Joyland

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Honesty is Bragging When You're Me: A Portrait of a Bitcoin Millionaire

by Tess Fahlgren

edited by Kait Heacock

Reading Wired magazine on the toilet at his parents’ house in 2012, Randon learned about Bitcoin. When the cryptocurrency was still young and cheap, he invested. Five years later it reached peak value and for a few months he was a multimillionaire -- he’s shown me the graph. To indicate when he stopped cashing out, his cursor hovered over the line just before its spike. He was worried about tax season. After that peak, a steep decline.

Many, many people have made Bitcoin fortunes that dwarf his. Yet, when I see Bitcoin-billionaire teens on the covers of glossy magazines I think— I have one of those! A Bitcoin guy. My guy. When I asked him if he regrets not cashing out entirely, he shook his head. “I own two houses and my favorite car, Tess.” He’s living the dream.


This is the year Randon turns 30. Recently he chopped off the thin turquoise ponytail he hid under the vintage red and yellow Barnum & Bailey baseball hat he found in his parents’ basement. Most days he pairs it with big plastic glasses and a black-and-white striped hoodie he bought at the mall over a decade ago.

He’s average height and fairly thin. Under his beard I’ve noticed his skin is red and flaky. Worried, I checked his bathroom cabinet for moisturizer, found neon hair dye instead. His hands are smooth and pale; he always wears shoes. When he walks, his feet point outward just a little bit, and he tends to hunch forward a little, nervously applying Lip Smackers in Cotton Candy or Bubblegum.

We met in middle school on a Tuesday afternoon. Our group of friends came together every week at a coffee shop to work on a plan to build a skatepark. It was 2005—most of the boys had long haircuts with bangs that swooped across their faces. I wore tan and blue skate shoes; the bottom of my flared jeans frayed from being stepped on.

We grew up in Glasgow, Montana, a small town pressed into the corner made by Canada and North Dakota, on a huge expanse of plains it feels the rest of the world has forgotten. To get to the mall, families expeditioned nearly five hours on a thin straight highway south, through cattle fields and rough prairie. With a population of 3,000, it wasn’t common to meet someone new. Yet, a stranger sat next to me, a little too close. I felt something on my stomach and looked down. He slid a pop bottle into the kangaroo pocket of my sweatshirt and wouldn’t meet my eye until I shoved it back, annoyed. When he eventually introduced himself, I thought he said “Brandon,” until someone corrected me later.

Eventually I must have decided Randon was harmless. His phone number was easy to memorize (XXX-RAND) and he had a driver’s license, so when I had detention and missed the bus, I’d call him for a ride. He’d pick me up in his big old Lincoln so we could take the long way home, through pale scrubby flatlands with the enormous blue of the sky around us. We cut the malt of hay-smell in our mouths with the sharp tang of Taco Shack pop, condensation melting the thin waxed cups. Even though he hated the whining vocals and light guitar I listened to, he let me choose the music. He would have rathered listen to dudes open-throat scream over a bass-heavy roar, or a synthetic boots-skirts-boots-skirts beat, but, IPod in my hands, I talked him through all my favorite songs, replaying the best parts and explaining the lyrics.

That’s my side of the story, but when I ask why we’re friends he says, “Probably because I thought you were cute.”

I knew he thought so, and capitalized on that devotion. There were times that one friend or another would pull me aside to tell me that I needed to stop being Randon’s friend. “He likes you too much,” they said. “It’s mean.” They were right, but here we are.

Years later, after I’d met my now-partner, I asked Randon over text message if he still had feelings for me. No, he said. “My love for you is all in my [heart emoji], not my [eggplant emoji].” Now the three of us are a little trio; I let them talk about cars so I can lounge on the couch or go to bed early.

Fourteen years after we first met, we’re having champagne with my brother and his fiancée to celebrate the New Year. Madelyn moves to pour some for Randon and I stop her. He hasn’t had a drink in years. It doesn’t mix well with his medication.

“I can have a little,” he says, and with a quick jerk of his head, he downs the whole thing. It feels like an act of rebellion.

“What’s something everyone is proud of from 2018?” I ask, and Randon makes a harrumph noise that means, Nothing. I roll my eyes and speak for him. “I think the best thing to come out of 2018 is your resolution to find love in 2019.” He nods deeply, tucking his chin deep into his chest. “Well, work harder at finding love.”

