Me and Hugh had a lot to do, rollin' on a Friday on our way to Sunday noon, over what was promising to be a Good New Year's weekend. He picked me up outside the theatre, down on Sixth and M Southwest, and the party was in Georgetown.
We had a changeover that night, from The Crucible to Macbeth, so I was running late. That and the fact that Hugh was driving a total piece of crap conspired to nearly do us in.
After driving all over town, barely-stop and kinda try-to-go, trying to score in that raggedy jalopy, we were inhaling some hastily-rolled herb and things were starting to look good.
It was two minutes to midnight—closing time—when we hit the liquor store, not far from the Watergate, which had yet to become infamous. I made this mistake for the first and last time: as I shoved the door open, steaming out of the frigid December night, I neglected to check out what was going on inside the store.
What it was, was an armed robbery. The first thing I registered was the woman behind the counter to my right, throwing money at the black man nearest to her, who had a gun stuck in her face:
"Here! Take it!" she screamed. "Take it all! Please! Don't shoot!"
The bills floated down and around her voice in slow motion like dirty green snow. Nickels and dimes rolled along the countertop and onto the floor. The camera in my mind panned to see a second black man with a shiny black revolver pointed at the head of a man who, too, was screaming.
"Take it! Take it!"
The thief had his arm around the guy's neck. He pulled the man's head, hard, into the gun barrel, and cocked his piece, just like in the movies. That pissed me off. Screen violence and real violence are such very different things. The woman looked at me and Hugh, helpless. The little bell over the door was still dingling fatefully, and the first guy swung around on me: His eyes were pinned to the back of his skull like ball-point pen-tips out of ink and he was sweating like a cold beer on a hot day.
"Shut the fuck up!" he said to me, as if that made any kind of sense.
The irony of dying in a liquor store on the dark side of town instead of in a jungle half a world away crossed my mind as I flattened myself against the cheap wine next to the door. Hugh—always quiet in the first place—said nothing at all, raised his hands, nodding like a bargain in a bobble-headed doll store.
There was nothing to do but wait it out. The mind makes all sorts of frantic leaps: geometry calculations, trajectories, will there be a muzzle flash, why is the barrel of the pistol so goddamn big? Can't he hold the fucking thing still?
The skinny speed freak in my face was—plain to see—scared shitless. That's what made the whole thing so dangerous. The cannon barrel he was barely controlling swung back and forth between me and Hugh. I could smell the fear coming off him in nauseating waves. The bottles were hard and cool on my palms as I tried to will myself into the spaces between them.
Non-threatening. Cool. Calm. That was my job. Back. Farther. The ludicrous thought, attributed to Norman Mailer I believe, run from a knife, charge a gun, flashed into the equation. I quickly computed that Norman Mailer wasn't here and fuck him, there was a chance these guys were more scared than we were.
The second guy did two things that made me happy. At the same time he let go of the owner and swung his weapon around towards Hugh, he uncocked it. He had enough self-control to let the hammer down on his shiny gun-metal blue and black double-action .38 as he scatted between me and Hugh, like an alley cat who's had a bedpan thrown clattering after him.
The bell over the door jangled them away, into the night, and—quick as that—Hugh and I threw each other a look. It was over. Couldn't have been half a minute and they didn't get a penny.
The mom and pop were basket-cases. We helped them pick up the money. The cops came and showed us ten thousand pictures of angry-looking black men and boys. The eyes were all wrong on each of 'em somehow.
By the time we got to the party, the host had tucked himself into the master bedroom with a propgirl that I had a crush on, and his wife and I spent the night drinking brandy and talking about how she was gonna leave him and go back to Jamaica, soon as she got some money. He left with the girl before daylight and I woke up, hungover, in her arms.
But that's another D.C. story.