Kathleen told Randall that the trailer was too small for both of them: they were big personalities who needed room to move. Mr. Souza, the rental manager, listened in. He knew you could learn most of what you needed to know by paying close attention while you showed the property and that how things were said was as important as the words.
“We’ll take it,” Randall announced.
“I’ll need proof of employment and contact info. for your last landlord,” Souza said. He talked tough, but he wasn’t exactly a stickler. It’s not like the neighbors were doctors and lawyers.
The East Dunder Trailer Park had caught Kathleen’s eye, mainly because of the great stone lions at the gate, which reminded her of the NY Public Library where she’d once gone on a high school field trip. She thought it was majestic looking; the pea stone paths leading up to the door of each unit reminded her of smashed up shells, which made her think of Miami where she’d once gone to visit her grandparents. All in all it didn’t look like upstate New York. It looked sunny and beachy, like a place you had to be happy. She did think the trailer was small, but if Randall liked it, she figured she was worrying for nothing.
They went to Balding Joe’s Café to strategize and drink pints of stout. Randall had gotten into it all the time with his last boss at Fix-It-4-U. He’d been fired, but he figured he could list his Uncle Ned as his employer. Ned had a different last name so it wouldn’t raise any red flags.
Kathleen had a job at Hair It Is, shampooing and sweeping up. Hannah, the owner, had promised to train her as a stylist, but so far, she had nothing but chapped fingers and hair stuck to the soles of her shoes.
“He’ll never check our references anyhow,” said Randall, wiping a foamy mustache off his top lip. “It’s a fucking trailer park.”
“He’s lucky to have us,” Kathleen said, feeling drunk and a little belligerent.
They toasted and went outside to bum cigarettes. They weren’t big smokers, just when they’d had a few.
“We’ll have to use Allison as a reference,” said Kathleen.
Randall rolled his eyes and snorted. They’d lived Kathleen’s sister for awhile, helping her get back on her feet after a suicide attempt that Randall called “a grab at attention” even though Kathleen had never seen him look so pale and terrified as when they were at the hospital, waiting for updates. The night after her girlfriend, Beth, broke up with her, one of the neighbors, who just happened to knock on her door to invite her to a block party on the second floor, smelled gas and called the police. Allison was found with her head in the oven, unconscious, drunk, and less than gracious about having been rescued. “Fucking Unitarian,” she spit at the neighbor as they led her past on a gurney. But a brief stay in the psych ward had sent her home with decoupage boxes, collages, and the realization that even though Beth had dumped her, she’d taken along her ubiquitous allergies, which meant Allison could finally eat pancakes for breakfast and spaghetti for dinner and, most important, get a dog. She focused all her attention on procuring a rescue dog, and this seemed to be the thing that rescued her from acute misery.
Allison had relished having her sister live with her, but she despised Randall—the way he never helped with the dishes or the cooking and how he always left his wet towel in a pile in the corner of the bathroom floor. Never mind how he yelled out “VOLUME!” if Allison and Kathleen were talking anywhere in the apartment while he was trying to watch TV, which was practically all the time. On the mornings when Kathleen drove Randall to a job, he would go on and on about Allison’s dark moods and over-dependence, how Kathleen indulged her sister with too much coddling and praise, which, he felt, was exactly the opposite of what she needed.
“She needs love,” Kathleen stared ahead.
“She needs a kick in the ass,” Randall replied. “Your parents babied her and you’re just perpetuating it.”
Kathleen sped up and under a yellow light, then pulled up in front of the new restaurant where Randall was helping lay a tile floor. She leaned in for a kiss, but he hopped out. He hated public gestures of affection. “Love ya,” he said, popping his head in the window for a quick second. She watched him walk away and wondered what he was thinking about in that exact moment and whether it had anything to do with her.
“I’ll give you a glowing recommendation,” Allison said. “I just wish you were getting a place by yourself. Or moving in with me.” They were sitting at Allison’s kitchen table drinking strong, oily coffee. Randall was off with the truck, who knows where.
“I know he’s a wanker. But I love him.”
“You were never choosy, you know. That’s your problem.” Allison thumped her index finger on the table. “Don’t… marry… him,” she commanded.