At one point in this search, Randon sent me a text, saying “What do you think I’m looking for in a girl? I’m pretty sure I just want a friend.”

I told him I thought he was looking for a laid-back girl with a good sense of humor and interesting hobbies. “Like a friend,” he pointed out.

“Girlfriends are just sexy friends,” I replied.

This texted conversation was sandwiched between giving him my social security number in order to be made the beneficiary of his accounts, and helping him outline his interests for yet another dating site.

“You like fun,” I said.

“I do?” To be honest, it was a difficult list to make. Randon likes race cars, video games, and working on projects alone in his house.

“Yeah!” I reminded him that he likes good conversations, listening to good music, blowing stuff up and doing science experiments.

“You’re too good to me, T.”

“Nah.”

“I’m just filled with self-doubt.”

When you’ve been long-distance friends for as long as we have—the better part of ten years—the entire relationship gets boiled down into these little truth-bombs. Our conversation is fluid, moving steadily forward, its headwaters back in time. He’s a friend made of glowing metal and glass that I can keep in my pocket.

In this way, we’ve gotten to know each other so well. His anxiety makes him cagey, and I often speak for him when we’re in a group or with strangers. If someone asks him what he does, he’ll say, “I don’t know. I make car parts?”

“What kind?”

“I don’t know!”

“For what kind of car?”

“Honda.”

“Just any Honda?”

“The right kind of Honda!”

Usually before it gets to that point, I’ll notice and speak for him, explaining that he designs and sells specialty car parts for people who want to rebuild their Honda engines. For example, if a person wants to make their engine “super fast,” buying the piece that Randon sells means they wouldn’t have to cut a hole in the hood of their car. The parts are beautiful; one, an adaptor, is a slip of pale silvery metal with the company’s logo: Prank Parts.

He also makes keycaps for mechanical keyboards; bulky designer keyboards with a satisfying clackety racket when typing fast. A hobby community likes to trick them out, buying keycaps online. Randon figured out how to make a mold, then cast caps in resin. He experimented with different pigments and dyes, trying nail polish and eyeshadow, fine gold powder, food dye. Eventually—after his desk was covered in glue and resin and paint, and he had stacks of organizational drawers filled with good ones and bad ones, soft ones and off-color ones—he asked me what he should call the business, but sent a typo, asking, “What should I call the cry cap business?” So now it’s called Cry Caps, and the logo is a watercolor I made of a baby crying.

I will happily tell any number of people all about Randon’s businesses, I’ll brag him up while he stands right there, but I wish I didn’t have to.

Tonight, Randon drives us to our favorite gas station for snacks and to fill his extra-large soda cup with Diet Mountain Dew. The cup is old and reused, so worn out the logo is illegible, the translucent plastic almost bare. He got it from that very gas station two years earlier and refilled it at least once a day. For the first year he used a pink aluminum straw until all the color wore off, then he got a green heavy-duty plastic one. The lids, he says, don’t last long.

Before he stopped eating carbs, he introduced me to Golden Grahams cereal bars at that gas station. I used to drop in on my way to school, just to move a box of Charleston Chews from the shelf into the freezer, then come back with him and buy the newly-frozen candy. We had a system, and it all revolved around the car. From our after-school drives, we graduated to Randon pulling into the alley behind my house after dark. I’d sneak down the creaky stairs in my socks and escape out my parents’ back door, closing it behind me as lightly as I could. In the safety of his passenger seat, I drank from the briefcase of liquor he kept under the seat: Fireball, UV Blue, Boone’s Farm. The passenger side floorboard of his car was coated with my candy wrappers, the seat permanently stained, the mirror on the visor broken, because—who else?—me.

In the gas station parking lot, fresh neon soda in hand, he betrays a rare moment of pride. “Look at this piece of ass,” he says, and pats his shiny black Tesla on the rear fender.

His car is one of the many ways in which Randon’s life has improved, yet another thing Bitcoin has afforded him. It’s the love of his life; shiny and black and completely impractical for a town like Glasgow. Besides the one in his house, the nearest charger is 276 miles away. To get to it, a driver has to preserve energy by driving 55 mph, tacking on an extra hour onto the drive. To visit me in Minneapolis he drove for three days.

