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69 Barrow Street
By Lawrence Block
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Lawrence Block
All rights reserved.
Everything happens in Greenwich Village.
The Village extends from Fourteenth Street to Houston Street, from the East River to the Hudson. The buildings are low for New York, with a seven-story structure a rarity. Once a young man who liked to pretend he was a poet described the Village as the valley between the breasts of Manhattan, with skyscrapers to the north and skyscrapers to the south.
Greenwich Village is many things to many people.
Long ago it was the headquarters of artists, writers, dancers and musicians. They were attracted to the spot because it was a sort of an oasis in the middle of the Manhattan jungle, complete with an informal, small-townish air about it, cheap restaurants and low rents.
That was long ago.
Times have changed. So has the Village.
The cheap restaurants are tourist traps now. High priced strip clubs dot Third Street, fighting for space with homosexual and lesbian hangouts. Rents have skyrocketed as the Village has become the fashionable place for people who want to feel artistic.
The artists are long gone, although the streets are still cluttered with phonies who sketch charcoal studies of tourists at two to five dollars a throw. The writers are long gone, although there are still the ones who live on unemployment and peck at typewriters, pretending to be writers but incapable of writing anything more complex than their own names. The musicians are gone and the dancers are gone.
Only the dregs remain.
The junkies, who punch holes in their arms with hypodermic needles and live in a world of cocaine and heroin and morphine, a sticky pink world of nothing happening, a world where the only important activity is taking a fix and the only important person is the connection, the pusher, the Man.
The queers, male and female. Fags, dykes, queens, swishes, homos, lesbos, butches. The gay set, a subculture with a thousand nicknames. Drifting back and forth in shadows, men with false breasts and lipstick on their mouths, women in pants who swagger and curse like truckdrivers.
And the Sick Ones—not junkies or queers necessarily, but sick, twisted, perverted men and women out on a hell-for-leather hunt for kicks, for something new and something different.
The Sick Ones.
Ralph Lambert lived at 69 Barrow Street.
Barrow Street is a small, narrow, quiet street almost undistinguishable from a dozen other Village streets. It runs west from Sheridan Square toward the Hudson River for about a half dozen blocks of quiet brownstones with an occasional small restaurant or tavern. There is little traffic on Barrow Street during the day and hardly any at all at night.
Barrow Street is a quiet street, a pleasant street. The apartments in the four- or five-story brownstones rent for somewhat more than they are worth, but the apartments are clean and relatively modern.
Barrow Street could be a nice place to live.
Ralph Lambert hated it.
It wasn't the street that he hated, he reflected. Or if it was, it wasn't the street's fault. It wasn't even the apartment, although God knew if he had a chance he'd do it over. Stella's idea of interior decoration was pretty vile. If she liked a piece of furniture or a scatter-rug or a print she bought it, never caring how it went with the rest of the furnishings. And the result was pretty disorganized, with modern abstracts and colonial chairs and oriental rugs all in the same room.
He lit a cigarette, trying to be comfortable in the uncomfortable colonial chair and staring blankly into the fireplace. The fireplace was a fake, of course. If anyone should be stupid enough to start a fire in it he would probably burn the building down, since there was no chimney for it.
But a genuine fireplace would have been out of place, just as anything genuine wouldn't have belonged at 69 Barrow Street. Everything had to be fake and phony in order to fit in.
Just as the apartment was phony.
Just as Stella was phony. Stella James, the tigress with the biggest breasts and the longest, blondest hair in the world, and God what a bitch she was. And how he hated her.
He laughed bitterly. Hell, who was he to talk? Who was he to call anybody phony? For that matter, who was he to hate Stella? And if he hated her and the place so much, why in hell didn't he get out?
He flicked the ashes from his cigarette onto the floor. Hell, he ought to be able to get out. He was free, white, and over 21. 27, to be exact. And it wasn't as though he had to let Stella support him for the rest of his life. At the bottom he was a pretty talented guy. He was hardly another Rembrandt, but he could make a paintbrush behave and the stuff he turned out wasn't bad to look at. Not good enough so that he could paint what he wanted to paint, but decent enough to land him some sort of job in commercial art. A little work and a little effort and he could be making fifteen grand a year for life.
If he left Stella.
He laughed again to himself, this time more bitterly than the first time. If he left Stella. That was one hell of a big if. It was almost the same as saying if he had wings he could fly.
Well, why not? Why not grow wings and then fly away from 69 Barrow Street to someplace sane? Christ, he hadn't been like this all his life, lying around the apartment all day long and making love to a tigress all night. He had been a painter and a fairly good one. How had he let himself get so thoroughly screwed up?
