DISMAL. That was the only word for it.
It was early spring, an abnormally beautiful and cloudless day, when I arrived, triple checking to make sure I had the house number correct. Gloom radiated from the rancid green trailer and blotted out the sun, making me regret every decision I’d made in life that had led me here. A tall, broad man with a handlebar mustache and overalls was standing by the door waiting for me. He had come all this way. It would be rude to leave now. I parked the car and dragged myself out of the seat, mustering a smile and refusing to make eye contact with the monster. The trailer, not the man. The man was quite pleasant, and I liked him almost as much as I disliked his trailer.
After a minute of small talk, he gestured to the house.
“Well, there it is.”
We both paused for effect. There it was, indeed. It was hard to argue with that, except by asking, “But should it be?”… I did, however, refrain.
He started talking about the amenities as he walked up to the front door. The trailer was 50 feet long and 10 feet wide with a rusted metal ladder by which you could climb up into the front door (which was a screen door and broken at that). He unlocked it and stepped inside, and I summoned my courage and followed.
A draft of sadness washed over me. The ghosts that lived here were not happy ones. I’m sure you’ve noticed that certain homes, or even rooms, become infused with what happens in them. Some places you step into and feel a rush of peace and happiness, while some you feel an inexplicable rush of horror, and other feel unconsolably sad. This place was filled with the latter. The very walls seemed to ooze grey and misery.
If there had been any doubt before, I was certain now. This wasn’t home. I knew that even before my foot fell through the floorboards in the hallway.
I had set out to find a place to live for two reasons. First of all, I was in desperate need of a kitchen to call my own, and second, my brother was moving to town, and we had always talked about living together someday. ‘Someday’ wasn’t going happen on its own, so I told my landlady I was moving in two months and jumped headfirst into the bottomless pit of Craigslist rentals.
However, if you know anything about the Bozeman, Montana housing market, you will understand without me telling you that it posed a great difficulty for a 20-year-old woman of low income, no college degree, and few prospects to find a decent place to live. For those who don’t know about the Bozeman housing market, if I thought it would interest you, I’d be overjoyed to elucidate (any good Bozemanite’s favorite pastime is complaining about housing and posing theories, often bordering on conspiracy, about why it is the way it is). But seeing as it likely will not interest you, suffice it to say the market was abysmally expensive.
Not only were the rental prices out of reach, but I also didn’t want a place to live. I wanted a home. I wanted it to be my home. And for a 20-year-old with low income and minimal prospects, that was presumptuous. What did I even mean by ‘home’? Was I looking for something specific? Did I want a yard with a cottonwood tree? Or 100-year-old hand-made colonial kitchen cabinets? No. I had no preferences at all. My only demand was that when I walked in the door, I wanted to instantly and irrefutably feel that this place was home.
I looked at a few apartments, but it’s hard to feel at home in someone else’s, and is the main issue with apartments to begin with. You forever feel like a guest or a traveler stopping only for the night, no matter how long you live there. If it’s not your shower-head to fix, the house loses something essential. I have a suspicion it loses its very soul. I mean, how would you feel if you were passed from one person to the next for extra cash with no overly-concerned inquiry into who they are or if they will take care of you?
Either way, I didn’t need to worry about the distinction. I couldn’t afford to rent anything. Not that I could afford to buy anything either, but my dad had a line of credit that, if we found something, I could pay off in place of rent. Even then, there were no houses that could be even half-afforded. And that led us to resort to what I considered at the time the lowest form of subsistence of all. We began to look for a trailer.
Trailers. I imagine everyone has the same opinion of them, whether we voice it out loud or not, so I won’t say anything more than that I met the realization this was to be my doom with a sick feeling of hopeless dread. I expected the worst. I expected rats and slimy walls and probably a suspicious toilet. And, truth be told, in the next couple months, I am not exaggerating when I say I did see the worst. Some trailers are the stuff of nightmares, even if you see them in broad daylight. Should you be unfortunate enough to see one at night, you have my pity and full-hearted understanding and if you like, I can recommend a good therapist.
After the rancid green trailer incident, it took me over a month to recover enough to venture into the wilds of house-hunting again, and even then, I had decided it was better if my dad came with me. That way, if we encountered anything particularly horrifying, he could go in while I stayed outside. Everyone knows that monsters such as minotaurs and cyclopes (which I was growing increasingly certain we would encounter) love to eat young women, but they don’t care for carpenters. Dad would be much more likely to survive than I.
In a whirlwind of efficiency, the day he came to town we had five or six places lined up to look at. Did you know there are mobile home realtors? It’s true. We became acquainted with one of the best, which was a good thing as he was the only one in a hundred-mile radius. With admirable patience, he spent the whole day showing us each and every place he had listed. And each and every place fell short of both our expectations. One was too expensive, one was too big, one was too small, one was too far away, and one ended up being haunted (don’t ask).
We ended the day at seven o’clock, discouraged, and no closer to our goal than when we’d started. We were standing outside the last trailer we’d looked at and the realtor was talking about the market in Bozeman, explaining how quickly things sold, and how hard it was to find affordable housing. As if we needed to be told.
“I’m sorry none of those were what you were looking for,” he said. “I can keep an eye out for new ones that come up, if you’d like.”
