Samantha Spade stood looking out a tenement window in Spanish Harlem, while a pair of her enforcers-black professional muscle, Biggie Lewis and Coke Roosevelt-were systematically and unemotionally smothering a young Puerto Rican boy, Manolo Ramos, who was delinquent by six hundred and ninety dollars in his payments to Samantha, a statuesque black Shylock, whose turf embraced much of Harlem from river to river and south of 125th Street. Samantha was tall, five eleven in white leather boots, with classically chiseled features and wide, luminous eyes, which she enlarged in a startling and almost comic fashion with heavy black liner and silver-white eye shadow. She wore a high-crowned dome-shaped red velvet hat and a flared leather coat over a black denim pants suit, which glittered with sequins forming clusters of patriotic designs, stars and eagles and shoulder patches from the old glory outfits, the 182nd Airborne Division, and the Fourth Infantry, the Ivy Division.
The room was small and filthy and smelled of drains.
Coke Roosevelt and Biggie Lewis were large, powerful young men who amused themselves by dressing with piratical flourishes; they wore silver earrings, Aussie digger hats, tight leather suits with brilliant scarlet kerchiefs wound around their powerfully muscled throats.
With effortless ease, they held young Manolo’s writhing figure on a narrow bed, twisting his slim brown arms high up between his shoulder blades and pressing his curly head and pretty brown face deeply into a soiled and matted pillow.
“All right! That’s enough!” Samantha Spade said abruptly, and Coke Roosevelt and Biggie Lewis immediately released the boy, reacting like well-trained guard dogs to the thread of irritation in Samantha’s voice.
“Mother, Mother, don’t let them hurt me!” Manolo screamed at Samantha.
All this Samantha found degrading. You started with something clean, and while the interest was ball-breaking, they couldn’t go to banks, so they came to her. When they got behind and started hiding, you had to use muscle, or your work and reputation went down the drain.
“We didn’t advertise for you, Manolo.”
“It’s my brother,” Manolo said, barely whispering the words, while watching Samantha’s cold black face as if it were hostile terrain he must try to cross to find sanctuary.
She knew about his brother, a junkie with a big habit, whose whining and desperate appeals for help lay across Manolo’s spirit like a draining poultice. Manolo, at twenty, was two years older than his sick brother and had been told countless thousands of times by their dead mother to take good care of his little brother and hold his hand crossing the streets. All the streets of life. .
“But you and me made a nice business deal, and it didn’t have anything to do with your brother,” she said.
“He makes me cry, and I can’t stand it.”
Oh, Jesus, Samantha thought. Coke and Biggie flipped Manolo over onto his back, locking his arms behind his head with their huge black hands. Manolo was naked except for a pair of clean white sweat socks, and the overhead lights coated his slim body and small but shapely private parts with shimmering silver reflections.
He’s really something, Samantha thought, staring with frank interest at his vulnerable body. What a super trip she could make with him, toying with him like an elegant little doll. Manolo had curly brown hair, the dimpled face of a cherub, and skin as soft and finely textured as pure silk. But none of this sweet stuff was for the ladies. Manolo was strictly for cockbirds.
Samantha-who had been christened Maybelle Cooper in Mobile, Alabama, and educated in New York-sat down on the bed beside Manolo and let her fingertips stray across the velvetlike skin of his stomach.
Manolo shivered unpleasantly; the touch of her flesh against his revolted him; it was a perverse, unclean feeling, like flowers acrid with rot.
Coke Roosevelt lighted a big cigar and blew smoke into Manolo’s face.
“Staff of life, faggykins,” Coke said in a soft but rumbling voice.
“He means, like bread,” Biggie Lewis said. Manolo was not afraid of Biggie. He knew Biggie wanted him, but if Biggie hurt him, he’d lose any chance of getting him to go down on him. But Coke Roosevelt didn’t want him and might enjoy hurting him to prove it. Samantha wanted him, too, but there was no leverage for Manolo.
“What’s the most you tricked in one night, Manolo?”
“Eight, maybe ten times.”
