Short Fiction

The Cure for Unhappiness


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. Tough breaks had taught him the importance of paying close attention while you showed the property, 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 information for your last landlord.” Souza may have 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 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 like they have in Miami, where she’d once gone to visit her grandparents. The main thing recommending it was it didn’t look like upstate New York: It looked sunny and beachy, like living there would force you to be happy. She still had concerns about space, but if Randall didn’t 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 look suspicious on the application.

Kathleen had a job at Hair It Is, shampooing and sweeping up. Hannah, the owner, had promised to train her as a stylist, but for the time being she had no station, no trusty scissors floating in blue Barbicide under lights she knew by heart. Instead she had perpetually chapped fingers and hair embedded in the soles of her shoes.

“He’ll never check our references anyhow.” Randall wiped a foamy mustache off his top lip. “It’s a fucking trailer park.”

“He’s lucky to have us,” Kathleen was drunk and a little belligerent.

They toasted and went outside to bum cigarettes. They weren’t really smokers, just when they’d had a few.

“We’ll have to use Allison as a reference,” said Kathleen, leaning against a thick oak tree.

Randall thought she looked good, perched against the fat trunk of the tree. He rolled his eyes. They’d lived with Kathleen’s sister for a while, helping her get back on her feet after a suicide attempt that Randall maintained was a ploy for attention even though Kathleen had never seen him look so pale and terrified as he did while they were at the hospital, waiting for a prognosis. The night after Allison’s girlfriend, Beth, moved out, there was a block party and one of the neighbors happened to knock on Allison’s door to see why she wasn’t there. She smelled gas and called the police who found Allison with her head in the oven, unconscious but still 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, pilfered johnnies and the realization that even though Beth was gone, so too were 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 the pursuit alone seemed to rescue her from 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 he did practically all the time. On the mornings when Kathleen drove Randall to a job site, he would complain about Allison’s dark moods and over-dependence on Kathleen, said that Kathleen indulged her sister with too much coddling and praise, which, he felt, were the opposite of what was required.

“She needs love.” Kathleen stated assuredly.

“She needs a kick in the ass. Your parents babied her and you’re just making it worse.”

Kathleen sped up and under a yellow light, then pulled in front of the restaurant where Randall was helping lay a tile floor. She leaned in for a kiss, but he hated public gestures of affection. “Love ya,” he hopped out then popped his head in the window for a quick second and flashed a smile. She watched him walk away and wondered what he was thinking and whether it had anything to do with her.

“Honey, of course I’ll give you a glowing recommendation,” Allison said. “I just wish you’d get rid of that barnacle on your ass and move in with me.” They were sitting at Allison’s kitchen table drinking strong, oily coffee.

“I know he’s a wanker. But I love him.”

“You were never particular. That’s your problem.” Allison thumped her index finger on the table. “Don’t… marry… him,” she admonished.

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, he made her feel desperate inside.

Within a week, they were living in the Rose Garden section of the East Dunder trailer park, in unit 33. Kathleen asked again 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 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 ponytail. He had inky hair and glowing green eyes, a lanky body, big hands and feet, and a deep dimple in the center of his chin.

“I have stamina,” he told Souza, petitioning for the job as Super that was advertised in the office, 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 few minutes to yank up his tool belt so it wouldn’t slide over his narrow hips.

Kathleen was content living in the trailer, but she often complained about her job while she prepared dinner. Randall spent evenings prone on the couch drinking beer and staring at the TV, trying not to listen while appearing to listen. “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 she could find her almost-husband any time during the day just by searching the grounds, not that she’d ever go looking. She hoped that by keeping the trailer tidy and always making sure Randall had enough beer that he would want to marry her. She didn’t think of marriage all the time—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 a 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 anything else.”

“What if we want to have company?”

“No company. Just you and me sweetheart. That’s how I like it.”

