The shot rang out within seconds of a blur running up the alley.

“Did you see that son of a bitch move?”

George had barely said move when the pop-pop sound reverberated. Maybe there were two shots.

It was 9:30 on a steamy July night in ’60s Baltimore. We had just parked the car and George was cutting the engine when a white T-shirt and jeans tore ass up the alley in front of us.

The alley ran behind Playhouse 25, an art cinema that showed Bergman films and other innocently erotic, mostly foreign stuff. We were going to catch a 10 o’clock screening, but live action proved a stronger lure.

We jumped from the car and ran to the alley’s entrance…excitement trumping fear. Hell, we were teenagers. They live forever, right?

A single lamppost on the far side of the street sprayed a diffused light onto our first steps into the alley—the way sunlight might shine a foot or two into a cave, after which everything goes black. And now everything had gone quiet too.

We peered into the cave from the light line. Nothing.

Cautiously, one step, then another, we inched forward until we were firmly in the grip of black silence. It suddenly struck me that this was not a good idea.

Now, it struck me. Now, when I was too scared to say anything to George, for fear that the shooter would aim at the sound of my voice. Besides, I didn’t want to come off like a pantywaist.

Gradually, our eyes adjusted as we continued to advance. About 30 yards in, the alley intersected with another to form a T. We approached the point where the new alley branched right and left—a backstreet world populated by cats, rats…and, if we were lucky, nothing more.

Approaching the top of the T, we considered our options. Turn right, get shot in the head. Turn left, get shot in the chest. Turn and run, get shot in the back. Stand still and wait for sunlight, get shot by my mother for staying out all night.

Frozen in place, the silence deafening, lights suddenly smacked at the alley walls, and squealing rubber broke our trance. Instinctively, George and I bolted to our right at the alley’s nexus. There we came face-to-face with the gun barrel we had so foolishly pursued. Now another car lurched up behind us from the alley’s southern entrance, catching the gunman squarely in its headlights. The reflection off his badge was blinding.

Suddenly surrounded by cops, our relief was palpable, but short-lived.

“Face the wall, palms flat against it. Spread your legs. Now, assholes!” A rough frisking gave up nothing but our sweaty fear.

We explained what had happened. As we did, I found myself wishing we had gotten shot. At least then we might have warranted the sympathy vote. Instead, the cops had us firmly ensconced in the stupid column.

After a while—a mentally tortuous while during which the police made sure we knew that they knew that we were idiots—they, of course, let us go. A couple teenagers too dumb for our own good.

I never did find out if the cops caught any real bad guys that night, but they definitely collared a couple knuckleheads.

We didn’t make it to the late show, of course. In fact, it was a while before we returned to Playhouse 25 to read subtitles and ogle seductive European actresses.

The whole experience soon settled into the recesses of our memories as George and I, great companions for a couple high school years, went our separate ways…me to an out-of-state college and George, a couple years my senior, to some sort of government job. I never saw George again after that. I did hear from him though, about eight years later, indirectly.

I was working for an ad agency in New York City at the time, trying to find my way through the early stages of adulthood—career, marriage, children, etc.—in much the same way I had found my way through that damn alley many years before…in other words, with much apprehension, second-guessing and a definite sense that there was no turning around now. In still other words, I had long since forgotten about the Playhouse 25 incident…until the day the mail brought a rather impressive-looking package from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Inside was a multi-paged questionnaire seeking a character reference. George had applied to become a G-man.

Memories of days gone by immediately flooded back. George and I had played Little League baseball together, been doubles partners in tennis, meld partners in pinochle, and naïve voyeurs in the world of art films and bohemian coffee houses. But nothing came stronger to the front of my mind that particular morning, as I held the FBI document in my hand and glanced out over the Manhattan skyline, than a nondescript alley in Baltimore. I smiled at the recollection of our fleeting excursion into real fear wrapped in reckless abandon.

Eight years on, I had become a husband and father—a virtual bastion of conservative good sense. Now, thanks to a document from the FBI, I thoroughly enjoyed a few minutes’ indulgence in the memory of my featherbrained youth.

I hope George got the job. I gave him a hell of a reference…considered highlighting his fearlessness in the Playhouse 25 alley that night, but opted not to chance the FBI having a sense of humor.

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