As a kid, I was fascinated by the way adults talked. I’d hide and listen, then go away and mimic them in imagined conversations with toys and trees and walls.
My parents, basically the social directors of our neighbourhood, always seemed to have someone around for dinner or drinks, every weekend. I was allowed to eat with them, but only if I was quiet and minded my table manners. So instead of talking or playing with my food, like I’d normally do, I’d watch. And listen.
From Betty Havester I learned how to throw my head back and laugh uproariously. My own mother laughed self-consciously, a lady-like titter. Betty Havester laughed like it was the last thing she’d ever do on this earth.
From Pastor Glen I learned how to speak in a quiet, but authoritative, tone. Whenever he spoke, the whole table would hush and lean in, to listen to whatever wisdom the old man was imparting.
From Pete Granger, the local butcher, I learned how to attack people without them even knowing they were being attacked. His thick build, good looks, and good standing in the community (his family had been butchers in the area for at least a hundred years), gave him an air of goodness that belied his cutting sarcasm and criticism of just about everybody.
I learned a lot from adults when I was a kid.
Then I grew up.
Standing in a warehouse in the middle of central Detroit, having my words translated into Mandarin to the group of businessmen in front of me, it occurs to me how much I still draw on these observations, every day.
Even though the men can’t understand my words, they can understand my actions and my body language. And I can understand theirs: hostile, angry and on the verge of some very real violence.
In my line of work, I deal with many different types of people. My clients are wealthy, lavish, sometimes obnoxious and always secretive. I’m known as the man who can get you anything: any item, legal or illegal, moral or amoral. As such, I have a long list of sources, who are sometimes wealthy, always obnoxious and sometimes dangerous.
The Chinese businessmen are my clients. I explain to them with my words and my body language that what’s in the box is exactly what they ordered: 50 live scorpions. What they plan on doing with them, I don’t know: I never ask and they rarely tell.
“They say you are cheating them,” my interpreter says.
“The box is filled with scorpions, just like they asked. How do they think I’m cheating them?”
“They want to know how they can tell that the scorpions will sting.”
I glance at the three large bodyguards behind the businessmen. All packing, I assume. This situation has the potential to get messy, quickly.
I speak in my best Pastor Glen voice. “Gentlemen. You know me and my work. The scorpions will sting. Here, let me show you.”
I edge the lid from the box. I shove my hand in and grab the nearest scorpion tail, lifting the flailing creature out for all to see. I hold it away from me as I walk towards the men.
They step backwards, terrified.
“Let me show you how they sting. I know you’re not afraid of a little scorpion like this.” I say this in my sarcastic Pete Granger voice.
As I get closer, the leader of the group starts shouting. One of the bodyguards draws his gun.
“They say they believe you,” my interpreter says. It sounds like he’s choking back a laugh.
“Are they sure?” I take another step forward. “I’m actually interested in how much bite this little guy has.”
The leader shouts again.
He pulls out his iPad, pushes a few buttons, and shows me the screen: the remainder of my fee has been transferred.
I turn and put the scorpion back in the box and close the lid. One of the bodyguards picks up the box and the entire group gets into their cars and speed away.
I throw my head back and laugh… just like Betty Havester.