A Well Made Mistake
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Clothing"
Originally featured on 04-20-2007
As part of our series "Things you can live without, but most people choose not to"

His jeans were piled on the front step like they fell down from heaven, the heavy denim curving like space dimensions. When he ran out it was across the front lawn in his Hanes and socks with weak elastic. Where was I? I was in the kitchen, looking out the window, facing exactly the opposite direction as his feet were taking him. It didn’t matter. Once the clock struck eleven his fate was sealed.

He had asked me to make cookies, so I did, though I couldn’t find the measuring cups in his mother’s disorganized kitchen. When I found them they were all melted a little around the tops, I could only guess they’d gone into the microwave. What was he doing? He was pacing back and forth downstairs, occasionally turning up the stereo that was already making my ears ring.

It began when he started coming to my bedroom window in the middle of the night, pounding on it and demanding that I come out and take him to the airport. He was being chased, he told me, and only I could help him. I fell for it the first time—I was out the front door before I realized he was gone, his pajama pants strewn across the freshly bloomed goldenrod at the edge of the driveway. I could hear his feet scuffing the pavement as he ran away.

By the fifth or sixth time I convinced myself I could calm him down, and I would open the window just a few inches and meet his eyes, and that’s where I would lose my nerve. The way they flashed, his eyes, like a current was running through them and if I touched him I would feel it, it made me want to crawl back under the covers.

I knew him. I had always known him. I had grown up with him, had given him a handjob in the shallow woods behind the park swing set, had kissed his finger once when he smashed it in the schoolbus window. But that was years ago, and now I am in Jeremy’s mother’s kitchen with three dozen cookies wrapped in bundles and his pants piled up on the front step, very sloppily now—he’d acquired a taste for disorder—and she would be home any minute now, ready to find the situation, wide open and obvious. I wanted Jeremy to be here in the kitchen, with a tall glass of milk, a little paper towel in front of him, cookies lined up on it with little orbits of soaked through brown grease around them.

Could I help him? This was the question I had asked myself, so many times that it began to lose meaning, and I began to see the words form in front of me when I saw him coming towards me and I wanted to whisper them in his ear, the ears that were covered by thick black hair now, since he stopped cutting it, and it seemed that it would be increasingly difficult to whisper into his ear, and even so, there were times when I wanted to shout it.

When I told my mother about him coming to my window at night she wanted to call the police.

“He’s not going to do anything,” I said, though I didn’t know which section of my brain produced the words—they came out with such confidence that my mother put the phone back on the cradle.

“We should get a restraining order, Kelsey. He’s crazy.”

“He’s not crazy,” I said, because I still believed it then, “he’s schizophrenic.”

“That means crazy,” she said, though I could see she wasn’t going to call. After all, he we used to play together as kids. He came to my birthday parties and ate big square pizza slices and drank orange soda next to me on our picnic table, the one we burned two years ago in a bonfire after it cracked across the top. He jumpstarted her car once, when it was raining and he wasn’t wearing a jacket.

“Is he taking medication?” she asked me later that night, eyeing the window.

“Of course,” I said, though I had no idea how often. Some days he seemed so normal, though the pace at which he smoked cigarettes was disgusting, and odd fragments occasionally slipped into a normal conversation, but he would wave it off like he would a fly.

“This crazy shit I say, Kelsey,” he would begin and then laugh a little too much. There were bad days too, when I could only guess he hadn’t taken his medication. His mom worked a lot, and though he told me he felt better when he took his medication, that his head felt “cleaner”, there was something pushing him not to take it—a rebellious streak that had been with him all his life, so far as I was concerned.

About three months ago he started wearing these old Levi’s that I think belonged to his father—they were too short and too big around the waist, he used a thick black belt to hold them up. When I asked him why he ignored me.

Now I hear the garage door opening and I know his mother is home, that soon she will be coming up the stairs and see me standing there with her apron on and flour all over the counters and likely on the floor, and she will want to know what I’m doing there. And then she will realize what’s going on and she will ask where he is.

I think of how sincere he was when he asked for help, and then how frantic I became, trying to meet his every demand. He was like a ticking time bomb sometimes, even when he was standing still, because it was like he was thinking a million miles an hour.

He was fine in the car, as we were driving to his mother’s house.

“This is really important, thanks,” he said, calmly enough, though his lips clamped back over his cigarette once he stopped talking. I was driving slowly, because for some reason I thought I was doing something illegal. He made me feel that way, like he had explosives taped to his chest.

“I just have to be back by eleven,” and he laughed, “that’s when they come check up on me, but it’s not a big deal.”