Samantha looked at him thoughtfully. “This may set Women’s Lib back a ton, but I’m giving you a break. You got two nights to get that six hundred and ninety dollars. Don’t make us look for you.”
“Thanks for shit nothing,” Manolo said sullenly.
“You talk nice to Samantha,” Coke Roosevelt said to him. “If you don’t, I’ll twist off that little spic cock of yours. But knowing where you like to put it, I’d do the job with a pliers.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Manolo shouted, and spat in Coke Roosevelt’s face.
“Stop it!” Samantha said.
Manolo spat at Coke Roosevelt again, and then he screamed in pain; Samantha had tugged sharply at his pubic hair, a gesture more reflexive than sadistic, expressing the casual tyranny of all ghettos, pain and violence employed as impersonal proof of power.
“When I tell you to stop it, you stop it,” Samanatha said to Manolo.
Samantha, her manner absent and distracted, drew her fingernails across Manolo’s stomach; his reaction was spasmodic and helpless, a shuddering contraction of the muscles in his loins.
“Manolo, there’s a convention of florists at the Plaza this week, and a lot of them cats are only a couple of degrees from flaming fags. Pick yourself some pansies. Maybe work Central Park the next couple of nights, find yourself some passion fruits.”
Her fingertips continued to stray across the velvet surface of his stomach. She was amused but irritated at his deliberate refusal to respond to her efforts to arouse him.
He knew what she was trying to do to him, but he was angrily determined to frustrate her. Manolo lay perfectly still and turned his face away from her. He made no attempt to struggle against the massive black arms and hands that held him like a rack on the narrow bed. Manolo enjoyed the feel of that warm male muscle against his body, and he savored his helplessness, the bondage and restraint imposed on him, and so he made no move to struggle against those powerful hands because that would only excite him and make Samantha’s victory inevitable.
Manolo thought of his mother and the little white sugar cakes she had made for him. Sometimes she filled them with pinola nuts, sometimes with yellow raisins. He and his brother ate them watching TV after school. They watched old movies. Game shows. Fuck Samantha, he thought, his mood vicious and triumphant, surfacing to the present.
But that was a dangerous indulgence. Dick Clark’s
But to his shame and horror, he felt his flesh betraying him. Helplessly responding to Samantha’s sensual ministrations, his stomach muscles contracted convulsively and sent seismic currents of ecstasy into the very root of his sexual organ, and slowly the base of his spine began to dissolve in delicious agony.
“Stop it! Stop it, you shit bitch!” he screamed into her face.
Biggie and Coke chuckled at the signs of rut on Manolo’s slim, smooth body.
But Samantha was disgusted and angry with herself. She stood abruptly and walked to the door.
“Save it for somebody who’ll pay for it,” she said.
“Samantha,” he said, barely whispering her name.
But her heart wasn’t easy, and she didn’t know why. It was always that goddamn Emma and Missoura thing. Walk through the mud, you dumb niggers. But she was touched and moved by Manolo’s physical response to her. She wondered if it would be amusing to help him, to take care of him. Her own life was so full of dreck and pain, so tinted with the lavender of resignation that she was desperate for any emotional diversion.
“Take care of business,” she said to no one in particular, and walked out of the room.
On the street in front of Manolo’s building, Samantha’s chauffeur stood beside her Cadillac and scowled irritably at six or eight young Puerto Ricans who were admiring the loaded green Coupe de Ville.
When Samantha came down the steps to the sidewalk, her chauffeur, whose name was Doc Logan, opened the rear door of the car, and said to her, “Got a call while you were upstairs, Samantha. Chuck from the poolroom. Gypsy Tonnelli is looking for you.”
“Chuck say why?”
“Yeah. Something about that psycho’s been wasting them little chicks.
The Gypsy knows what he looks like, and he’s thinking maybe one of our sharks could maybe make the cat.”
“Screw the Gypsy,” Samantha said, and slid her lithe, elegant body into the interior of the luxuriously leathered and perfumed Coupe de Ville.
