By Whit Bolado
They’d been living together for almost a full year, and they’d been dating for two years before that, ever since he met her at a bar and brought her home. Irene had loved him then, maybe more than she loves him now. But before her, there was Della. Della was a friend of the Russian’s girl, and when the Russian got promoted to sous chef, he had coaxed Randall into celebrating with him, telling Randall he’d pay for the drinks and everything, which never occurred and which Randall was in no position to pass up.
Well, they were both heavy drinkers, Randall and the Russian, and the Russian’s girl, Erin, she’d get bored being sober. So she’d bring a friend when she and the Russian went out, and that night she brought Della. Della was an art student, one of those willowy “collective” chicks, skin so pale she could’ve disappeared in the Baltimore snow if it weren’t for all that red hair, and back then Randall was all about that kind of thing. So when he saw her walk in, trailing behind Erin and the Russian, in black tights and tall boots and a slim green dress that matched her eyes every once in a while, he decided then and there to turn on the charm.
He hardly talked to the Russian, only used him as the straight man for his jokes; and he talked a lot with Erin, who he secretly hated, but put up with for the sake of the Russian. From across the bar, nobody would have thought it would have worked out, but Della liked how Randall’s accent took on the deep South Georgia drawl of his upbringing after a few shots of Jack. At the end of the night, the more obscure stuff came on to the radio, and they bonded over what they felt was underappreciated musical styling. When Erin walked the Russian to her car, her tiny frame supporting his slurring lank, leaving Della to drive Randall back to his house in her parent’s borrowed Suburban.
Later, when it was clear that something in him changed, people got to asking what it was, and he didn’t hesitate to tell us about how that night went. How he fixed her up a dirty mixed drink and regaled her with romanticized stories about the beauty of North Carolina’s rivers and mountains, about the clarity of the sky and the expanse of stars unavailable in their shared Atlanta urbanity. She told him about the grime, the fearful weather, and the forthright bums of Baltimore’s streets; how copper was going to be the most expensive metal in the world; and how she had mixed feelings about being in her hometown. He made a deal with her, that if she could teach him to weld, he would take her to the Ocoee River and teach her to fish. They whisper-talked to each other as they smoked cigarettes on the porch, and burst out with laughter as they sat at the breakfast bar, slowly draining the liquor cabinet, and it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when Randall told a few choice details about how they wound up naked on his mattress in the laundry room.
There was only a small window by the ceiling, and the room was close to pitch dark: the water heater with its metal band that ran around the top of it glistening in a slash of moonlight, the piles of clothing and camping gear hulked brutishly in the corners, hung limp from the walls. Randall and Della lay, shadows draped over one another, in the center of the floor atop Randall’s pilfered dorm-room mattress. The bare branches of the sycamore that grew between Randall’s house and his neighbor’s scratched at the siding in the cold wind, but they were both slick with sweat, and Della slid a finger across Randall’s chest before bending her neck to bite him, playfully, on the shoulder.
“Hey!” He turned, pulling her under him and leaning forward, but she put her palms against his chest, smiling, and he stopped. “What’d you do that for.”
“Oh, I just wanted you to pay attention to me.” She was just a dark shape beneath him, smelling of strawberries and shampoo and gin.
“What else am I going to pay attention to?”
“You were falling asleep, weren’t you?”
“You’re very warm.”
“Is it usually this cold in here?”
Randall rolled back, and she followed so that she was propped up next to him. “Mm, it’s not so bad. It’s cheap is what it is.”
“Are you going to stay here for a while, or are you going to look for somewhere else to live?”
“Just until I can get a steady job. Then I’ll find someplace else. Maybe go back to North Carolina.”
“You wouldn’t stay here?”
“This place is heartless, isn’t it? There’s no peace here.”
“Aww, poor baby, having to deal with the world.” Della nuzzled the words into his neck, cupping his chin in her hand as she did so.
Randall sat up and crossed his legs, and Della lay back in his lap so that her head rested on his stomach, and he slipped a long arm around her body. “I need to be able to get away from people for a while, and see something besides buildings. Working in the Mountains, I don’t really have to get a paycheck, I can just get cash, and spend it how I want, without anyone breathing down my neck.”
“You mean like taxes, and responsibility?”
