Ding brings two steaming mugs from the kitchen nook, winces behind blistering fingertips, hands me one and stands there. The cheap Chinese ceramic conducts the heat directly into my thumb joint, almost hitting as high as the cold dry skin under the pewter ring. I scratch, and guess at whether Vy’s thumb-ring is hot against a cup right now.

I nod out the window at the shingled shed squatting under the fresh snow in the sleety driveway. The seven-by-twenty Tumbleweed that it’s standing on is worth four grand by itself. Beyond it, the chrome bumper of our pickup gleams in tiny spots beneath four states’ salt and mud. —So what makes you wanna sell it? I ask him.

—Oh yknow— Ding gestures around the chilly space —I’m on total disability now, so. And I feel like God just blessed us with this place. I mean, there’s nowhere else we could. Sure as hell not in California. And it’s really nice …

I assume that he means this house is all he needs now. He’s the second owner, meaning someone, if only a repo bank, made money on this dump. The carpet is petstained, the walls thick as just the sheetrock, the ceiling high to look luxurious and therefore totally uninsulated. I can practically see the heated air get sucked out through the windowframes. They’ve hastily decorated this kitchen-living area with car show posters and random souvenirs, the plasticky map of western life on the road. Vy would defend it, but only junk that she likes.

Looking at the edge of the development, where the high desert limps up into bare rockstudded mountains, I can’t get on Ding’s side about God giving this.

Reno. Or Cold Springs. A twenty-mile radius of these slapdash tracts, none of it more than ten years old. Difficult to distinguish between double-wides and houses with foundations, they huddle in masses around slightly-taller Costcos and Walmarts, piles of cinderblock almost identical to rocky outcrops. Highway 395 runs back behind two steep grades that hide Reno’s casino towers from view. All Vy and I wanted was to get further than Warm Springs and now here I am in Cold Springs. —Is this something you’ve already discussed with your wife, then?

—My girlfriend, girlfriend— Ding nods up at nothing —yeah, I tolder I’ma sell it.

—Long as we get a good deal.

Ding coughs hard now into his sleeve, finally sips his coffee. His skin, a flash glimpse of his tongue, tell me that he’s sick. Doctor bills probably determine his housing. He blinks back cough tears and sits down across from me. —I don’t like to sit much, gotta collapsed disc.

—Medical bills?

—My girlfriend and me, got zombie weight, uh… dead fat. She cain’t get it off with a diet. I even quit smokin, when we got this.

We don’t touch our coffee. He pinches at his gray, jowl-concealing goatee with all five stained fingertips. —Don’t worry about a good deal— I tell him —if it’s in good shape. I’ve got someone up in Mendocino who’ll pay me well for it if I do the driving.

He smiles at something in his head. —Mendocino … so, a pretty young gal like you. You don’t get scared travelin all over, buyin and sellin them?

The question molests my pride, but I can feel Vy’s absent eyes on me, holding me to the sale. —No, not really.

—All those hermits don’t ask you to stay and heat the place up once forem? I bet I would!

Vy would have enough now. I should call him out and leave, but I’m sure of this deal, so I just sip and scald. —If you’re gonna stand up, let’s go see it.

He takes me down the four double-wide-type steps, into the narrow driveway. The jack is already down. —It’s custom— he insists once more —it’s unlocked.

Inside the heavy shingles, the floor plan looks more Eco Cabin, but with fewer windows. Wood inside and out. Probably started as a Cypress. Probably paid too much for it. The kitchen is bigger, unventilated, with the bunk completely covering it, so someone of his height has to hunch over to use it. The best chair in the living area is right up next to the old RV bathroom jammed into the left wall. Ding’s voice follows me: —It’s got HVAC, runs just fine. Same time as the lights. Don’t need no hookups. You want me to turn it on?


I nod after my frosty breath. He steps out and soon the generator hums dutifully to life. I try all the lights and run the water. It warms up fast enough through the on-demand water heater in the bathroom, which even has an Edgestar tiny clothes washer hooked up to it; I can play that card to Mendocino last if he thinks I’m asking too much. They must wash their hands in the kitchen.