Kathleen laughed as if nothing could be more absurd. “Oh please. That’ll be the day.” She hoped that would be the day. That day or the next or the one after that. She knew Randall was the man she would love for her rest of her life. It was the sort of love that makes people go out and get a tattoo. Sure, he was lazy and impatient with her; he loved her less than she’d ever been loved in a relationship; and he couldn’t get along with her sister, who was her best friend. Still, there was no denying he made her feel desperate inside.
Within a week, they were living in the Rose Garden section of the trailer park in unit 33. Kathleen asked at the salon when she’d be trained as a stylist. Hannah said things were too busy for her to lose her best shampooist. Kathleen offered to write the ad, promised to find someone even better than herself, but Hannah, who was college-educated, said she would write the ad herself when the time came.
Souza hired Randall to help with some jobs around the trailer park. He liked him; it was obvious. Randall and Kathleen thought it was a gay thing. Randall was pretty, especially since he’d cut off his pony tail. He had inky hair and glowing green eyes, a lanky body and big hands and feet. A deep dimple in the center of his chin.
“I have stamina,” he told Souza, petitioning for a job as super, and he boasted about it to Kathleen later, after he was hired, like he’d pulled off a sting. So he was combing pea stone and weeding garden beds, painting tiny kitchens and installing faucets and showerheads, doorknobs, fuses, stopping every five minutes to yank up his tool belt so it wouldn’t slide down his narrow hips. Even the last hole was not tight enough.
Kathleen was content living in the trailer. But she often complained about the salon while she prepared dinner, Randall would spend evenings prone on the couch drinking beer and staring at the TV, trying not to listen and to listen at the same time. “I’ll probably be sweeping up hair when I’m in my 50s,” she sighed. She was thrilled Randall had steady work—finally!—and she loved how the trailer was like a tiny separate house in a clean neighborhood and how she could find her almost-husband any time during the day just by searching the grounds, not that she’d ever go looking. Still, it was nice to know. She hoped that by keeping the trailer tidy and always making sure Randall had enough beer that Randall would want to marry her. She didn’t think of marriage all the time, it wasn’t like she was obsessed, just in the morning while she showered for work, and then again while she ate her lunch with all the married women who complained about their husbands as if they were competing for who had it worst.
She flipped the buttery grilled cheese one last time and slid it onto a plate, then held it out to Randall. “We need some furniture,” she said cheerfully.
“No we don’t. We have a couch, a bed, a table with chairs. There’s no room for anyone else.”
“What if we want to have company?”
“No company. Just you and me sweetheart. That’s how I like it.”
She knew this was a little twisted, but she liked it nonetheless: that he didn’t want anyone else in their trailer. Just her. She kissed him. She figured she needed to want less, that she could make it so that being with her was no effort for him. She was working on talking less and not expecting him to answer her, going to Target by herself instead of pleading with him to come along. When Allison had been with Beth, she seemed to always want more: more attention, more conversation, more love. It had turned to poison, the wanting and not having, and instead of sucking out the poison and spitting it on the ground the way Kathleen would have forced herself to do, Allison just let it fester in her blood. Kathleen hated to think about her sister’s dead relationship; she had loved visiting Allison and Beth, the way they decorated their apartment, with lots of ecru and things from Pier One. The way they always made good coffee for her and made her something to eat—she was too skinny, they said. And she had loved the kind way they seemed to treat each other. She was stunned and grief-stricken when Allison confided the relationship had been dead for years, and she decided right then that even though things with Randall weren’t perfect, she would make it work all on her own.
Randall cut back to three days a week working for Souza. He claimed there just wasn’t that much to do and that Kathleen made enough at the salon to cover most of their expenses anyhow. When she’d come home, he was always on the couch with the remote in his hand, a bottle of beer growing warm on the floor directly below his chin.
“What do you do all day?” she tried not to sound accusing.
“I,” he sat up and held his beer out for emphasis, “am going to write a book. What do you think about that?”
“A book. Wow.”
“Yup. A coming of age tale. Along the lines of Catcher in the Rye. About my sonofabitch father and my pathetic mother. You probably don’t know this about me, but I’m a fucking good writer.”
