A story about everyday heroes and the good people who egg them on.

 

“God,” Cecilia said.  “It’s him.”  She gripped my hand. 

Lynette leaned forward and exhaled a funnel of smoke.  “You think he’s gonna call somebody out?” 

“Shit yeah.  Look at him.”

Everyone in the courtyard was.  Tenants stood in the Langston’s windows, waiting for Esteban Dominguez to pronounce what they assumed would be his next sentence of death.  He stood in the center beside the stubby bird-shit-covered fountain, staring up at the apartments, his fists clenched. 

12-year-old Jeannina, who lived up on the fourth floor and whose mother wisely never let her play downstairs, yelled, “I love you ’steban!”  Doubtless she was telling the truth.  The ecosystem of the Langston Apartments was very sensitive.  Drop someone like him into it and people immediately ran to the windows.  It was better than TV.

“Lip!” he shouted.  “I don’t want to do this in front of your grandpa!”

“It’s Jackie,” Lynette said.  “Esteban warned him last week.”

“Come on, Lip!  Get out here!”

Cecilia shook her head at Lip’s foolishness. “Kid better do it.”  “He’ll never live it down, he doesn’t.  He’ll be a story forever.”

“He won’t be a story.  People around here are too tired to make up stories.”  I took one of Cecilia’s Camels out of the box.  She lit it for me with a tiny Bic that had Hawaiian flowers on it.

Lynette nodded.  “They’ll make up one for Jackie, though.  That’s for damn sure.”

Jackie Lipson was 16 and thought he was some kind of gangster.  He lived in the Langston with his senile grandfather and his girlfriend, who’d dropped out with him the year before.  They spent a lot of time at the rec center a few blocks over with the other juvenile delinquents.  The only thing I ever heard about Lip was that he did a lot of graffiti.  I couldn’t imagine what Esteban wanted with him. 

But I almost loved Esteban, too.  For as much as he liked to strike heroic poses and be looked at, he seemed to lead a charmed life.  He didn’t carry weapons.  People said he’d never been shot.  And in his own, weird, comic book way, he was trying to make the neighborhood a better place.  In all the depressing penury, he was a bright spot, bigger than life, and I’d be lying if I said that some part of me didn’t agree that he deserved the attention.  Esteban got an A for effort.

The neighborhood needed someone, especially the Langston.  So why not him?  In order to lead a decent life, the Langston required a herculean amount of self-discipline—more than most people had.  My room, for instance, had an ongoing cockroach scenario.  They were large, intelligent, and had acquired a certain immunity to poison.  They ate it right up.  But as long as I didn’t leave out any garbage, standing water, crumbs, or have any open cuts, they treated the room as a staging area for other more critical maneuvers. 

Perhaps because of this or because of something known only to them, the rats stayed out.  People complained about the supposed building-wide rat infestation, but in the five months I’d been staying at the Langston, I’d never seen one.  Just the pitter-patter of little feet in the kitchen at 2 AM.  Otherwise, my hot water worked.  My neighbors kept quiet.  And I took care to be mindful of life’s merciful trade-offs.

“Hey Esteban!  Hey!  Over here!”  Cecilia waved like she was flagging him down on the highway, leaving zig-zags of smoke in the air.  She had a particular obsession with Esteban that ruled out anyone short of People or European royalty.  They were destined to be together.  He just didn’t know it yet.

I looked at the curling flowers tattooed on Cecilia’s forearm.  She’d briefly put her hand on mine, and it had felt good in a secret way that would never show on my face.  I’ll admit that was the reason I didn’t listen to my better judgment telling me now was the time to go up and deliver a speech to the roaches.  When was the last time a pretty girl held my hand, even for a minute?

Esteban looked over, grinned, waved, then nodded at the Langston.

“Lip!  I don’t got all day!  Be a man!”