The first time I rode in his car, he stopped in the middle of the highway, paused for a moment, then punched the accelerator. We warped forward like nothing I’d ever felt before and I was immediately rollercoaster sick.

Something vital in the Tesla eventually broke from doing this little show too many times. With any other vehicle, he’d simply pull it into his dad’s garage and fix the thing. His Dad owned a successful RC Car Parts distribution company. Their house is on a large lot and their yard is an overgrown museum of motorcycles, vintage scooters, and classic cars. They have a drift tricycle, a handful of electric cars, a long black hearse, a giant pogo stick. His sister used to drive a pristine black and red 1950’s Cadillac. Randon used the space to build race cars. With the very pieces he designed for Prank Parts, he built one he calls his “sleeper” car, which has a baby seat in the back and lumber strapped to the roof to make it inconspicuous–and a zero-to-sixty of five seconds.

However, Tesla doesn’t sell car parts or instructions on how to use them, making it impossible for Randon to work on his car at home. He thought about buying another one to replace it and was so conflicted I got texts almost every night. Money wasn’t an issue, so most people would buy a new car. However, he loved his car. That car, the one that had been totaled and revived before he bought it. And, second, he was preoccupied by the idea that he could drop a hundred thousand dollars on a new car when a friend could be in need at any time. He wanted the ability to be generous. In the end, he pirated Tesla’s information and rebuilt it himself.

I like to play with the giant computer screen on the center console. With my fingers I can zoom around the world to find places I’ve lived or traveled, distracting both of us from the fact that he picked me up because I asked him to, because I’m sad. My mom and I got in a fight, just like in the old days. Giving up on the map, I flop my head back against the headrest. Out the window, the town I’ve known my whole life, now frozen in negative-twenty degrees, rolls past.

Almost nothing has changed in the twenty-eight years since I was born in the local hospital, the same one my brother works at now. The population has dwindled slightly, now closer to 2,000. Most men around town wear Wrangler jeans and t-shirts, worn-out John Deere ball caps. The women have all seemed to invest in really nice false eyelashes and tattooed eyebrows that actually look really good. Generally, the style is to have beautifully curled, long blonde hair. Mostly everyone we graduated with has kids now, most are married, some divorced. High school sports are a big deal to people of all ages. As we drive to Randon’s house, he sits with his hands in his lap, letting the car navigate us through town. I don’t know who he’s showing off for anymore.

We pull through the snow up to his house. In his garage, newly installed lights show unpainted walls of particle board. We park behind his little electric car, a Nissan Leaf he’s renamed the Beaf, because he installed a lift kit and gave it chunky off-road tires. On its roof he’s installed an empty camera mount to make it look “more extreme.” We climb the stairs to his new office and I glance behind me to watch the silver handles on his car retreat into its doors.

His new office, painted minty green and sherbet orange, overlooks the garage. The far wall is white splattered with pink. The bathroom is still only a shell of a room, but the walls are dark green and the ceiling brown. He has yet to add the salmon pink trim along the edges, which will finalize The Simpson’s “Ned Flanders” theme.

The house itself is small, with less square feet than the garage. Its walls are a comforting pink and turquoise, like cupcake frosting. Above a quietly whirring 3D printer hangs a giant oil painting I did of a cartoon Bitcoin, arms in the cotton candy sky, on a roller coaster about to descend.

I ask for hot water and he says, “I’m going to have to find my mug.”

For Christmas, Bob Stormer gave his son a toaster. It was a terrible gift, not only because it was uncreative, but because Randon’s kitchen is barely visible under his 3D printers, cables, boxes of hardware and resin casting supplies.

“What’re these?” I ask, gesturing toward probably 200 multi-colored cylinders spilling out of a cardboard box on the counter.

“Those are my batteries!” He sounds exasperated, as if it can’t be more obvious. “For my electric bicycle!” From a box on top of his refrigerator exploding with plastic, bright orange assault rifles, he pulls a Nerf gun and shoots me in the arm. I ask if he’s going to start commuting with a bicycle instead of his car and he shrugs.

“Some girls like bicycles more than Teslas.” I want to say, But would you like those girls? But I ask instead how the batteries are so perfectly colored for him: red, orange, hot pink. They apparently come out of laptops that way. “Did you pull all the batteries out of laptops yourself?”