“I didn’t know that, but I’m not surprised. Still, you’ll need a job.”
“This book will make us a fortune. Did I ever tell you how my old man used to throw lit cigarettes at me? He’d light them just to throw them at me? Just for sport. And then I’d have to run around and pick them up before they burned holes in the carpet.”
“God,” she made a face—sincere, appalled.
“People love to read that shit,” he said.
“OK, Randall. But can’t you write and work for Souza? At least part time?”
He sighed. “I am working part time. I’m still working three mornings a week.”
“But that’s like twelve hours. That’s not enough.”
“Don’t nag me, baby. I finally figured out what I want to do with my life.”
“But you know what they say… work is good for your self-esteem.”
“But that’s exactly it: I have no self-esteem. That’s why I have to write the book. And anyhow, you girls love guys with no self-esteem. And it’s not like there’s a lot of self-esteem to be gained repairing leaky faucets and killing cockroaches.”
On Sunday, when Randall arrived home from playing Ultimate Frisbee at the high school, Kathleen was standing in the driveway with another woman. She didn’t even notice him pulling into the parking space. He had to tap the horn to get the two of them to move over so he could park the car. Randall looked over the top of his sunglasses and saw that the woman was tall and straight. She had hair the same length as Kathleen, only blond and graying, wide hips, and big, high breasts. She wore white cut-off shorts and a faded Grateful Dead teeshirt. But there was something ineffably similar about the two women, and it was just the sort of puzzle that grabbed hold of Randall’s attention and held him rapt.
He fussed with his part in the rearview mirror, then stepped out of the car.
“Hi Baby,” Kathleen kissed him. “This is Brenda. She lives on Remainder Way. Brenda this is Randall.”
“Hey. Your wife was just telling me how you’re the super. I was hoping you could fix my faucet,” she slid a pack of Camel filters from her back pocket.
“She’s not my wife,” said Randall quickly.
“Oh, I just figured,” Brenda said to Kathleen. She had large narrow feet and wore boat shoes with no socks.
Randall looked around. “Which one’s yours?”
“406.” In his mind he repeated the number over and over so there was no danger of forgetting. He would go first thing tomorrow. Brenda and Kathleen made a plan to have coffee at Brenda’s trailer on Monday afternoon after work. Brenda explained how she worked as a PCA for a rich lady who called her “my girl.” She shivered with disgust. “I’m going to become a vet tech though, just as soon as I’ve saved enough to go back to school.” She chucked her cigarette on the ground when it had burned down to the filter. “See ya.” They watched her walk off like she was a famous person or some kind of god.
Kathleen worked the late shift that day. Whenever a woman came into the salon, she would compare her to Brenda: she was shorter or stouter or less angular. She colored her hair or had her eyebrows waxed—neither of which would Brenda ever do. Kathleen had never noticed how many customers had that yoga posture she hated, while Brenda slouched like she couldn’t give a shit, probably because she was nearly six feet tall. Usually Kathleen saw women the way she saw blackbirds—every one the same. Women littered the planet like blackbirds. She was a woman who noticed men—though not even since she’d taken up with Randall.
When she got home, Randall had eaten the better part of a large pepperoni pizza. He was drinking a beer and sitting at the small, round table. The TV wasn’t even on.
“Did you get fired?” she panicked.
“No. Jesus. I was just thinking about my book.”
She put her purse down on the table and kissed his head, so relieved. Then she took a piece of pizza. “I’m starving,” she attacked it.
He watched her for a moment. “I know you don’t believe I’m gonna write that book. You don’t think I’m smart enough to write a book.”
“Are you kidding? You’re the smartest person I know. Why do you think I put up with you?” she winked.
“What about Allison?”
Kathleen hesitated. “Except maybe Allison. She’s crazy smart.”
“Allison couldn’t write a book.”
“If Allison wanted to, she could win the Pulitzer,” Kathleen replied. “She went to Vassar on a four-year scholarship.”
“I know. I know,” he whined. “And she was Valedictorian. You’ve told me 500 times. But that was like 20 years ago. It’s time for her to update her resume.”
