Right inside the door of my first Fleetwood Home I was greeted by the evocative odor of American Newness, that smell everyone knows but cannot name. It was like breaking the seal on a box and getting a whiff ofof what?of exactly what you always wanted. I know I got doped up on the smell and instantly forgot the facts of my life for the fantasy it might become. The walls in the homes I toured had the texture of those egg-shaped confections of sugar that house dioramic Easter scenes of bunnies and baby chickens. The walls didnt look entirely dry, as though you might sink your finger in for a lick of buttercream frosting. They were immaculate and white and somehow against this backdrop even normal objects seemed like miniatures, not quite real and thus easily manageable. All the rooms were furnished by a hired decorator but felt empty. What they were missing was you and yet it was haunting to confront a face in a mirror. Suddenly you were there, arrived and occupying a place in this world premised on choice, where everything exists as potential, where the deep pile carpet on the floor is only a polite suggestion and might, in a moments wish, become Adobe, Cameo Blush, Cabernet, Cinnabar, Periwinkle, or Nappa [sic] Valley. The Formica on the counter could be traded for squares of blue tile. The fridge will find food, the quiet will find voices, the beds will bring rest and love and renewal.
To make a manufactured home, first you build a chassis with axles. After youve put the chassis in place you glue and staple the flooring to it with extra-big boards that cut down on the number of seams and hence reduce the likelihood of leakage. As its being built the house floats like a river barge on a bed of compressed air. A couple men lean into it with their shoulders and shove it from one station to the next as if it were nothing. Exterior walls go up, interior walls; men plumb the thing, run wires, install fixtures; they add windows, hang doors; a roof is lowered in place by an Erector Set crane; appliances, cabinets, fans, and carpets are readied. Out of this wizardly and truly awesome Oz the house is wheeled into the daylight and trucked away to whatever Kansas your heart desires.
I made a couple of trips to the factory and a dirt lot nearby where Fleetwood showcases their finished product, and lastly I started looking for places where I could find people living in the houses for real. Several detours off Interstate 5 showed me just how rapidly a community seeded with modular housing can grow. Everythings so brand-new there isnt even any sound in the air. In one such neighborhood off Gun Club Road in Woodland, Washington, I parked my truck and tried to talk to some kids coming home from school, but they were right on it with the snappy, drilled response.
Are you a stranger? one little girl wanted to know.
Whats a stranger?
Somebody who kills you or rapes you, she said.
Im not that kind of stranger, but it might have been here, in this neighborhood, in this place where the children know what to say, that a note of sorrow first entered the world of hope Id been entertaining during my initial home tour.
Your typical manufactured home makes its way in the world because it bears a studied resemblance to a regular house. Its visual ambition is mimetic and realistic the same way a painting of a cow agreeably satisfies verisimilitude if its got four legs, a tail, and a head. You could build these homes attractively but the aesthetic would need to be stripped and lean and frank, with materials that openly declare themselves and hide nothing. Fleetwood, by contrast, makes a sincere imitation of the real thing, a house that aspires to popularity and recognition like a girl who comes to the prom with a face on loan from a magazine. Its that inserted layer of sincerity that rings false. Its evilly un-American to say aloud, but real divisions exist between people, and the houses themselves try hard, desperately hard, to obscure those differences. Theyre socially insecure yet hopeful. They want acceptance and to get it they try really hard to please everyone.
The woman who gave me my factory tour was so sweet, so kind, so eager to encourage my optimistic assessment of Fleetwoods product, the echo of everything she said now rattles around in my head because I knew before I entered the building Id betray her trust and hope. She told me she herself lived in a Fleetwood triple-wide and was absolutely happy. Like everyone connected with Fleetwood she was defensive against unspoken snottiness, and given my inability to rise above it I can see why. I hope you say something nice, nice people kept saying to me in person and on the phone. Salespeople and secretaries alike insisted that a Fleetwood Home was every bit the structural and social equal of whats known in the trade as a stick-built house. Their zeal was evangelistic, it was memorized and rehearsed and recited like a prayer, it was felt and sincere and thus a notch shy of being spontaneously true. What people were telling me was no more a syncretic hodgepodge than the Pledge of Allegiance, but if you dont live entirely within it, if youre not unself-consciously at home in the words and you hesitate even a little, it all starts to sound like cant.
In the face of so much generous and heartfelt uplift I cut short the factory tour, asking no questions. This woman and all these people, they are the good people, whereas I was just walking around in the factory faking my enthusiasm and hiding a creepy low-grade horror. Normally I dont like my meaning ready-made, but by the time I headed out to my truck I was in total despair about not being with the program.
I drove up along the Lewis River for a change of scene and to think and to see if anybody was catching fish from an early fall run of chinook. A good attitude is a treasure, said the sign outside the Woodland Middle School, on my way upriver. Five miles back in the canyon the banks were crowded with fishermen working fairly dull, obvious water, where the highly evolved homing instinct of the salmon hits the blunt obstruction of a dam and the fish pool up in mass confusion. At the hatchery there was the usual display of agitprop about salmon recovery and an article about the building of the first dam and how it might just possibly disrupt and ruin the runs. It did, of course, and now the Lewis is only the ghost of itself, flowing emptily into the Columbia. The article was written in 1930 and seventy years later the river no longer seriously produces salmon but continues to spin the turbines that supply power to the recessed lights in the kitchens of modular homes up and down I-5. An abiding American assumption, mentally apocalyptic, says that somehow the wrongs in history stem from our ignorance; once were enlightened, well be free of our errant ways and history itself will stop and well come to rest in a return to Eden. Now the state of Washington raises fish in rearing ponds and releases smolts into the river, hoping their intricate salmonoid nerves wont give out in complete bafflement and, after four years at sea, theyll find their way back upriver to the cul-de-sac of their birth.