“Most of them. I had six or seven.” Laptops? While we talk he finds a can of spray paint in a drawer. “Oh man! I was going to use this to paint this part,” he says, pointing at a small piece in a computer console sitting on the counter. “But I already installed it, so I guess I can’t.”

“Who is that computer for?”

“For guests. It’ll be the guest computer.”

The toaster was a terrible gift, too, because he eats only frozen vegetables microwaved with cheese and pepperoni. He eats it with his single spoon in his only bowl. He doesn’t do “the dishes,” he does “dish” in his paint-stained sink.

Truly, any gift would have been ill-received. Randon hates presents. He says, bristling with annoyance, that if he wants something he’ll buy it himself.

The printer on his stove is building a little box to store a deck of cards. In the hallway, a collection of drones hangs from a rack on the wall. His nicest tennis shoes are displayed on 3D printed shelves. On the floor are two more computers. He built them for a friend and his wife, complete with transparent cases and interior LED lighting.

I stick my purse and phone into my plastic sack of gas station food and carry it like a safety blanket upstairs, where there is just enough room for the loveseat, one side of which is sagging and torn, and the extra-large purple bean bag he bought when we lived in Missoula a decade ago. Hanging above the stairs is a giant TV.

Cars and couches, a texting thread; though our relationship has changed over the years, it still lives within these intimate spaces.

After high school, I moved across the state to Missoula for college. Randon came, too, but didn’t enroll. It seemed natural that he would follow. Although I lived in the dorms, I spent most of my time at his house, an old two-story with a porch and four roommates. They were dark times, and when I was faced with Randon’s anxiety the most. I once took him to a sushi dinner to introduce him to a friend. He sat across from me, face totally still, staring at his little white plate even as he sipped at his ice water. His silence insulted me. I was furious.

I have precious few specific memories of this time. We did whippets and watched Rugrats on his big-screen, drinking cheap whisky from plastic goblets we bought at Walmart. One night I drank enough to line up some friends and dare them to dare me to punch them—they did, so I did. Solid fist-to-gut, surprise fist-to-face, I just laughed and laughed. In pictures, my hair is dyed dark, my stomach and cheeks swollen, eyes deeply ringed with shadows. I remember some nights I crawled into his lofted bed—purple sheets, red quilt—and sobbed into his chest.

That time in Missoula has ballooned beyond itself. I live and relive those months, turning them over like I’m looking for worms under a heavy stone. We were ugly and cruel and in the kind of angry entirely unromantic love that keeps people trapped inside each other.

Now I can see the meandering cause-and-effect of our relationship, of our mental states. For all of my teen years, I had a boyfriend named Eric. He was skinny, with floppy red hair, thick sideburns and clear, pale green eyes. He was damaged and loved me and did it all wrong. He was jealous of Randon and tried to stop me from hanging out with him, so when we broke up – which happened a lot – I, of course, called Randon. He hated Eric so much he made a codeword for him, so he wouldn’t have to say or hear his name.

When Eric and I broke up for the almost-final time, it was because the local cops had found out he was selling drugs. After a brief meeting with them, he skipped town and drove to Nevada in the middle of the night. I remember a text: “I’ve been all over this country and you’re still the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.” I didn’t see him again for nearly a year.

Months later, after Randon and I had moved to Missoula and were well into our whiskey habit, some mutual friends visited. From them I learned Eric had told the police who was selling him the drugs. This made him, apparently, a rat. I remember standing in the shadows of Randon’s front step, talking to this person I barely knew about someone I thought I did, and recognizing the words he used from the kinds of movies where gaunt young men die in the corners of hotel rooms. The night air was thick with cigarette smoke, this person I spoke with stood with three other near-strangers who glared into the night, ignoring me entirely. It was then that I saw a choice yawning before me. By springtime Randon packed up and moved back in with his parents. Fall found me moving to a city in Washington I’d never been, alone.

I flop onto the loveseat, raise the footrest, snuggle in. We’re here because I’m sad. Just like in the old days. “Can I tell you what happened?”

“Go for it.”

