This is a non-winner, non-placer, non-anything from the Coveted Dead Bird. One of the judges said it was racist and offensive.
My apologies. In advance.
The Coveted Dead Bird rules specify that it has to be set in or near the Valley. I’ve always liked that little Chinese cemetery on Avenue 12 near 99.
Mu Zhun Rolls
I heard the sound as the other end of my burden jerked almost out of my grip. “What?”
“I almost dropped it, Larry,” came the hushed and strained reply, seeming from a disembodied voice.
“Well, don’t.” I tightened my grip on the casket and blew out a breath. A cloud of dust rose and settled on my face. Oh well, it would be just another layer the dirt already in the grooves of my face and creases of my eyelids.
I felt Homer shift his grip and my load lightened a little. Enough so I could heave and push and climb out of the grave. We set the final home of Mr. Sam Lee on the ground and I wiped my forehead.
“Let’s put Mr. Lee into Mr. Sing’s plot.”
“I thought we was gonna change him with the storekeeper.” I still couldn’t see Homer through the dust and grit we’d stirred up, but his voice came through loud and clear. Too loud.
“Shhh.” I listened but didn’t hear anything.
We crouched in the darkness of the little Chinese cemetery in Madera County. The whoosh of cars and trucks on Highway 99 reached me. We were about a quarter mile from the freeway but only a stone’s throw from the irrigation district offices. If it was a light stone, like pumice or something.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go. We’ve got to shift three more of these graves and that should be enough. I want to put Mr. Lee in the Sing plot, Mr. Sing will take Mr. Chung’s spot, and Mr. Chung will move to the Lee grave.”
“Larry, explain again to me why we’re doin’ this.” Homer’s voice was confused and I stifled the urge to yell.
“Because we killed Mr. Lee, and if the coroner figures it out, we’re going to prison for a long time.”
The other end of the coffin began to inch its way across the hard pan so I hefted my end up and guided Homer to the empty hole by the monument. A granite slab erected by the county to memorialize the old burial grounds shared prominence with the original marker. This place started as a cemetery for Chinese workers in the old Borden colony in the 1800s, before Madera became the county seat.
Homer’s puffing breaths reminded me of Thomas Lee’s gasps as he struggled for air yesterday. “Mu zhun,” he said, between chokes. He’d turned blue and dropped off his stool in The Java Well, my coffee shop out in Madera Ranchos, the settlement over the freeway and down Avenue 12.
I’d had the place a couple of years. I served coffee and muffins and breakfast sandwiches in the mornings, coffee and sodas the rest of the day. I’d just started offering lunch, mostly nachos and sandwiches I could make easily with stuff from Costco or Smart and Final. Yesterday though, I’d decided to try and cook some Chinese food from scratch. Thomas had just eaten my Mu Shoo pork before he keeled over along with all my hope of going straight and staying out of jail.
A twit of a teenage girl called 911 before I could stop her. The paramedics, volunteer fire department, sheriff’s deputy, and CHP all showed up. The ambulance carted Thomas off before I could explain it was an accident.
Homer’s a nice guy but sometimes not too bright. He’d dumped a whole box of cayenne into the ginger, garlic, and soy sauce I was boiling on the stove top. Then he put a healthy dose on the plate he served to Thomas. I’d just discovered it and was running out from the kitchen to stop anyone from eating, when Thomas started choking. I guess the shock and fire in his mouth made him aspirate a chunk of pork and he heard the angels singing his name, calling him up.
So, now here I was, thirty-six hours later, in the Borden cemetery in the middle of the night, shifting graves around. Homer and I’d snuck into the funeral chapel and broken Thomas out. A couple of well placed kicks took care of the door.
The only thing I could think of was to bury him in the Chinese cemetery and to move around enough graves so the authorities couldn’t figure out which one he was in. Thomas had told me about this place. He’d come and done some research on some of the gravestone names, to see if he could offer some translation to help find families in China.
Five hours later the sun peeked over the Sierra Nevada range in the east and I sent Homer on his way. I finished shoveling the last of the dirt over Thomas, except he was under a stone that belonged to Cho Hung. Most of those buried in the 19th century were later moved and returned to their villages in China. If no hometown could be found, they stayed. There were still seven old stones and about twice that many graves.
I hoped that bought me enough time to blow the Central Valley. I always wanted to see Portland. Maybe I would head north.
I loaded the shovels in the bed of my pickup and headed back to The Java Well. A Chevy Malibu sat in front of the shop. As I unlocked the front door, some Asian people got out, an elderly couple and a kid in his twenties, and approached me.
“Mr. Coyle?” the kid asked.
“Yes?” I stopped with the key in the lock.