There’s no doubt he was wild about her. When she wasn’t around, he’d start talking about her, and he’d smile and look at nothing and describe whatever she said that day. He’d go on like that, his cigarette just burning to ash in his fingers until we got him to get up and get going. He did all kinds of crazy romantic things for her, that December, like when it snowed and he walked eleven miles across the shutdown city to give her an EP that she’d left at his house because she’d told him she wanted to listen to it, or when he took her up stone mountain after it was closed, past Snow Mountain and its gaudy Christmas theme to the lights of the radio tower, just the two of them. She did things, too; she’d paint him into her paintings, dark, weird things that we didn’t get but which he would stare at, smiling a crooked smile. She would lead him to bed when he got too drunk. She wouldn’t get too upset with him when he told her he loved her as she draped a blanket over him. In the morning, he’d wake up and ask when Della had left, and we were uneasy telling him anything but that she had left immediately.
Before the spring semester started, he went to drop her off at the airport, and she hugged him and went inside to check in, maybe a little too quickly. No one was around to see it, but we could tell by the empty bottle of gin on the counter and the scraps of wood on the back porch that when he had come home, he had drunkenly smashed apart the bookshelves he had built when he moved in. When Randall’s father showed up early the next morning, it was Chris who ended up answering the door. Randall was supposed to go with him to help clean construction trash from a job site, and lord only knows how he managed the double-pounding of broken bricks on metal dumpsters and a hangover wrought with pure liquor. But someone had to wake him up first. Chris didn’t feel right having Randall’s father/employer see him in such a state, and so convinced the stern old man to remain on the porch (“The, uh, the cat’s thrown up everywhere, you don’t want to come in”) and entered the laundry room to find Randall fast asleep. Against the back wall, he had made a crude but stout frame, in which he had placed one of Della’s charcoal drawings; an owl, smudged and dark, overlooking a barn.
Over the next few months, mornings like this became a regular thing. He wasn’t disruptive or mean, so we were ok with it; we already had rent between the three of us, so it wasn’t like we needed the eighty dollars Randall agreed to pay for living in the laundry room, and we gave him a lot of leeway when it came time to collect that. He was sure that it was temporary, that come the end of Spring, he’d be raft-guiding again, maybe even offered a year-round position. He would tell us that the mountains were where he belonged, that the heating and air was a luxury he couldn’t get used to. It didn’t bother anyone that he didn’t have a real job- we were just doing him a favor while he waited out the dry season.
There were a couple times that he really freaked us out, though. Once, Chris and Adrian had come home from a concert, late, to find all the lights out. Randall was standing by the window, his back to them. They asked him what was going on, and he just said “Oh, nothing. Just. . . Della asked me not to call her any more. Said my letters were making her uncomfortable.”
He was moody for a week after that, spent a lot of time drinking from the bottle while smoking cigarettes and staring at the moon. And then all of a sudden he got real focused on his job at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. He’d tell us about how many tourists he guided, how many lives he saved. He’d talk about how he was gonna whip the outfit into shape this year, how he wasn’t gonna direct traffic like some parking lot attendant this time around. When we found his seasonal renewal rejection notice by the dish rack, crumpled and smoothed again, we didn’t bring it up, at least not with him.
He told us about Irene after he had his job at the hotel for a few weeks, once the weight of those long night hours had settled into him, his skin getting pale and sallow. He said he’d first seen her there, in the bar on the ground floor, rinsing martini glasses for California business men, but maybe that was just the first time he’d really looked at her. She was friends with Erin, too, after all. She had been the one to get Erin her first adult job, and it would be Erin who consoled Irene later on, who would tell us how she was doing. But it was then, when he was working nights and sleeping days and we barely saw him, it was then that Randall says he met Irene. He’d been going to the hotel bar after his shift ended, the only place open downtown after 3. He’d said he found someone to talk to about work, that seemed to get it. It made sense later when he brought Irene home; she knew all the boys at the hotel.
She was a talker, Irene. She knew how to get along with people, how to understand where they were coming from. Even so, she wasn’t the kind of smart you could point to in any particular way. You never walked away from a conversation with Irene feeling like you knew more about the world or people or anything. But she was kind, and even though she got a little too wild trying to keep up with Randall and his gin drinks, she would make breakfast for the house in the morning in apology, always peppy when the rest of us were clutching our coffees and wishing the shades were darker.