He was, without a doubt, the angriest person in Missouri, but he loved the ladies.  If you nominated him for the angriest ladies’ man on the face of the planet, he might win.  That was just his style.  Esteban had been arrested for murder twice.  But, because he lived in a different reality, some cross between the old West and 18th century Spain, where one could engage in lethal street fights and be considered a neighborhood hero instead of a killer, he got off both times.  The story was he’d killed a pimp and a drug dealer.  Everyone said, “Good for ’steban.” 

All I knew was that he worked out a lot, didn’t seem to have gainful employment, lived with his mom on the other side of Nimcato Cemetery, and was impossibly, devastatingly handsome.  At 6’3” with wavy black hair, a square jaw, and the physique of a proletarian hero in a Communist propaganda poster, Esteban seemed like he should be wearing a cape instead of starched khakis and a white dress shirt.  But that was the only way I’d ever seen him.  I imagined his closet: half white dress shirts, half khakis, all starched, ironed, and perfectly aligned by mom to aid him in his fight against crime.

The cigarette was good.  I never bought them, but my lunch break friendship with Lynette and Cecilia was giving me lung cancer anyway.  Still, there’s something incredibly pleasant about a social smoke.  If you can control yourself, put yourself on a meter, all kinds of drugs can be enjoyed, even the coffin nails.  My grandma, who smoked one pack of Luckys a month, used to say nobody who smokes once a day is a smoker.  By that definition, she wasn’t.  And now neither was I.  But most people can’t regulate.  Most people run like wild dogs over the hills.  Grandma said that, too.

“You think he’s some undercover cop?”  Lynette winked then glanced at Cecilia.

“You mean like Charles Bronson or some shit?”

“Chuck Norris back in the day.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “Like in The Octagon.  Maybe he knows kung-fu.  Catch a bullet in his teeth.”

“Nah, that was The Last Dragon,” Lynette said.  “Maybe The 36 Chambers of Shaolin.”

Esteban pointed up at a window.  “There you are, you little shit!  You want me to come up and pull you out?”

Cecilia groped for her pack of cigarettes.  I slid the pack against her hand.  She didn’t notice right away.  Then she extracted a fresh cigarette with two fingers, keeping her eyes on the drama, a smile on her face.

Far above, there was a faint high-pitched cry, as if muffled by several mattresses, the ghetto version of “The Princess and the Pea” where the pea talks shit: “Ima kill you, bitch!”

That was all Esteban needed.  He ran for the Langston’s lobby.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “You sure that wasn’t Buckaroo Banzai?”

“You both need to shut the hell up.”  Cecilia turned back and frowned at each of us in turn. 

Lynette grinned.  “Buckaroo Banzai was a classic, man.”

The Langston Apartments was a dirty place, no doubt about it.  It was dirty from the William Lucy House next door on the western side, a skid row nursing home like you’ve never seen.  Dirty because clean is next to impossible in places like these.  Clean living and the downward spiral don’t mix.  And I knew someday there would be an accounting, some kind of judgment that would clear it all away. 

It wouldn’t come from the street, from the likes of Esteban Dominguez.  Instead, the good people of Hauberk, Missouri, would simply kick the tenants out and tear the structure down.  Put up mirrored glass, a Pilates studio, a bistro with garden seating.  They’d install an uncomfortable college girl dressed in black to remind you that a reservation is necessary.  Then the sorrows of the Langston would be gone forever, along with the unfortunates who called it home.  For the moment, however, they all still lived there, locked tight on that downward spiral.

“Lunch break’s almost over.”  Cecilia sighed, flicked ash onto the table.

“Shit,” Lynette said.  “We can be a little late.  Nobody’s gonna die.”

The days were still warm.  Because I’d studied English in school, I now had a job in a call center that required my presence four nights a week.  I spent afternoons reading in the courtyard, mocking the world at lunchtime with Lynette and Cecilia, who were care nurses in William Lucy House.  They were the hardest cases I’d ever met.  They regularly egged each other on, competing to see who could be the toughest, coldest, most cynical misanthrope on the block. 