“I am Jonathan, Thomas Lee’s cousin. I have brought his parents.”
I faced the couple who were blinking back tears. They made slight bows which I returned. “I am so sorry for your loss.”
The kid translated in rapid Mandarin and paused as the man replied.
“My great-uncle wishes to ask about his son’s death.”
Just what I was afraid of. “Of course,” I said. “Let’s go inside.” I held the door open for them to enter, then followed, switching on the lights.
“Our family would like to hear about his last day.” The kid seemed to be the spokesman.
“Have a seat.” I indicated the overstuffed chairs in the corner. “Would you like coffee?”
I waited for the translations and the head shakes. “No, thank you. Please just tell us about Wu Sing.”
“Excuse me. Thomas.”
“Oh sure. He came in most days for coffee and a muffin. But Monday, he was running late and got here about lunch time. I has made Moo Shoo pork and he decided to have some. As he was eating, he choked. We tried CPR and everything.” Thanks to Cell Phone Spice, that was true. “It was no use.”
Another pause full of gibberish I didn’t understand. They spoke for a few minutes.
Then I saw a sheriff’s department car pull into the lot and park by my Tacoma.
The door opened. “Larry, what were you thinking?” asked Deputy Don Robbins, a regular at Java Well.
“Hey, Don.” I couldn’t read his voice, if he was in official mode or just being friendly.
“You ever hear of surveillance cameras?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.” Definitely official.
“Where’s the body?” He rattled his handcuffs as he asked.
No sense in trying to bluff my way out if they got us on tape, sneaking Thomas out of the mortuary. “I wanted to give him a decent burial.”
“Are you his executor? Do you get to make those decisions?”
I shook my head. “These are his parents. Please tell them this is Deputy Robbins who helped try to save Thomas,” I said to Jonathan.
He obliging made the introductions and paused as they told him something.
“They would like to know the details of Thomas’s final day. What did he eat? Did he say anything?”
“Don?” I raised my eyebrows as I asked his permission.
He shrugged. “Go ahead.”
“He was eating the pork, he choked and tried to talk, then he collapsed.”
The parents dabbed at their eyes as Jonathan repeated it.
“Okay, Larry. Enough of this UN summit. Where is Thomas?”
The jig was up. “In Borden cemetery.”
“You dug a new grave?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Excuse me,” Jonathan said, looking from Don to me in confusion. “We have one more question. You said Wu Sing tried to talk. What did he say?”
“It sounded like Mu Zhun.”
The parents looked up at that.
“He was eating Moo Shoo pork, so I think he was saying he choked on it.”
Don was shaking his head. “Coroner says he didn’t choke.”
I stared at him. “Sure he did. I was right here.”
“If he choked, he couldn’t talk. It was his heart.”
The old folks started jabbering as Don kept talking about infarctions and heart disease.
Then another voice joined the fray. “Larry!”
I looked behind me to see Homer come in from the kitchen. “What are you doing here?”
“I felt bad, about Thomas and all. So I came to make some more Moo Shoo Pork. Look, Larry.” He held up two boxes, one marked Cayenne Pepper, the other Paprika. “The pepper is full. I used paprika. It’s not hot. We didn’t kill him.”
Jonathan’s voice had the next loudest volume. “But mu zhun isn’t moo shoo, it’s graveyard.”
Don and I froze and turn toward Jonathan. “Say that again,” I said.
“Why would Wu Sing talk about a graveyard?” Jonathan asked.
The weight that had been bearing down on me for the last day and a half sprouted wings and got ready to fly off. “There’s a local Chinese cemetery that Thomas liked to visit.”
“Ahh.” Jonathan repeated this to his aunt and uncle who looked at me.
I nodded. “Yes. I buried Thomas there.”
Don laughed. “I don’t believe this. You knew Thomas wanted to buried there and that’s why you busted him out of the funeral home?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry I didn’t wait to get official permission, but I felt bad since Thomas died here. I wanted to honor his wishes as quickly as I could.”
“Sure you did.” Don looked from me to the Lees. “Do you wish to press charges against Mr. Coyle for stealing your son’s body?”
Another pause while Jonathan repeated everything, but I didn’t have to hear his version of their answer. Their hugs and tears told me I was in the clear.
Homer wrapped us all in a group hug. “We didn’t kill Thomas. But Larry, do we have to shift the bod—” He stopped talking as the breath left his lungs. Might have had something to do with the elbow I shoved in his solar plexus.
Don looked at us quizzically, but nodded as he listened to the Lees, all three of them, talking at once.
I finally broke away and moved behind the counter. I fixed the first pot of coffee for the day. And thought about the Moo Shoo pork I’d be making for lunch.