The Mailman Forgot to Ring
Louis Dumkowski and his best friend Cleatus Washington went to work for Vincent “Vinnie the Enforcer” Williams as assistants. The first few days on the job were uneventful except for their visit to Abe Finkelstein, an old man who lived over his jewelry shop on Lofton Street.
Louis knocked on the door. After what seemed like an eternity, a wizened old man with just a few strands of gray hair on the back of his head, and liver spots on almost every inch of exposed skin opened the door.
“Yes,” he said in a quavering voice. “What can I do for you? The store is closed now, but if you’re really anxious, I suppose I could go downstairs.”
“I’m not here to buy jewelry,” Louis said. “Vinnie sent us to collect this week’s payment on your loan.”
“Oy!” The old man said. “So, now that gonif is sending a boychick to do his dirty work, eh? Well, you’re gonna have to tell Mister Vinnie that I ain’t got it this week.” Just at that moment, Cleatus walked into view, a frown creasing his brown face. The old man’s face paled and he stepped back. “Uh, well, maybe I can come up with a bissel. I can look and see if there’s a little I can pay, eh?” He scurried back into the room, looking over his shoulder as he did.
Cleatus’s frown deepened. Louis looked puzzled. “What the hell was that all about?” he asked Cleatus.
His friend’s eyes widened, then he smiled. “I’ll tell you later, Louis,” he said. “Let’s just collect and get outta here.”
Finkelstein came back to the door with a handful of crinkled bills. He shoved them into Louis’s hand. “Here, bubbala, this is all I can spare this week,” he said. “I’ll have the rest next week.” As he talked, he kept his eyes on Cleatus.
Louis started counting the money, but Cleatus grabbed his hand. “That’s okay,” he said. “I’m sure that’s enough. We’ll be back next week for the rest.” He frowned at Finkelstein. “You will have it, right?”
“Oh yes, oh yes,” the old man said. “I’ll have the rest next week. You please tell Mr. Williams that Abe Finkelstein pays his debts, okay?” Cleatus nodded, and pulled Louis away from the door.
Finkelstein slammed it and they heard the click of bolts being pushed into place.
Back outside on the sidewalk, Louis turned to Cleatus. “Now, you wanta tell me what just happened?”
‘Louis,” his friend said. “You just ain’t cut out for this. Hell, you don’t look intimidating or nothing. That old fart was gonna con you into not collecting. But, down here, folks see a black face and it scares the crap out of them. He figured I was some heavy that Vinnie sent to lean on him.” He chuckled. “Heck, this is gonna be a real easy way to make a living.”
It took a while for this information to sink into Louis’s brain, but he finally got it. The two of them laughed all the way back to the pool hall. More importantly than the fact that they found the work easy and the hours accommodating, Vinnie was pleased. So pleased, in fact, that every couple of days he’d send them on a store run and give them a hundred dollar bill with instructions to keep any change from their purchases.
Yes, life was sweet for Louis and Cleatus.
One day, about three weeks into their jobs, Vinnie called them into his office.
“Sit down, guys,” he said. He poured two fingers of Jack Daniels into three glasses, and shoved two toward them. After taking a sip from his own glass, he leaned back in his chair. “You dudes been doing a good job. I figure it’s time you moved up a bit. I been giving you the easy marks for collection. I got one customer, though, that’s tough to collect from. I’m gonna send you two over to do it.”
Louis nodded as he sipped the fiery liquor, which immediately made him cough.
Cleatus left his glass untouched. “How tough is this customer?” he asked.
“Oh, it ain’t nothin’ like that,” Vinnie said. “She’s just a stubborn old broad what don’t like to be told what to do and when to do it. She borrows from me and then don’t want to pay on schedule.”
“So, we don’t have to do any rough stuff?”
“Naw,” Vinnie said. “Nothin’ like that. She’s just likely to talk your heads off.”
With that assurance, Cleatus picked up his glass and downed the whiskey in one swallow. Vinnie smiled and gave him a conspiratorial nod. Louis tried to copy his friend, and erupted in an explosion of coughing. Cleatus patted him on the back, and smiled over his head at Vinnie, who gave him a wink and a smile.
