyes seem glassy. It was then I named it Johnny Donutseed. He seemed to have a New England minute-man purpose about him, but ludicrously held the accoutraments of a morning's relaxing repast. He seemed to be looking sternly towards a goal, perhaps of providing everyone with a coffee and donut in the morning, but was dressed to travel the swamps and rugged land to provide this. I slapped his hollow leg. The dog was unimpressed.
As if by consensus, but more because there was little to else to do, we decide to go into the restaurant. Jay has eaten a big breakfast already and Jennifer and I have what little hunger in us sucked out by the humid heat of midday. But it's there, and hopefully cooler, so we cross the dusty parking lot.
The restaurant/gas station/knickknack and convenience store speaks of truckers and the country. That plain and varnished pine and hint of Americana that is not yet recognized as the American peasant. We think of Russian or German peasants with their rustic dress and simple, straightforward and overweight ways in a much kinder light than we do American peasants, listening to country music, working just as hard, drinking just as hard and who are just as darkened and leathery from the sun. But happily none of the three of us feels truly out of place here. Jay is most comfortable and selects a booth seat with his back to the wall. I sit on the booth next to Jennifer, both of us facing Jay. Jay is who we've come to see. Yet, the image of Johnny Donutseed tugs at me.
There are booths with phones around the perimeter of the dining area, to provide truckers a place to get many things done at once. Eat, update their logs, check in with the home office, call a loved one, and in Jay's case to log on to an online service and 'chat' on the net - though his account has recently been canceled and he relates the story of how that came to be. As Jay relates how AOL can fuck themselves because they canceled his account for simply entering a private hack room, I find myself at a small loss because I'm hesitant to put my arms around my girl. It's not that I don't want to, it's more that Jennifer hasn't told Jay how close we are, though we all suspect he knows the extent to which Jennifer and I are romantically connected. I am following Jennifer's lead for the most part, out of deference to making this the least uncomfortable for everyone, but my arm burns with a want to hold her, though our hips are almost touching. Jennifer and I rest our forearms on the table. Jays arms are spread across the booth's wide back.
The waitress, an older woman who probably represents the romantic notion of that American peasant as much as anyone else, asks us if we want anything and we manage to scrounge up the desire for some fries and caffeinated drinks all around. Her tag says "Shirley".
As she turns to leave, I say, "Shirley, that statue out there, Johnny Donutseed," I motion with my chin. "What's his real name?"
Her eyes dart outside for the briefest moment and she shrugs. "He was here before I started working here. I don't know a thing about it." As she's walking away she offers, "Ask one of the older people here, they might know."
For a moment, I'm crushed. She looked like the oldest and most perfect candidate for that small bit of information. I mentally picture some ancient "Mel" in the back, slinging hash browns on a large black grill which is constantly being scraped by a thin chrome spatula, who's "Daddy" built the 30-foot man, and who can only remember that Daddy always referred to the statue as "Nathan"... or something like that.
In a way, I'm avoiding the more volatile situation with the three of us. While I'm relieved to find that Jennifer didn't fling herself into Jay's arms and he didn't spin her around with the pure joy of seeing someone he's missed terribly, neither was the situation clear and resolved. I don't sense Jay feeling like I'm moving in on 'his' territory as it were, but then again Jay seems held back, more reserved, even for Jay. Jennifer doesn't seem to me to be completely comfortable either. It's as if she's waiting for Jay to be Jay, and for the three of us to be the wonderful friends we have started to become; but it isn't unfolding that way. In fact it isn't unfolding at all. There seems to be some kind of stalemate in the air. As if we all hold each other in mutual check, but not mate. The subject of Jennifer's dog Pandora comes up and Jay makes a joke about dachshunds being small japanese cars. I remark that they're called Nissans now. In that light bantering style we continue to talk various pleasantries and small jokes to avoid hearing our own heartbeats.
In a way, I'm annoyed that Jennifer has not made Jay overtly aware that I am her man now. I long to state the obvious and get the possible hurts out of the way; but lately I'm even more cautious about hurting people, and a bit more distrustful of what people say. I remind myself that I've hurt someone close to me recently, and that it may not be the best thing to plunge into situations, but to allow them to unfold. My new wait-and-see attitude I've given myself. Jay and Jennifer carry emotional baggage that remains hidden to me, as do I about Deborah - the person I hurt - that is unseen by them. It all swims before me as I find myself staring out the window.
But Johnny Donutseed has seen it all, and more. Out the window I can see him looking to the eastern horizon mutely. When she delivers our order, I kid Shirley that she doesn't know the man whose butt she's forced to view all day. She makes some small joke which I forget and then the three of us joke about fat people and having to look at the crack of their asses as they lean over in loose jeans.
Still, that doesn't break the ice quite, but Jennifer, who is always prone to tucking her legs in when she sits, folds her leg over mine and places her hand on my leg. I can't tell if she's feeling more comfortable or just misses touching me as much as I long to hold her, and this is acceptable because it's almost out of sight of Jay's notice.
We eat. We smile. We all get our say in, and pretty soon the french fries are gone and more time has passed than should have. For a moment I sense that I have given Jennifer and Jay no time alone without me, that perhaps one or the other needs to quickly give the other their assessment of the situation, or me, or of harbored or love-lost feelings. I politely excuse myself to go to the truckstop bathroom. I take my time and on the way back position myself to talk to the woman who talks to truckers behind the glass about what pump they got their diesel from and whether they want a receipt. Finally my presence forces her attention away from counting bills.
"That Johnny Donutseed out there," I ask, now more confidant of my name for him, "What's his name?"
She squints at the statue like she's never seen it before. She tightens her lips. "I don't know... Lloyd?" She smirks. I doubt he represents the founding father of the small town of Lloyd, and my face must've clouded up over it. I also see her cleverness. When pressed she came up with a name despite her ambivalence about the truth. "I've never thought about it," she mumbles as she returns to her work. She doesn't care to give it much more of her immediate thought.
As I return to the booth it's apparent that the time is up, and we all amble towards the front, listlessly by isles of tire repair kits and candy bars. It's as if nothing was resolved. We pay and then open the doors back into the summer's fiery gaze. As we walk across that dusty parking lot, and towards the 30-foot man, it seems to me as if each of us have a kinship with Johnny Donutseed.
We know the loneliness of him. We share with Johnny Donutseed the position of being unable to really say what's on our minds. We each have a history that only we know, that is unknown to the locals and travelers that pass by and perhaps only known by someone connected to us far away. We all, Jay and Jennifer and Deborah and Shirley and the truckers and the woman behind the glass all share a certain ambivalence about the truth because we have to focus on what little truth we want to see. We write our personal histories in the wind that we create by our small movement. Each in our way seems to be as ridiculous and at loose ends as a man who delivers coffee throughout the panhandle of Florida and has a bag full of Donutseeds that he plants as he goes.But nobody is Johnny Donutseed. He's a singularity that has long been forgotten - except by three people who have stood unsteadily in his shadow.