This’ll be the last time for a long time that we actually bargain for deals. When Vy gets back with that truck full of discarded tiny homes, we’ll be making free money. Even though hiring the car carrier to transport them will cut into our margin, we’ll be able to make a name for ourselves. Vy has a whole plan for how she can do any cosmetic refurbishing by herself. Found materials, tender funkiness.

The sale is close, and I get distracted. My heart seizes a little for Vy. Even if Ding is probably easier to handle without him seeing us two together, she broke the rule of traveling separate when she didn’t call last night or this morning. It was her idea to split up.

Back in the drafty tract home, the coffee’s drinkable now. I want to trap Ding more than haggle with him. —How much do you want? I know you couldn’t get it appraised.

The zombie-fat man with the goatee and collapsed disc frowns. I add some reassurance: —A lot of people try to get them appraised, and don’t know that they can’t.

He cramps up. —Well hell, I … I bought it for sixty. With the car loan.

Sixty is probably bullshit. He’s scared I’ll take him like the last guy did. —Sure. Five years ago?


I want to ask him how much of the car loan he still has. But now I have to either take him fast, or play nice. I calculate. I can’t advance him enough to make him happy. I would need cash from… but right then, my phone rings. I almost say Vy’s name. But it’s Mendocino. I jump out the front door into the cold, breathing a mist of excuse me.

—Hello? Clark?

Mendocino’s voice is excited and he asks questions that he has no intention of letting me answer. —Vivian? How you doin? Look, about that tiny home, you got the perfect one yet? So it turns out my wife, she’s givin me a major pain theeyass. She wants a divorce, so I need that tiny home in my assets so I can cash her out with that, and less of my mortgage equity. See how it’s genius?

—I, yes, yeah Clark.

—You see the advantage here? How soon can you get here?

—I see.

—She served me the papers, so you’re really killin me, the longer you take.

Last time I spoke to him, he was on the fence. —So you’re sure you want it? Because I think I have a very nice uh, custom one, right here. I’m only a day’s drive away.

—A day’s drive? Jesus! You’re in Florida?

—Reno, actually. Look Clark, sit tight, I might be calling you back in a half hour.

—Might be? What if you don’t?

—Then it’ll be longer than a half hour. Thanks a bunch, Clark.

I say thanks a bunch, for show, as I enter the front door again, freezing from the dry cold between my fingers and my inner thighs where walking lets cold air in. Ding’s leaning against his cheap tile counter now, drinking a bottle of Costco water that can’t be recycled curbside in Nevada. —You have a tiny home yerself?— he asks.

I lie: —Oh yeah. It’s with my partner.

—Where’s yer partner?

—She’s closing a different sale.

Now we’ve both put up our absent second halves in the bargain, but he doesn’t soften. He asks: —So if it cain’t get appraised, what I—?

—My documents show that thirty is…

I look down at my phone, suppress a swear word at not confirming a price with Mendocino, but keep on my trapping track: —that thirty is really fair. And I’ll pay you the blue book on that Tumbleweed.

There’s no blue book value for just the trailer, but Ding doesn’t know that. He holds his face as straight as he can. —Thirty? After only five years?

—It’s still a vehicle, Ding.

His face lets go. —It’s not a RV, that was my home! It shid apprishiate!

—It’s basically an RV. I can give you thirty right away, including hauling it.

Ding now plarps down on his low deep couch, and curls over with his elbows on his knees, looking out to the weedyellowed slopes of the Toiyabes. —I dunno what everyone wants from us. I’m on disability!

—I know. Money’s tight for all of us … do you have family out here?

—No. My sister’s got two mortgages onner house. She’s in California.

Reno transplants say this like California, five minutes away to the west, is the Old Country.

—This money could really help you, if you use it wisely. With this much space, you could even help your sister. Have her nearer.

