Since boyhood Keith had walked on his toes and by eighteen he could no longer put his heels down at all. His odd walk had mushroomed his calves to a size almost larger than his wiry thighs. I’d noticed him bouncing down the hall a few years before and then forgotten him altogether. That was the other thing about Keith; he was utterly forgettable.
A mutual weirdo friend (of whom I had many) introduced us the summer after our senior year. Through our friend I was aware that during high school Keith and a few others had robbed the school on numerous occasions. To the others it was a game; to Keith it was serious business. He fancied the group a professional ring of gentlemen thieves and a disagreement over proper pilfering protocol had severed his only true friendship. My neatly hidden lack of stability, his desire for chivalry and escape and our mutual availability proved a seductive combination; soon he was my confidant. Outwardly, ours was an unlikely friendship; I was popular in the chameleon-like way of the morbidly insecure and he was an unabashed loner. I indulged in any escape I could find, heavy drinking, smoking and flirting with drugs, while he isolated himself against anything “pedestrian” with classical music and higher ideas. As the friendship grew, outside appearances and his past became irrelevant out of necessity.
In the beginning it was clear that he was in love with me, which I gracefully ignored while accepting the latest tacky ornament he’d purchased at a gem show. It was rather a game; I pretended to be oblivious to his intentions and he never acted upon them. As the months went by we settled into an odd sort of comfort built around our individual desperation and world of isolation. I was near collapse from a lifetime of emotional repression and finally had found someone who would walk into my family’s home and not give a damn about the rules if I called in distress. Keith answered to no higher authority than our friendship.
Equipped with two lawn chairs and a card table, Keith was capable of creating the illusion of formal entertaining in his parent’s garage. “So what’ll it be, Beautiful?” he’d ask, eying neat rows of canned goods while rubbing his hands together. I suspected he referred to me as beautiful, hoping the topic of conversation would not, once again, revolve around my freakish obsession with the hideous deformity of the body part du jour – or maybe he thought I was beautiful. He listened to me for hours as he pan-fried smelt he caught in the Delta and provided proof or his advanced sophistication by opening bottles of seven-dollar wine. I confided pent-up hurt, alienation and despair. He would knowingly reassure me that I was wonderful and beautiful and superior to all other young women, then launch into diatribes about the frivolity of the popular and the stupidity of mainstream culture.
While my life was openly examined with dual intensity, my knowledge of Keith was limited to whatever he wished. A visit to his room produced more questions than answers. Dark and damp, it had urine in various bottles on almost every surface. It reeked of chemicals, dirty laundry and piss; I graciously dismissed the bottles of urine as an unusual and distasteful idiosyncrasy. From an extensive collection of pornography he pulled out an old Playboy magazine from the seventies to show me his ultimate woman, the “flawless” Deborah Jo something. He talked of her adoringly and I suspected he truly believed she was real and attainable. This led to the queasy realization that my pedestal could be in his closet a space or two from Deborah Jo’s. I had the urge to sit him down and say, “Keith, tall, pasty white guys with thinning red hair and crooked noses rarely hook-up with Playmate types,” but resisted, wanting to avoid providing a shot of reality – or receiving one.
At nineteen I moved to a studio apartment in a gated retirement community that was renting to younger people (an ill-fated experiment) with the money my parents had saved for my education. All my treasures followed me: the red Victorian loveseat with wayward springs, the art cards from Europe to adorn my walls, the claw-footed table with mismatched chairs, and Keith. I spent the first couple of months abusing my new freedom, as I now had a lair and enough money to exercise my indulgences. Keith stood by and played the ever-solicitous host, preparing grilled Swiss cheese and mustard sandwiches for anyone hanging out and soon became an expected fixture. If, by chance, he weren’t around, someone would inevitably ask about his absence. I mourned the loss of our old, separate friendship, as I watched him slowly siphon my life and everyone in it.
One night I realized he’d stopped going home at all.
The friendship was becoming a silent amorphous creature that filled the apartment and clung to the walls. Though he’d once supplied wise understanding and steadfast support, he now employed an ugly mix of bravado and condescension. As I withdrew from his ministering, he grew distant and resentful. Though there were a few good times, we started to live quite separately in my little studio. I had a boyfriend (I always had a boyfriend) who frequently stayed with me and I spent much of my time with him. I could almost hear Keith moping as he slept on the other side of the short wall that divided the sleeping space from the living room.
Keith perked up somewhat when he acquired mystery money. While his meager monetary contributions were appreciated, they didn’t have the desired effect of appeasing me. I had questions.
