John leans to one side when he walks, always ready to fall, and he has a hard time keeping his eyes open. For years, he was homeless, sleeping in the Rillito Wash, until some stranger finally helped him get into a state facility apartment where they make sure he takes his medication every day. He’s 56 years old, very skinny with a bad complexion and brown, crooked teeth. He’s never had a girlfriend or even considered that a possibility.

As a condition of living in the state facility, John has been given a job and a free cab ride to work. I pick him up three times a week in my cab. He works at a place where they employ people with disabilities, autistic people, Down syndrome, and others with hard-to-categorize problems. The building where he works is a big metal warehouse. The many hundreds of people who work there sit at long metal tables on hard metal chairs and do menial tasks, such as sorting bolts and nuts into boxes, or screwing simple screws into the proper holes on small machinery parts, or separating molded-plastic pieces to be ready for sale in stores. Some of the workers on the assembly lines are crippled, some of them can’t talk, some scream and moan and cry, some drool or go to the bathroom on themselves. Their ages vary from 18 to 60. At lunchtime, there is a lunch counter where they can eat if they do not bring their lunch. The cost of the food comes out of their paychecks, which amount to about $25 a week. Some of them need to be fed like children, but most can feed themselves. John likes his job and never complains about it. In fact, I’ve never heard him complain about anything.

But John’s life doesn’t revolve around his job. His passion is writing. He’s a writer, and very proud of being a writer. John writes a story—sometimes two stories—every day, and he has done this for years and years. His stories are just a page or two. Quick and to the point is how he puts it. But with a twist, he says. That’s very important. When I take John to work, he always tells me about the story he wrote the day before. Sometimes, he has a hard time coming up with an idea for a new story, having written so many, and he asks me to help him. Anything can be a story, he says; just give me an idea. I drive along the streets of Tucson on the way to the warehouse and I say something like, Well, how about that antique store, John, you could write a story about an antique store. And he says, You’ve got a good one there, I could write a story about an antique store. He thinks about it for a minute, then he says: maybe there’s an employee at the antique store who sees an antique picture and is transported into the picture and lives there for a while. Or I’ll see a car wash and I’ll say: you could write a story about a car wash, John. And he’ll think about it and say: maybe there is a guy who takes his car into the car wash and when he’s in the car wash he is transported to another dimension. John can write about anything.

John doesn’t like the food that they make at the warehouse or at his state facility, so he eats at Whataburger, which is next door to where he lives. He’s allowed to walk that far, and no farther, on his own. He eats there when he gets home from work, always the same thing: a regular hamburger, small fries and a Coke: five dollars and 35 cents. Sometimes there’s a nice girl working there who will give him a free refill on the Coke, but most times it’s just the one. He always runs out of money before his next paycheck and then he can’t eat at Whataburger for a few days. On those days, he is forced to eat whatever is served to him.

One time, John was struck by a car while walking across the street to Whataburger. His already bad leg was made even worse, and three years later, he was finally given a settlement of $500 for his pain and suffering. As I am his cab driver and possibly his best friend, he offers to treat me to lunch at Whataburger with part of his settlement. On my day off, I go to Whataburger at 11 o’clock to have lunch with him. Get whatever you want, he says, though I recommend the hamburgers. I order a hamburger and we sit at a table in the sun and eat.

What did you write yesterday, John? I ask him.

I wrote a story about this guy who works in a warehouse, he says. This guy doesn’t have anybody in the world and he works at this warehouse and the work isn’t very much fun and he doesn’t like it very much, but he’s happy enough. The warehouse doesn’t have any windows and is kind of cold and the light is too bright, but it’s not too bad. There is also a lunch counter where the employees eat, but the guy never likes the food. He eats it or sometimes he doesn’t eat it. Then, one day the guy dies, right there on the assembly line, and he goes to Heaven. When he is in Heaven, he discovers heaven is like a big warehouse with metal walls and much the same as where he was before. No windows, but not too bad. He thinks it is exactly the same. But when he goes to the lunch counter, he finds they have much better food. Instead of eggs, there is lobster. Instead of fish sticks, now there are hamburgers.

That’s a good one, John, I say.

Eat up, he says, It’s on me.

One day, I go to pick John up and he isn’t there. A lady comes out and tells me they can’t find him; he must have wandered off somewhere. A week later, he’s still missing. The lady tells me they’ve given up. I ask to see his room and she’s nice enough to let me in. The room is filthy and stinks. They’re gonna clean it out tomorrow, the lady tells me. Notebook papers lay scattered everywhere, on the floor, on the little table, on the bed, in the bathroom. The notebook papers are covered with illegible pencil scribbles, partial sentences and misspelled words or just messy lines. I pick one up. It is complete nonsense.

When John got his settlement of $500 for getting hit by a car, he wanted to use some of the money to buy a computer to put all his stories in. The place where he lived gave a group of residents a ride in their big white van to the Tucson mall one Sunday. The van dropped the group off at the mall and the driver told them they would have two hours at the mall, after which they would be expected to be back at that same spot for the return trip. John was so worried about missing the ride home that he just walked into the mall and turned right around and walked back out and sat on the bench and waited to go home. He sat on the bench and thought about the next story he would write: maybe it would be about a guy sitting on a bench outside a mall watching a little ant crawl over his shoe, and maybe the guy would talk to the ant, and the ant would talk back, and the ant would tell him things. John’s dream was to have a book published of all his stories.

I look for John when I’m driving the streets in my cab. I even took a long walk along the Rillito Wash one weekend. No sign of him. I guess it would be fitting to go to Whataburger and eat a hamburger in his honor once a month, write a story in a sunny booth with a pencil on a notepad, a story about anything that comes to mind, a story quick and to the point, with a twist. But I don’t. The food at Whataburger is not very good, and I don’t have the imagination for it.

***

For all installments from 6 to 6, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Traveling Mercies
  2. Next Time, Take Skyline
  3. Suicide Lane
  4. Morenci in My Rear-View Mirror
  5. A Spiritual Adventure
  6. Sonja’s Ring
  7. A Pair to Draw To
  8. Grocery Day
  9. A Day with Melanie
  10. The Hot Light
  11. Drano
  12. The Cab Knows the Way
  13. Dodi’s Luck
  14. Don’t Die Before Your Mother
  15. Bob’s Big Day
  16. Nothing But a Human Being