Randall never did seem to come up with the reasons why he liked Irene, and when we pressed him on it, he would get mad. It wasn’t exactly a shock when he announced that they were moving in together, out of his laundry room and in to a house a half-mile down the road. When we’d go over, they’d both already be drunk, shove drinks into our hands, pull us aside to talk about the shitty things they had to deal with in regards to one another.
But they kept on. It was particularly hard when they first moved in, what with Randall coming home drunk at seven in the morning from his shift at the hotel, and she getting up a few hours later for her business classes. Erin would go over, when she could, and she and Irene would drink wine and smoke camels and curse men until Irene would calm down. Maybe it was because of Erin, maybe it was something else. But they held on for a while, though.
Randall’s receiver was eight years old, pieced together from spare parts, the speakers housed in pressboard. Like certain beloved first cars, it had survived via circumspect repair many potential tragedies, and played a distorted tinny sound only after some experienced coaxing. The exposed wires behind the device hung like spilled guts, and Irene avoided them as she tried to figure out how to get it to play the cheesy song she wanted to listen to, punching buttons at random until at last the center speaker began to belt out its shaky vibration.
Joining in on the opening lines with her own strained voice, she spun in the brightly lit kitchen and danced over to the counter where the Bay Bridge stood in its paper bag. She poured herself a generous glass and opened the back door to let the music spill out into the night as she lit a Camel that she had liberated from Randall’s pack where it lay forgotten on the kitchen table by her school books and the groceries she had purchased earlier.
When she was finished, she reentered the house, but left the door open, opting instead to take another Camel and top off her glass, now only humming along, tapping her foot intermittently.
When she was done with the second, she looked at the clock over the oven and turned the music down. She stood for a moment before the receiver, looking at the loose and flapping fabric that had come away at the edge of the speaker. Then she turned to face the kitchen table, with its still-bagged spinach and tomatoes, and picked up her cell phone.
“Hey, Erin, it’s me. What are you up to? . . . Oh, just waiting for Randall. . . .” Irene’s’ voice had a nasally sound to it when she wasn’t singing. “He was supposed to be here by now, he always does this. . . . Yeah, we were going to make dinner.” As she spoke, she fished a bag of chips out of the cabinet above the.
“He said he was getting off early tonight, he was supposed to be here, like, an hour ago. . . . I can’t call him because he lost his phone again. . . . He’s probably… drinking with the boys. . . .” Irene filled her glass again and carried it and the chips into the living room, placing them on the glass coffee table in front of the TV. “No, I’m ok, I was just calling. I guess I’m lonely. . . . Yeah, sorry for calling so late. . . . Ok, you too.”
Irene set her phone face up on the table and picked chips out of the bag one by one as she perused Netflix, eventually settling on an episode of “Bones” that she had watched a few nights ago. When she had finished her glass, she stood up and went to the kitchen to cork what was left of the bottle and put the vegetables into the crisper. Before she went to bed, she taped a note to the window of the microwave, written in large, looping black marker, with a heart drawn on the side.
There’s a frozen pizza in the freezer, and some veggies in the crisper if you want to use them. I also bought you a six-pack, it’s on the bottom shelf. Feel free to wake me up when you come to bed so that I can give you a good night kiss!
It seemed for a moment like things were going to work out for them, like it was going to get better, before Randall told us about what happened. We all thought that they had more or less worked out a kind of rhythm, that they had figured each other out a little. Everyone knows how difficult it is to move in with your significant other; you find out things about them you didn’t expect, little things that shouldn’t bother you as much as they do. When we went over to their Christmas party, everything seemed calm. Maybe it was the festive atmosphere, maybe it was the strong eggnog Randall made, but he seemed cheerful in the gaudy Christmas sweater that Irene’s mother had made him, and she seemed happy in the black cocktail dress she had purchased for the occasion. When Irene yelled to Randall from the kitchen, he got up without pause to help her with the burning cookies.
She fawned over him that night, sitting on the arm of his chair and running a red-nailed hand down the front of his shirt while she told us about what their garden was going to look like and how when the holiday season was over, they were going to go away to Florida for a weekend. Randall would sip his eggnog and grab her hand through the wool of his sweater to raise it back to an appropriate height and say “Yup, it’s gonna be great.” It was how he responded to everything, and whenever he said it, Irene would squeal and pull at his chin for a sloppy kiss.
