By Sean Dietrich
She was hired to help him. He was elderly, house-bound, stuck in a recliner.
She was young, a single mother, poor.
She and her son lived in a poor, rundown apartment with rodent issues. She worked two jobs to keep the refrigerator stocked.
On her first day, she rolled into the old man’s driveway on fumes. Her car had rust on the fenders, an axle that made noise.
The old man fell in love with her—it would’ve been hard not to. Maybe it was her midnight skin, or the way she hummed when she worked. Maybe it was how she wrapped her woven hair in colorful homemade scarves.
She was a hard worker. She changed sheets, shopped for groceries, made breakfasts, lunches and suppers.
She helped him use the bathroom. She eased him into showers. She scrubbed his backside. She combed his hair. She did his laundry. She folded his clothes while daytime TV gameshows ran in the background.
He told her more than he’d told anyone. He talked about old days. About a war he fought. About jobs he worked. About his late wife. About losing his only son.
She listened to him. No. She did more than listen.
She heard him.
And when he’d cry—which happened often—she held him the same way she would’ve held her son.
He enjoyed her son. Jemiah was the boy’s name. Jemiah wore poor-boy clothes, his shoes had holes in them.
The child liked to read, and write make-believe stories on construction paper. He wrote a story about the old man. It had illustrations of a white-haired man in a magical recliner that could fly.
Jemiah titled it: “My Friend Anthony.”
The old man kept it on his nightstand. It had been a long time since anyone called him friend. He read through it time and again.
His end came early one evening.
She was leaving his house for her night-shift job—cleaning offices. Her purse was already slung over her shoulder. She wasn’t going to bid him goodbye since he was asleep. But something made her go check on him one more time.
She was in time to hear the old man release a giant breath. His jaw went slack. She touched his heart and said a prayer.
“Goodbye,” she said.
The funeral was a small one. A few friends, some distant family. He lived and died a lonely man.
She wore black. She covered her woven hair in a scarf she made from a shirt found in his closet. Her son wore starched clothes she’d bought and ironed earlier that day.
She sang a song for him, graveside. A hymn she remembered her mother singing long ago. It was haunting, but hopeful. Something about laying burdens down.
In the cemetery, she walked back toward her poor-person car. The one with rusty fenders.
She held Jemiah by the hand. Her eyes were cried dry.
A man in a business suit jogged after them. He called her by name.
She stopped walking.
He handed her a manila envelope. He smiled and said, “He must’ve really loved you.”
She opened it.
And just like that, she wasn’t poor anymore.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South.