“I thought the pie was the present,” he said.
“It’s good, isn’t it? No, but this was also from Magazine Street, just two doors up from the bakery. I wonder if you ever noticed it.”
“The shop. I don’t know, maybe I made a mistake. Maybe you won’t like it, maybe it’ll just be a case of throwing salt in old wounds.”
“You know,” he said, “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Do I get a present or don’t I?”
“It’s not exactly a present. I mean, I didn’t wrap it. It’s not the kind of present you would wrap.”
“That’s good, because it’ll save the time it would take to unwrap it, and we can use that time having this conversation.”
“Am I being nuts? ‘Yes, Julia, you’re being nuts.’ Don’t go anywhere.”
“Where would I go?”
She came back with a flat paper bag, so in a sense the present was wrapped after all, if informally. “I just hope I didn’t do the wrong thing,” she said, handing it to him, and he reached into the bag and drew out a copy of Linn’s Stamp News.
“There’s this shop, it’s not much more than a hole in the wall. Stamps and coins and political campaign buttons. And other hobby items, but mostly those three. Do you know the shop I’m talking about?”
“And I walked in, and I didn’t want to buy you stamps, because I thought that probably wouldn’t have been a good idea—”
“You were right about that.”
“But I saw this paper, and didn’t you mention it once? I think you did.”
“I may have.”
“You used to read it, didn’t you?”
“I was a subscriber.”
“And I thought should I get it for him or not? Because I know your stamps are gone, and how much they meant to you, and this might only make you feel the loss more. But then I thought maybe you’d enjoy reading the articles, and who knows, you might even want to, I don’t know, start another collection, although that might be impossible after having lost everything. Then I thought, oh, for God’s sake, Julia, give the little man two dollars and fifty cents and go home. So I did.”
“So you did.”
“Now if it was a really terrible idea,” she said, “just put it back in the bag it came in and hand it to me, and I’ll guarantee you never have to look at it again, and we can both pretend this never happened.”
“You’re wonderful,” he said. “Have I ever told you that?”
“You have, but we’ve always been upstairs. This is the first time you’ve told me on the ground floor.”
“Well, you are.”
“The present’s okay?”
“Yes, and the future’s promising.”
“I know what you meant. The present, this present, is more than okay. I don’t know if I’ll find the articles interesting, I don’t know if I’ll even want to look at the ads, much less do anything about them. But all of that is something I ought to find out.”
“I live another day,” she said. “Why don’t I pour you another cup of coffee, and why don’t you take Linn’s into the den?”
He looked at the front page and wondered why he was wasting his time. The lead article was about the high prices realized at an auction in Lucerne of an exceptional collection of stamps and postal history from Imperial Russia, before the 1917 revolution. Less prominent was coverage of the discovery of an error, a recent U.S. coil stamp with one color missing, and an article about reactions in the hobby to the post office’s announcement of new stamps planned for the coming year.
The same stories, he thought, week after week and year after year. The details changed, the numbers changed, but the more it all changed, the more it remained the same. He had to check the date of the paper to reassure himself it wasn’t an issue he’d already seen, months or years before.
The same dim-witted letters to the editor, too, the outpourings of the same self-involved malcontents, this one whining at the cost of keeping up with the huge crop of new issues, the next furious because the idiots at the post office insisted on ruining stamps on his mail by defacing them with heavy cancellations, and others joining in the endless debate on how to interest young boys and girls in the hobby. The only way you could do that, Keller figured, was to find a way to make philately more exciting than video games, and there was no way that would work, not even if you came out with a series of stamps that exploded.
Keller turned next to “Kitchen Table Philately,” which he’d heard was the paper’s most popular feature. This had always struck Keller as unfathomable, yet he had to admit he found it irresistible himself. Each week, one of two pseudonymous reviewers — interchangeable, as far as Keller could determine — analyzed in excruciating detail a mixture of stamps he’d bought for a small sum, often as little as a dollar, from a Linn’s advertiser. This week was typical, with Mr. Anonymous grumpy beyond belief because his two-buck assortment of stamps had taken a whole two weeks to reach his mailbox, and unhappy as well because fully 11 percent of the mixture’s contents were small definitive stamps rather than the large commemoratives promised. Christ, he thought, give it a rest, will you? If you can’t actually manage to get a life, can’t you at least pretend you’ve got one?
