Forty-seventh Avenue came to an abrupt and unannounced dead end against a high chain-link fence. I muscled the Neon around with a series of tight Y-turns until I faced the open street again and silenced the engine.
“You live in an area your entire life and you think you know it,” I said aloud.
The city of Hilltop was little more than a glorified trailer park measuring half a mile long and two-tenths of a mile wide and surrounded on all four sides by the city of Columbia Heights. It wasn’t even on the map. I had to seek help from the St. Paul Public Library to find it.
“How is this possible?” I had asked the librarian after she showed me the tiny city’s location. She directed me to an article that had appeared in a decade-old edition of Trailer Park magazine.
According to the article, in 1956 the residents of two independent trailer parks located on the edge of Columbia Heights asked that they be annexed into the city. Columbia Heights refused. So, the residents voted to incorporate and created their own city, called “Hilltop.” Meanwhile, Columbia Heights, fearful that this “junkyard for people”—that was quote from the article—would spread, purchased all the property surrounding Hilltop, effectively stunting its growth.
“The things you learn in a library,” I said when I read this.
“That’s just magazines,” the librarian told me. “Wait until you’re introduced to books.”
You gotta love a sarcastic librarian.
Hilltop wasn’t easy to find. There were no signs announcing where it began and where it ended. Eventually, I located it on the west side of Central Avenue NE between 45th and 49th Avenues behind two strip malls. Like Columbia Heights, it was a working-class community, a place with more picnic tables than patios, where you’re more apt to see kids running through sprinklers than swimming in pools.
I couldn’t tell which trailer belonged to Penelope Glass from my vehicle, so I left the Neon and began walking along 47th. It seemed more like an alley than a street, barely wide enough for two cars to pass. I tried to match the addresses on the roadside mailboxes to the trailers. Many of the boxes were hand-decorated, and homemade signs bearing the names of the owners were hung next to some front doors along with American flags. The trailers themselves all seemed to be pretty much the same size but came in an assortment of colors, most of them pastel. The narrow gaps between them were filled with grills, plastic picnic tables, tiny sheds, children’s playthings, carports, and small gardens guarded by trolls.
There was activity—a little girl played jacks, an old man walked a St. Bernard, a trio of women of a certain age performed tai chi exercises, a woman dressed in black chino shorts and a pink tank top carried a blue recyclables bin to the curb. The woman in the tank top waved at the man with the St. Bernard and disappeared into a sparkling white trailer with maroon trim and shutters. I was just passing it when she reappeared carrying a Cub Foods grocery bag filled with discarded newspapers and mail and set it next to the recyclables bin. Her legs were long and lithesome, and her hair was sun-drenched blonde. She reminded me a little of Shelby, and like Shelby she was nearing the age when she would be considered at the high end of Cosmopolitan’s target audience. She fit the description I bought from Driver and Vehicles Services, but I was still confused by the addresses and wasn’t ready to identify her as Penelope Glass. I noticed an empty carport next to her trailer as I strolled past. If she was Penelope, where was her yellow Mustang? Where was the man who was driving it? I kept walking.
The system of addresses began to make sense to me, and I soon realized that the trailer belonging to Penelope Glass was behind me. I turned around. The three older women practicing tai chi had dispersed. One of them was now chatting with the woman in the pink tank—Penelope, I decided. It had to be.
How are you going to make this work? I wondered. How are you going to get this woman to identify the man who was driving her car without tipping your hand?
It seemed impossible. But like Mr. Tierney used to say, “Half the battle is showing up.” Just as I started walking toward the two women, a rusted pickup truck accelerated down the street. It hit a massive speed bump, bounced up and down on worn springs, and drove past me without reducing speed. It came to a sudden and noisy stop in front of the two women. The driver’s door flew open. A man, tall and thin, dressed in dirty jeans, jumped out from behind the steering wheel. He shoved the older woman to the ground and made a grab for Penelope.
I was already on my horse, sprinting toward them.
Penelope shouted, “Let go!” as the man dragged her toward the truck.