“How are you getting the money?” I inquired cautiously, knowing Keith was incapable of work.
“Oh, I’ve been helping a couple guys I know learn how to disable alarm systems,” he sheepishly replied.
“And they’re paying you?” I pushed.
“Yep, with a little cash and anything I want from their warehouse,” he answered without looking at me. He related a few more details of his new venture and then added, “If you want anything, I can get it.”
Crap. Temptation. I was exhausted by our standoff and had mixed feelings about his revelation. The happy possibility he could earn enough to get out of my space mingled with the aching knowledge that he truly was slipping away.
Keith flatly ignored my passive-aggressive pleas to leave. My obvious misery (which I paraded around), emotional withdrawal and avoidance were pointedly disregarded. As I grew more frustrated and angry, he became more erratic and started staying out all night, coming back looking progressively more haggard. I welcomed his absences and even loaned him my car on a few occasions.
“Where were you?” I asked once, trying to ignore the scratches and bleeding lip.
“Don’t wanna talk about it,” he winced.
Finally, one morning Keith came back from an all night whatever, frantic and having trouble breathing. His face contorted as he tried to speak. He was unintelligible. My suspicions about his waning sanity were now confirmed. I held him in an attempt to calm him and in a moment of clarity (and adrenaline) whispered, “You can’t stay here anymore; you’re killing me.” Perhaps hearing my despondency triggered something within him (which briefly inspired me to feel the cosmos cared) because within a week he was gone. During that week I escorted an unenthusiastic Keith on the search for a place that wasn’t mine. The apartment he settled upon (and would have him) was in a once upscale complex. Windows covered in aluminum foil, beat-up cars and a locked entry gate told the story of the crowd to which it now catered. The one bedroom apartment was nice enough, though, and had a large living area that included an open kitchen and vaulted ceilings. As a parting gesture Keith gifted me with a stereo, which I immediately coveted as if it weren’t mine; partially because I’d never had anything so nice and partially because it wasn’t mine. I used it once.
I then became decidedly unavailable to Keith. My unsuspecting friends became his outlet for the “fried smelt, wine, sympathetic ear” treatment. I was told that Keith was doing well and had furnished his place with “all sorts of interesting stuff.” After some time and numerous calls from Keith, I paid a visit. I was stunned by the array of crap he had collected. Much of it appeared to be expensive in the “I’ve got money but no taste” category. The numerous collectables made it a worthy retreat for one of the old ladies in my complex.
Keith sat on the couch with an alarming vacancy. We both knew his little “job” couldn’t explain why his place was now the warehouse. Once his story started, I was ensnared.
“There’s this guy in the hills named Pisano whose part of the Mafia. He’s a dangerous man. I’ve been doing the work for him,” he started, “and I wanted to protect you so I didn’t tell you the whole story.”
“How do you know him?” I asked weakly.
Keith sat back and confidently replied, “I’ve known him for years. He knows of my reputation and wanted someone with expert knowledge of house alarms.”
“So is everything in here from his warehouse?” I almost whispered as I fought back nausea.
“Most of it,” Keith grimaced, then squirmed, adding, “He also arranges ‘dates’ for me.”
In the middle of questioning his motive for relaying that last tidbit, I heard him say, “Oh, and he knows who you are and where you live. He or his people could be watching you at any time.”
I was alone, but trapped. Now the nebulous Pisano lurked everywhere and made grilled Swiss cheese and mustard sandwiches and slept on my floor. My feeble strategy for survival was to stay away from Keith as much as possible; there wasn’t much else to do. Calling the police, something limited to the sane, didn’t occur to me because of my messed up allegiance to Keith, the stolen stereo and the possible threat of Pisano. How true Keith’s stories were was irrelevant: he was clearly nuts and dealing with other criminals. I felt tainted.
In my (few) subsequent visits to Keith, he related the latest details of his booming career while sipping wine from a gaudy crystal glass. There were stories of the work he was doing, his importance in the organization, the booty (both kinds) he received as compensation and anything else that would illustrate how successful and respected he was. From his sideways glances while talking of women, I knew he wanted me to recognize and somehow acknowledge his virility. Instead, I listened passively while counting the minutes to my departure.
Two months after Keith moved out; just when I felt separate enough to relax a little; the phone rang. It was Keith in a panic.
“Put some sweats in a bag and meet me at the corner of the park,” he whispered.
“Where are you?” I asked, knowing that I wanted no part in whatever was happening.
“In some lady’s kitchen,” he answered, his voice muffled.
“What are you doing there,” I stammered “and is she home?”