When Louis had recovered from the effects of the Jack Daniels, the two of them went out and grabbed a cross town bus heading for the apartment building in which lived one Della Mae Carrington, who owed five hundred dollars in back interest according to the note Vinnie had given them.
Carrington’s apartment was in a rundown building in a rundown part of town. The sidewalks were littered with scraps of paper and empty bottles and cans. A drunk sat huddled on the front steps of the building. He paid Louis and Cleatus no attention as they stepped over him to enter the foyer. A bank of mailboxes filled one wall of the foyer. On the opposite wall was a panel with call buttons for the four floors of apartment units.
Carrington was in 4B. Cleatus punched the button.
After a few minutes, a tinny voice came from the speaker. “Yeah, what you want?” “Is this Mrs. Della Mae Carrington?” Cleatus asked.
“Who wants to know?” The tinny voice asked.
“Ma’am, we represent Vinnie Williams,” he said. “We’re here to collect this week.”
“I ain’t got no money this week, go ‘way.” There was a definite click.
“Shuck,” Louis said. “How we gonna collect if she don’t let us in?”
Cleatus scratched his head; then snapped his fingers. “More than one way to get in,” he said. He pushed the button for 4A.
“Jess, who is it?” A woman’s tinny voice with a Spanish accent asked.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Cleatus said. “I have a package for the resident in 4A that has to be signed for.”
“What kind of package ees eet?”
“I don’t know ma’am,” he said. “The company didn’t tell me. But, it looks like it might be an envelope with a check in it.” There was a metallic click.
“Okay, come on up,” the voice said.
Cleatus smiled at Louis as they rushed for the door into the elevator lobby. They boarded the elevator and pushed the button for the fourth floor.
“Ain’t the lady in 4A gonna be pissed when you don’t deliver her money?” Louis asked.
“Naw,” Cleatus said. “I’ll just knock on her door and say I made a mistake. This is the wrong building, or something. I’ll apologize for bothering her, and then we can try to get in to see old lady Carrington.”
“Gosh, Cleatus, where in heck did you learn this kind of stuff?”
“Just picked it up here and there,” he said. “You learn all kinds of tricks in my neighborhood.”
The occupant of 4A, a tiny Puerto Rican woman who wore her hair in a tight bun, was disappointed, but accepted Cleatus’s apology with a smile.
When she’d closed her door, they walked over to 4B. Cleatus rapped on the door.
“Who is it?” a muffled voice asked.
“Postman,” Cleatus said. “I have a special delivery package for Mrs. Della Mae Carrington.”
“Who be sending me a package?”
“The return address is smudged, ma’am,” he said. “I can’t read it.”
“Well, just push it under the door.”
“It’s too thick for that,” he said. “Besides, I need your signature.”
There was a clicking sound, and the rattle of security chains. The door opened a crack. A gray eye in a wrinkled brown face peered through the crack. Cleatus smiled at the half face. After a few moments, and more rattling of the security chains, the door was opened.
“Where’s my package?” The old woman asked. She was just a shade over four feet tall, and her emaciated frame was covered in a multi-colored shawl. Her bony legs ended in feet that were large enough for a person three times her size and shod in a pair of faded pink bathroom slippers. Cleatus squeezed past her into the room, followed closely by Louis. The old woman clutched the shawl to her shrunken breasts and backed away from them.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Carrington,” Cleatus said. “We ain’t with the post office. We’re here to collect what you owe.”
Her gray eyes, overly large in her thin face, darted from Cleatus to Louis. “Shoot, I don’t believe I let you fool me like that,” she said. “First off I thought you two might be robbers, but turns out you worse. I ain’t got no money to pay this week, so you might’s well just get on outta here.”
Cleatus put on his most intimidating frown. “Now look,” he said. “You behind more than a month on your payments. You gotta pay something.”
She looked at him, blowing air through her thin nose. “What you talkin’ ‘bout? You got some nerve! You fool your way into my house, and then you tell me what I gotta do! You listen to me, boy; don’t nobody tell me what to do.”
