You Can't Stay Here

Miles Doyle

Outside the bar, snow melted in our hair. Nancy walked a few steps ahead of me. We’d tucked our heads to our chests, chastened by the December wind. The streets were still and soft-lit by the noiseless lamps over our heads. I pulled Nancy close to me, a gentle act of contrition.

She said, “I hate small men.”

She laid her head on my shoulder and wrapped her arms around my belly. “Don’t be small, Joe,” she said, turning her open face up at me—one of the things I loved about her. She kissed me and I felt right again. We wanted to spend Christmas together, I thought. At least we still had that.

When we reached home, we ran into our neighbor Bobby, a short, good-looking man with a dark ponytail, who smelled faintly of tar. He stood on the front steps with a young Hispanic kid I’d seen once or twice leaving his apartment. Our presence put an end to their conversation. Bobby nodded and moved to let Nancy and me pass. The kid cut in front of us and then bounced back on his toes, like a boxer wary of contact. He repeated the steps a few times, and we all three watched his sad little dance, confused. He buzzed Bobby’s apartment, stabbing his index finger repeatedly against the silver button. His fingernails, I noticed, were long and manicured. On every other one was painted a tiny black skull and cross bones. When no one answered, he buzzed all of the apartments at once.

“I know he’s in there,” he said to Bobby. “You can’t hide him.”

He wore a turtleneck, tailored black slacks, saddle shoes with brown leather patches across each vamp, and a shearling jacket with wide lapels. He looked like a Spanish don, one recently departed from his last doubloon. His eyes were puffy and fraught with a heavy brown sadness, the source of which I was only now starting to comprehend. He and Bobby were intimate, and the kid was in over his head.

Embarrassed, Bobby smacked away the kid’s hand, which was still working its way down the row of buzzers. “Manny, please.” Bobby then turned to Nancy and me, as if we could do something to help rid him of this kid and put an end to his misery. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice quiet and guarded. “Why don’t you guys go on ahead?”

I took the opening. I unlocked the door and let Nancy enter. Manny pushed past me to follow Nancy inside. Bobby gave chase, shouting and slapping at the kid in the vestibule, and all the way up the stairwell.

A part of me wanted to see Manny dole out whatever justice Bobby had coming to him. But then, if Bobby caught a beating from a kid I’d let into the building, I knew it would make for a long evening with the police, who’d find a way to hold me responsible somehow. Another part of me wanted to show Nancy that I was still capable of good and decent things, that I could rise to certain occasions.

I told her to stay put and ran up the stairs toward Bobby’s apartment, where I heard through the door their two voices, now joined by an unknown third. I banged on the door. A small white man opened it. He had a fresh welt below his right eye, Manny’s quick work. The welt flashed across his hairless cheek like a current of electricity over a white field. “Help us,” the man screamed. “He’s crazy. You have to stop him.” His tiny hands shook in front of his chest. In this pose, he reminded me of an old lady afraid for her pearls.

I pushed past. Inside, Manny was in the process of banging the back of Bobby’s head on the floor. From the ground, Bobby clawed at Manny’s forearms as if he could wrest from beneath the skin whatever demon had taken possession of him. His legs pumped at the floor, pedaling for some kind of traction to break Manny’s hold. Then Manny stood up and dragged Bobby toward the bedroom. Dragged Bobby right by his collar with a brutal efficiency that startled me. “Is this where you did it? In here, with him?” I watched as Manny threw Bobby on the bed and punched him repeatedly in the back of the head.

“Enough,” I heard myself say. “Let him go.” I wrapped Manny in a bear hug and carried him back through the hallway past the third man, who shielded his face behind splayed fingers. He kicked at us blindly as we exited the apartment. By now, Nancy and a few other neighbors had gathered on the landing. I dropped Manny to the floor, where he continued to flail around.

When I bent to calm him, he caught me with a right hook, right near my temple. I’ll give the kid this much—he knew how to throw a punch. It stunned me, and, for a good second, I thought I would black out. I could feel a knot already start to form there.

I turned to Nancy, thinking maybe she and I could come up with some kind of plan to get him out of the building, but she just stood there, running her fingers up and down the side of her face, right about the same spot where Manny decked me. Her mouth was open, and I thought she was going to say something, maybe call out to me, tell me to be careful, but she just stood there with her hand at her face, watching me struggle.

I took Manny by the wrist, bent it around his back and pressed him into the wall, just as they taught me the first day on the job.

The woman in 4E asked if she should call the police. “No,” I answered. “He’s leaving.”

Manny started to cry then, quiet sobs at first, followed by a series of childlike wails. It was an awful clatter. I didn’t know which was worse, the depth of his keening or the airless silence that followed and somehow made his humiliation more complete.

“Why,” he asked in fractured syllables. “Why?”

I let him go. When he turned around, I put my hand on his shoulder and told him, “You can’t stay here.” He nodded and made for the stairs.

“That’s right, you little shit, get out of here.” It was Bobby. He’d left his apartment in search of more.

“Let it go, Bobby,” I said. “It’s done.”

“Fuck him and his brown dick.”

Even a yard away, I could feel Manny stiffen. He arched his back and turned quickly. I tried to stop him, but he slammed into me and brought us both to the ground, damn near taking all the air from my lungs. Before I could catch my breath, Bobby dove into us, fist-first. We tumbled around on the dirty tiles until I managed to dig myself out from under Manny and drag Bobby back through the open door of his apartment. He seemed relieved. Pawing at his tears, Manny shouted at Bobby in an ugly mix of Spanish and English. Bobby started to react, but threw up his hands in disgust and retreated deeper into his apartment, where he claimed a moral victory of sorts, the kind of face-saving move we used to employ as kids, back when we used to throw rocks.

With Bobby out of the way, I asked Manny again to come with me outside. I swear, the kid looked at me as if he wanted to take my hand, which made me wonder, for the second time that evening, about his age. I realized that I was probably old enough to be his father. We were half-way down the landing when Nancy started down the stairs with us. I turned and pressed my hand to her stomach.

“We’re fine,” I told her. “You stay here and get everyone back in their apartments.”

She nodded and eyed me with concern, and I felt a tenderness for her that I hadn’t felt in some time.

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