And then something curious happened. He read another article, and got caught up in what he was reading. The next thing he knew he was looking at one of the ads, a listing of Latin American issues offered by a worldwide dealer in Escondido with whom Keller had done business over the years. Like most listings, this one consisted of nothing but catalog numbers, indicators of condition, and prices, so it wasn’t really something a person could read, but Keller’s eyes were drawn to it, and from there he found his way to another ad, and after that he put down the paper and went upstairs for a minute. He came down with his Scott catalog and returned to the den, picked up Linn’s, and resumed where he’d left off.
He looked up, yanked out of his reverie.
“I just wanted to let you know I’m going upstairs. You’ll turn off the lights when you come up?”
He closed the catalog, set the paper aside. “I’ll come up now.”
“If you’re having fun—”
“I’ve got an early day tomorrow,” he said. “And that’s all the fun I can stand for one night.”
He showered and brushed his teeth, and she was in bed waiting for him. They made love, and afterward he lay with his eyes open and said, “That was very sweet.”
“For me, too.”
“Well, just now, sure. I meant bringing me the paper. That was very thoughtful of you.”
“I’m just glad it turned out all right. I’m assuming that it did?”
“I got caught up in it,” he said. “But do you want to hear something really pathetic? I found an ad with what looked like some interesting material, and I actually went upstairs to get my catalog.”
“To check the value?”
“No, that’s not why I wanted it. I may have told you that I used the catalog as a checklist. So I brought it downstairs in order to be able to tell whether or not a given stamp was one I needed for my collection.”
“That makes sense,” she said. “I don’t see what’s so pathetic about it.”
“What’s pathetic,” he said, “is I need all the stamps for my collection, everything ever made except for Sweden one through five. Because, outside of those five stamps I had no business buying, I don’t have a collection.”
“And here’s the best part. There was a point when I realized it was pathetic — or ridiculous, or whatever you want to call it. But that didn’t stop me. I went on working out just what stamps I would buy to help fill in the collection I no longer own.”
He almost missed it.
He worked late the following day, and by the time he got home all he was up for was dinner and an hour of TV before they went up to bed. The day after that he was off, and spent the morning doing a tentative preliminary pruning of the shrubbery, trying to find a line of compromise between the plants’ desire to grow tall and his and Julia’s preference for a little more light and visibility on the front porch. He stopped a little after noon, wondering if he’d lopped off too much or too little.
Late in the afternoon they took her car and drove to a seafood shack on the Gulf just across the state line in Mississippi. Donny and Claudia had enthused over it, and it was all right, but on the way home they agreed it wasn’t worth the time it took to get there and back. They went inside, and she had a couple of loads of wash she’d been meaning to do, and Keller caught sight of Linn’s on the chair in the den and picked it up so he could toss it out. Because he’d read most of the articles, and he didn’t collect stamps anymore, so why keep the thing around?
But instead he sat down with it and found himself leafing through it, and he tried to figure out a way to collect without a collection. One possibility, he thought, was to continue his collection as if he still owned it, buying only stamps he hadn’t already owned, and keeping them not in an album (because he already had albums, or had had them) but in a box or stockbook. The premise would be that they were awaiting eventual placement in his albums when they found their way back to him, which of course would never happen, which meant he’d never have to mount the stamps but could concentrate exclusively upon obtaining them.
In a sense, he’d be collecting stamps the way an ornithologist collected birds. Each new bird, once it had been spotted and identified, would go on the birder’s life list; he didn’t need physical possession of the creature in order to claim it as his own. By the same token, the stamps Keller had owned, the stamps that had been taken from him, were still his. They were on his life list.
He’d still use the Scott catalog as his checklist. When he bought a new stamp, he’d circle its number in his catalog so he wouldn’t make a mistake and buy it again. The new acquisitions, he thought, could be circled in another color, blue or green, so he’d be able to tell at a glance whether his acquisition came before or after the date the collection disappeared, and whether he owned a particular stamp in fact or in theory.
It was deeply weird, he knew, but was it that much stranger than collecting stamps in the first place?
He turned the pages of the newspaper, too much involved in his own thoughts to pay much attention to what passed before his eyes. So he’d probably looked at and looked away from the small ad before it ever registered.
Toward the back of the paper, but before you got to the classifieds, Linn’s gave over the better part of a page to small-space ads, one or two inches tall and a column wide, that amounted essentially to dealer’s announcements. One might proclaim oneself a specialist in France and its colonies, or in the British Empire before 1960. There was one chap who’d had the same ad running for all the years Keller had subscribed, offering AMG issues, the stamps produced by the Allied Military Government for use in occupied Germany and Austria after the end of the Second World War. There he was, Keller noted, still at it, word for precious word, and—