“Yes, she’s home and I can’t talk… Hurry,” he whispered as he hung up her phone.
I ran around my apartment in confusion, deliberating whether to go or not. It was clear I shouldn’t, but something compelled me to go through the motions. My friend was in trouble and counting on me; and loyalty had always trumped common sense when it came to friendship. Heart pounding, I got the clothes and started my car. I didn’t hurry and took the long way. I didn’t know what I’d find, but hoped it wouldn’t be Keith. As I drove past the park I noticed at least four police cars parked haphazardly several houses from the corner. I drove on.
A few days later Keith called from jail saying the cops would “prefer” that I be at his apartment when they arrived. My mind reeled as I tried to imagine what the hell they wanted with me. I let myself into his place with the key he’d given me for safekeeping. I was small and motionless, aside from a smoke, as I waited under the vaulted ceilings. I blended well with the figurines, sets of china, silver, wall-to-wall bad art and all the other tacky and plentiful trinkets. By the time numerous officers, a photographer and a persimmon-clad Keith in handcuffs arrived, I was in the (all too familiar) semi-numb survival mode that had been honed to perfection over the past several months. “We expected you to be halfway to Mexico,” one officer snickered. It could have been that comment or seeing a pitiful Keith pointing to different objects around the apartment - all the while looking at me with a half-humiliated, half-apologetic gaze - whatever the reason, I started to cry. I cried from fear and humiliation, for Keith and for the knowledge that crying was the best chance to plead my innocence. The photographer took my tear stained picture against the white front door, front and profile, and then I was off to my apartment in a police car to retrieve the stereo.
Aside from an occasional sniffle from me, the cop and I drove along in silence, until out of nowhere he said, “Do you know what your boyfriend’s done?” I stifled the impulse to shout, “He’s not my boyfriend. We just have this twisted, platonic dependency thing.” Instead, I replied that I wasn’t sure what Keith had done. “He’s burglarized at least twenty-five homes and committed two armed robberies. He’s back there right now showing us what came from where,” the cop said, then added, sounding almost amused, “It seems crazy that some guy could pull this off alone.” This last sentence sounded more like a question than a statement, so between more pronounced sniffles I admitted loaning Keith my car a few times, but denied knowing what he was up to. Apparently I was sufficiently upset and shocked (and an idiot) that the cop took pity and assured me that I wasn’t a suspect and Keith had denied any involvement on my part from the beginning. We retrieved the stereo, which I claimed I’d accepted as rent with no knowledge of its origins; and my direct involvement with the drama was over.
In conversations from jail, Keith confirmed that he had been a one-man crime wave and that most of the homes were occupied at his time of arrival. He also claimed to be addicted to prescription medication during the spree. How he managed to carry, hide and transport everything from televisions to crystal doodads with only a bike was never explained, but stands testament to what the combination of limited sanity, drug use, strong legs and youth can accomplish.
Keith refused to have me involved in the trial, claiming he wanted to protect me, which I only partially believed; because a few months later I found out I was his defense. It seems that his girlfriend (flash snapshot of me taken at his apartment) was suffering from every kind of disorder imaginable and a worried and desperate Keith went over the deep end into addiction, then crime. Nice. In his mind it was probably close enough to the truth. The story got him sentenced to the Youth Authority instead of prison. During the two and a half years he was confined, I received numerous letters – all of which remained unopened.
Keith and I entered our friendship in desperation and exited the same way. At its brightest, the relationship nurtured the best in each of us and created a true affection and caring beyond any self-serving reason. We talked, cried (well, mostly me) and laughed for hours in cars or parks or anywhere we wouldn’t be busted for underage drinking. My tears were for the forces that had killed my spirit so young and for the first realizations that my spirit was nonetheless there and fighting. His tears were for the father who had molested him as a boy. He saw something in me, a decency (which I then started to see) that transcended the world he inhabited and I, in turn, was equally loyal and allowed him to feel noble, kind and appreciated. Keith’s steadfast support fostered the stumbling beginning of healing for me and inspired the first true honesty I’d ever allowed myself.
After his release, Keith showed up on my doorstep wearing an awkward, outdated sports jacket. I was living with someone, had stopped drinking and was going to school. The combination of stubborn loyalty, curiosity for answers (which I never received) and the fear of his reaction to rejection allowed me to see him a couple of times after that first encounter. One afternoon he approached me, eyes distant and ablaze, and declared his love for me, which destroyed any chance of salvaging any sort of friendship. I said good-bye, and to his credit, he disappeared.
This is the first short-story I've written. I'm just proud to have finished Constructive criticism welcome.