the true stories
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
'Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!
-Rudyard Kipling 1895
This poem was dropped in my lap one Sunday afternoon by my father as I lay on the couch reading. He told me to read it and think about it. I was about ten or eleven years old. I have thought about it ever since. There were many times on the trail of Tears that I heard the words in my head and heart when they were required.
Never more than the time I speak of now. There was a unique apartment building on the beat that had a strip-mall front with an entrance into the lobby in the middle. Once a person entered here they could cross the floor to another set of doors and exit to a hidden world. It was a courtyard flanked on all sides by smaller buildings, which stood three stories high and contained six suites each.
For delivery purposes I had to go around to the individual buildings and doors. The tenants were a mix of Balkan, Polish, Carpathian, Romany and other eastern Europeans. The resident manager was a Romanian, an accomplished chess opponent and the kind of guy that borrows something every time he sees you and returns nothing.
The stairwells in the individual buildings were dirty, dark and betrayed much of the goings on of the tenants. Once the owner had been forced to get proper panic bars put on all the doors for fire safety. This meant that they only opened if you were going down and out. I was headed up and in one day on a short cut and subsequently spent forty-five claustrophobic minutes sitting on condom-strewn stairs banging on a wall until the working girl on the other side had a chance to dress up and let me out. This was before cell phones.
The mall out front on the big street had a laundromat, a cafe and a small independent super market. The cafe was handy for bacon, eggs, pancakes and coffee. Something I loved but didn't indulge in much in order to keep my expenses down. Over the years, a Vietnamese man took over the old place with the results that the coffee got better and the breakfast got worse. He put in some illegal slot-machines and his business boomed.
One incredibly obnoxious man always sat at the slot-machine with a greasy fist full of twenty dollar bills. He wore a XXXXL tee-shirt stained with his lunch, baggy-ass shorts made from enough material to fill the sail-locker of a schooner and thick filmy eyeglasses with the bungee cord attachment running behind his skull to hold them tight to his nose. His fly was always open and he wore an expensive watch and rings on every finger in addition to a massive gold pendant that bore his initials.
If you haven't guessed, he was a pimp. Not the super-fly guy in the movies. No, but a dealer in human flesh non-the-less. He was a resident of the attached apartment complex and I knew the pudgy-fingered maggot from delivering many packages to his door in the building. The first time I stood at his open door is etched upon my mind.
The entire interior walls and ceiling, from my vantage, which included a view of the hallway, the living-room and the kitchen were papered over with hundreds of square feet of pornographic images torn from magazines with no names. The effect was staggering. The smell would have knocked a buzzard off a shit-wagon. It was a vision from Dante's Inferno interpreted by Blake.
I did not like this creature. I cannot call it a man because it didn't walk like one or talk like one or look like one. It was more like Gollum inflated with a bicycle pump. The wretch got many packages because his cash was endlessly supplied. I bit my lip.
One day the manager took me aside and asked me a few questions about some of the mail received by some of the tenants. He was particularly interested in one name. I told him to explain what he wanted before I would consider answering him. He told me that a certain fat man had been letting this individual into the stairwells to turn tricks, shoot up and sometimes sleep.
The manager was slipping on the spent condoms and stubbing his toes on the hypodermic needles cast about the grounds. The doors were being propped open at all hours and he was getting fed up. He had made inquiries and had been told that there was a procedure that could be followed in order to get the man evicted. He got my attention at this point.
The deal seemed to hinge on a technicality. That is where I came in. If the girl had been receiving mail in her name to the maggot's address there would be grounds to proceed because a clause in the rental agreement would have been breached and could be documented and proven. I was overjoyed.
It was the feeling you get after having a clogged toilet and the Drano finally does its job and the water runs clear again. I happened to have the crucial letter on hand at that time and we sped off to the office to photocopy the envelope. The Romanian asked if I had some binoculars. I had a big pair of ten by fifties and assumed it was for the mission, so I agreed to bring them next day. We shook hands.
Next day I brought the field glasses and they disappeared into a filing cabinet in the Romanian's office. I was told that I would be required soon to sign an affidavit and then the ball would get rolling. I was really starting to feel good. The Romanian asked if he could borrow my World Cup tapes and a few other items. I saw him every day so I said OK. His wife and son were nice and they appeared not to have many possessions. I was glad that soon they would be free of the resident evil.
I brought the tapes and other items on daily basis eagerly awaiting the forthcoming affidavit. In about a week I was signing the paper to affirm the veracity of the photocopied letter used as the basis for the breach of the tenancy agreement in order to evict the maggot. Things would proceed rapidly now I reckoned.
And they did. A short two weeks later it was done. I did the Zorba dance in the lobby. All the women and children who knew were rejoicing. A small victory on the Trail of Tears. I went to the cafe to celebrate with a plate of Hanoi ham and eggs. I ate with gusto watching the maggot at his gaming table. As I rose to go, he summoned me over.
I went to him and he produced a sheaf of legal papers. My name stood out highlighted in yellow. He stabbed a fat finger at my name and asked if that was me. I said it sure was. He looked at me as hard as a man with no moral fiber could and said nothing. I said that I guess I was famous now and had to be going. I had seen on the eviction notice that he would have to be gone by the end of that month. It wasn't long to wait.