“I ain’t tryin’ to tell you what to do,” Cleatus protested. “But, Mrs. Carrington, when you owe money you gots to pay.”
“Do I look like a fool? I know that,” she said. “And, you quit calling me Mrs. Carrington. Do you see a man ‘round up in here? It’s Miz Carrington, and don’t your forget it. If I had me a husband, you wouldn’t be standin’ there tryin’ to take my money.”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m sorry Ms. Carrington. I’m not tryin’ to take your money. That’s money you owe, and you got to pay.”
“Boy, you got wax in your ears? I done told you I ain’t got no money to pay. Now, you just get the two of you; you and your little white friend here; on outta here ‘fore I calls the police.”
“There ain’t no need to be like that,” Cleatus said. “We just tryin’ to do a job.”
“What kind of job that? You, a decent black boy working wit’ that white man to victimize a poor old colored woman?”
Now, Louis was not major intellect, and he certainly didn’t have the street smarts of his friend, but he had a certain talent in dealing with people. He recognized that Cleatus had met his match. They could stand in Della Mae Carrington’s tiny, but neat apartment for the rest of the week trying to reason with her, and she wouldn’t budge. He pushed past Cleatus. “M-ma’am,” he said, his lips quivering. “We certainly ain’t tryin’ to push you ‘round, or victimize you or nothin’. But, you see, it’s like this. Me and Cleatus is in to Vinnie too, and this is how we got to work it off. If we don’t collect a little somethin’ from you he gonna do somethin’ bad to us.” A small tear formed in the corner of his left eye. He had the ability to tear up on demand, but only one eye at a time.
Dells Mae Carrington looked at him, her thin face wrinkling. “That the truth?” She looked at Cleatus. “You boys owe that Vinnie money, and he making you collect from other folks to pay back what you owe?”
Now, that was truth up to a point. Cleatus saw instantly that Louis’s ‘about-to-cry- act, which always worked on teachers when they were in school together, was breaking through her icy stubbornness. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I hate to tell you what he do to us if we don’t come back with a little something.”
“Well, why didn’t you just say so in the first place? Lands sake, I know how that can be. You get a little down on your luck and them vultures just swoop in and eat you.”
“Oh, yes ma’am,” Louis said. “They really bad out there. Me and Cleatus ain’t been able to find jobs, and we had to borrow a little to get by.”
“And, we ain’t been able to get up ‘nough to pay him back,” Cleatus said, now fully into the scam Louis was working. “I sure ‘nough don’t like doin’ this kinda stuff, but what else we gonna do?”
Carrington put a bony finger against her bony cheek, look back and forth between the two of them. “I guess I know how it can get bad,” she said. “Okay, I gonna pay fifty dollars on what I owe. That oughta keep that mean old Vinnie from doin’ anything bad to you boys. I’ll try to get the rest next week.”
“Oh, Ms. Carrington,” Cleatus said. “That would be really nice. We surely do appreciate you understandin’ and all.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Louis added. “We purely do appreciate it.”
She picked up an oversized cloth bag from the nearby sofa, took out a leather pouch, and counted out five ten dollar bills, which she handed to Louis. “Now, you boys go ‘head and give this to Vinnie, and try to get your bill to him paid.” She turned on Cleatus. “And, get back out there and find yourself some decent jobs.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Cleatus.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Louis said. “We gonna do that, yes, ma’am we will.”
They beat a hasty retreat, Louis clutching the neatly folded bills tightly. Carrington stood in the door watching them as they waited for the elevator. When the elevator doors closed behind them, they collapsed in gales of laughter.
“Shit, man,” Cleatus said. “I guess you ain’t useless after all. That was some scam you pulled on that old bat.”
“She reminded me of Miss Pennyback,” Louis said. “Remember our old gym teacher in middle school. That’s the way we used to get out of gym class.”
“Yeah, I remember. Still works, too. This is gonna be a sweet deal,” Cleatus said. “Me doing the angry young black man routine on the men, and you doin’ that crying act of yours for the women. Hell, man, we got ourselves a gold mine here.”
“Yeah,” Louis said. “Life is sweet.”