—What’re we sposed to do? All live, our whole family, eight people to a house like the Mexicans?

—Like Asians?— I blurt out, losing my patience. Ding eyes me uncomfortably. His nickname sounds more Asian than my real name. Suddenly I want to get out of here and call Vy again. —Yes or no, Ding, I’m not gonna push you.

—I do need the…— he says to his hooked Harley Davidson rug. I watch him calculate behind his eyes. Surely he’s staked his ideal price on some other debt. Just like Vy and me. He’s counting down how much less gas he can buy, how much smaller payments he can make, all the way down to how much further dog food and medication will have to go.

—Why don’t you let the decision settle, while I call this client back?

I step back out and call Mendocino. While the phone rings I write down the Tumbleweed’s number, 65701. My chest heaves again. The area codes for the Dakotas are 605 and 701. Why hasn’t Vy called?


—Hi Clark. This tiny house is custom, and I can run it out to you in a couple of days for just forty-five thousand.

—Oh Vivian, yer really gonna save my ass. My wife’s just gone zero to bitch. Like a’other person!

—So uh, could you possibly take care of it at my bank? I wanna give a check to the seller. He needs help, and I wanna give him a gesture. Plus he could write me a review online.

—Vivian…— He’s going to cry on my shoulder now —really my money is absolutely … okay, the fact is? I dipped into my fuckin 401K already, and I have it. I was just hopin to hide the cash, yeknow? But yer right, yer right, this is me, is gettin off cheap. Short-term loss for long-term peace of mind.

—I think so. Do you wanna write down my account number?

He listens to my number. —That means I gotta go to the bank. My wife has my… she knows it’s our favorite car! And she takes it today. I gotta drive to the bank in the Toyota. Now that she knows I’ll sign the divorce, she probly drove our joint account down to Healdsburg for one more fuckin facelift! … I’m sorry, Vivian, this’s just all really developing right now… I’ll go in a little while.

I open the truck and sit, elbows crossed over my chest now, my jaw almost chattering. It’s as much the dryness as the cold. —It’s a really nice one, Clark. Not used too rough. Well-loved. I mean, it’s got TLC.

—It’ll be good enough for her— he croaks. —Thanks for findin it for me, Vivian. I’ll call when the money’s in, okay?

We say goodbye and I hang up, check my phone in case Vy, or a trucking company, called me while I was talking to Mendocino. Still nothing. There has to be plenty transport around Vermillion, South Dakota. I drag my heavier coat over the cold empty passenger seat and take the checkbook out of the leather book we keep under the driver’s seat.

When we separated, we agreed to follow the usual rule. Just one call a day. Driving all the way out here from the Missouri River to catch Ding’s sale, I was flush with hope from finding those four abandoned tiny homes. Now I feel like I’m choosing them over Vy. She’s never made me feel like that, not with words.

The cop we met in Vermillion begged us to take them, not to let them go to waste after months sitting there. I only thought yesterday of Vy fulfilling her part of the plan and getting the truck hired. I only saw her strong sides while I drove nonstop back out west: how she speaks to people as if the decision is already made, how she compliments people when there’s nothing much to say, how she stands up to men.

Now I only see her fragile parts. How she backs up to me when a situation turns in a new direction, how she’ll only recount what she did dyed black with doubt. How her energy for standing her ground will suddenly evaporate. And I’m not there.

It was her idea to separate when we found the four houses in the snow ditch. She firmly said: —I’ll try to sell them around Vermillion, but I’ll get a driver with a big trailer, like for cars. You go home, get Reno’s house if it means we make only gas money, and pay the rent because now it’s a week late. If nothing easy happens in Vermillion, I’ll take the bus halfway home and meet you so we save money and time.

Then she kissed me, another kind of command, a request for trust. Her white body capped with black hair amongst all those huge midwestern pink people. The smallest body in the midwest, in control. Should I just go back and get her? Mendocino will wait. But driving back won’t make her pick up the phone. I don’t know what to do. I rub my hands and close up the truck.