When Randall and the Russian went to the attic to see about replacing the insulation, Irene grabbed at our hands, made us put down our glasses, and dragged us into the side room to show us what she had gotten Randall for Christmas. “It’s for the house. Or really, it’s for the both of us,” she had told us, using a stage-whisper that echoed off the walls. “Don’t tell Randall, I want to see his face when he opens it.” Holding the sheet up so we could see, she squealed again and squeezed Erin’s arm with her free hand.
She had taken a Facebook photo of the two of them when they had gone to a relative’s wedding, and had it blown up and framed. A three-foot by five-foot color photo, slightly re-touched, of the two of them in formal wear; Randall smiling a drunken smile, Irene holding on to his arm.
Della dabbed at the corner of her mouth with a napkin and looked over the coffee cups on the table at Randall’s seeking expression. “It was so funny running in to you! I totally didn’t think you’d still be in Atlanta after all this time.”
“I didn’t either, really, but you go where the work is.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s true. I always thought it was better to go after the things you love, and work out the details later.”
“Sometimes that’s easier said than done, right?”
Randall coughed and lit a cigarette, then shook the pack and proffered it to her from across the table.
“No, thank you. I quit a year ago.”
“Oh, well, do you mind? I can put it out.”
“No, it’s fine, you get used to it.”
“Well. . . .”
“So you are working, then.”
“Yeah, I do repair work for a hotel. I work nights, mostly, sometimes double graveyard. It’s crazy work, and borderline illegal for me, because I don’t technically have a license.”
“I’m surprised, I guess, to hear you say that.”
“Why is that?”
“Because you hate buildings.”
“I don’t. . . I don’t hate them, I just don’t want to be around too many of them.”
“And here you are, spending your days making the big ones do their thing.”
Randall stubbed his half-finished cigarette into the ashtray and gulped at his coffee. “Well, what about you? What are you doing now?”
“I’m teaching art classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, but most of the time, I’m just trying to get people to buy my work. That’s why I’m here, there’s a gallery that wants to buy my Statue of a Woman Harvesting Eggplants.”
“How much are you selling it for?”
“Eight thousand, hopefully.”
“Yeah, that’d tide me over for a few months, it’d be nice. Oh, speaking of, I got to go, I need to take a shower and get a haircut before I go to make the deal.”
“You look beautiful already, do you really have to do anything else?”
“Randall! That was nice of you to say, but my hair is all over the place.”
“No, really, I mean it, you’re absolutely stunning.”
“Well, aren’t you just as confidant as ever.” Della had her purse in her lap, and was fishing through it. “I got to do it, though. It’s my job.”
Randall reached out across the table to catch hold of her hand as she went to lay a five dollar bill on the table. “No, really.”
Della pulled her hand back, out of his grasp, and flicked the money onto the table as she backed her chair away. “Randall, don’t make this weird, ok?”
“I just, I wanted to tell you, I never stopped thinking about you, and when I saw you at the hotel, I couldn’t let myself miss a chance—”
“Randall, I’m sorry, but we were never a serious thing, and all those drunken calls at two in the morning…” She stood up and put her purse on her shoulder. “Listen, I get that you’re unhappy, but you haven’t done anything about it. It’s been, what, three, four years since you came back to Atlanta? I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”
It wasn’t until we found out about the college girl that worked the desk at the hotel that we found out about that visit from Della, and then we learned about everything all at once, like something had broken inside Randall. It all came flooding out. It wasn’t like watching a train wreck in slow motion, either, but more like waiting so long to see it happen and then blinking to open your eyes to the destruction left behind. So, after Randall took off to pursue the barely-legal college girl, Irene was, understandably, more than distraught. She just about dropped out of school all together, skipped her classes, showed up late for work, couldn’t or didn’t want to figure out how to pay the power bill until it was shut off and her landlord took her downtown himself to help her set it up. She would clean like a freak for days and then spread trash around the empty living room floor during sobbing fits. She would call us and ask us why he did it, where he was.
We helped her when we could. She needed a lot of attention. Those of us that knew where Randall had gone acted like we didn’t, and those of us that didn’t were glad for the fact. He had taken what was left of the furniture so that Irene had the luxury of wandering from an old couch to a new bed and back, in this big hard-wood floor house of theirs with the giant kitchen and the unused second floor. No wonder she tried to sleep in someone else’s bed every night.
When she tells us she thinks Randall will come back, she treats it like a secret. She’ll lean in, the smell of gin on her breath, and whisper it to you, one hand on your knee, the other working the slipping bra strap back on to her shoulder.