Why, he hadn't so much as had a paintbrush in his hand for more than two months. And he hadn't really accomplished anything remotely decent in over a year, not since the one and only painting he did of Stella just after they started living together. And now where was he?
A gigolo. Oh, he didn't have to call himself that all the time. Most of the time he managed to lie to himself, telling himself and the world that he was an artist and couldn't take the time to work, couldn't prostitute his talent to make a living. But that was so much nonsense. He was a gigolo and that was all there was to it. Stella kept him, kept him like other women kept pet dogs or cats or monkeys. Instead of walking him on a leash she put him to work in a bedroom; instead of parading him around in Washington Square on Sunday afternoons she paraded him around the apartment twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. She dominated him and she loved to dominate him.
And he took it. He sat back and took it because he didn't have the guts to do anything about it. He lay around the apartment living on the money Stella's father had left her and he never did a goddamned thing, nothing at all.
Why Stella, for God's sake? Hell, if he wanted to be kept he could do better than her. The Village was full of beautiful, frustrated women who wanted a good-looking guy as a plaything. Maybe most of them didn't have Stella's looks and weren't as imaginative or as competent as Stella in bed, but with them he wouldn't have to take what he took from her. Life with somebody else wouldn't be a constant routine of agony and humiliation, of torment and insults and hating himself.
And he could get damn near any woman he wanted. He knew he could; he had always been able to. Part of it was his rugged good looks—the jet black, curly hair, the broad shoulders and the slim waist, the strong muscles in his arms and legs. The strong chin, the full mouth, even the scar on one cheek where a sailor had caught him with a broken beer bottle years ago—all these features added up to the sort of appearance that had the women flat on their backs with their legs spread the minute he snapped his fingers.
So why in hell was he killing himself with a Grade A, first class, number one bitch on wheels like Stella James?
He flipped his cigarette into the phony fireplace and pulled another from the pack, placing it between his lips. He scratched a wooden match on the underside of the end-table and lit the cigarette, flipping the match into the fireplace. He drew deeply on the cigarette and held the smoke in his lungs for several seconds, expelling it finally in a long, thin stream that wandered slowly to the ceiling.
Hell, he knew why. He knew why he stayed with Stella, why he did what she told him and took the abuse she hurled at him constantly. Why he was able to stand it all, to stand the things that a normal man shouldn't be able to stand. Things like letting other men make love to her and forcing him to watch from the closet. As if he wasn't man enough for her!
She even took women as lovers and made him watch the two of them perform.
And he took it, all of it, the insults and the torture and all the rest. And he knew why.
Because he loved her.
He loved her and he hated her. He hated her for what she was but he couldn't help loving her for what she was at the same time. He needed her as he had never needed any woman before. All the things that he hated about her only made her more exciting, more desirable, more thrilling than any other woman he had ever met. And so he was tied to her by invisible threads, tied up so securely that he could never get away.
He dragged on the cigarette. It tasted terrible, and he wondered if it was the cigarette that tasted lousy or that he was smoking too much, or just the generally bad taste in his mouth that came when he spent too much time thinking about himself and Stella, about the sick, twisted life he was living and the sick, horrible, beautiful, wonderful, damnable woman he loved and hated and surrendered to: Stella.
Impulsively he hurled the cigarette into the fireplace and watched the sparks dance up into the air a few feet. Then he pulled himself up from the chair and stalked to the window, scanning the area outside.
Ralph Lambert hated Barrow Street. He hated the men and women walking quietly by, the kids playing stoop-ball a few houses away, the old Italian peddling ice cream on a stick from a wagon down the block, he hated everything about Barrow Street.
And he knew what it was that he really hated.
He hated Ralph Lambert.
Susan Rivers was afraid.
She had been afraid ever since early that morning, when she had passed the beautiful woman on the way to her new apartment. The beautiful woman was very blonde and very tall and very well built and very lovely, and Susan Rivers was very much afraid of her.
She had just moved into the apartment that morning. Before that she lived on Gay Street—which she thought was particularly appropriate—but then Gloria had decided to fall in love with another girl and she had to find a place for herself. So she had found this place on Barrow Street.
She located the apartment through an ad in the Village Voice, a neighborhood newspaper which combined excellent columns and reviews with news on everything going on in the area. The ad had said, simply:
BARROW ST., lg. liv. rm., kitch., bath, $85, apply supt., 69 Barrow.
which meant, simply enough, that she had to apply to the superintendent at 69 Barrow Street for an $85-a-month apartment with a large living room, a kitchen, and a bath. That was Thursday, and she applied to the super that afternoon, signed the lease, packed her belongings and brought them from Gloria's apartment the next morning.