“What happens if you’re not back by then?” I asked, watching the speedometer drifting between fifty and fifty-five.

“It doesn’t really matter, anyway,” he said, and then looked out the window at the blank stretches of land.

I had a feeling, at that point, like that of being alone of a street block and you hear what you think is a footstep behind you and for a moment wish you had just stayed at home instead of trying to prove you had some sort of control over something. At that moment, when the speedometer was reaching sixty and I could Jeremy making those little noises, like loud “hmphs”, which began to sounds more like words but they had nothing to do with me or him. I wished that I hadn’t answered his call, that I had ignored the sense that he needed me. He didn’t need anyone but a doctor, I thought, as I pulled into his mother’s driveway. He was out of the car and to the front door before I could think of a plan, how to get him back in the car and back to his care facility before anyone noticed he was gone. I knew that leaving without permission was not good, that he would likely be reprimanded though a harsher diagnosis, that he would be given less freedom until he could prove himself responsible again. I imagined him locked in a white room, played some scene I had likely seen in a movie, of a man in the corner of this white room in some industrial looking straightjacket.

On the phone he told me he needed his journal, that he couldn’t sleep without it, because the drugs made him feel amped up. I knew the journal, the one he carried in his back pocket, before all this, when he wore thick Carhartts and baseball hats. On the cover his name is written many times over black ink, and even a few stars I had drawn on the one day he let me look at it, though not past the first few pages. It was mostly poetry, and a drawing of the tattoo he wanted, and when he saw me examining it he said,

“I’ll get that when I’m eighteen.” I was fifteen then, and thought I was madly in love with him. Three years later, I was baking him chocolate chip cookies while he alternately whispered and screamed to himself. This was the worst I’d ever seen with him, and somehow the mixing of the flour and sugar and the mess I was making was comforting. I didn’t want to know what he was doing down there. It wasn’t like before, when I wanted to confront him, when I wanted to know what was going on inside his head. Now it seemed like something I did not want to know about, something very sharp and oddly shaped.

There was a reason why his mother took him to the facility, a reason why we had to sneak out through the back door of his housing complex, the alarm somehow dismantled by him. He told me the alarms weren’t turned on but I could see the marks on it. The worst part about it is that his mother had trusted me. She trusted me to go there and bring his PS2, and to leave. She knew he’d like to see him, but she didn’t realize how much he could manipulate me. It took ten minutes for him to talk me out the door, though he was being so rational and clear that for a moment I thought it had all been a mistake, that he wasn’t actually crazy, and he was being held captive.

“I need as many cookies as you can make, it’s the only think I can bring with me,” he said, when we were face to face in the hallway, where I was following him to his room. I nodded. I was glad to have a task, to not have to follow him around and know what he was doing, though when he came from his room with journal in hand and smiled so politely.

“There’s chocolate chips too,” he said, and pulled a bag from the cupboard.

“You have to make them well,” he said, “no hurrying and make sure…” he came towards the bowl, which I had against my stomach.

“Just make sure you make them like they’re the most important cookies in the world,” he said, circling his arms like an exasperated magician.

Later, I was not making the cookies fast enough. It was ten-thirty. He turned up the oven and began to whimper a little bit. When I had the first batch done I wrapped them in wax paper and wound tape around them, and then I put them in a paper bag. It was ten-forty five when the second batch went in the oven, and I knew he couldn’t wait much longer. I didn’t know where he was going or why he had to go there, but I could sense his anxiety a floor apart, like it was radiating up the stairs and orbiting around me.

I wrapped these cookies the same way. It was five to eleven and I knew even if we left then we’d be late. I thought of walking out, of just getting into my car, driving home, and pretending I’d had nothing to do with his escape. But then he came bounding up the stairs, wearing pants only. He saw the paper bag and then looked at me, and like that first night he was at my window I believed for a second that he whatever he was doing was legitimate.

“This is something very unique and necessary that I’m doing,” he said, holding me by my shoulders. I could see that his hair was greasy, and his skin seemed too tight on his face. He looked nothing like the person I knew on the bus, or the person I sat next to on the red picnic table or the school bus or on the grass of the park passing cigarette drags.

“I don’t need anything,” he said as he turned away and jumped down the stairs, his pants coming down to his ankles when he landed. He freed himself from them as he hit the stoop, and then took off running. I didn’t go after him, or even go down to the door and look out, to see what direction he was going, and later, his mother would ask me why hadn’t I done these things. She asked me these questions while she was on the phone with the police, while I scooped the loose flour and sugar from the counter into my hands, but I didn’t have any answers.

Read More By Liz Varley

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