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The way the old lady looked at Mom and me, it was like we were buying Buckingham Palace from her, not a 1992-model Regency Northland mobile home.
Snooty wasn’t the word. Her red-smeared lips kept tightening up and her eyes twitched like she was scared of something. A disease, maybe, or invisible germs that might seep out from our trailer trash breath and settle like toxic dew on her white vinyl sofa and chairs.
‘Now this here’s the master bedroom.’ The old lady’s butt wobbled as she tiptoed down the narrow hallway. She wasn’t fat, but underneath her thin polyester shorts, her skin hung down like lumpy oatmeal off a wooden spoon.
‘The master bedroom,’ Mom echoed, raising an eyebrow the way she did when she was making a joke that was for just the two of us. ‘Sounds like my mother,’ she rasped, poking me in the ribs with her elbow in case I’d gone deaf. ‘Don’t she sound just like the Duchess?’
The Duchess didn’t live in a trailer park, though. The Duchess had a five-bedroom home with a two-acre lawn and a driveway longer than all the trailers in the North Country Mobile Home Community lined up end to end. Unlike Mom, the Duchess had married somebody decent my Grandpa Vernon, who gave her anything she wanted, who stuck by her through thick and thin, who’d stick with anybody he loved, no matter what.
The way he stuck with Mom, and Jesse, Cole and me. His only daughter and his only grandkids, who were all named after outlaws because our father had liked imagining he was a genuine gangster, and not just a low life who held up liquor stores with hunting knives or sawn-off shotguns.
It was Grandpa’s money that was letting us buy the old lady’s trailer. (I couldn’t stop calling it that. I was supposed to say, ‘mobile home’, or even better, ‘manufactured home’, like the old lady did.) Just like it was Grandpa’s money that kept us all together when Mom and my real dad split up, when Mom and my step-dad split up, when Mom took up with that guy who was running a call girl ring from his apartment. This time round, Grandpa’s money was helping us escape from Mom’s latest crappy boyfriend and move all the way up to Wisconsin.
The old lady’s trailer didn’t seem so bad, not as bad as the ones that we could actually afford. Most of them were like crack dens on wheels, with mildewed walls and tattered sheets hanging in the windows. This trailer didn’t smell of pee or have burn marks on the carpet. Still, the old lady’s knick-knack addiction made it hard to judge. The bedroom walls were plastered with faded pictures of her grandkids and of pets that had probably been put down years ago. She had miniature glass farm animals on her bedside table: pigs and piglets, cows with their calves, a headless rooster. On her chest of drawers there were ceramic plates commemorating the lives of famous dead people, as though Elvis Presley and Princess Diana were part of her family too.
The tiny bathroom was even worse. The vanity was cluttered up with Avon bath figurines, and there were scented candles shaped like animals perched along the sides of the tub. Mom eyeballed them all like she was looking for something nasty hidden underneath. I caught a glimpse of the two of us in the old lady’s mirror: both with long hair, frayed jeans, faded T-shirts. If I crossed my eyes a little to make things blurry, we could be identical twins. She still wore a size four, same as me. The only things that made her look thirty-nine and not fourteen like me were the lines on her face, the stains on her teeth and the colour of her hair. Hers was dyed blonde. Mine was no colour at all.
Mom found what she wanted. As soon the old lady came in, she started tutting and shaking her head. The old lady panicked and tried to smile she knew something was up.
‘I forgot to offer you ladies some coffee,’ she said, her voice all sweet, like we were her friends, like we were company now. ‘Maybe you’d care to come and take another look at the kitchen?’
‘That’s OK,’ Mom said, as she peeked behind the shower curtain like a detective on TV. ‘I think we’ve seen just about enough.’ She looked at the old lady as though she felt sorry for her. ‘That mould around the bath mat.’ Mom held out her hands and shrugged, shaking her head as if it was breaking her heart to let the old lady down.
Months later, I’d remember that lady, and how her lip trembled when Mom pointed out the mould and said that maybe the asking price $40,000 was a little bit steep for a damp-ridden used trailer. It was too much for her, being humiliated by people who were so far beneath her, but had somehow found a way to get the upper hand.
It’s weird, that. If Mom hadn’t noticed the mould and made such a big fuss about it, we wouldn’t have moved, because we wouldn’t have been able to afford the trailer. We would’ve stayed where we were, in Minnesota. So the good things that happened at Yellow Lake would never have happened. And the bad things? Who knows. Some things just can’t be stopped. Some things can’t be fixed by running away, like me and my mom were about to do.