And met the beautiful woman on the steps.
Not because she met a woman, or even because the woman was beautiful. Susan was a lesbian, but that didn't mean that she wanted to hop into the hay with every good-looking gal she bumped into. Hardly. She had her own desires, and although her desires were classed as abnormal, they were not overwhelming compulsions which she couldn't overcome. She was a lesbian simply because she found women more attractive than men.
Well, it was more complex than that, she admitted. There was the fact that men scared her silly, that the mere thought of letting a man enter her and touch her inside had her shivering. And a psychiatrist could probably delve into her mind and figure out even more complex reasons for the way she was, but to hell with all psychiatrists. She was what she was, and she was damned if she was going to start worrying about it now.
But the woman worried her, worried her very much. For one thing, she couldn't remember being so strongly attracted to anyone before. More important, she could tell that the attraction was not all on her part.
They had met on the steps. Susan was carrying a suitcase and the woman stepped aside to let her pass. As she did so she could feel the woman's hot, insistent eyes burning into her slender body. She felt the woman's warm breath near her cheek.
And she knew that the woman wanted her.
It would he so easy, so easy to go off on another hot sex bout. Easy—and very nice. But God, after the thing with Gloria ended on the rocks she had been so damned determined to sleep alone for a while, to just relax and spend some time by herself until she got a clearer idea of who the hell she was and where the hell she was going. She had been so damned determined, and now look at her. Just another dyke with hot pants who couldn't look at another girl's breasts without wanting to kiss them, who couldn't pass close to another female body without itching to cover it with her own.
Que sera sera. That was how that song went, and it made its own kind of sense. Whatever will be will be, whatever would happen would happen, and she would just let things happen to her. It would work out; everything always worked out.
But Christ how she wanted to see that woman again!
She heaved a sigh and sat down on the edge of her bed. It was a single bed, and that at least was a good sign. If she got in the mood for any horizontal acrobatics she could go someplace else instead of making love in her own apartment. In her own place she could be alone by herself.
She stood up and decided to take a nap for an hour or two. She undressed slowly, baring a body that was slim and tan and boyishly beautiful. Her breasts were small but perfect, and she was by no means flat-chested. Her dark brown hair was cut short and her legs tapered from full, rounded thighs to trim ankles.
It was a nice body. She wondered how the blonde woman would like it.
When she was completely nude and ready for bed she threw back the covers and stretched out on the clean white sheet. She rested her head on the pillow and let her eyes close.
In her mind she pictured the blonde woman. Thinking about her, she let her own hands caress her body. She cupped her breasts, feeling the softness and firmness of them and imagining in her mind that it was the other woman's breasts she was holding and that the woman was embracing her. Then she moved her hands down to the lean, flat stomach and stroked gently, rhythmically.
Everything was so quiet, so peaceful and so gentle. She relaxed completely and continued to stroke herself, her hands lingering on the inside of her thighs where the skin was so extraordinarily soft and tender. She remembered the way Gloria had loved to touch and kiss her there, and in her mind she saw the blonde woman doing the same.
Then her hands moved to the spot where no man had ever been and she stroked herself gently, languorously, feeling warm sensations of love course through her young body. Deliciously obscene pictures flooded her mind as she handled herself until she drifted off into a deep, heady, luxurious sleep.
It was almost 5:30 in the afternoon when Stella James mounted the steps at 69 Barrow Street and fitted her key in the lock. Anticipation coursed through her as she walked to the door of the apartment she shared with Ralph.
She was hungry.
She giggled to herself as she thought of the word. Hungry. That was what Frank had called her years ago. He said she was the hungriest woman he had ever met, and he was probably right.
"Don't you ever get enough?" he had demanded.
"Never," she said. "When I've had enough it'll be time for them to bury me."
Frank had been the first, and there had been so many after him that she had lost count. She couldn't even recall what some of them looked like or what their names were. Old men, young men, boys even—she thought fleetingly of a delivery boy, just a freshman in high school, who couldn't have been more than fourteen or fifteen. What a sweet, funny, excited little thing he had been! He brought her an order from the grocery once—God, it had been two or three years ago!—and she came to the door in a kimono.
From there on it had been easy. She let the kimono slip open persistently and each time she took longer to close it again. The poor kid, he couldn't help staring at her. And then she took him by the hand and led him inside and helped him off with his clothes. And she lay down beside him on her bed and showed him what to do ...
Excerpted from 69 Barrow Street by Lawrence Block. Copyright © 2012 Lawrence Block. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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