The time passed as I brought various items from home to fill the Romanian's ceaseless requests. Each one went into the drawer with the binoculars. I was proud of the man for standing up to the maggot. He was a father, a husband and in charge of a large building with some nice folks in it. I was so proud of him that I lent him my chess set the following week.
The long awaited day dawned. I grinned as I pulled on my socks that morning and cheerfully went to work with a song in my heart. When I got to the building later that day, I saw the maggot at his usual spot in the cafe. I reckoned he was hooked on gambling and had driven over from his new cave, wherever that might have been. I didn't see the Romanian.
The next few days were the same. Finally I asked the Romanian about it. He glanced in every direction as he spoke to me. It was like trying to comb a horses tail in a cloud of flies. Eventually I gleaned that the Romanian had, for reasons known only to him, decided to reverse the eviction on “humanitarian” grounds in consideration of the maggot's poor health.
Because he had a wife and child, I didn't judge the Romanian. He could have been easily compromised depending on the connections above the maggot's head. To supply narcotics to a personal army of walking dead girl slaves seemed to me beyond the organizational skills of the maggot if he were acting alone. The web had been shook and the spider was awake.
I knew instantly that I was out on the ledge again and better watch my own back. Weak people do bad things, bad people do worse things and scared people do the worst things. I took action the very next day. In two ways. Firstly, I went to the office and opened the filing cabinet drawer where all my loot was stashed. I put it in a mail bag and brought it home that night.
Secondly, I vowed to have coffee every morning in the cafe at a table right next to the maggot. We smiled a lot at each other for months and months. I made a mental note of who he spoke to and what correspondence he received. I no longer chatted with the manager. I changed the order of my deliveries every few days at random.
One afternoon when I had returned from the Trail back to my station, I was given an urgent message by a colleague. He said that a Mr. Roman Laptev was out to have my head. I knew the name. It was a new immigrant from Bulgaria who lived in the maggot's building. I hadn't met the man yet but he received lots of third class bulk mail .
I was told that he had come into the station livid and would have crushed me with his bare hands had he found me. I was handed a junk mailing that was torn in half. It was a common scam run by publishers promising millions and delivering only unwanted subscriptions to substandard publications along with endless bills all while selling the persons name and address down the river to the other pirates.
I remembered getting it stuck halfway into the slot, pulling it out and accidentally tearing it in twain. I simply shoved the two halves into the slot as it was obviously garbage. Roman must have come moments later to retrieve his mail. He knew enough English to see that he had won a million dollars. He also knew enough to see that the mailman had purposely torn the all-important “verification code” in half, certainly out of spite and envy.
This had to be nipped in the bud. I was fielding enough heat and responsibilities on other fronts. I assembled a little kit before leaving the station in a bee-line for the apartments. It had seven or eight pieces of junk mail and my boss's magnifying glass. My colleague tried to stop me and reiterated that this Laptev dude was homicidal.
I went to the Romanian because I needed his assistance . Every man is good at something. The Romanian was a clever man and also knew Laptev's lingo. Their respective countries shared the Danube after all. Off we went to the man's apartment. I sent the Romanian in first to ascertain if Laptev was armed. They spoke for a few moments. The Bulgarian's voice finally piped down a few octaves and I was allowed in.
The three of us sat on a beat up green sofa. I spread the junk mail across the coffee table. I put the magnifying glass down. The Romanian's eyes lit up and he asked in hushed tones if he could borrow it. I told him no that it was already borrowed. Laptev eyed me with distrust. There was a pungent stench of garlic of the seventh magnitude issuing from his exhalations and my eyes watered as I prepared the lesson.
I told the Romanian to translate my instructions so they could not be misunderstood. He agreed. I first asked the man to get a pencil or pen. This gave him something to do rather than passively sitting, which no man likes to do. He returned and was asked to look at a single word I had written in block letters on a scrap of paper. The word was “IF”. The Romanian then was instructed to define this word in the language of Laptev.
Now we started class. Laptev was given the task of finding the word “if” on each different junk mail and circling it in pencil. He was allowed to use the magnifying glass to speed up the work. I could see his face change when he sat back after the last “if” had been circled and he had read and understood the sentences involving that word.
The two men had a brief spirited conversation in Laptev's language and then we all had a shot of some kind of paint stripper that tasted like plums. Laptev showed me a picture of his young boy child and I showed him one of mine.
He handed back the magnifying glass and the mail and said in perfect English, “Doze cock-sucker son-a-bitch. Fucking if! And I was go kill you! Million dollar go kiss my ass.”
Many years later I saw Laptev selling delicious hot-dogs from his cart in a park. I recognized the name on the license. He told me all about his girlfriend. She was much younger but she was very satisfied with him. I munched my jumbo and gulped my drink as he spoke. He leaned over to tell me that the secret of his success with the ladies was the eating of raw garlic. I left so suddenly, I forgot to pay.
Many years after that I was walking to my station downtown and I saw the cart again! There was a different guy cooking. He was a big friendly young fellow. I bought a jumbo and told him I knew Laptev. He told me he was Laptev's son. I told him I was his father's mailman when he first came to Canada.
He warmly gripped my hand for a hearty shake and said, “So, you are the guy who told my Dad about IF!”
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.