Seconds later Coke Roosevelt crowded in beside her and Biggie Lewis climbed into the passenger seat alongside Doc.
There was a musing smile on Samantha’s lips. “Yeah, screw the Gypsy,” she said, and crossed her long, slimly booted legs. “You know. I went to the same school with him. Right here in Spanish Harlem, when there were a lot of ginzos around. He was way ahead of me, but I kind of hung out with his sister, Adela. I used to help her with her arithmetic.” Samantha laughed, displaying splendid white teeth.
“Lordy, was she dumb.” She tapped her forehead. “Solid bone, solid. We called the Gypsy the Pope then, because he never scored as far as we knew.”
The green Coupe de Ville moved smoothly and arrogantly into an intersection on the yellow, cruised on slowly and insolently against the red.
In a squad car a young uniformed cop spotted the infraction and reached for the ignition key, but his partner, a seasoned old bull, looked at him and shook his head. “No way. That spook’s off limits to you and me.”
The Harlem night was blue with a smog reflecting brilliant neon lights in dancing patterns, and in the cruising green Cadillac, Samantha’s mood was as blue as the night itself, a mix of emotions that turned her thoughts toward her childhood and her drunken giant of a father, rotting with syphilis, his own eyes turned inward in bitter recollections of old angers, dead illusions.
Samantha’s father used to say to her, “The game ain’t worth the shame, honey. You win, you just shippin’ some tired shit. Lose, you turn it around. You the tired shit gettin’ whipped.”
It was Gypsy Tonnelli who was darkening her thoughts, she knew, because the only reason Tonnelli would call her was that he needed help, but helping Whitey was the thing that gave Samantha those migraines. .
Manolo Ramos dressed hastily in his most provocative gear, a pale-gray silk shirt open to his navel, a short white fur jacket, stacked blue leather boots, and midnight-blue suede pants that fitted his rounded buttocks like a second layer of skin. He patted a sweet cologne on his cheeks and hair, which he had already teased into a halo of brown curls. Flashing a brilliant professional smile at himself in the mirror above his hand sink, Manolo let himself from his room and ran down dirty, uncarpeted stairs to catch the crosstown bus to Central Park.
Six hundred ninety dollars, he was thinking. Shit, I’m a bargain. .
At eleven thirteen P.M. on the fourteenth of October, engine and ladder companies were dispatched to a fire in a shabby tenement west of Ninth Avenue in the middle Fifties of the borough of Manhattan. Firemen contained the blaze that was smoldering in a mattress in the first-floor bedroom and that had been started by an elderly wino who had fallen asleep smoking a twisted stogie.
The hissing of water under compression, the sound of shouted orders, the thud of firemen’s boots, had alerted and terrified a nursing alley cat nesting in the basement of the tenement with four lively kittens. The big tabby bitch, in panic, began evacuating her young, carrying them in her teeth with a soft but firm grip on the backs of their necks, running with them through an open window to the safety of an unoccupied garage in another area of the block. She made three such trips, but when she returned for her fourth and last kitten, she couldn’t find it. She circled restlessly, whining in distress and anxiety, but receiving no answer at all to her plaintive, demanding calls, she leaped a last time through the open window and ran off into the darkness.
The lobby of the Plaza Hotel at Fifty-ninth Street near Fifth Avenue was in brilliant contrast with the slum district where firemen had doused the flames in a mattress and chewed the ass out of a dumb Puerto Rican wino who had fallen asleep smoking a cheap black stogie-and where in the dim brain of a nursing tabby gleamed the distant, receding memory of some part of her forever lost.
Crescent Holloway was making a harried, distracted entrance into the lobby of the Plaza, blinking with jet-lag weariness and irritation at the exploding flashlights of a phalanx of news photographers. In Miss Holloway’s van and wake streamed protective and supportive members of her personal entourage, forces beefed up by baggage-laden bellhops, a brace of assistant managers, and several executives from National Films, whose firm had become a financial phenomenon among the majors by distributing back-to-back smash hits displaying the explosive sexual pyrotechnics of Miss Holloway, who had become known in the trade papers as the Stacked House Kid.
