Friday, February 18, 2011

TRAILER PARK NOIR: The Story Behind the Book

Although I’m known mostly for my horror fiction, my latest novel, Trailer Park Noir is not a horror novel. It’s a dark tale about the residents of Riverside Mobile Home Park, a small trailer park in the northern California town of Anderson.

I grew up in Anderson. In fact, I grew up next door to the trailer park that’s described in this novel. For the book, I moved the park to another part of town so it could be on the shore of the Sacramento River, but it’s the same one I lived next to as a boy. The real one was called Shady Hill Trailer Park. It had no pretensions – it was not a “mobile home park,” it was a trailer park, dammit!

I lived in a tiny little house on what was then called Old Churn Creek Road. It was a somewhat rural area with the houses pretty spread out. On the western side of our house was another house where my uncle and aunt and cousins lived. On the other side of their house was a creek and a hill beyond which were a few mores houses on roomy plots of land. On the eastern side, in our yard, my paternal grandmother lived in a little trailer (I’ve written about Grandma Berens in this blog before). Across the narrow street from our house was a patch of dense woods.

Behind Grandma’s trailer was a fence, and on the other side of that fence was Shady Hill Trailer Park. Directly on the other side of that fence was Sally’s trailer. Sally was, at that time, the oldest and most wrinkled human being I had ever seen in my life. Granted, my life had not been going on for very long. I must have been around five years old or so; I had not started school yet. I don’t remember exactly how I met Sally. I suspect wet met at the fence between Grandma’s trailer and hers. I don’t remember Grandma Berens ever meeting Sally, though I’m sure that, at some point, she did. Sally was cheerful and happy and liked everyone and Grandma Berens was a miserable, hateful old bitch. I don’t imagine Grandma would have liked her one bit. Sally ended up inviting me over to her trailer for some treat – cookies, or something, I don’t remember. What I do remember is Sally.

She was a heavy smoker and probably looked older than she was. Her skin was etched with countless wrinkles, some deeper than others, which formed a chaotic map of wear and tear on her face. She had no teeth. Her voice was hoarse and her laugh – she laughed a lot – was rattly and wheezy. I remember her hands being as wrinkled as her face and quite big, although I probably got the impression of size from her large knuckles, which were knobby with arthritis. Thin as a rail, her upper back had a slight hunch to it. She was quite spry and active, seemed to be smiling all the time, and she loved children. It was common to see children visiting her trailer and I got to know a couple of them. My mother met Sally and liked her, so she allowed me to walk around the fence behind Grandma’s trailer and visit Sally whenever I wanted. Sally was always happy to see me and I remember enjoying my visits with her. Looking back on it, I have no sense of how long I knew her, but it couldn’t have been long. One day, I went to her trailer and knocked. Her front door was open, the screen door was closed and her television was playing inside. But she didn’t come to the door. That wasn’t unusual for Sally because she often wandered around the trailer park and visited other residents. I walked out to the paved road that cut through the small trailer park and looked around for Sally. That was the first time I got a good look at Shady Hill Trailer Park from the inside.

It was like a neighborhood within a neighborhood, another world that existed right next door. There were a lot of trees and most of them were silk trees, all bright with pink blossoms that danced in the warm breeze. There was a row of trailers on each side of the paved road that ran down the center of the park and then looped around a barn-red, partly ivy-covered house at the other end. It was the home of the park’s managers. Each trailer had a little patch of grass and many had been decorated with pinwheels and colorful plaster gnomes. I’d passed by the park’s entrance many times in my parents’ car, but I’d never been inside. It looked like a charming little village hidden away from the world.

I saw no sign of Sally. I decided to try again later and went home. Later that day, Mom learned that Sally had died in her trailer. Other than seeing people die on TV in series and movies, this was my first experience with the reality of death. A couple of days later, Mom dressed me up in my church clothes and took me to Sally’s funeral. It was held in the tiny chapel of the funeral home in Anderson and there were only a few people there. The atmosphere in that claustrophobic chapel was smothering. It was all unfamiliar to me and I was extremely uncomfortable. Then I saw Sally. She was lying in a large box at the front of the chapel.

“Come see Sally one last time,” Mom said, walking me to the big box.

I had been led to believe that Sally was gone, and to me, "gone" meant that she was no more, that she had ceased to exist. But there she was, lying in that box. She looked different, though – almost like a department store mannequin. She didn't look real. Drawing from the Seventh-day Adventist teaching about death, Mom explained that it was only Sally’s body, that Sally herself was gone. She was sleeping, unconscious, waiting for Judgment Day when Jesus would return in the clouds and all the dead people would be resurrected for that great cosmic game show, Let’s Make An Eternal Deal! Then it would be decided if Sally and all the other resurrected folks would go to heaven and be with Jesus for all eternity or be thrown into the Lake of Fire to burn and suffer for a period of time appropriate to their sins. And then they simply would cease to exist. Of course, Sally’s chances weren’t too good. She might have been a nice, happy lady who laughed a lot and was kind to children, but she smoked and she didn’t observe the Sabbath because she wasn’t a Seventh-day Adventist. So Sally’s ass was probably going to fry. But at least I’d had the opportunity to know her for a little while.

I’m not sure what horrified me more – the idea that Jesus would throw Sally into the Lake of Fire or the fact that her dead body was lying out in the open for people to look at before she was buried. I kept thinking somebody should close the box and give Sally some privacy. To this day, I think open casket funerals are barbaric and I refuse to participate in them. When I die, I’m going to be cremated immediately and kept in my Batman cookie jar on top of the television.