“Are there any you know of that might be on the market soon?” my dad asked, and likely he was thinking about knocking on their doors and making an offer to the owners directly.
“No…” the realtor sighed, hands in his pockets and staring at the sidewalk. “Well, actually, there might be one in the future.”
“Yeah. There’s a little single-wide in Emmett. But the owners are doing some major renovations before they sell it.”
“What kind of renovations?”
Dad is a carpenter, and if anyone was doing renovations, he would much rather buy it before they could do too much damage and finish the renovations properly himself.
“Oh… just this and that. I think they’re working on the ceiling.”
“Do you know what’s wrong with the ceiling?”
“There was a roof leak. I could connect you when they’re finished, but I think it will be a while. Three or four months at least.”
“Would they consider selling it as is?”
The realtor cocked his head and thought a minute. “It’s possible. Actually, tell the truth, I knew the folks who used to own it.”
“Used to own it?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Nice folks. Older gal, widow now. She just moved in with her daughter and her family. The place was cute as a button besides the roof leak.”
“Who owns it now?”
“Well… I bought it from them. Figured I’d see if I could turn it around and re-sell it. Nice mobile homes go for a lot here, you know. But I’ve been trying to get it finished for half a year already, and it’s been hard to find the time to work on it.”
“Oh. You own it.”
“Would you consider selling it as is?”
“It’s possible,” the realtor nodded, still staring at the sidewalk. “You know, I happen to have the key in my car. If you’d like, we can go over and see it. Would you like to do that?”
The sun dipped under the mountains and caste the world into murky grey.
“I’m leaving town tonight,” said dad, “so if we could take a look now, that’d be great.”
“Alright,” the realtor nodded. “I’ll text you the address and meet you there.”
Fifteen minutes later we pulled into the Emmett trailer court, which was protected by some magic spell which made the entrance invisible. We missed it twice and had to double back again until we finally managed to get inside. Once we were in, we were greeted by a legion of thick, black pines, covering the pavement in cavernous shadows. Given how the rest of the day had gone, I didn’t take this as a hopeful sign.
The trailer in question was at the very back of the loop, tucked away behind a tall hedge and a chokecherry tree. We parked and got out, and dad instantly started pacing around it, scoping out the walls, foundation… I’m not sure what else he looks at, but he knows what he’s doing and I leave him to it. I myself stayed safely where I was.
The realtor arrived moments later and led us up to the front porch, which was painted a color so dark it looked black now that dusk had dissolved into night. The porch was flat and stable, which was at least one point in the house’s favor. The realtor was talking about the renovations he had been planning to make as he flicked the brass knocker absent-mindedly and unlocked the door. He swung it open and stepped inside.
“The light’s are all disconnected,” he said, holding up a flashlight and wandering in.
I couldn’t make out much. Dusty sheets draped haphazardly here and there like forgotten ghosts, the rafters were bare and exposed in the ceiling, and everything was coated in a fine layer of grey sawdust. It felt profoundly empty, as if it were the embodiment of being abandoned. I glanced back at the car, wishing for my comfortable bed and a thick book. I’d had enough of abandoned trailers. But I stepped inside anyway, and when my foot hit the threshold, I froze.
It was as if the house let out a long-awaited sigh and said, “there you are at last.”
Bewildered, I could only think to reply with, “sorry I’m late.”
If a house adopts you, it’s only polite to go along with it.
I took a breath and first noticed the smell. It filled me with inexpressible excitement. It smelled like old people and sawdust and plaster and years of cooking with far too much grease, and something underneath all of that smelled like long, comfortable happiness, and even though it’s gone now after years of cleaning and adding furniture, every once in a while, I still catch a whiff of it and smile, reminiscing with the house about those first days.
The second thing I noticed was the cabinet trim. It was a lovely swirling leaf pattern to line the bottom edge of the cabinets above the sink, and the top edges of the cabinets to either side. It was such a beautiful, delicate touch, and I knew instantly the woman who had lived here before had exquisite taste. Later when I found her hand-sewn linen valences and lace curtains to pair with them, it confirmed my guess.
The last thing I remember noticing was the sound of the refrigerator. The refrigerator was old and had a quite pleasant hum that reminded me of bees buzzing over your head as you stoop into a bush to pick fragrant raspberries.
The smell, the buzz, the leaf patterns, and added to that, the familiarity of a construction site, which, my dad being a carpenter, I had grown up in. I could hardly think of anything that would make the place better. I couldn’t even see it in the dark, but I knew that it was perfect and that I loved it. And I’d have the next several years to see every inch and detail of it. My qualifications for a home were settled. And after a thorough inspection, my dad’s structural and building qualifications were met as well.
Hardly realizing what had happened, we found ourselves sitting on the other side of a desk signing papers, writing an affordable check, and tucking house keys in our pockets. Bless the dear realtor – it was already a quarter to ten, and I’m sure he had had quite enough of us for a lifetime. We had to rush him through the process, though, because it was of the utmost importance that we get back to that lovely old house at once to look at it again. And so we did. We looked at it for a good long time.
“The whole roof’ll have to come off,” dad said, rubbing his chin and looking up at the exposed rafters in the ceiling.
I couldn’t stop myself from grinning. It sounded like a marvelous idea to me.
And that is how to find a house. You let the house find you.