“It wasn’t 20 years ago. And Allison will do something amazing some day. Maybe she’ll write something on a tiny piece of paper and tuck it into a bottle and set it afloat in the ocean to be found on another continent years after she dies and it will be the cure for unhappiness.”
“Yeah, right. That’s not exactly her forte,” Randall grabbed for another slice. “And another thing, why didn’t you tell that tall chick that I wasn’t your husband?”
“I didn’t need to! You spit it out before I could open my mouth.”
“I think you wanted her to think we were married.”
Kathleen tossed her crust into the pizza box. “Maybe. Maybe I wanted her to know you were off the market.”
“Sweetheart, if a woman’s interested, she doesn’t care whether you’re married or not,” said Randall, feeling very in demand. He finished off most of his beer in one long swallow and put the bottle on the table for Kathleen to dispose of. He took his place on the couch, but instead of lying down and turning on the television, he sat up and looked out the window. Brenda was walking by, bringing her trash to the dumpster near their trailer, which was a long way from her own. She turned and looked over, trying to see inside the windows. Kathleen grabbed a six of empties and hurried out the door.
“Oh, hey!” she acted surprised to find her there.
“Is that today’s ration?” Brenda teased.
Kathleen held the six up. “These are Randall’s. I hate beer.”
“I prefer whiskey.”
“Me, too,” said Kathleen, exaggerating.
“I’ll remember that.” Brenda lifted the lid on the recycling bin so Kathleen could throw her bottles in. Like a gentleman holding the door open. Then she hauled her own garbage into the trash bin and took a long drag of her cigarette.
“Well, see you tomorrow. Mini golf, right. Is your sister coming?”
“You’re gonna love her. She’s a riot,” said Kathleen, tripping a little on a stone sticking up by the dumpster.
She closed the door behind her and flopped down into a chair. “She’s so great,” Kathleen said, replaying the conversation with Brenda.
“Her trailer’s a dump,” Randall replied. He had the TV on, but he had only turned it on when he saw Kathleen returning. Before that, he’d been watching Brenda. The fact was he’d never seen a better looking woman. Kathleen’s beauty was quirky and anomalous, like a sprightly forest animal with her adolescent body and long, straight nose. But Brenda was constructed like perfect architecture. Sure, he loved Kathleen and he knew he would marry her eventually, but he was hankering bad for Brenda’s weight all over him. He knew she was giving him the signals, too—coming all the way to their dumpster, and the way she stood close while he fixed the faucet, her bare legs dusted in a fine spray of blond hair. She said hardly anything, and she couldn’t be called friendly, but she gave off a strong scent when he was around. He wanted to put his hands on her ass and pull her right up against him, and he would too. Maybe tomorrow.
The next day there was note on Brenda’s door: Let yourself in. He looked around and sat on her bed for a few minutes. She had very few sentimental objects, just one picture of each of her two kids and a painting of a dog that looked like maybe she’d done it herself or someone had done it for her. He looked in her refrigerator: cheese, yogurt, tortillas, a half–eaten tomato, and a jar of dill pickles. He opened the pickles and ate one. On top of the fridge was a well-consulted bottle of Jim Beam. He took a swig, walked around the trailer swinging it, then put the cap on and returned it to its spot. Her sneakers were by the door, the laces all in a tangle. They looked big enough for him to slide his feet into. He held his foot up next to one. Yup. They were huge.
That evening, Allison pulled up behind Kathleen’s car, her newly-adopted retired service dog, Jiminy, beside her on the passenger’s seat, radio blaring Psycho Killer. She accidentally tapped Kathleen’s bumper, then dragged up on the emergency brake, the sound so loud it traveled into the trailer. Brenda, who was inside having a beer, looked out the window. “Your sister’s here,” she said, squatting a little to get a better look. Kathleen gathered her purse and bottled water. They piled into Allison’s beaten up Volvo. Kathleen sat in the backseat with Randall and Jiminy.
“Isn’t this a great car?” Kathleen said to no one in particular, but mostly to Brenda, all excited, wanting the evening to be a success.
Allison got a hole in one on every shot. Jiminy wait calmly on the green like he was used to this, following to the next hole, as if he’d been a service dog for a blind miniature golf player. Brenda shook her head every time Allison made a shot. She told Allison about her dog, Fred, who had looked a lot like Jiminy. When he died, she said, she was so devastated, she swore she’d never get another dog and so far she hadn’t.