During my visits to Sally’s trailer, I met a couple of the kids from the trailer park. One was Marcy, the granddaughter of the park’s managers. She didn’t live there but visited often. She had blond hair and wore glasses with black oval frames. One day at Sally’s, Marcy talked about the fairies who lived in front of her grandparents’ house. That got my attention. I asked her to show them to me. She took me up the road to the barn-red house with all the ivy growing on it and showed me a little fountain that stood amid some of that ivy in front of the house. It was pink and blue, although the colors were very faded; it hadn’t been used in a long time and was dried up and dirty. Marcy pointed to the holes where the water used to come out and said, “They live in there.” I said I wanted to see them and asked when they came out. “You can’t see them,” she said. “They’re invisible.” I guess I was a skeptic even at that tender age because I wasn’t buying it. Invisible fairies? I knew for a fact that fairies weren’t invisible! I never missed an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, and every Sunday night, the show opened with Tinkerbell getting right in my face and waving her wand around – and I could see her very clearly! Obviously, Marcy had been misled. I tried to explain the facts to her, but she wasn’t interested. “My fairies are invisible,” she said. “Your fairies can be whatever you want them to be!” Marcy and I spent time together whenever she visited her grandparents. She taught me how to play “doctor.” It was her idea and she laid out all the rules. That might be why I’ve always had a great appreciation for women who know what they want and aren’t afraid to say so.

I also met Buddy during one of my visits to Sally’s trailer. Buddy had blond hair, too, and I remember him frowning a lot. He spoke loudly and had a lot of mood swings. One minute, he was my best friend; the next, he was angry and acting like he hated me. In other words, playing with Buddy was a lot like living with my family. One day, he got very angry for no reason I could understand – which, given my experience with my father, seemed perfectly normal to me – and chased me out of the trailer park. He threw rocks at me and called me all kinds of unpleasant names. One of those names was new to me – I’d never heard it before. Obviously, playtime with Buddy was over, so I went home. Mom was in the kitchen sitting at the table with three women she knew from church. When I came in, they were laughing and talking about whatever it was church ladies talked about in the late 1960s and there were a couple of open bibles on the table. Curious about that unfamiliar name Buddy had called me, I stepped up to the table and said, “Mom, what’s a ‘fucker?’”

There was an abrupt silence as they froze while staring at me, followed by the sound of four church-lady chins hitting the surface of our kitchen table. One of the ladies burst into tears, buried her face in her hands and sobbed. Mom shot out of her chair and hurried me out of the kitchen, leaning forward to whisper in my ear, “Don’t you say things like that, that’s an awful word, don’t you ever say that again, do you hear me?” It was a long time before I said that word out loud again, and even then it was quietly and only in the presence of very close friends I could trust. I didn’t want to trigger anymore nervous breakdowns in anyone. By the time I was 20, I’d stopped caring. Now I tend to use that word as punctuation.

I have no idea whatever became of Marcy or Buddy. Back then, the residents of Shady Hill Trailer Park were mostly senior citizens. As the years passed, that changed. Now it’s run down, filthy, and is frequently visited by officers of the law. The residents are younger and much tweakier, if you know what I mean. It’s not a very safe place. Mom still lives in the same tiny house next to the trailer park and prefers that the residents stay on their side of the fence. Not long ago, I drove by the entrance of the park and saw three young women standing beside the road. They weren’t doing anything – just standing there. They appeared less than hygienic and their clothes were ... well, they were dressed like ... look, there’s no delicate way to put this, okay? They looked like hookers. When I got a better look at them, I realized they couldn’t be any older than 13. It’s that kind of place now. When I wrote Trailer Park Noir, I wanted to capture the feeling of Shady Hill Trailer Park that I experienced as a little boy and then reveal the dark underside. But somehow, that eluded me. It was overshadowed by what the park had become.

Trailer Park Noir is about some of the residents of Riverside Mobile Home Park. Anna Dunfy is a single mother trying to make ends meet by doing temp jobs – when she can get them – and stripping at night to support her mentally handicapped daughter Kendra, an astonishingly beautiful girl with a woman’s body, the mind of a child and a dangerous urge to do something naughty. Unfortunately, there are plenty of men willing to help Kendra out with that urge. Marcus Reznick is a recovering alcoholic who’s also trying to recover from witnessing the horrible death of the love of his life. Now he’s starting his life over, and he’s starting it at the bottom -- at Riverside Mobile Home Park, where he encounters a powerful temptation. Steve Regent is an internet pornographer who has moved to Riverside to work on his new website – He’s looking for beautiful women, and he finds them. But something very ugly finds him, too. Sherry Manning is a drug addict who lives at Riverside with her drug-dealer boyfriend, Andy Winchell. When a friend of a friend ODs in their trailer, his identity and powerful connections make Sherry fear for her life and the lives of her friends. It’s a run-down little trailer park in northern California, but it could be anywhere in the United States. It is unassuming, unremarkable and looks like a million other trailer parks. But don’t let the sleepy appearance fool you – it’s a nest of dark secrets, boiling lusts and murder waiting to happen. Trailer Park Noir is available for Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes and Noble, and as an audiobook.

If you'd like to learn more about my work and keep up with new releases, please visit my website at RayGartonOnline.  I hope you’ll pay a visit to Riverside Mobile Home Park, where there’s plenty of shade ... but no escape from the heat.