Like a machine, I attempt to explain why I’m sad. Tonight, it’s about my mother. Yesterday it might have been residual pain from five years ago, or fear about the future. My story whirs out of me, gaining traction until my chest is tight and my voice too high-pitched, asking, “Why is she like that? Why does she do this?”

I don’t know exactly what Randon thinks of these moments, but he is good at listening quietly and then reminding me that things are okay. “Your mom loves you,” he says, and pats me on the back. It feels like when we were teenagers, when I’d go to him for someone to be nice to me for awhile. It seems so unfair, now. How could I have asked him to be there for me, when he was suffering even more? Back then, he had told me he was suicidal more than once. At one point he blamed me, said he almost drove off – was aiming for – a bridge, because I didn’t like him back.

Randon pulls his OKCupid profile up on the giant TV hanging from the ceiling. I try to look at it objectively. He’s into trap music, rap, hip-hop. I ask what his favorite era of music is and he says, “Today! Right now. Tomorrow.”

He’d left his profile summary blank. How do you write a summary of Randon?

“Be honest,” I say. “Say, ‘I’m small business- and homeowner, I made a bunch of money on Bitcoin and I drive a Tesla.’”

“Honesty is bragging when you’re me,” he says.

“You have to tell them sometime. When would you tell them about the Bitcoin?”

“Probably wouldn’t,” he replies.

Drinks: Never

Smokes: Never

Relationship to Marijuana: Used to smoke, but not anymore

Religion: No

Capitalism: Poopy

Do you believe in horoscopes? No

Kids: No

When would we have sex?: Probably after sixth date

Would seriously consider meeting up, but not necessarily.

How is this the same person I’ve always known? Sitting on his couch, in the house he owns, scrolling through his OKCupid profile that makes him look shockingly close to a straight-edge nerd – how did this happen?

One night in Missoula we did salvia, an extreme but legal psychotropic. Its effects are supposed to last only five minutes. The right way to do it is to load a bowl on a bong and take the whole thing in one deep hit. Two girls from my dorm were with us that night. One pissed the bean bag, the other ended up swimming on the kitchen floor, attempting a breaststroke.

I wanted to prove that I could do it right. In one deep breath I inhaled, then continued to pull in air as the bongwater bubbled until Randon took it away. Or, I guess that’s what happened. I remember that there was nothing. Then I saw, as though I’d never seen anything before, a bunch of Randons layered like a stack of playing cards spread across a table. The excess of Randons with scared faces overwhelmed me. I knew I had to pick the right one, or I’d end up in the wrong place. I wonder now what those other Randons would have been like, what worlds they lived in.

I heard my own voice asking, “Did I fall down?” I was crying. Something was wrong, I couldn’t think. I must have fallen down the stairs and hit my head and now Randon was going to have to take me to the hospital. I would ruin his night and he’d have to live with the fact that I’d lost my mind. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Did I fall down?”

It took me longer to come out of the high than is usual. I held Randon’s shoulders in order to know for sure, “We’re physical. We’re physical.” I was shocked to remember that the world was a physical place and we walked around on it with our feet, standing upright.

Then for half an hour I drew on a piece of paper “the truth” about the universe. Randon was terrified. He told his roommates, “I broke Tess.”

It’s an embarrassing, stupid memory, but sometimes it’s that Randon I still come looking for. Even though the house with the alley where he’d pick me up, the car he drove to do it, the boyfriend I complained about – all of that is gone, I still look for his lime green vaporizer and the plastic tub of drugs with the warning written in Sharpie: Don’t let Tess do Salvia.

I recently reminded Randon of the time he almost drove off the bridge, and he says it’s almost a happy memory now, because it shows how much better he’s gotten. We don’t get drunk anymore, we don’t get high. We drive in cars and send secret messages through space. Randon doesn’t live with his parents, or move with me to new cities – he lives in his Bitcoin-bought house and searches for someone to fall in real love with.

We used to say Randon is chrome and I’m leather, he’s purple and lime green and I’m, like, brown or something. For my twenty-second birthday he bought us complimentary tattoos: I drew his, the angular steps of a digital wave, with a Sharpie. He drafted mine, a wiggly analog wave, in Photoshop. The lines are blotchy, already blue. Every once in a while, we press our forearms together. His skin is soft and pale, translucent, even in the summer. Mine is darker, freckled. We try to match up the blotchy lines of tattoos poorly done.