You Can't Stay Here

Miles Doyle

I’d met Nancy at a bar downtown, a different bar from the one where we fought about Christmas. I was still employed then as a security guard for a law firm, which, as far as I could tell, had no such need for round-the-clock protection. But they paid me under the table, and I gladly cashed in my earnings on mid-shelf liquor and steam-table buffets at a bar around the corner. When I stopped in at the end of my shift one evening, I spotted Nancy in a booth near the back, sipping on a tumbler of rye. Her hair, a pelt of dry auburn, fell below her shoulders, which were small and sagged slightly, as if she’d been on the wrong end of a long-drawn-out battle. I introduced myself, and she invited me to sit down. She wore a chevron-patterned sweater dress and a crop circle of bracelets and charms that jangled on the bar while we spoke. She worked as a secretary, was a shade past thirty. I was nine years her senior. We both drank with the same seriousness. Between us, there was no humor to be wagered; humor, I’d recently come to discover, was a luxury for the young or the fortunate few still in possession of promise. Nancy and I were well past that point.

We traded stories about our pasts. She told me about her sister and her father, a black tie conservative who christened Nancy and Karen with their old-fashioned names and who, after their mother died, shipped them across the country to live with his batty older sister Jeanne in Sacramento. Once there, Karen found a kind of currency in the tumescent fantasies of teenage boys, but eventually tired of their clumsy hands and the smell of cheap soap and tissues they all seemed to wear. She drifted in and out of house parties up and down the Sacramento Valley before stumbling upon the allure of married men and the itchy turn-on of after-hour assignations in dentist offices, car dealerships, and once, according to Nancy, the industrial walk-in of a local Cheesecake Factory. Nancy, on the other hand, spent most of her time looking after her aunt, whose already feeble mind spun looser by the month. Left on her own one Saturday evening, Jeanne set fire to the kitchen, and Nancy had to drop out of school to care for her full time. When Jeanne finally passed away at the age of eighty-two, two years shy of Nancy’s thirtieth birthday, Nancy fled Sacramento, leaving behind the house and a sizable inheritance for Karen to do with as she pleased.

I told Nancy about my time overseas and a dog I used to own as a child, a mean old German shepherd named Sergeant. Sergeant used to entertain himself by jumping our backyard fence whenever he was left unattended. My father would make me go fetch him. During one such pursuit, I managed to corner Sergeant in an alley on the other side of town. When I tried to fasten a leash to his collar, he tore loose a piece of flesh on my forearm, from my bicep to my wrist. I still sport a crooked patchwork of tissue there that glows red at unexpected times, as if I were lit from within.

When I met Nancy, I had just rented a one-bedroom railroad apartment in a neighborhood two or three years ahead of gentrification. The broker who showed me the place told me the narrow corridor extending six blocks north from the apartment was called NoProCro, an abbreviation that to me meant nothing. The place suited me. On my days off, I read the paper in a tiny pocket park in the heart of the neighborhood, where flightless pigeons and scabrous old men in undershirts and pleated slacks gathered around me.

A few months into our courtship, I invited Nancy to move in with me. She accepted and brought with her a large radio, which I humped up six flights of stairs, and a banana plant, which attracted in no short time a phalanx of cockroaches. I flooded the apartment with boric acid and waited for the fuckers to die.

Her first week there, Nancy spent most of her time feverishly checking the doors and windows. I made a game of her patrols and, when she wasn’t looking, switched back the latches. Eventually she caught on or simply tired of my antics and stopped caring.

We enjoyed a year of peace together, Nancy and I. Then I strayed with a girl from the law firm. She had long blonde hair and an ass like a tomato. In bed, she pulled tufts of hair from my scalp and told me not to look at her. The next morning she cooked breakfast and let me do shameful things to her again in her kitchen before I returned home and told Nancy all I’d done. She called me a bastard and finished off a handle of gin. Then she chucked a sleeve of Saltines at me and started whaling on my chest. I didn’t try to stop her, which was the right move, because she tired herself out before she could do any real damage. After she gave up, she slumped down in the kitchen, and she and I wept together like newlyweds. I stroked her hair, told her everything was going to be okay.

The next morning she moved out, but she returned a few days later. She wasn’t ready to call it quits, she told me. To my surprise, her affection for me continued. When we were alone at home, we were pleasant, patient, and gentle even to one another. Outside, though, was a different story. Our arguments played best in front of an audience. The company of others seemed to jimmy loose her feelings for me and inspired in us both performances worthy of a Russian play. It got so we could hardly leave our place. Which was why I said what I did about her sister, I suppose. Karen’s sudden reemergence, coupled with her new life in Santa Cruz, frightened me, and it was all I could do to keep Nancy from visiting.

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