Death Is the Best Detergent
At midnight, I finally faced the past. It made me restless for a clean slate. Like a shoved-aside branch, the Devil snapped back. Death’s the best detergent.
My boss had laid me off, smirking. Two degrees and six years for nothing. I imagined karate-chopping his head in half. Make America great again.
Too poor to pay rent and too rich for welfare, I slept in a church-loaned camper. My folks didn’t use email or a cell. Friends praised God with gusto for their new houses and babies. I didn’t, a poor spinster without a cat.
In death, you can’t fail.
In death, you’ll be free.
To drown out the noise, I buried my face in the pillow. Cold linen against a hot head. I breathed deep, letting cool reason flow along my spine. Then a counterpoint. In death, I’d never grow claws and cut anyone. In that foggy morass, I’d never find my destiny. He sang of defeat, not freedom. So I beat the chorus back with a baton.
Weary after battle, I slid into the darkness without my burdens - content. In the quiet, I waited for tomorrow’s cleansing grace, so I could start anew.
Hail to the Chief
Tourists didn’t visit Alpine this early in the morning. Birds sang as I walked alone through Pioneer Square to meet my older sister, Sarah, who attended a surgeon’s conference at the ski resort. She insisted on brunch there. I couldn’t become a historian as planned but my childhood passion never faded.
After circling the hangman’s tree, stables and schoolhouse, I got lost. The car was too far. I didn’t have a map, and my phone had just died. I’d be late. Another day, another disappointing failure. Sarah’d shake her head at “Tardy Tina” again, sauntering in with dirty jeans and a t-shirt.
Delayed defined my entire existence. Unlike Sarah, I matured late, so boys weren’t interested. Coaches picked me last for teams. My first-choice college waitlisted me. Despite my degree, I struggled to find a real career. While I dawdled in spinsterhood past the age of thirty, my youngest cousin sashayed down the aisle. I grew up, only to suspend in aimless mediocrity.
Maybe I should miss brunch. Last week at the jewelry shop, a she-wolf howled that our rings were too small. I snapped at her fat fingers. Boss-lady fired me that same day. Not a good “cultural fit.” I didn’t want to tell Mrs. Pantsuits that I lost another job.
The intersection splintered into several dirt paths, and I almost tripped over some low, worn steps. Looking up, I saw a former general store, now converted to a museum. Shoe-prints hadn’t sullied the pristine porch like the other shops. Through the window, I saw an old lady sitting at a desk inside. She waved at me and seemed helpful. I entered.
“Welcome,” she smiled but didn’t rise, “I’m Sheryl.”
“Hi, I’m looking for the ski resort?” The wooden interior smelled like earth and hide.
“I’m sorry. I’m new here.” She fiddled with her docent name-tag, a bit flustered.
“That’s alright. You have a phone or computer?”
“You sound like my granddaughter. I don’t, but there’s old map somewhere.” She rummaged around her small desk.
Relics of hard and meager lives clustered the room - butter churn, oil lamp, Indian baskets, cutting tools, cracked China and shipping crates turned to tables. Burlap sacks and boxes stacked all the corners.
“I’m sorry, I can’t find it.”
“Hmmp, some store.” I wanted to run amuck all over town until I hit a signpost, until my feet bled, anything to avoid Sarah’s smug satisfaction.
“It wasn’t always a store,” Sheryl quipped, excited at having a live one, “once it belonged to the most mysterious man in Alpine. He immigrated during the Gold Rush and bought it after retiring from the mines. They called him ‘The Chief.’”
Where he get the money? Most prospectors died poor. Intrigued, I lingered.
“Do you feel anything . . . strange?” Sheryl broached.
She lowered her voice, “Well, the last woman who came in felt extreme pain, overwhelmed by a powerful presence. Being Irish, I’m sensitive to these things.”
I looked her dead in the eyes. Halloween was months away, but the lady wasn’t joking or mad. I glanced around, expanded my lungs and exhaled. Air tasted a bit musky.
I smacked my lips. “Naw, I’m alright.”
Black-and-white daguerreotypes lined the far wall. One caught my eye and I stepped closer. A Chinese man in his fifties looked dead ahead, sclera bright against the darker hues. His pigtail ran along the knotted buttons of his collared Manchu suit, worn hands resting on his knees. He wasn’t big, but his straight back and firmly-planted feet dared anyone to unseat him. The description below read, “The Chief, 1883.”
Taken aback, I blurted, “That’s him?”
“Oh, his real name was Ah Choy or something. They started calling him ‘The Chief’ after his death - once they found out he helped the Pomos escape lynching in town.”
“Why did he bother?” Out West, a Chinese dude couldn’t get any more popular by befriending Indians.
“He was different, always healing broken birds, taking in vagrants. Never turned nobody away.”
“How he do it?”
“Through the mine tunnels. If you’re interested, our Forty-Niner Mine Tour shows you his secret route.” Sheryl smirked.
He was different, having shaped a unique destiny from these unrelenting foothills, and survived his enemies by living in Alpine’s collective memory. Despite violence and hardship, he stayed true to himself. That was the real victory.
“Hail to The Chief!” I saluted him with two fingers. Sheryl chuckled. This chance encounter sparked my wonder. How many more tidbits had this town tucked away? For a moment, I marveled at the vastness of all things hidden and forgot my troubles.
“What’s this?” A blue stone peeked from beneath a stool. I picked it up, tracing the cool and hard edges.
“Someone just left that behind.”
I turned it against the window’s light. Having worked in jewelry, I recognized its distinct hexagonal crystallography. Benitoite, a gem rarer than diamonds, was native to this area. My heartbeat quickened and palms grew sweaty. I still needed an official appraisal, so slipped it in my pocket. Discreetly, I scanned the floor for more.
The faded corner of a brochure caught my eye. I grabbed it and brushed off the cobwebs: a map. The route to the resort was as clear as the Alpine morning. I looked up and smiled at The Chief.
“Handsome ain’t he?” Sheryl winked at me.
“Mind if I keep this?” I flapped the brochure in the air.
“Go right ahead.”
“Thank you.” I headed toward the door, fingering the gem in my pocket to make sure it was still there.
“Miss?” Sheryl rose quickly, belying her age, and reached me before I could leave.
“I do hope you consider the Mine Tour,” she beamed.
“Oh, hahaha,” I exhaled and relaxed, “sure, thanks again.”
Excited, I hopped off the front steps and started down the dirt road. If I were late, I’d have the best excuse. Turning to face the storefront one last time, I saluted The Chief, thanking him for the way out.
Mingzhao Xu: "I immigrated to the United States from China as a child. One of my greatest joys is using fiction to highlight the humor, challenges and pathos of everyday life. I currently live in California."