I need a place. Just one room. I prefer furnished. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is Chinatown, Las Vegas.
Looking on Craigslist I find an ad for a furnished room. I want to live within walking distance of Asian food, neon foot massage signs, and the angry faces of smoking Chinamen.
The ad says to call May.
I dial. No answer. I leave a short, polite message inquiring about the furnished room. I say I’m an interested party and not much else.
A few hours later I get a call back from a Chinese woman. She sounds confident, mysterious. I imagine my phone quickly filling with incense. “Hi, this is May. You interested in room?”
“Yes, a furnished room.”
“You want two bedrooms? I have two bedrooms.”
“Just one. In Chinatown.”
“Ohh. Chinatown. Why you want room?”
This is the second time in two days someone has asked me why I want a room. The day before, a woman named Mindy was on the other end of the phone and said the same exact words. Her voice was distrustful, disinterested.
“Because I need a place,” I said to Mindy.
“Speak up. I can’t hear you. Will you speak up?”
Mindy hung up. I leaned back in my office chair and wondered if anyone overheard my call come to an abrupt end.
Now May hangs on the other end of the phone waiting in anticipation for me to answer. I feel that whatever I say will be part of a mysterious puzzle of locks hiding treasure beneath the Forbidden City. “I just moved here,” I say.
“Ohh. You just moved here.”
“I want to live in Chinatown,” I say again.
“Ohh.” Every time she says this I hear her voice trail off, hiding five other sentences. “I have a place not far from there. You catch bus. Close to Chinatown. Ok? Where you work?”
I tell her I work for a radio station.
“Where you come from?”
“California. I’m in Las Vegas now. I live with a DJ.”
She explains the rent, says that doubling it is what it would take to move in. “You like that? Ok?” she asks. I imagine May in a slinky Asian dress talking into an old rotary phone. The smoke-filled room casts shadows on her aged face. “When you want to move in?”
“As soon as possible.”
“Can I see it tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow. Tomorrow… Listen, I will give you number. You ask for May Wong. May. She no good English. You speak very slowly. She meet you there.”
“But your name is May.”
“She another May. You call her. You show up. She show it to you. But speak slowly. She no good English. I call her right now.”
I get off the phone, wait a few minutes and call the second May.
“Yes?” There is an uncomfortable moment.
“Yes.” There is another silence. “See house?”
The home is just around the corner from a mansion with an amazing horse statue guarding a giant metal gate. The streets are wide, quiet, with big single-story homes and half-circle desert landscape driveways that probably look like emoticons when one’s peering at them from the sky.
John is with me. He’s the DJ. He carries a blue bag filled with work papers and notebooks. “You don’t mind if I tag along for the walk through?” he asks.
I’m all for sharing the adventure. We soon wait outside for May Wong to show up in a Mercedes. I ring the doorbell. It’s loud, a “ding dong” fit for a castle. I step back. No one answers though two cars are parked on the side of the house. The front doors have two different colored locks: one silver, one brass. Both wooden doors look like they’ve been dragged through gravel pits and rail yards.
Ten minutes later May Wong calls. “See house?” she says.
“Three minutes.” She hangs up.
“She’s going to be rolling up in that Mercedes any minute,” John says.
Down the street I see a tiny red hatchback that looks like a Smart Car. It pulls in. May can barely see over the steering wheel. She scoots it into the shade beneath a seventy-foot-tall pine tree.
“I should have taken that shade,” John complains as we watch the car roll to a stop and tiny May Wong step out. She carries a green handbag and a little pink coin purse with cartoon characters on it. She pulls out a set of keys.
“Hi May,” I say. She ignores me and walks to the double doors. She fumbles with the keys and the silver lock for a good thirty seconds before finally pushing open the left door.
John and I follow her into a dark foyer. Off to our left is an extravagant living room filled with statues and paintings. One of the statues is missing a head. I scan quickly for old wooden chests and gaudy birdcages filled with gremlins. She bypasses the room and takes us past a living room that has a giant TV, couches and a coffee table covered in newspapers and magazines. We step into a hallway. Its walls are covered with photos and paintings. It’s alongside a kitchen where a huge rice cooker and three blenders sit on the counter. I wonder if any of them work.
May continues down the hallway. She stops, turns and gives a half smile and motions to a door. She fumbles with the lock and can’t get it to work. Walking away from the door she heads further down the hallway and looks around a corner and starts talking to someone. “Kevin,” she says then immediately starts talking in Chinese. She disappears around the corner but I can hear them talking.
Kevin’s voice is sleepy. He’s in a room and has been woken up. He says something in Chinese to May.
I look back at John who is far down the hallway behind me. He’s taking photos of pictures on the wall.