She knew it was wrong to feel flattered, that what he’d said was vaguely twisted. Still, she kissed him twice. She figured she needed to want less, so that life with her would be effortless 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 done, Allison let it fester. Kathleen hated to think about her sister’s dead relationship; she used to love to visit Allison and Beth, felt ensconced in their ecru apartment with vases and prints from Pier One. They always brewed good coffee and made her something to eat because they said she was too skinny. And she’d loved the kind way they treated each other. She was stunned and grief-stricken when Allison confided that the romance had ended years ago, and she decided right then that even though things with Randall weren’t perfect, she would make it work.

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. When she’d arrive home, he was always sideways on the couch with the remote in his hand, a bottle of beer growing warm on the floor beneath 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 writing 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 and appalled.

“People love to read that shit,” he said.

“OK, Randall. But can’t you write and work for Souza? At least part time?”

“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 improves self-esteem.”

“But that’s why I have to write the book. Because I have no self-esteem. 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. He fussed with his part in the rearview mirror then stepped out of the car.

Kathleen kissed him. “Baby, this is Brenda. She lives on Remainder Way. And this is Randall.”

“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 looked at Kathleen, widened her eyes in apology.

She wore boat shoes with no socks.

“Which one’s yours?” Randall looked around.

“406.”

In his mind he repeated the number over and over so there was no danger of forgetting. He would go first thing in the morning. Brenda and Kathleen made a plan to have coffee at Brenda’s trailer on Monday afternoon. Brenda explained how she worked as a personal care attendant for a rich lady who referred to her as “the girl.” She thrust her middle finger in the air and made Kathleen laugh which Randall realized she hadn’t done in a while.

“I’m going to become a vet tech though, just as soon as I’ve saved enough to go back to school.” Brenda chucked her cigarette and ground it into the pea stone with her worn shoes. “See ya.” They watched her walk off like she was a famous person they’d never see again.

Kathleen worked the late shift that day. When women came into the salon, she would compare them to Brenda: they were shorter or stouter or less angular. They’d colored their hair or had their eyebrows waxed—neither of which Brenda would ever do—and so many of them had that yoga posture she hated while Brenda slouched like she couldn’t give a shit. Usually Kathleen saw women littering up the planet like blackbirds—every one the same. She was a woman who noticed men—though less now that she’d taken up with Randall.

By the time she got home, Randall had eaten the better part of a large pizza. He was drinking a beer and sitting at the small, round table. The TV wasn’t even on.

“Did you get fired?” she asked in a panic, sensing something different. She thumped her purse onto the table.

“Jesus. I was just thinking about my book,” he whined.

She kissed his head, relieved, then took a slice of pizza.

He gazed through her. “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. She went to Vassar on a four-year scholarship.”

“I know. I know. And she was Valedictorian. I know. You’ve told me 500 times. But that was like 20 years ago. It’s time for her to augment her resume.”

“It wasn’t 20 years ago,” Kathleen chewed and considered. “And Allison will do something amazing some day. Maybe she’ll scrawl something on a piece of paper and stick it in a bottle and put it in the ocean. And long after she dies someone will find it and open it and it will be it will be the cure for unhappiness.”

“Yeah, right. That’s her forte,” Randall grabbed for another slice. “And why didn’t you tell that tall chick that I wasn’t your husband?”

“I didn’t need to! You blurted 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, newsflash… if a woman’s interested, she doesn’t care whether you’re married or not.” Randall felt very in demand. He finished off most of his beer in one long swallow, put the bottle on the table for Kathleen to dispose of, and took his position on the couch. But instead of lying down and turning on the television, he sat upright and looked out the window.

Brenda was walking by, bringing her trash to the dumpster in their section of the park, a long way from her own, where he knew for a fact there was another dumpster. She turned and looked over, trying to see inside the windows.

“Hey!” Kathleen hopped up, grabbed a six of empties and hurried out the door. “Oh, hey!” she pretended it was a coincidence, the two of them winding up there.

“Is that just from today?” Brenda teased.

Kathleen held the six up. “Actually, yes. These are Randall’s. I hate beer.”

