"The Potato Scrubber" by Kate Chandler

Sandy prepared to cook a big Thanksgiving dinner that would feature an array of spuds— Yukon, Gold, Russet. She prided herself in her ability to pick potatoes, secretly believing the good ones smiled at her. She had carrots to throw in, as well as the yams and sweet potatoes. They all needed cleaning. She intended to use a scrubber with plastic bristles sticking out from clay and shaped like the crown of a potato. Bland and ill-nourished with two eyes like small unappealing dimples, if it had been a potato, it was the kind she wouldn’t have picked at the market. On the side of the scrubber was the familiar label “Made in China.”

When she first started scrubbing, the brush worked well. The dirt came off with ease. When she got to the sixth potato, the bristles began to part down the middle; they were no longer perpendicular, standing alert like soldiers. Although she worked harder and harder, less and less dirt fell away. She was frantic—she had so many potatoes and needed to get the turkey going. This year she was hosting the family reunion.

Her father was very particular about his potatoes, but, luckily, her husband was usually four sheets to the wind by dinnertime. The kids liked them mashed. She had four boys and a girl who couldn’t be counted on to help much.

Glancing at the wall clock, she scrubbed harder and harder, faster and faster until she lost control of the brush. It flew to the side of the sink, splintering into two parts.

“Darn these cheap things,” she muttered. The misbegotten potato head had broken away from the plastic bristles. On the underside of the head—the part that had not been visible when attached to the bristles—there was a crevice carved out. It held a tiny note.

She couldn’t decipher the characters but assumed they were Chinese. The ink looked dark; it was red and crumbly. When her husband poked in to see how things were progressing, she stuck the note in her apron pocket so she wouldn’t lose it.

A week later, she came upon the message after finishing her dinner dishes. She thought and thought but didn’t know anyone Chinese who might help translate. She lit on the idea that in the next town there was a Chinese restaurant where she had eaten when one of her cousins had visited. She hurried out the next afternoon before her husband returned from work. It was the busy time at Chang-King, and no one seemed to want to look at her note. Finally, she got the attention of the hostess, who looked annoyed.

“This is not my language,” she said. “I speak Cantonese, but this is a different. Might not be even Mandarin.”

Sandy went home, feeling uneasy about the scrubber and the note. Her husband put the severed scrubber parts in the garbage, and for some reason, she took them out of the bin. After that, she decided to forget about it.

A month later she found herself taking a train to the nearest university. It had a small Chinese language department. She had never gone to college and so walked into the building holding herself closely, with the broken scrubber and note deep in her purse.

A woman professor by the name of Dr. Ming greeted her cordially. Inside the professor’s office, there were books and strange ancient tomes. Sandy felt silly when she explained about her tucked scrubber and was about to excuse herself when Dr. Ming took the little note from her, studying it for a long time. How could so few symbols need so much work? Dr. Ming took down several books and with her head bowed over them took prodigious notes. At the same time, she asked Sandy a lot of questions about her family, her parents, her children.

Then Dr. Ming talked non-stop about her own children, their progress in school, how much they liked to travel, their secret games, her own education, her love of orchids and tulips. She talked and talked until Sandy was dizzy. She even stood up and brushed the pleats of her skirt straight, and, from another room, she brought in a tray with a pot and two teacups. It was getting late, and Sandy thought it best to leave this odd woman and catch the last train home. Sandy asked once and for all about the note. Still Dr. Ming talked and talked of other things. Then at the end of a long line of words, she hesitated.

“I don’t think I should tell you.”

“I came all this way to find out. Please, just tell me.”

Dr. Ming lay the note out against her blotter. She took the tip of her pencil and guided it along the symbols and spelled out: “I am slave. Whoever finds this is guilty. The crimes you don’t know are your own. Whoever finds this shall be cursed.”

Dr. Ming said gently, “It probably wasn’t meant for you.”

“What does it mean?” Sandy didn’t know whether to pick up the note or not. She felt as though she had been hit in the chest. It was meant for her.

When her husband asked Sandy where she had been, she told him as best she could. He scoffed but asked what the note said. She was about to tell him, when she bit her tongue so deeply that the gash bled for hours, and she couldn’t speak.

“Forgot about it” he said. “Just remember it was the best Thanksgiving ever.”

Born and raised in a staid bedroom community near Chicago, Kate Chandler was lucky, early on, to move to the diverse and chaotic, Los Angeles, where she attended law school and continue to practice. Her recently completed first novel, Misconception, centers on a court reporter, living a second-hand life, sleeping with someone else’s husband, who begins to use her transcription equipment not simply to copy but to record the experiences of her own life. In addition, Kate has written several award-winning screen and teleplays and published a story in Common Lives.

3 Comments

  1. Bob Hampel

    Admirably concise story–powerful ending!

    Reply
  2. M. Seeman

    Incisive and witty- like a Maupassant tale.

    Reply
  3. Joe

    Could use more fact-checking about Chinese, especially the differences between spoken and written Chinese. It’s true that a Cantonese speaker may not understand Mandarin, but the underlying written system should be understandable.

    Reply

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