A Novel by

Lawrence Block

Copyright © 1961

by Lawrence Block

ISBN: 978-1-4532-0850-2


To all stoop-sitters,



“Once upon a time there were three little sisters,” the Dormouse began in a great hurry; “and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well—”

“What did they live on?” said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

“They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse.

“They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked. “They’d have been ill.”

“So they were,” said the Dormouse. “Very ill.”



Chapter   1

   Joe Milani studied the room with half-open eyes. He spent a long time absorbing every aspect of the interior of the coffee-house with the intensity of a person who had never been there before and who might never return. At last he rested his gaze on the small cup of coffee in front of him with the same concentration. And he decided that the coffee-house was the most logical spot in the world for him.

Item one: the name of the place was The Palermo—after the city in which his grandfather had been born.

Item two: the coffee-house had a Bleecker Street address—the street on which his father had been born.

Item three: the coffee-house belonged to the fringe of Greenwich Village—where all the world’s misfits were supposed to live. And he thought that he, Joe Milani, one of humanity’s round pegs, had found the world the squarest of holes.

He laughed to himself, pleased at his play on words. Then, chopping off his laugh as suddenly as he had started it, he raised the demitasse of espresso to his lips. He took a sip, savoring the thick, black liquid. Thirty cents was what The Palermo picked up for a cup of espresso, thirty cents for a squirt of ink, thirty shining coppers for a less-than-respectable swallow of liquid mud. Joe’s grandfather, who might well have sipped espresso in the same chair before coffee-houses had become fashionable, had probably paid a nickel for the slop.

Thirty cents. But, Joe reflected, as he swallowed the coffee, that gummy concoction was worth it. If you were stoned, that is.

   Stoned. He was that. Stoned, smashed, blind, turned on and flying so high and so cool and everything so just exactly right.

Softly he sang:

Every time it rains, it rains

Sweet marijuana.

I grow pot in my backyard,

Sweet marijuana.

Sweet marijuana.

I blow up in my garage

Any time I wanna…

Joe Milani looked across the table at Shank to see if the guy was digging the song, if the thin boy of the intense black eyes and the straight black hair would nod and mumble and laugh with him. But Shank was cooling it, his eyes shut, his hand supporting his chin. Shank, stoned, was listening in to something and digging something— maybe some music he had heard weeks ago or a chick he had balled or maybe nothing but his own private thoughts.

Joe took another bite out of the espresso, marveling at the way everything tasted so much better when you were high. It was as if you were getting the whole taste, inside and out, and as if, were you to close your eyes, you could see what you were eating. He felt that his lips tasted the coffee, and then flipped the liquid to his tongue and palate; and then, when he swallowed it he was convinced that his throat could taste the coffee as it made its way to his stomach. He finally finished the espresso and leaned back against the wrought iron chair, his eyelids low and his hands motionless in his lap. He was tuning in on himself.

Deliberately he concentrated on his right hand. He could see the hand vividly in his mind, the dark curling hairs on its back, the whorls on the fingertips. He could feel the pulse in his hand, and the blood moving through the palm into the fingers. His hand grew very heavy, throbbing as he concentrated on it.

Joe shifted his concentration from one part of his body to another, and each time the effect was the same.

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