Mr. Johnson had been coming to our restaurant for years. Every time he came in, he would order the same meal: grilled chicken with a side of broccoli, a baked potato (butter only) and a coffee. After he finished eating and the plates were cleared away, he would take out his domino set. Occasionally he would come in to eat with someone else and they would play with him. Sometimes one of us would sit down to play a round or two. Often, he simply played by himself. Whatever the case, he frequently stayed for at least an hour after he was done eating, and sometimes even longer. He would sip his coffee, politely asking for refills when necessary.
Newer employees were sometimes annoyed by him. “Why is that guy just sitting there playing dominoes?” they fumed. “He’s already eaten and paid for his meal, he’s just taking up a table that some other paying customer could use.”
“That’s Mr. Johnson,” we’d tell them. “Who the hell are you? He’s been a part of this restaraunt longer than you have.”
The restaraunt closed at 10 P.M. Mr Johnson knew that we were trying to go home. Although nobody had ever asked him to leave, he always packed up his dominoes and left as soon as the clock struck 10 if he happened to still be around at that time. Not to mention, he always tipped well.
Nobody knew anything about him. He knew several of us by name, and we would often sit and talk to him, but he never talked about himself or his life. Most people thought he was a lonely widower, his children (if any) grown and long gone. There were, of course, much more wild rumors as well. Some claimed that he was a former Nazi, or a former spy, or even a current spy. One wild-eyed fry cook floated the hypothesis that Mr. Johnson was a highly advanced domino-playing robot.
A busboy tailed Mr. Johnson home one day to see where he lived. The next day a crowd gathered around him to hear the details of Mr. Johnson’s home life.
“Where did he live? What was it like?” they asked him.
“It was just a regular house,” he said, shrugging.
Mr. Johnson didn’t come in every day, so it took a few weeks before we realized he hadn’t been in for quite some time. There was a sense of quiet panic as we all tried to figure out what had happened to our favorite customer.
“It had to happen eventually,” the conspiracy theorists said, “His cover got blown, the CIA’s taken him in for questioning.”
Henrietta Simmons discovered the answer as she was paging through the newspaper on her break. Henrietta was the type of person who always read the obituaries. She said it made her feel better about herself.
“Come quick!” she called, “Mr. Johnson is dead!”
Stuart Johnson died Tuesday. He was 89.
He died at the Angel of Mercy Hospital of respiratory failure.
Mr. Johnson served in the Army during World War II, and entered the paper industry after returning. Mr. Jonhson was an avid domino player (several of us chuckled as we read that) and dog breeder.
He is survived by three children and five grandchildren. Services will be held privately.
We passed around the newspaper in silence. After all these years, we finally had gotten a glimpse into the life of Mr. Johnson, and now it was too late. Many were secretly disappointed, as it turned out that his life was not nearly as exciting as they had imagined. Mr. Johnson was just a regular person.
We cut out the obituary, had it framed, and hung it up on the wall. It’s still there to this day.