First published in The Wichita Eagle Monday, November 25, 2002
"Come here, Johnny."
Johnny Papin was sitting in the kitchen of the house where he worked as a caretaker.
The newspaper was spread out in front of his boss and friend, Bill.
"Read that story on the business page there, and tell me what you think about that stock. I want to think about what to do," said Bill, whose real name is not used here at the request of his family.
Johnny looked at the business section. Then he looked at Bill.
"What's wrong?" Bill asked.
Johnny shook his head.
Bill looked at him.
"You can't what?"
"I can't read," Johnny said.
"I can't read."
Bill looked at him for several moments.
"I thought you said you graduated from high school."
"But you can't read?"
Johnny felt humiliated.
He told Bill he shammed people into believing he could read. He said he got all his information about the news and the stock market from television. He told Bill he was ignorant.
He stood there, feeling deeply ashamed.
Bill sat on his stool, looking at him.
"You can't read at all?"
"Then we'll see what we can do about that."
-- -- --
Bill asked his wife, Mary, to help.
She found Johnny a tutor immediately and told him it would cost him nothing.
Johnny told her: "I'm so ashamed."
"I'm 40 years old, and I can't read."
"This is nothing to be ashamed about," she said.
"I'm so ashamed."
"I don't think it's anything to be ashamed about," she said. "But if you do, then it must have taken courage to tell us.
"And that means you want to learn."
One of the first things the tutor did, after she taught Johnny a few words, was to tape-record him trying to read aloud.
The books were the easiest known to children - See Spot run, Dick and Jane - but Johnny stumbled over every letter.
Trying to read at the age of 40 was the hardest thing the former boxer would ever do.
"In the ring and on the streets, there were times when I was whipped so bad that I looked like a zebra with all those stripes," he said.
"But no matter how much I got whipped, there was no time in my life that I ever cried, not once, not until the day I heard that tape recording of me trying to read.
"I broke down and cried," he said. "And I got up and said, 'I'm not going to do this anymore; I quit.' "
The tutor spoke kindly: Sit down; stay with it.
It took two years.
He asked Bill one day, "How can I ever repay you?"
"Don't worry about it," Bill told him.
* * *
Three years passed.
In May 1995, during a trip to Kansas City, Bill found a lump in his neck. He went to a doctor immediately.
He called his wife later that day, sobbing. The diagnosis was pancreatic cancer; it would turn out to be inoperable and fatal.
Bill told Johnny himself.
Many people came to visit as Bill grew weak. Johnny would sometimes shoo people toward the door.
"He's tired," Johnny would say.
One day, only a few days before he died, Bill was too weak to walk upstairs to bed.
Johnny walked over and sat next to his friend.
"Put your arms around me," Johnny said.
Bill did so.
Johnny stood up and carried him piggyback up the stairs.
* * *
After Bill died, Johnny came to the house as usual, four days a week, to scrub and polish.
Sometimes, in the quiet house, Johnny and Mary talked.
He told Mary that he had loved her husband as much as he had loved any man.
Mary tried to console him.
"It's all part of the box we're all born in," she told him. "The box comes with life, and with death, and with whatever we care to put into it ourselve s."
Johnny told her he'd never put much into the box of his life.
* * *
Two months after Bill's death, on Oct. 4, 1995, Johnny was pumping gas into his car at the convenience store at 13th and Oliver.
A man walked up to another car sitting only a few steps away, pulled out a handgun and opened fire.
Johnny ducked. People ran screaming.
Police would find 14 shell casings beside the car.
The gunman had been aiming at a man he thought was a member of a rival street gang. Instead, he hit and killed 2-year-old Brentashia Smith, who was also sitting in the car.
Afterward, Johnny found himself commiserating with some middle-aged men in the neighborhood about what a terrible thing it was.
He had been a thug for much of his life. He was trying to reform.
He began to notice how hollow he felt whenever he and some other men criticized the youngsters.
"Is that all we old black men do?" he thought. "Sit around and complain about the young ones?"