Karl’s mobile home had a peculiar odor, of damp carpets scented with week-old macaroni and cheese, partially caused by the swamp cooler exhaling dank breaths into his dark trailer and partially caused by actual macaroni and cheese. It was an older trailer, with deep shag carpets made especially for smell retention. Whoever had it before Karl had been a smoker and the yellowed drapes and wood paneling both smelled of the ghost of smoke. But Karl had a shower, so Mom made it a point to be friends with him. I have a feeling he couldn’t believe his luck. We’d left Dad next to a smoking campfire somewhere in northern Arizona, with his SKS rifle and a bag of clothes. He’d told us to go ahead and leave him, get the fuck out. So we had. It was the first time we had really left him for longer than a day or two.
Already I was feeling the faint sense of escape, of hope. Mom had called Granny and told her we’d finally left Ed, and Granny was so relieved she loaned her the money to buy a trailer. A retired Canadian couple who were done with the open road sadly sold Mom their Airstream for $6,000. They were happy to be giving us a home, but they had cared for their trailer well and you could tell they had filled it with love. The man had cut little desert shapes from pieces of plywood and used it to decorate the overhead bins, the Airstream bins built like the ones over your seat in an airplane. The cactus was a little off, and the coyote was out of proportion, but he had spent time on his artwork and we never took them down. When the check came in the mail, Mom let each of us hold it. We looked at all the zeros after the dollar sign and held the paper reverently, knowing we would never see such a sight again.
In less than a month, Mom had gotten us a home, moved us into a trailer park in Needles, California, and enrolled Rowdy and me in public school. She stayed home with the two little ones, but she was looking for a job to augment the government support. We had lived in a car for long enough, with all six of us, and the freedom of the space in the trailer to stretch out at night, the electricity that gave us fans to use in the heat, all of it was almost too much. I was afraid to enjoy it, afraid every minute that it would all be snatched away and Dad would be back and sell it all and take us into the middle of nowhere again. I developed a Dad-crush on my 6th grade teacher, in the school that I could walk to from where we lived. We lived somewhere! I was going to school! At that age all I wanted was to be normal, to have friends, to stay in one place long enough to finish a whole grade. I knew we were not normal, and then there was everyone else. People with homes, and normal families, and parents with jobs, and kids with their own rooms. That was my biggest dream, a room where I could close the door and not have to smell my brothers’ farts and where I could hang my drawings on the wall. Where I might have a quiet place to read, and to write.
My homeroom teacher, Mr. Kincaid, was so kind, and he talked to us like we were human instead of bugs bothering him, the way conversations with Dad had gotten to be. Dad must have been itching to get away from us, the responsibility and the daily nagging concerns of this big family in this small space crumbling his self-control. It showed in his snappishness, his anger, his escalating drinking. He was accusing Mom of wanting to cheat on him, of wanting other guys, of looking at other people, though she was always with us and he was the one who came home late from the bar or never came home at all, showing up in the morning with red lipstick stains on his collar and laughing when Mom asked him about it.
Mr. Kincaid was smiley, and had a short well-groomed dark beard. He looked like a kind of man I didn’t know, a new kind of man and it was a revelation to see how he treated people. All men were not mean. It didn’t have to not be manly to be kind. Until then I had taken for granted that men were gruff, and hard, and stern, and men did what they wanted when they wanted and didn’t take no shit from nobody. Mr. Kincaid seemed like he might take some shit, and then he might sit you down to talk about it instead of beating your ass with a leather belt. I wasn’t sure that this would work with boys, who everyone knew could get out of control, but I thought it was a novel approach and might work with girls.
I made a friend, too, a strange gawky girl named Annie who was a Mormon and who lived in the trailer park next to ours. They lived in a nice trailer, one that was mounted to the ground and had a patio outside and that didn’t even look like a trailer. It could have been a house. Plus, she had her own room.
All I knew about Mormons was that they had a weird religion, and that there were a lot of them in Utah. I knew they hired retarded people, because we would go through Salt Lake City sometimes and all the stores had people working in them with Down’s syndrome or crippled legs. I knew they were nice, because they gave Dad a job last time we had gone through, and then they let us go into their huge store filled with food and new clothes and we got to pick what we wanted. There were big semi transport trailers outside that said “Deseret Industries” which I thought was fitting. We were from the desert, and they were helping us to start a new life, they said. I think Dad lasted a week there, and my hopes for that new life faded, the way I was used to hope fading. Quick, as if it had never been.
Karl was a strange bird. He might have been in love with Mom, too. I hadn’t noticed how many men loved Mom until Dan in Oregon. Dan had loved Mom so much Theresa and him had broken up. I thought it was strange. I had not paid much attention to the relationship between men and women, knowing I was not attractive and that it would be years before I had to worry about it. I read enough adult literature to know about it secondhand, and had no wish to complicate my life prematurely. But my mother’s attractiveness had escaped my notice. I saw a tired woman who wore no makeup and had worn thrift store clothes like the rest of us. I didn’t see the blonde, birdlike beauty who gave off the scent of “needing protection” though she had powered through life and come out stronger than most of the men who loved her.
One day Rowdy was riding his new-ish bike one-handed, a paper airplane tied on a string trailing next to him in the hot breeze of Needles. He was prone to focus on things to the point of forgetting everything else, even simple things like “Look where you’re going.” He looked up just in time to watch himself crash over the handlebars into a wooden post, the ones that told you what number your space was in the trailer park.
“Rowly!! Rowly! Mary, come quick Rowly is hurt!” We heard Karl howling outside, and Mom rushed out to find her oldest son with blood gushing down the side of his face. It wasn’t the first time, but it might have been the worst. Karl held his soft hands to the sides of his head, shaking it like a befuddled dog. His long hair and beard were tangled, because he didn’t have a woman to tell him to brush it. Mom could have told him, but that might have been too much like a relationship.
Rowly eventually stopped bleeding, and we didn’t go to the hospital because that cost too much money. Rowdy still remembers this, and will tell the story occasionally. “Mom, remember Rowly’s Hurt?” he will ask. And we will all laugh, and nod, and we will all say “Rowly.”