In the house I hear footsteps and expect to see Ding’s girlfriend. He catches my eyes wandering. —My brother’s up— he says low, resignation in his mouth.

They don’t even look like brothers: Ding is tall, fat and fair, and this one is like a mummified rat. He calls to his brother, —Ahellsegownadengaw, Ding!

I can’t tell if it’s a protestation or a question. Ding responds: —I’m sellin the old tiny home. Gonna pay down some bills.

—Shit aaaah kiddeliftit.

I think he says that he could’ve lived in it. I didn’t think people still actually talked like that. The brother screws on his red cap, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, and the slammed door echoes on bathroom tiles.

—He’s staying here too?

—Yeah. This house I could have a place for… away from his old friends.

He seems embarrassed that I found out about the brother. I don’t want to write a check for money I don’t have while this brother is here. He looks like a tweeker. Not a former tweeker. I almost whisper to Ding, a single frozen thread: —How do you feel? You wanna go ahead?

He looks at the sleeve of his jacket. —Yeah let’s pull the trigger and…

—I have my checkbook right here. Why don’t I mail the sale bill and the check to you, though?

He nods. I make small talk while I write the check, the way dentists chatter while drilling people’s teeth. —So you’ve been traveling. Where’d you grow up?

He calms down now. —Fresno. Before it got gang-infested. Had a little roofin company, three local kids workin. Sawem raise their kids, divorce off their wives. Sold the whole thing to a black guy and moved to Nevada City, way up almost to Rock Creek. That’s the Yuba River’s first. Down ten months when I hurt my back, pritty soon hadda foreclose and start over.

—Your brother’s from Fresno, too?

—Born in Los Bannos with my mother, but yeah.

—I’ll mail it to you, or drop it at your bank, if you want.

—Yeah. The bank’ll.

I write down his bank’s name on my thumb joint since I didn’t bring the ledger. He seems bewildered at my other hand, but with prompting he shakes it numbly. Vy doesn’t even shake hands, or bow. Maybe that’s what keeps people on their toes.

I yank our truck’s hitch once, then get in and warm up the engine. I pull straight away, to be quit of Ding’s hospitality and to look like I have somewhere to stay. When I have the truck in the street, Ding comes out of the house waving, even more bewildered. —Arncha gonna take?

—Um, I’m just gonna go get gas. Easier without it. See you in a bit.

I leave, through all these crummy snow-dusted tract houses. These people aren’t the terrifying white trash of whom Vy’s parents warned us. They’re too sick, too in debt to harm someone for being Asian.

Maybe the majority have RVs in their driveways. These are the white people who say they only wanted to travel and see the country once they retired, but I know the vehicles’ other meaning. They’re all ready to live in these RVs, whether because they wanted to get divorced in their 70s because that television show said it’s cool, or because of medical bills.

Vy and I saw these backup plans everywhere we went between here and South Dakota. This is how our business model got its shape. We spent the whole autumn out in the American west, following leads on the internet while our two months’ advance rent burnt away back home, playing with each other under the dashboard.

I find a gas station with an anonymous backlot behind it off 659, just north of the university. The streets are littered with discarded carseats. What landfill is there for seven billion people’s carseats?

Starving, I hunt behind the passenger seat and drag up a plastic produce sack full of nuts and dried fruit. We bought it in Dixon on our first day out, and said we’d save it for the triumphant return to fruity, nutty California. We’ve eaten peanuts and sunflower seeds out of bulk bins three to four days a week since we’ve been traveling, saving money and our health. She broke the phone call rule, so I’m dipping into the nuts that we can only reasonably get at home. The money from those abandoned tiny homes will make this all worthwhile.

Sitting, eating and thinking doesn’t work. Finally I call Vy’s phone. It rings and rings, so it’s got battery. Her outgoing voicemail message, as familiar as her perfect, round-edged teeth, as my own skin, echoes falsely in the phone.

