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Chapter 8 Trapped

There was the knocking at the door. Sammy, lying on his bed in pajamas and a bathrobe, called"Who?"When West Indian Archie answered, Sammy slid the round, two-sided shaving mirror under the bed,with what little of the cocaine powder-or crystals, actually-was left, and I opened the door.

  "Red-I want my money!"A .32-20 is a funny kind of gun. It's bigger than a .32. But it's not as big as a .38. I had faced down somedangerous Negroes. But no one who wasn't ready to die messed with West Indian Archie.

  I couldn't believe it. He truly scared me. I was so incredulous at what was happening that it was hardto form words with my brain and my mouth.

  "Man-what's the beef?"West Indian Archie said he'd thought I was trying something when I'd told him I'd hit, but he'd paidme the three hundred dollars until he could double-check his written betting slips; and, as he'dthought, I hadn't combinated the number I'd claimed, but another.

  "Man, you're crazy!" I talked fast; I'd seen out of the corner of my eye Sammy's hand easing under hispillow where he kept his Army .45. "Archie, smart a man as you're supposed to be, you'd paysomebody who hadn't hit?"The .32-20 moved, and Sammy froze. West Indian Archie told him, "I ought to shoot you through theear." And he looked back at me. "You don't have my money?"I must have shaken my head. "I'll give you until twelve o'clock tomorrow." And he put his handbehind him and pulled open the door. He backed out, and slammed it.

   It was a classic hustler-code impasse. The money wasn't the problem. I still had about two hundreddollars of it. Had money been the issue, Sammy could have made up the difference; if it wasn't in hispocket, his women could quickly have raised it. West Indian Archie himself, for that matter, wouldhave loaned me three hundred dollars if I'd ever asked him, as many thousands of dollars of mine ashe'd gotten ten percent of. Once, in fact, when he'd heard I was broke, he had looked me up andhanded me some money and grunted, "Stick this in your pocket." The issue was the position which his action had put us both into. For a hustler in our sidewalk jungleworld, "face" and "honor" were important. No hustler could have it known that he'd been "hyped,"meaning outsmarted or made a fool of. And worse, a hustler could never afford to have itdemonstrated that he could be bluffed, that he could be frightened by a threat, that he lacked nerve.

  West Indian Archie knew that some young hustlers rose in stature in our world when they somehowhoodwinked older hustlers, then put it on the wire for everyone to hear. He believed I was trying that.

  In turn, I knew he would be protecting his stature by broadcasting all over the wire his threat to me.

  Because of this code, in my time in Harlem I'd personally known a dozen hustlers who, threatened,left town, disgraced.

  Once the wire had it, any retreat by either of us was unthinkable. The wire would be awaiting thereport of the showdown.

  I'd also known of at least another dozen showdowns in which one took the Dead On Arrival ride tothe morgue, and the other went to prison for manslaughter or the electric chair for murder.

  Sammy let me hold his .32. My guns were at my apartment. I put the .32 in my pocket, with my handon it, and walked out.

  I couldn't stay out of sight. I had to show up at all of my usual haunts. I was glad that Reginald wasout of town. He might have tried protecting me, and I didn't want him shot in the head by WestIndian Archie.

  I stood awhile on the corner, with my mind confused-the muddled thinking that's characteristic of theaddict. Was West Indian Archie, I began to wonder, bluffing a hype on me? To make fun of me? Someold hustlers did love to hype younger ones. I knew he wouldn't do it as some would, just to pick upthree hundred dollars. But everyone was so slick. In this Harlem jungle people would hype theirbrothers. Numbers runners often had hyped addicts who had hit, who were so drugged that, whenchallenged, they really couldn't be sure if they had played a certain number.

  I began to wonder whether West Indian Archie might not be right. Had I really gotten mycombination confused? I certainly knew the two numbers I'd played; I knew I'd told him to com-binateonly one of them. Had I gotten mixed up about which number?

  Have you ever been so sure you did something that you never would have thought of it again-unlessit was brought up again? Then you start trying to mentally confirm-and you're only about half-sure?

  It was just about tune for me to go and pick up Jean Parks, to go downtown to see Billie at the OnyxClub. So much was swirling in my head. I thought about telephoning her and calling it off, makingsome excuse. But I knew that running now was the worst thing I could do. So I went on and picked up Jean at her place. We took a taxi on down to 52nd Street. "_Billie Holiday_" and those big photo blowups of her were under the lights outside. Inside, the tables were jammed against the wall, tables aboutbig enough to get two drinks and four elbows on; the Onyx was one of those very little places.

  Billie, at the microphone, had just finished a number when she saw Jean and me. Her white gownglittered under the spotlight, her face had that coppery, Indianish look, and her hair was in thattrademark ponytail. For her next number she did the one she knew I always liked so: "You Don'tKnow What Love Is"-"until you face each dawn with sleepless eyes . . . until you've lost a love youhate to lose-"When her set was done, Billie came over to our table. She and Jean, who hadn't seen each other in along time, hugged each other. Billie sensed something wrong with me. She knew that I was alwayshigh, but she knew me well enough to see that something else was wrong, and asked in her customaryprofane language what was the matter with me. And in my own foul vocabulary of those days, Ipretended to be without a care, so she let it drop.

  We had a picture taken by the club photographer that night. The three of us were sitting closetogether. That was the last time I ever saw Lady Day. She's dead; dope and heartbreak stopped thatheart as big as a barn and that sound and style that no one successfully copies. Lady Day sang withthe _soul_ of Negroes from the centuries of sorrow and oppression. What a shame that proud, fine,black woman never lived where the true greatness of the black race was appreciated!

  In the Onyx Club men's room, I sniffed the little packet of cocaine I had gotten from Sammy. Jean andI, riding back up to Harlem in a cab, decided to have another drink. She had no idea what washappening when she suggested one of my main hangouts, the bar of the La Marr-Cheri on the cornerof 147th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. I had my gun, and the cocaine courage, and I said okay. Andby the time we'd had the drink, I was so high that I asked Jean to take a cab on home, and she did. Inever have seen Jean again, either.

  Like a fool, I didn't leave the bar. I stayed there, sitting, like a bigger fool, with my back to the door,thinking about West Indian Archie. Since that day, I have never sat with my back to a door-and Inever will again. But it's a good thing I was then. I'm positive if I'd seen West Indian Archie come in,I'd have shot to kill.

  The next thing I knew West Indian Archie was standing before............

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