May appears from around the corner and motions to another door. She opens it and I step inside a tiny furnished room. There’s a big window with a view of the back yard. I gaze toward a yellowing weed-covered lot and an empty cement swimming pool. A faded blue diving board looks brittle in the heat.
“You like?” May says.
“Sure,” I say.
May then shows me a laundry room, a garage and then a bathroom obviously occupied with Kevin’s things. It’s a mess of bottles. Towels lay piled on the floor.
I wonder if there are rooms at the other end of the hallway. “You have other rooms?” I ask.
May gives me a curious look but shuffles down the hallway to the other end where there is a clean bathroom. There are also two doors. One has a lock on a brass handle. She opens it. It looks just like the other room she showed me. I’m happy it’s far from Kevin for some reason.
“You like?” she asks.
I look at the other door. There are combination lock dials on it. “Who lives there?”
“Mimi Lin,” May says.
“Ohh,” I say.
She leads me back down the hall, past black and white photos of a Chinese woman. The photos look old, from the Fifties. The woman in them wears cat eye glasses. Her hair is shoulder length. There is a mysterious gaze in her eyes.
“You like?” May looks at me curiously. Her stare is long, almost pleading.
“You mean do I want to move in?”
“I have to think about it.”
“You call Mimi Lin.”
“Who is Mimi Lin?”
She points back down the hallway to the room with the combination locks.
“Is she the owner?”
“Yes. You call.”
“What’s her number?”
She can’t say the numbers but shows me her phone. I see Chinese characters. I see my phone number. I’m one of the only two people May Wong has spoken to in the past two days according to her phone list.
I write down the number she says belongs to Mimi Lin. There is something fishy about it. Something familiar.
That night I get a call. It’s from the number. I don’t answer. I realize I’ve gotten calls from this number before. I listen to a phone message. “Hi, this is May.” It’s the first May. The old mysterious May. She doesn’t call herself Mimi Lin, though it’s the number May Wong gave me for her. “Do you like the house May Wong showed you yesterday? Please give me a call. Thank you.”
I hang up in wonder. Is Mimi Lin, the woman behind the mysterious combination locks, really May?
That night I take a walk down Spring Valley Parkway, and then onto South Rainbow. As I head past Ravenwood Park I decide to call Kike. She’s my mysterious Chinese friend whose old piano teacher died from a heart attack after a lesson one day. She was blamed for putting a curse on the teacher. She claims her grandfather’s ghost regularly visits at night to tickle her feet. She lives with a gypsy.
She often assists me in making crucial life decisions.
We make small talk as I walk down the burning streets of west Las Vegas before I finally bring up the possibility of living in Mimi Lin’s house.
“We all have choices,” Kike says.
“There was a decapitated statue in her house,” I add.
“Ohh. Then you have to beware of what you’re getting yourself into. Sometimes a normal home can be one of sacrifice and spirits.”
Kike lets out a breath. I turn up the volume on my phone. “Let me tell you a story. I don’t like to remember this. When I was seventeen years old I was very sick. My family drove me to a home in Long Beach. I didn’t know why I was there. While I sat waiting, a witchdoctor suddenly brought forth a white chicken and a big empty tin, like a popcorn tin you might get for Christmas. The witchdoctor had a knife. Anyway, in a twisting motion he cut the head off the chicken.
“He drained its blood into the tin and added some ashes. Then he took toothpicks and jammed them under my fingernails. He pulled them out and squeezed my blood into the tin to mix with that of the chicken. He spit into it too. Then he poured in some alcohol and set it on fire to release the evil spirits as well as commit the sacrifice in exchange for those evil spirits sickening me.
“Then it was time for me to be renewed. Cleansed. He then grabbed a water bottle. There was no fancy container. Water is water until you bless it. Then it becomes holy. He poured out some into a cup. He blessed it and spit in it. I was terrified. But he held out the cup. Everyone looked at me. And so I had to drink it. I gagged. I wanted to throw up. But I knew they would have just made me drink more. So, I held the cup and drank.”
I soon get off the phone with Kike and continue my walk. I think about a friend at the Cannibal Islands who told me about meeting an old woman hanging laundry. The old woman revealed a story about a criminal getting eaten by those who discovered his crime. I’m thousands of miles away, but I wonder about that sacrifice cleansing an entire island. I think about Kike’s bleeding fingers, the chicken’s stained feathers and Mimi Lin’s statues. I think about her locked door and the photos on her walls.
I look toward the edge of the city into a pink dusk and a rainbow of desert mountains along Red Rock Canyon that jut above rooftops.
Later, walking through the darkness I wonder why I am even in Las Vegas as I continue to ignore calls from Mimi Lin.