Birmingham. I met the old woman for coffee. She was small and slight, with a mane of white. She spoke with a thick Latin accent.
“I have a story for you,” she said.
I’m a sucker for a good story.
She worked three or four jobs. Sometimes more. She cleaned hotel rooms. She worked as a seamstress. She worked on construction crews. She was a dishwasher at a little restaurant. She was a house painter. The worst job she ever had, however, was working with a plumber. She dug ditches. Literally.
“I was not so very happy digging the ditches.”
Her lowest point came when her ‘83 Toyota gave out. It was the day of her son’s 12th birthday. She had been picking up extra gigs lately so she could afford a birthday present for her boy.
This meant she was working more hours. Which meant she was never home for more than 10 minutes at a time. She got used to sleeping in her car. “It was no so much fun.”
One day, the woman was on her way to a cleaning gig. Her car sputtered and stopped on the side of the highway. It was rush hour. And her car was deader than disco. She sat in her front seat crying. This was in an age before cell phones.
The woman stepped out of her car and looked heavenward. “Don’t do this to me,” she said in Español, as cars whizzed past her by the dozen.
If you’ve ever had an automotive crisis, you know how many highway vehicles pass you by. Hundreds. Thousands even. Motorists will lock eyes with you from behind windshields, smile curtly, then fly by at 75 mph without even glancing back.
She was about to give up any prospect of help and start walking home when a truck pulled over.
Enter the mysterious stranger.
The driver was male. Bearded. Longish hair. Older. Salt-and-pepper hair. More salt than pepper. His truck rumbled like an earth mover.
“I thought he was Norte Americano, but when he opened his mouth…”
“¿Necesita que se lleve?” he said.
His Spanish was flawless. And his voice was warm. Like her grandfather’s.
She almost wept. “Yes, I need a ride! God bless you!”
He loaded her cleaning equipment into his truck. He drove her across town to her home, and when he dropped her off, he helped her unload the equipment. She offered him something to eat for his trouble. He thanked her but declined.
Then he said, “Tell your son I said ‘Happy birthday.’ ”
“How did you know it was my son’s birthday?”
But the man only winked at her in reply.
She had to hitch a ride with a friend to her next cleaning gig. And as she was vacuuming that afternoon, she noticed that her vacuum was not functioning properly. Finally, she opened the vacuum compartment where the bag went. She found the source of the problem.
The draw of the machine had been restricted by a roll of cash. Tens, twenties, and hundred-dollar bills.
“There was a thousand dollars in my vacuum,” she said. “I just fell down and I start to cry.”
But wait, it gets better.
When she got home later that evening, she was shocked to find her Toyota sitting in her driveway. It was fixed. Nobody knew how the car had been towed home. Nobody in the neighborhood noticed when it got there.
She had her brother-in-law check the car out. He said that, miraculously, there was nothing wrong with the car. Someone had fixed it. When she turned the ignition, the car ran perfectly. It was amazing, the woman says. “People just don’t do this for each other in this country.”
“Wow,” I said at the end of our interview. “That’s a pretty good story. Who do you think that man was?”
She just smiled. Then winked.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, The Tallahassee Democrat, Good Grit, South Magazine, Alabama Living, the Birmingham News, Thom Magazine, The Mobile Press Register, and he has authored seven books.
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