This traveling thing has always been at the center of our plans. The night I fell in love with her, Vy was mad that her parents quashed her plan to take the BART up to Oakland to see a Chinese dance troupe so she could write a paper for art history. Dangerous, they said.

Amongst all the places we named that night, near and far, Vy told me that she thought her parents really didn’t want this country. Didn’t want to understand it. She said that they just wanted the practiced, mastered safety of their Viet circle in Milpitas, for themselves and for her. At the time this rang with clear, liberating truth. It’s more complicated now. Has she run into something in Vermillion that she couldn’t handle?

We started by buying the tiny homes, like I’m doing today at Ding’s, to sell them at swap meets and car shows. We ran away from aggressive rednecks twice, clutching our cash.

But then we started seeing the houses, sometimes several stacked listing against each other, on roadsides. Discarded like tires, abandoned like their owners abandoned the illusion of living in comfort when it’s impossible to live anywhere.

We’d think we found a stash of tiny houses across a fence, but it turned out to be a golf course, for instance. We met a guy in Sedona who arranged that for a living. Clients pay ridiculous money to get a tiny house on an exclusive golf course. He bragged that they don’t even live in them, but just park them there as investments. He didn’t look twice at our color or our eyes, just wanted our willingness to make him richer. I should call him right now and see if he’ll do better than forty-five thousand for Ding’s house.

The number he gave is just the golf course’s main number, and no one answers. I know that if I call the Veterans’ Community Project, they’ll want me to give them the twenty-foot shack for less than our margin. The deal with Clark will do.

I can’t stop worrying and I can’t make a decision. These four abandoned tiny homes in Vermillion were just too good to be true. All Vy has to do is get a truck ready to haul them. Maybe I should pass the time trying to sell them. It dawns on me that we never finished a plan on where to take the truckload of houses while we figured out how to sell them! Did she assume we’d take them back to Fremont? Why won’t she pick up her phone?

This could be our first big test. Maybe Vy is still strong and in control. Maybe I should just take Ding’s shed up to Mendocino and then drive back home to wait for her call. Or drive back to Vermillion so she can ride with me. It’s freezing in Vermillion. Maybe her fully-charged phone is in a hotel room, which we agreed she could get with our money.

My phone rings finally. I see an unknown 408 number on the screen, and I believe it’s Vy before I think. —Vy?

—Hello, Vy, this is Caravan RVStorage— says a man’s voice. —I saw on your site that you buy tiny homes, and I have some RVs to offer you here in San José!

—I’m not looking— I stammer, —I’m out of the Bay Area right now. And I… we, only do tiny homes.

—Well, they’re the same as RVs, right?

—No. They’re not. I’m sorry, I’m in the middle of a sale, I gotta go.

I drive to a post office and warm up in the lobby. I write Ding’s bill of sale, stick it in an envelope with the scary check and send them off. Then it’s back to Cold Springs. I pass by two more tiny homes with for-sale signs on them, and one that’s just sitting in the frosty sage fifty yards from the 395 offramp. I pass all of them without even getting phone numbers, chasing Vy’s outline.

Ding agrees to expect the check in the mail and wait a few days before cashing it, just to make things smooth. I send Clark a text to tell him that I’m on my way, and refuse Ding’s help hitching the shed to our truck. I feel like he can still see that I nearly forgot it.

On southbound 395, as I’m deciding which way to head when I hit 80, my landlord calls. She’s mad that we haven’t paid rent, and I’m caught offguard. I veer right onto 659 and head west around Reno toward home. There’s light snow on Donner Pass, and I’ve never driven up the mountain with a house yet.

But highway 80 is a parking lot now. Vy would turn on me, and accuse me of being judgmental, if I explained how this traffic is all the working white people who moved out of California with regular intercourse with their families on the west side of the Sierras, and how all the rich white people who stayed in California mechanically must all go to Tahoe when it snows.