Today, however, was special.  It was as if the gods had preordained it to be particularly awful.  I suppose this is because the downward spiral is a spiral and some days are therefore better than others.  As soon as I saw Esteban Dominguez walk through the courtyard’s open wrought iron gates, I knew this wouldn’t be good.  And now he was in there, doing something horrific to Lip, cleaning up the neighborhood. 

No matter how they tried to erase the Langston, even if they burned it down and shot the ashes into space, the sense of it, the sheer echo of its presence, would linger like the scent of something rotten.

“What about all those old folks shambling around like Day of the Dead?”

Cecilia rolled her eyes, took a drag, blew smoke in my face.  “They’re like bumper cars.  They just go bump up on everything.”

“Then we put them back in their rooms,” Lynette said.

“Yeah.  They get tired bumping up on tables and chairs.”

By now, everybody in the building or the surrounding area, even some of the residents of William Lucy House, had come out to watch.  With the exception of Art the drug dealer across the courtyard, Esteban might have hospitalized or otherwise exiled every other dealer, pimp, or toy gang member south of 32nd Street.  Maybe Lip was the only one left.  But he wasn’t really a gang member.  He was just a dumb kid.

Art sat all day, hoodie up, across the brick courtyard at the farthest patio table, blinking into his cell phone.  Lost souls came in through the courtyard’s wide-open gates on a regular basis, did a hand-off with him, and were out in a flash.  Nobody cared.  Few noticed.  His side of the courtyard was dark for half of every day because the U-Pack-It Self Storage facility on the eastern side blocked out the sun. 

I absently watched the torment on his face as he no doubt considered making a run for the gates while Esteban was up in the Langston delivering justice to a 16-year-old.  Art’s perplexed expression and little mustard beard seemed to float in the shadows, illuminated in his hood by his phone’s screen, like a monk discovering the Grail.  He was definitely discovering something.  But what Art had come into this life to learn, only he could know.  Maybe not even him.  Shadows on shadows that September afternoon in the Langston Apartments.  And nobody knew what lurked in the hearts of men, least of all the men.

Someone started screaming incoherently out one of the open windows.  A little girl.  Could have been Jeannina, but there was no way to tell.  Lots of families lived in the Langston.  Then a single shoe, an old, ripped up Nike running shoe, sailed out and bounced next to the concrete fountain.  A comment.  Some kind of omen. 

Lynette giggled.  “It’s on now.”

That it was.

I hoped the next thing to come flying out wouldn’t be Lip and wondered if anything went balls-up like this over at William Lucy House when the bumping finally stopped and one of the residents had a moment of hideous clarity.

From my interactions with Lynette and Cecilia, I’d come to understand the nursing home next door was place to pay grandma back for all those years of criticism and meddling.  Undead geriatrics shuffled into the apartments’ courtyard, two or three a day, not knowing where they were, heavily medicated or needing to be, sometimes covered in their own feces. 

Nobody wants to end up like that.  At least, nobody wants to know they’ve ended up like that.  And so, as they wandered in, staring down at the courtyard’s broken bricks, muttering at the sky or at the dry concrete fountain filled with trash, I liked to remind myself that there must be a modicum of grace left in the world.  If you’re going to spend your last days talking to stones and covered in shit, better to think you’re somewhere else.  Or not to think at all.

It took Esteban approximately five minutes to pull Lip down the stairs and out into the courtyard.  Esteban’s white dress shirt was ripped open, exposing his perfectly sculpted hairless chest.  Lip’s girlfriend, Susan, who I imagined was always up there doing high school dropout stuff, came out, too. 

She’d caught something in the eye, a streak of blood smeared down her cheek.  But that didn’t stop her from shrieking.  Susan was clearly a master shrieker.  She sounded like some kind of flightless waterfowl at the time of year when they pick fights with each other and pound their wings on the surface of the river.

In the present case, Susan was pounding on Esteban’s shoulder with her right hand while she kept her left fixed in a death grip of Lip’s hair—Lip, who was screaming, “Ima kill you” over and over, rather unconvincingly, I thought.  Esteban had Lip in a headlock, his other hand tangled in the front of Susan’s sweatshirt to keep her at arm’s length and prevent her from being able to hit him in the face.