Directly behind Crescent Holloway, who was shielding her eyes in a pretty gesture against the exploding flashbulbs, stood her personal makeup man, Simon Sachs; her press agent, Nate Sokol; and her bulking and belligerent-looking black maid, Honey Hopper.
Directly in front of Crescent-the sturdy prow of this harmlessly beleaguered sex boat-stood Rudi Zahn, her lover, her manager, and her producer, although not necessarily in that order.
Rudi Zahn, a stockily built man in his late thirties, with thinning hair and clear, direct gray eyes, raised both hands and gave the noisy photographers and reporters a friendly, give-us-a-break smile. The smile was not practiced; it was amiable and honest and suggested something true of Rudi Zahn’s character, which tested surprisingly low in the slick cynicism the press expected from Hollywood types.
The reporters and photographers liked the message they were getting from Rudi Zahn and listened to what he had to say, which was: “It was a bumpy flight with a bomb scare. The movie, I mean.” He mentioned a competitor’s product and got a laugh. “It was so bad that people actually walked out on it.” Another laugh.
The jokes were old, but no one minded; Rudi didn’t pretend they were otherwise.
He went on: “We’re tired, but we’ll stay up all night if you’re on deadline. Nate’s got a press kit with some quotes and pix that haven’t been used yet. That’s the
The good news that Rudi Zahn promised the press corps was an early-morning conference, a screening of key scenes from the Stacked House Kid’s next flick, all this graced by a buffet of delicatessen from the Stage Door with champagne for those who were thirsty and whiskey for those who weren’t. .
Within seconds, Crescent Holloway and her group were streaming toward the elevators amid smiles and an eruption of involuntary whistles from the working press.
After midnight, when the important day began (although Gus Soltik did not feel it started until there were streaks of dawn on the horizon), he began to feel drowsy, and the infallible indicator of his mind pointed toward “home.” Using a network of streets and alleys that were like the veins of his own huge body, and subway trains, and the rear tailgate of a truck lumbering along the Major Deegan Highway, Gus Soltik reached 135th Street and St. Ann’s Avenue about an hour after leaving the site of the fire on Ninth Avenue in the borough of Manhattan.
It was very quiet. Rain was falling, and gusts of wind made a noise like scurrying animals in the trash in the curbs and on the sidewalk.
Housing developments, the color of mud, stood in rows stretching toward a dark sky and between them stretched damp, slimy earth, unrelieved by a tree, a leaf, a stretch of grass, a child’s swing, or a chair for an old man or woman to sit in thin sunlight in these barren yards that bordered prison shafts of public housing.
Gus was glad he didn’t live there, glad instead to live in the rotting old tenement with Mrs. Schultz. Senor Perez gave her the money that Gus earned, and sometimes she gave him a few dollars and with that money he could buy all he really needed: hot dogs from street vendors, the cold roll heaped high with onions, a cup of snow ice with sweet bright-colored syrups, or roast walnuts and hot pretzels.
Also, he had a reserve supply of money that no one knew about. Not Senor Perez, not even Mrs. Schultz. Gus had cut a deep flap in the bottom of the heels of his Wellington Boots, and after stuffing these apertures with dimes and quarters, he had pressed the V-shaped pieces of leather back into place, securing them firmly with strips of black friction tape. It gave him a good feeling to know he was walking on his secret money. It was always there if he needed to take a bus or subway or needed to satisfy his sudden, compulsive yearning for things that tasted sweet.
But Gus Soltik disliked spending those precious quarters. That was why he was glad that the kitten purring against his body in the pocket of his jacket hadn’t cost him anything at all.
But while it cost nothing, it would solve a problem that had tormented him for months. How to make “greenropes” cross that street.
Gus Soltik would sleep now, to be wakened by the distant bells of St.
Stanislaus. He knew he would hear Mrs. Schultz going down the creaking stairs, knowing that in her old hands she would be holding a leather prayer book and the heavy wooden rosary from the old country, on her way to his mother’s dead mass.