Overdeveloped Fairfield detains me two hours between Sacramento to Vacaville, so all together I spend eight hours in the truck next to Vy’s empty seat, holding a sore need to pee and silently begging her for forgiveness for not going back for her. Eight hours of not knowing what to do, in slow motion. I only cry once, when I cross the bridge and slide down into the East Bay. She’s never seen me cry. I don’t know what she’d do.

I sleep a flu-like fitful night alone in our bed, waking up all the time to check for a call from her. In the morning I shower and change, but leave Vy’s stuff exactly as it was in the truck, and drag the tiny house up through the Bay Area to Mendocino. Too tired to be as scared as before, I can’t enjoy the steep windy lost coast as I pass through.

East up Little Lake Road from town I find Mendocino’s address in a sunny meadow fenced with redwoods and bay laurels. A few miles back, the evergreen slopes rise up into forest that seems infinite. Clark is happy to see me, gives me the deposit receipt from my bank, unloads the Tumbleweeds. We never bargained.

I operate my phone while driving, swiping meticulously to pay off the credit card online. My thumbring clacks against the phone’s glass screen. After the rent we have ten thousand dollars to work with, which will be more than enough to take those tiny houses from Vermillion. I turn the figures over and over in my head, stacking up abandoned tiny homes in my mind, dealing with golf course owners over bright yellow cocktails, donating windfalls to charity. I’d rather find a dealer outside California, to avoid dragging that huge truck over the Sierras, but I’m exhausted. Exploiting priced-out seniors in Palo Alto via E-Bay will have to do.

The landlord calls again. I pull over impatiently, still within Cloverdale. —I paid the rent yesterday— I tell her.

—That’s not why I called— she says, —someone from South Dakota’s looking for Vy and you.

—Whatta you mean looking?

—It’s the police. They found your address. They said to call them right now.

I call the 605 number. It’s the Vermillion police, in the most popular retirement town in South Dakota. I get through to a sergeant.

—You’re the one listed on the lease with Vy Tran at the apartment in Fremont, is that correct?

—Yes— I shudder. I fill the gas tank and keep heading east.

Are you her next of kin? The cop’s voice repeats for how many hours, like a fever dream. Like she froze. Like a horrid song stuck in my ear. Some real bad news. We have Vy here. One of the kids here. Next of kin? Found her in an abandoned trailer last night. Has a blow to her forehead. But the coroner says it looks like she froze. Are you her next of kin?

I almost said no, out of deference to her parents. But they can’t find out, not until I get back to Vermillion. —Yes.

I shattered like a snailshell. He said in a trailer. Did he mean some RV trailer, or our tiny houses? I couldn’t speak to him, couldn’t get any questions out, can’t drive through the tears. I’ll never know.

I hate every person in Vermillion, I hate everyone who’s marked Vy with symbols that no one can decipher.



She picked up on the first ring, like she was waiting for me. —What’s wrong?

On the road we’ve only talked to my mom. She was also the first that we told, just six months after graduating from Calaveras, that we were skipping our duty to rise gloriously from the shameful mediocrity of Ohlone College, that we were going to waste our meager income living together—just us—in Fremont, and that we were swimming up the scary birth canal of 680 to do our business. And to really want and understand this country, for better or for worse.

I said a few words to her when I was hysterical over leaving Vy in South Dakota. Now she sounds like she was expecting bad news. —Vy … I’m going back to Vermillion before her parents find out.

This truck will become the coffin for our thumb-rings. I’ll be sliding open a frozen morgue locker for at least two days, if I don’t pass out and crash on the way. A locker big enough for two of her, her hips as straight as mine. Will her final curled lip push me to forgive myself and carry on the plan, or back up against abandonment?

—Her parents? What happened, Vivian?

What could I have said? To do one thing at a time? Was I afraid for her to sit dissatisfied, impatient next to me all the way to Reno? To hear her enumerate all the men in Vermillion who didn’t scare her? Would we fight? Would we even remember a fight now?

—You can’t tell them yet! I have to see her before she’s gone!