Once upon a time I worked as a rural mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. I worked alongside a collection of people whose lives and personal histories differed. There was much to bond them together, and for a while we were a kind of family. The postmaster was a kindly but effective leader who demanded results and performance while always lending an understanding ear. When he retired, the bureaucracy sent in a new postmaster instead of promoting the supervisor to the vacated position. This new postmaster had no experience as a manager and was given the job because he had always been a "good soldier." He was in over his head from the beginning. The men and women under his command frightened him. This was to be expected. We were a rather odd bunch.
There was a carrier named Dave at the post office. He was an alcoholic with a death wish. He drank a bottle of whiskey every night. The only variation on the theme was the size of the bottle. It might be a liter one night and a 750 ml the next. He drowned in his booze and bragged about it. There was no talking him out of it. The only thing he didn't do was drive drunk, or at least he did it so infrequently that it was but a blip on the charts. He never missed a day of work. He never called in sick. When he wasn't drinking he went fishing and hunting and somehow managed to charm attractive and intelligent women into his orbit.
Dave was in his early forties when I resigned my position at the post office and moved to Florida. There were others there who regularly spoke evil of him behind his back and sometimes to his face. They spoke about his wasted life and his incredibly destructive drinking habits. They saw a man who could be a prince when he was sober, looking out for others and showing genuine compassion and interest in their lives. They also saw a demon. When Dave was drunk he took no prisoners. The demon was within and he could never shake it. He dared not deal it down. No matter how tough Dave acted, he could never do battle with what was inside him. He never wanted to and he never did.
I almost always considered him my friend.
Most of the time.
Dave had adventures, and they could almost all be verified. They were things no normal human being would dream of doing, and yet he did them. He would make things up from time to time, but those times were the exception. He despised liars and only used lies to protect himself and others. There were nights when he convinced me to run with him, but I could never keep up. He ran straight into the mouth of the dragon and never backed off.
"A waste of human life, he is."
I used to agree with that summary of Dave. Then I began to listen to those who openly talked down about Dave's way of life and his self-destruction. I looked at their lives. Most were in their fifties and sixties and had worked for the post office for decades. They had a nice little house and a wife and some children. They took vacations every summer with the kids when they were growing up. They went to places like Disney World. They did everything they thought they were supposed to be and at the end of the day crowned themselves as the "good father." I saw emptiness in their eyes. In Dave's eyes I saw a deep and hollow stare that mocked mortality and laughed in the face of death. Neither path was one I was willing to take, but I learned more from Dave than I did from any of them.
There was a night where Dave put me in a position where I could not escape. He wanted to talk and saw me as someone who had always listened at work and needed me. He wanted to come by the house with a movie and talk. I agreed, although I saw the chaos unfolding. When he arrived he was drunk and belligerent. He insisted that I go to a club with him because he needed to "meet new people." He threatened to destroy the house and make a scene. I could not put my roommate, Melissa, into that position and so I reluctantly agreed. I kept my distance most of the night.
The challenge is on the edge.
It is rarely in the safe places near the center.
I didn't want to listen, but I had to hear. Dave unfolded himself and reduced himself to an almost pathetic state. He was always angry. As a child he had been the bad seed. He was always up to mischief and his father ruled with an iron fist. Regardless of the nature of Dave's transgressions, his father would beat him as soundly as he could without killing him. It didn't matter if he failed to make his bed or stabbed his sister in the hand with a fork. The punishment was the same. He failed in school, refusing to listen to authority that let him get away with anything. He went into the military and spent the bulk of his time locked up. He was Airborne. He would jump out of a plane even when they told him the conditions were wrong. It didn't matter. You couldn't tell him what to do unless you were willing to break him. No one ever could.
The greatest challenge is at the center.
I never realized a human being could feel so small. Dave felt smaller than anyone I've ever known, so crawled up inside himself like a bug waiting to die. He made himself outwardly invincible. You didn't get into a fight with Dave. He could keep coming no matter how many times you hit him. You could blow his arm off and he would keep coming. He didn't care. At least on the outside. On the inside he was dying and his body would not follow. He was already dead and nothing you could do to him would challenge that notion. He was waiting to die. He still is. The old postmaster was like his adopted father. When he left, part of Dave left with him. Claude the postmaster had given him opportunity. Dave worked hard and performed better on the job than any of us. He couldn't be broken. He wouldn't be broken. Only Dave could break Dave, and he is still trying, even though he is now a man wasting away into nothingness. He controls the nothingness. He is the closest thing to the devil I have ever known and he still has my sympathy and respect.