“I’m a whisky drinker.”

‘Of course you are,’ thought Kathleen.

Brenda lifted the lid on the recycling bin so Kathleen could throw her bottles inside, like a gentleman holds the door open. Then she hauled her own garbage into the trash bin and took a long drag on the cigarette stashed between her lips.

“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 rock.

“Careful,” Brenda gestured in case she needed to catch Kathleen mid-fall.

Kathleen closed the door and flopped down into a chair. “That Brenda’s so great.”

“Her trailer’s a dump,” Randall replied. He had turned on the TV so it wouldn’t look as though he’d been spying. But the fact was he’d never seen a better-looking woman. Kathleen’s beauty was quirky and anomalous: she resembled a sprightly forest nymph with her adolescent body and long, straight nose. But Brenda was perfect architecture. Sure, he loved Kathleen and he knew he would marry her eventually, but he was hankering for Brenda’s weight on him. He knew she was giving him the signals, too—coming all the way to their dumpster, standing close when he’d 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. He wanted to put his hands on her ass and pull her right up against him.

Allison pulled up behind Kathleen’s car, her newly-adopted retired service dog, Jiminy, beside her on the passenger’s seat, the radio blaring Psycho Killer. She accidentally tapped Kathleen’s bumper, then inched back and dragged up on the emergency brake, the sound so loud it traveled into the trailer.

“Your sister’s here,” said Brenda, who was inside having a beer. Kathleen gathered her purse and a bottle of water, and they all piled into Allison’s beat-up Volvo.

“Isn’t this a great car?” Kathleen said to Brenda, wanting everything to be perfect.

Allison got a hole-in-one on every shot. Jiminy waited patiently on the green, 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 was so devastated, she said, she swore she’d never get another dog. And so far she hadn’t.

“You will,” Allison took a swing.

“Can Jiminy sit next to me and be my good luck charm? Just once?” asked Brenda.

“Sorry.” Allison cocked her head and cracked a dry smile. Then she got a hole-in-one on the sixth tee, one of those tricky structures 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,” then followed Allison to the next hole.

Kathleen whispered to Randall, “Whose Tiger?”

“Tiger Woods, stupid.”

Allison and Brenda seemed suddenly to be on a date. They shared a cigarette while Kathleen and Randall waited like chaperones, unable to think of anything to say. Kathleen kept turning to watch them, the truth of it all coming slowly into focus, as if 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 wished he were home working on his book. Whenever he was out he wished he was home writing, but when he was home he never wrote.

“Where’d you learn to play golf like that?” asked Brenda, exhaling a long stream of smoke.

“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 against a tree and crossed her legs at the ankles. She was in no hurry to catch up to Randall and Kathleen now that she’d met Allison, whose dark looks and intense eyes had taken hold. She wanted to touch her—punch her shoulder, put a hand on her back—but she held back.

“I have a special gift for sports that require no athletic ability,” said Allison.

Brenda laughed. “You’re up, Tiger,” she said. Kathleen thought it had started out innocent enough, this Tiger thing, but now it was beginning to sound private and obscene.

When they pulled into the trailer park, they all sat in the car while Brenda reviewed Allison’s miniature golf feats. 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 fast, tired sex. Afterward, Kathleen thought about her vibrator.

“Did you figure her for a dyke?” Randall asked.

“Duh.”

“She doesn’t look like a dyke. All that long 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 woman was flirting with me.”

“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? I’d flirt with you if I were a lesbian.”

“Not everything is who’s good looking and who isn’t. There are other explanations for attraction.”

“Yeah, like what?”

“Don’t you value my kindness? My sense of humor? My intelligence?” Sometimes she felt like she was like talking to a toddler.

“Of course. But I love you for your great little tits.”

She stared off at nothing. “Well, obviously I wasn’t her type either.”

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 hands, their mother’s hands. Or maybe it was just years of shampoo and soap and hairdryers. 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 under the molded blanket, then had to look away.

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