It wasnt my original plan but I checked into a motel for the night because it bugged me that I couldnt find anything nice to say about modular homes. I ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant across the street. It was karaoke night in a lounge the hostess referred to as the cantina. The décor was modular Mexican, a sort of mañana peon style that lightly revamped clichés about lazy Mexicans. Two guys at my table told me they were hiding from their wives, theyd kind of karaoked a lie about working on their cars and instead came to the cantina for a couple quick rum and Cokes. Another guys girlfriend was out of town and he kept asking me what I thought of the waitresss ass. He was embarrassing me and I felt square and stupid and unable to say what, as a man, I know Im supposed to say, and so, nervously changing the subject, I asked him about the fishing on the Lewis. He said, Look, we took the land from the Indians, like what? I dont know. Five hundred years ago? Was it five hundred years? Big deal. Im all for paying them back, but after a generation or two, they should get in society like everyone else. Later I shared a table with a woman whose home business was writing personal poetry for your weddings and funerals. She often writes letters for friends who need special thoughts expressed and many people have told her she should write a novel. Her husband recently convinced her to leave Portland and move to Woodland and then he left her for the woman next door and moved back to Portland. Divorce and treachery and betrayal were in the air but so was desire and the people who came forward to sing surprised me with their earnestness. Id have thought this kind of thing a joke, snide and ironic, but they sang their hearts out. The favored narrative of the songs people selected turned on love and heartbreak and while the music and the words were not the singers own, the voice and the feeling were. Emotion was evident by the way people gripped the microphone and bowed their heads as they waited eight bars for the chorus to come around and when it did they lifted their heads again and sang the words and moved toward the crowd compelled by an inner urgency.
My last day I still didnt feel like going home. I lingered, pointlessly. Overnight a banner had been strung across Woodlands main drag announcing the coming of Make a Difference Day. I stopped a couple of places to look through a few more completed houses. All along Id been intrigued by the lack of language inside these model homes. There were no words, spoken or written, and even the few decorative books seemed mute on the shelvesnot words, but things. Language in the modular industry belongs largely to the manufacturing end of the business, and there, in technical brochures and spec sheets, its thick and arcane, made up of portmanteaus and other odd hybrids that are practically Linnaean in their specificity. You get Congoleum and Hardipanel Siding and Nicrome Elements. At the factory all that language is assembled and given narrative development in the tightly plotted path the house takes as it progresses from chassis to truck. But once inside the finished home it ends, theres a kind of white hush, a held breath, and all narrative, defined simply as a sequence of events in time, is gone. Silence and timelessness takes over so that when the door opens and you cross the threshold you feel youve stepped out of life itself.
In house. #19 I find an icy aspect to the arrangement of family artifacts and like Keats before the Grecian Urn I cant quite puzzle out the story. Photos have been framed and set out on tables and shelves but the pictures are of those same corny people who havent aged a bit since they came with your first cheap wallet. Who are these blonde women with unfading smiles? Whose bright kids are¬ these? What happy family is this? In the kitchen two ice cream sundaes sit on the counter. Those sundaes will never melt, nor will they be eaten. The cookbook in the kitchen is open to a recipe for blueberry pancakes but in the living room a bottle of wine and two glasses wait on a coffee table. What time of day is it?
In house #17 I encounter the only joke on the lot: Eat More Pork is stenciled on the side of a wooden chicken.
In house #12 its Christmas.
In house #16 youve got a pastoral leitmotif in the prints on the walls and the folksy bric-a-brac on the shelves. I linger longest here. Outside I hear real church bells ring, dull and somewhat muffled through the dense (R-41) insulation. Its as though the bell is being clapped with a cotton tongue. Through the window I see a wedding party. I feel like a voyeur watching the bride and groom, inverting the business of a Peeping Tom. I have to sneak up on regular life. As much as rote irony informs my take on this, Ive been imagining living in these homes, where Id plunk one down, etc. What would I be able to see out my front window? A wedding! In the master bedroom down the hall the unwrinkled bed is empty, clean, without misery or past. Happy love has no history and this bed is its home. Id like to come back some night and fuck in one of these modular houses. The perfection is inviting but really I just want to soil the sheets. I want to bring exhaustion into the equation. All these houses are waiting for the future to come and haunt them.
Ive overstayed. On my way out I stop in the kitchen. A plastic dinner is set on the counter. Tonight and every night in this home where time has stopped and theres no story or words were having fake turkey, were having fake carrots too, fake carrots and asparagus and baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, and afterward, after this tableau vivant of bounty is cleared away, well grind coffee by hand in the wooden mill on the counter and serve it in the living room by the basket of logs for which, in #16 at least, there is no hearth.
Our boy will fall asleep on the rug and eventually Ill lift and carry him sleepily to the pine-log bed in his room, and after his prayers Ill tuck the quilt around his chin and tell him I love him.
Our girl will go to her room too, say her prayers too, beneath a picture of a roan horse, but in this case Ill only look on, from the doorway, as you bend to kiss her cheek.
Then you and I will go down the hall to sleep in that bed where no ones ever been before.Charles DAmbrosio is the author of The Point and Other Stories, The Dead Fish Museum, and Orphans. He lives in Iowa City and teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop. American Newness is taken from Loitering: New and Collected Essays, available now from Tin House Books.