“I am deluxe.”
She smiled broadly, and her eyes half closed. They reminded me of cobalt thiocyanate, the chemical dealers use to test the purity of cocaine. The higher quality the drug, the brighter the blue. Pen’s eyes were at least 90 percent pure.
“Did you speak to your husband about what happened yesterday?”
“I did. Steve thinks it was a case of mistaken identity, some hophead confusing me with his ex-girlfriend, but he says I should keep a cautious eye out for junky-looking pickup trucks.”
That didn’t sound any more logical to me than a kidnapping attempt, but I said, “Wise advice,” and let it slide.
“Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?”
“Thank you, but—actually, I was hoping you could come out with me, perhaps show me around Hilltop while we chat. For my story.”
“I need to tell you, Jake, you really should speak to someone like Ruth Schramm. I haven’t been here that long.”
“I will talk to Ruth, but I wanted to chat with you because you haven’t been here for that long.”
“Let me get my bag.”
I felt a sudden jolt of excitement then, like she had just agreed to an offer of dinner and a movie.
Pen appeared a moment later with a bag slung over her shoulder that was big enough to tote New Zealand. She didn’t bother locking the door when she left the trailer, and I mentioned it to her.
“Isn’t that cool?” she said.
I flashed on the kidnapping attempt but said nothing.
In the bright morning sunlight, Pen looked like a midwestern farm girl. She wore a white blouse knotted under her breasts, blue shorts, and sandals. She had golden hair, a smooth, outdoorsy complexion complete with freckles, and a healthy figure, and she smelled a little like the autumn leaves we used to burn in the backyard before the state made it illegal—a delicious scent, both arid and sweet. I felt as if I were committing four of the seven deadly sins just by walking with her.
We strolled along 47th Avenue, turned south, turned again. I was already lost, but Pen moved with the assurance of a native, swinging her arms buoyantly. I carried a Bic and a small spiral notebook that I pretended occasionally to write in.
Pen said, “None of my friends back home can believe I’m living in a trailer park.” She laughed as if she also found the idea ridiculous. “I’m trailer trash.” She laughed some more. “I nearly killed Steve when he installed us here. I wanted a house. I figured if they were going to make us move to Minnesota, at least we could live in a house. But Steve said it was only a temporary assignment, so … Anyway, I really like it now—trailer living. It’s really not all that different from living in an apartment.”
I edged Pen toward the side of the lane to make room for a white van with the name of a cable TV company emblazoned on the side. I pretended not to recognize the driver as the van moved slowly past, and he pretended not to recognize me.
“We used to live in New York, Steve and I, in a crowded apartment building in the middle of the city. Five years we were there and I didn’t know any of the neighbors, which is both amazing and kind of disturbing, if you know what I mean. I’ve been here for just under five months and I know everyone. A more interesting and truly eccentric group you’ll never find. I love them all.” Laughter. “I fit in real well.” Then more laughter. It made me want to laugh, too, even though I didn’t get the joke.
Under Pen’s laughter I could hear the music of Bob Dylan. She heard it, too.
“This guy.” Pen gestured at a periwinkle-colored trailer as we passed. “His name is Jerry, and he loves, I mean loves, Bob Dylan. I love him, too, but c’mon. Jerry plays Dylan’s music 24/7. I am not exaggerating. Walk by at four in the morning and you’ll hear it. And this guy”—Pen found another trailer—“he says his name is Shaka, and he claims to be the hereditary king of the Zulu nation forced into exile by an evil uncle who usurped his father’s throne.”
“That’s what he says, only he speaks with a Creole accent. I’ll tell you something else. He makes a shrimp étouffée that’s to die for.”
We continued down the lane. The bicycle of a small child had fallen off its kickstand and was resting on the asphalt. Pen righted the bike and wheeled it out of harm’s way as if it were the most natural thing in the world.