“Would he sit next to me and be my good luck charm? Just once?” she asked.
“Sorry. He’s a monotheist,” Allison replied. She cracked a dry smile. Then she got a hole in one on the sixth tee, one of those tricky ones where the ball goes down a chute and comes out somewhere far away. Brenda told Kathleen and Randall, “From now on we’re calling her Tiger.”
Kathleen forced a weak smile. “OK.” Brenda and Allison walked away. Kathleen whispered to Randall, “Why Tiger?”
“She means Tiger Woods, stupid,” he said, humorless.
Allison and Brenda seemed suddenly to be on a date. They shared a cigarette over by a thick oak tree while Kathleen and Randall waited in silence. Suddenly they couldn’t think of a thing to say to each other. Kathleen couldn’t stop turning to watch the two women, the truth of it all coming to light slowly, as if emerging from behind a thick wall of smoke.
“Quit staring,” said Randall.
“I just want to get their scores.”
“Who cares about their scores? It’s a fucking retarded game.” He tapped his club against the inside of his boot and thought how he wished he was home working on his book. Whenever he was out he wished he was writing, but when he was home he never did.
“Where’d you learn to play golf like that?” asked Brenda, exhaling a long stream of smoke away from Kathleen.
“Well, it isn’t golf, is it? It’s golf for idiots.”
“It’s mini golf. Where’d you learn to play mini golf like that? You’re like the mini golf champion of the world.” She leaned back against the tree and crossed her legs at the ankles. She was in no hurry to bother with Randall and Kathleen now that she’d met Allison, whose dark looks and intelligent eyes had taken hold of her. She kept wanting to touch her—playfully punch her shoulder, guide her with a hand on the back, pick an ash out of her hair—but she held back, not wanting to scare her off.
“I have a special gift for sports that require no athletic ability,” said Allison. Brenda laughed.
They caught up to Randall and Kathleen. “You’re up, Tiger,” Brenda said. Kathleen thought it had started out innocent enough, this Tiger big, but that it was beginning to sound private and obscene.
Later, when they pulled into the trailer park, they all sat in the car while Brenda gave a blow-by-blow of Allison’s miniature golf achievements. Randall and Kathleen were silent. Then Kathleen saw Brenda put her hand over Allison’s on the emergency brake. She slapped Randall’s leg. “Come on.”
The moon was full, throwing a blue tint over everything in the trailer. They had sex, eyes closed tight, Randall propped up on his fists. Afterward, Kathleen thought about her vibrator.
“Did you figure her for a dyke?” Randall asked.
“She doesn’t look like a dyke. All that hair.”
“Randall, you’re an idiot. A lot of lesbians have long hair. Allison’s hair is long.”
“Yeah, but Allison is fat.”
“She is not fat.”
“That bitch was flirting with me,” he said.
“I never saw her flirt with you.”
“Well, she’s not going to do it in front of you. My wife!”
“I thought she was flirting with me.”
“Well, she probably was. Now that we know she’s a lesbian. I mean, you’re a great looking woman. Why wouldn’t she flirt with you?”
“Not everything is who’s good looking and who isn’t. There are other components to attraction, Randall.”
“Yeah, like what?”
“Don’t you value my kindness? My sense of humor? My intelligence? My cooking?” She felt like she was talking to a toddler.
“Of course. But I love you for your great little tits.”
She ignored him, staring off at nothing. “Well, obviously I wasn’t her type either.” Kathleen swallowed the rejection like a fat pill.
Randall fell asleep quickly like he always did after sex. Kathleen got out of bed and for the first time felt cramped in the small trailer. She wished she could step through the wall into a world where Brenda chose her. She poured a glass of orange juice and sat at the table, studying her hands, her ragged nails. Allison had gotten the better hand, their mother’s hands. Kathleen was happy for her sister—though she was surprised at how instantly Brenda chose her. But why should she be? Allison was amazing, not to mention gay. Kathleen would learn to love Brenda as a sister. She glanced over at the long lump Randall’s body formed under the molded blanket, then had to look away.