Mr. Elroy took a trembling breath.
He never breathed out.
“I might have known,” Mr. Elroy’s daughter said when Beulah called with the news.
“You heard me. Families in this community hire you to take care of their loved ones and two months later they’re dead.”
“If you had ax Mr. Elroy, he would have tole you I was taking good care of him.”
“He’s dead, isn’t he?”
“I cook good. You cain’t get them meals in a restaurant.”
“Estella Washington’s family hired you in December and they popped Estella in the ground before Easter.”
“What you saying?”
“Just look at your name. Beulah Land. That says something right there.”
Hanging up, Beulah sank her bulk into the chair by Mr. Elroy’s bed.
“Mr. Elroy, you was good to me,” she said.
She already missed their Saturdays at the lake.
Last year, she worked for Miss Dorothy.
True, Miss Dorothy had diabetes, but surgeons lopped off her blackened leg before Beulah learned how to use her dishwasher.
When she picked daisies from Miss Dorothy’s garden and took them to the hospital, Miss Dorothy’s daughters were already weeping and clutching each other in the hall.
Two days after Mr. Elroy was buried, Helping Hands Home Health Care sent her to Arthur Treadwell’s house.
Mr. Arthur, 90, sat in his easy chair wearing pajama bottoms, no top. The skin on his chest was so wrinkled it fell in waves.
“You think you gonna sit around here doing nothing because I can’t see your black face,” he said.
Mr. Arthur’s milky eyes stared at the ceiling.
“No sir. I respects you.”
“Would you like your supper now?”
“Mr. Arthur, why did you do that?”
“Mr. Arthur, I spend two hours in the kitchen making that for you.”
The third day, Mr. Arthur did not say one word.
On the fourth day, Mr. Arthur said, “I want Leon.”
“My friend. He’s dead.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“You’re not sorry worth didley squat.”
“My wife. She’s dead.”
“And who is the little girl? I believes she favors you.”
“My daughter. She’s dead.”
“Do you have grandchildren?”
“Mr. Arthur, is there some ways I can help you?”
“I want Leon. We played dominos.”
“You’re an idgit.”
“Mr. Arthur, does you just like being mean?”
“Can you read?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“Open the drawer.”
A tattered book lay inside. On the cover, a monster with three arms clutched a man wielding a sword.
Mr. Arthur sat rigid while Beulah read.
In a few pages, Beulah’s hand flew to her ample chest: “…a war-bonneted, paint-streaked face was thrust cautiously around the shoulder of the cliff, and savage eyes looked into mine.”
Hearing something, Beulah glanced up to see Mr. Arthur pounding the arm of the chair with his fist and grinning, empty pink gums where his teeth used to be.
It took one month to finish the novel.
After reading the last line, Beulah threw a happy smile at Mr. Arthur.
Mr. Arthur’s body lay in the chair like a melted candle.
Nobody sent flowers. Nobody attended the service but Beulah. The funeral home chapel surrounded her like an air-conditioned cave.
“I needs a paycheck,” she thought, and searched the want ads.
Maid service needed. Cooks needed. Janitorial.
Mr. Elroy, she thought, I wish you was here and we was fishing.
Closing her eyes, Beulah saw the fishing line whizzing through the air.
Fish nibbling on the worm made the cork bobble. Sunset spread over the pines.
And the vast universe, with its hellos and goodbyes, seemed contained in the lake’s dark water.
She picked up the phone.
“Helping Hands,” the receptionist said.