They came lurching out like a highly mutated, six-legged beast that shouldn’t exist, but, due to the inhumanity of post-industrial life, the spiritual pollutedness of the Langston, and the essential radiant evil at the heart of urban Hauberk, they screamed, they staggered, they forced themselves toward that Nike running shoe like destiny. 

And the onlookers cheered.  Cecilia and Lynette cheered the loudest.  It didn’t matter whether Lip deserved this.  He was going to get it, which made people happy, their own pain alleviated for a brief moment of someone else’s: straight-up Schadenfreude in the afternoon.

Esteban had done this exact thing before.  I’d been sitting in the courtyard the day he dragged out Timon Washington and beat him senseless with a heavy rubber dildo in front of his screaming mother.  Whether the dildo belonged to Esteban, Timon, Timon’s mother, or to some other unnamed party was never decided. 

Why the beating took place also remained mysterious.  People cheered nonetheless.  They simply concluded that Timon had it coming.  Misbehave and you get the dildo.  Bread and circuses.  Public lashings.  Picnicking at Bedlam to watch the tormented lunatics act like beasts.  Nothing new. 

Timon left town after that.  You don’t get your face rearranged with a sex toy in public without the next step being a bus trip.  Someone gave Esteban a sack of oranges to thank him.  Jeannina professed her love.  He was a hero.

Just like today.  He kicked Susan about five feet to the side.  She landed on her knees and fell over, still shrieking with a handful of her boyfriend’s hair.  She couldn’t stand up and just assumed the fetal position.  Meanwhile, Lip was trying to struggle out of the headlock.  But Esteban was bigger.  He’d been an athlete at Hauberk Technical High (baseball, but still) and had about a foot-and-a-half and 60 pounds on the kid.  Now that he didn’t have to deal with Susan, he could reinforce the headlock with his free hand.

“Fuck him up!” Cecilia screamed, then plucked a stray bit of tobacco off her tongue.

“Yeah!”  Lynette added, coughing, shaking her head.  “Do it ’steban, you hunky stud!”

She was red in the face from laughter.  She looked like a demonic chain-smoking leprechaun.  Whether she was laughing at Cecilia, at the sad drama unfolding in the courtyard, or merely at the vicissitudes of life that had conspired to bring such absurdity to bear in this particular time and place was unclear.  Reasons didn’t matter.  Quality entertainment did.

I felt like I should do something, but what could I do?  Esteban was now punching Lip in the face while holding him steady in the headlock, and one of those things was making the kid purple.  I didn’t know how to fight.  And for all I knew, Lip really had done some shit. 

At least, that’s what I told myself.  Another part of me—the lover, not the fighter—was watching Cecilia out the corner of my eye.  She was flushed, really into it the way people get when they sit in the front row at a boxing match.  They want to taste the blood, feel the sweat.  They get involved.

Was there a civilized, non-lethal way I could get her that involved with me?  Unlikely.  I had more of a chance with Lynette the Chortling Leprechaun, which was to say, no chance at all.  I thought Lynette might have been married.  Cecilia probably wasn’t, but who could say?  The fact that she was getting off on seeing a young man be severely beaten suggested marital involvement.  Marriage often seems to produce avid boxing fans.

Susan crawled towards us and tried to stand, but couldn’t manage it and slumped down on her hip.  Maybe she’d broken a knee.  Cecilia leaned forward as far as she could and flicked her cigarette butt.  It bounced off Susan’s forehead, but the girl didn’t notice.

“That’s not nice,” Lynette said, still grinning.

“I’m not nice,” said Cecilia.

And that was the truth.  Though usually not-nice people, I said to myself, have a secret heart of gold.  You just have to get to know them.  Salt of the earth.  Do anything for you.  Right?  Lip was probably like that.  He probably had a great sense of humor.  When he wasn’t high or threatening to kill people, he was probably a pretty cool guy, probably knew all about The Punisher and the X-Men, probably drew a lot.  Most graffiti guys like to draw.  And Susan was basically very pretty with long black hair that shined, almond eyes, olive skin.  She probably had nieces and nephews who thought she was cool.  Who wouldn’t want to drop out with a girl like that?

