“Sara is so nice. I just love that about her.”
“I like Lauren because she’s sweet.”
“I’ve never heard Chloe say a mean thing to anyone.”
I sat in the middle of a large classroom in a wooden fold-down chair. The floor sloped sharply downward toward the front of the room like the sale barn back home, where cattle are auctioned. But instead of crusty farmers in overalls, the seats were filled with college-age girls who were playing an ice-breaker game rather than bidding on cattle. The rules for this particular game were simple: say something nice about the person sitting beside you.
Adjectives whirled around the room. Sitting there, I was happy to hear that everyone in the room was so nice. But with the abundance of sweetness around me, I felt a little worried that I didn’t measure up on the nice-o-meter. Like it or not, I had a past.
My mind drifted back a summer or two to a little building weathered by glaring sunshine called the laundry shack, which was my personal headquarters. As a housekeeper at a guest ranch, I spent a fair amount of one-on-one time with this particular corner of the ranch. Folding towels, wrestling bedspreads into bins, pairing pillowcases—all of the guest linens on the ranch crossed my folding table. I was the primary agent assigned to mediate between dirty laundry and clean—without commingling the two. Weighted down with such responsibility, I took my role as laundry rep seriously. I may have even shown a proclivity for the role—not to brag, of course.
One day in the golden month of September, I climbed the hill to the laundry shack and waved at a dusty blue Subaru that passed me on the road, its tires kicking up dust that settled around me like a fine layer of pixie dust. I entered the door with the sign overhead that read ‘Ranch Laundry.’ Plastic bins filled floor-to-ceiling shelves. Two washing machines waited against the wall, their jiggling spin cycles motionless for the time being. In the corner, an industrial-size dryer brooded in its coat of purple paint.
I pulled open the round door of a washing machine and dragged out a limp load of wet towels. Crossing four or five paces to the dryer, I tugged open the door to drop the towels inside—only to discover a load of jeans and shirts waiting for their owner’s return. From the dryer’s cool temperature and the load’s wrinkled appearance, I gathered that the laundry had been left overnight.
I sighed, shifting the heavy load of towels in my arms. I shared my laundry headquarters with co-workers—ranch hands, horse wranglers, kitchen staff, etc. Occasionally, their laundry needs conflicted with mine. An excess of staff laundry could frustrate the most patient of laundry reps. However, being the face of my department (and a good co-worker), I typically responded with all the Christian patience and grace I possessed.
But on this particular occasion, my patience seemed to have taken a vacation and left me behind to figure out life on my own. My conclusion was simple: abandoned laundry signifies neglect; it’s a sight that saddens the heart of every good housekeeper. Believe me, we see our share of forsaken socks—couples divided, families broken.
Inspecting the left-behind laundry, I realized who the owner was—a ranch hand who worked for Maintenance with a permanent layer of mud plastered to his pantlegs from the knee down. The leftover stains of mud on the abandoned jeans gave their owner away. I realized something else, too. This co-worker had gone on a trip with friends—setting off on a daytrip in the dusty blue Subaru that passed me minutes earlier.
And then I had an idea—just the seed of one, really. I bundled the clothes into a plastic bag before going about my work. And the idea grew. After a morning of housekeeping, the plan had formed. I clocked out for lunch, ready to begin my work.
Sketching a map in my mind, I jotted down poems—just scraps of rhyme and sing-song riddles. The first clue read something like: Your shirts are found / Where chickens nest. / Find the clues / To find the rest.
Don’t judge; I was a housekeeper, not a poet. After the riddles were written on scraps of notebook paper, I bustled around the ranch with my clues and the plastic bag of clothes over my shoulder. This was per usual. I wandered around the ranch every day, carrying bags of laundry, clipboards, and random spray bottles of cleaning solution.
But on this day, my pulse beat a bit faster than usual as I casually tucked t-shirts in the egg-laying boxes in the hen house, one for each box. I made numerous stops, putting a pillowcase here, a pair of jeans there, socks in the monopoly box, a t-shirt between Barrett and Browning in the library. The clues ultimately led back to the laundry shack, where I stashed the rest of the clothes in a spare bin—the treasure at the end of the hunt. For the seeker, the quest for the lost clothes would be long and tangled, a trek of backtracks and U-turns.
Now, sitting in the classroom, I laughed softly, remembering when the blue Subaru had returned and news of the prank traveled around the ranch faster than fresh cookies can find willing takers. I smiled, recalling the laughter of my good-natured co-worker and his note written in Sharpie that promised “never to forget his laundry again.”
As the game in the classroom continued and the glowing, cookie-cutter adjectives flowed around me, I couldn’t help but think that the girls around me were far more complex than the descriptions implied. Sure, I could assume they were sweet girls, and I’d be right—most of the time. But I wondered what stories they could tell. Perhaps all of us were a little less nice and a little more interesting than we would like to admit.