I wanted to say to Cecilia, “The world is a wonderful miracle and everyone is beautiful.”  Instead, I watched Esteban punch Lip again and again until the kid’s face got smashed in and you couldn’t tell a bloody cheek from a bloody lump. 

The headlock had probably saved his life.  If his head had been against the courtyard bricks, it would have been all over but the shouting.  Across the courtyard, I noticed Art slipping out the gates like a nervous lizard, grateful, no doubt, that his time had not yet come.

Esteban dropped Lip straight down like a bag of rocks and started to piece his shirt back together with what buttons remained.  That’s when the applause really kicked in.  I finally got off my ass and tried to help Susan up, but she just frowned, told me to fuck off, and dragged herself over to Lip, who was lying on his back with his mouth open, bleeding a lot.  I sat back down.

87-year-old Martín del Rio, who lived on the second floor, owned a .357, and liked to say people could break into his place but they’d never come out, walked over to Esteban and shook his hand.  I heard him say, “Estamos agradecidos. Necesitamos ayuda.”  We’re grateful.  We need your help.  And I knew that, also, was the truth.

They looked down at Susan, her cheek resting on Lip’s chest.  Then the old man clapped Esteban on the shoulder and walked back into the apartments.

Cecilia leaned over to Lynette and whispered, “Should I go say hi?”

Lynette nodded.  “If you want to, now’s the time.”

“What do you think?”  Cecilia said to me.  “Should I do it?”

“Never stand in the way of love.”  My eyes were calm, my mouth relaxed, the horrible octopus buffeting the insides of my heart with its dark tentacles remained imperceptible to the ladies of William Lucy House.  Cecilia nodded as if I’d said something profound instead of a line I’d read once on a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card. 

Susan was sobbing loudly and it was clear that Esteban was about to stride away triumphantly into the late afternoon.  If Cecilia was going to do anything, she needed to do it now.  Nancy Cortez, one of young Jeannina’s aunts, came out and handed Esteban a paper sack of potatoes.  “Hey ’steban!” Jeannina called from her open window.  He smiled and waved up at her.  But Cecilia stayed in her chair, paralyzed, staring at him like he’d descended on a cloud.

“He’s just so beautiful.”

“For fuck’s sake.”  This was turning out to be the funniest day ever for Lynette.  “Just go talk to him.  What are you?  Ten?”

I got up again and, for a second, terror passed over Cecilia’s face when she thought I was going to bring Esteban over.  But I felt like if I didn’t do something for Lip, the octopus might escape.  Susan helped me roll him over.  He was gurgling.  When we got him on his chest, a river of blood flowed out of his mouth.

Esteban glanced at me, then turned and walked out the courtyard.

“I don’t got a car,” Susan said.

“It’s okay.  I got bus money.”  Everybody knew the walk-in clinic was four bus stops away down between the Providence Cinema and the Kodiak Hotel, another apartment building just like the Langston but uglier. 

Windows were closing.  Life was already falling back into its usual rhythm.  Lynette and Cecilia didn’t want to get near Lip.  So they just waved on their way back to the bumping oldies.  Lynette winked, blew me a kiss.

That afternoon, sitting in the waiting room of Urgent Care next to Lip and Susan, I decided not to take any more cigarettes from Cecilia or Lynette or even to have lunch in the courtyard again.  The roaches might get frisky if I brought a sandwich up to my room, but theirs was an honest frisk. 

I felt that Lip would be alright, eventually.  Maybe this was a turning point.  Someday, a dumb kid just like Lip would probably put a bullet hole in Esteban Dominguez.  Of that, I was sure.  I didn’t want to be around when it happened or have to go to his funeral and listen to what a great guy he was.  Everybody would be sad that day, which would be as funny as it gets.