Father’s latest gift to his 14-year-old son was in a box on which was printed THE GOLDEN GALLEON OF STAMPS, a cornucopia that guaranteed more than a thousand stamps from around the world. And accompanying it, an album, every page with a checkerboard design, arranged alphabetically by the name of a country. Albania, Bulgaria, China, all the way to Zanzibar. A packet placed inside the album held gummed hinges to stick the stamps in appropriate locations. The lid of the box itself was illustrated with a galleon in full sail.
He pulled everything out of the box. Scattered stamps appeared: topical, pictorial, commemorative. Plain everyday offerings of flags, past U.S. presidents, and state capitals were plentiful, but his favorites were African, and included sumptuous flora and fauna, gold sculptures of Benin, and had the heroic faces of national leaders: Jomo Kenyatta, venerable messiah of Kenya, Haile Selassie, a bemedaled potentate of Ethiopia, and assorted caliphs, sultans, and pharaohs.
Some stamps were triangular in shape and had serrated edges. Their intensely bright touches of colors contrasted with the off-white walls and heavy brown furniture, the tan-fringed matching lamps and gray worn carpet of the one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother. She immediately complained about the gift: “It’ll make a mess, all those little pieces of paper.” His mother’s emphasis on neatness sometimes stuck to him like mucilage, and his father, a grocer who lived in New Haven, was not around to pry him loose from her fixation on order. The boy feared his mother’s disapproval, the sullen moods, her fits of silence after he failed to hang up his clothes or polish his shoes. “You’re becoming like your father” was the ultimate affront.
“We don’t get along” was the father’s only explanation for why he lived in one city and she in another. Outgoing with customers in his store, a man who handed out brightly colored lollipops to children and sometimes remembered their first names, his father in their set-aside time together had little to say, expressing himself in the purchase of generous gifts; on the boy’s desk sat a small Underwood on which he typed his high school assignments. He treasured the Gilbert chemistry set with its powders and flasks, its mortar and pestle for grinding minerals, and he made full use of the Book of Knowledge, an encyclopedia whose volumes crammed the book shelves of his narrow room.
The boy was given the bedroom while his mother slept on a pull-out couch in the living room. At the end of the day, after turning off the light, he took out the box of stamps, mesmerized by the names of new animals, kudu, dik-dik, okapi, and of birds like bulbul, cockatiel, and trogon. He filled his weeks looking at and thinking about stamps. He marveled at the beauty of postage-sized orchids, poinsettias, and royal palms, and then gazed out his third-floor apartment window where drab five-story buildings crowded out the sky.
From the fire escape the chirp of dusty sparrows at his mother’s bird feeder sometimes broke the silence, as did the drone of houseflies before they met the ever-present swatter. Nothing hummed or buzzed but the vacuum cleaner, and set in the window, the electric fan that pulled in cooler air from outside. Mother, wearing a faded brown, cotton-print bandana to protect her thick dark hair, and a nondescript wrap-around housedress that tied in a limp bow at the side, cleaned in the morning before he left for school, and in the kitchen at night after he had gone to bed. Sometimes she hemmed dresses and did other alterations for neighbors.
“Your father doesn’t know what it costs to raise a kid,” she said.
Behind his closed door, the boy pushed aside his homework gathered in piles: trigonometry, chemistry, an essay on microbes and their origin. He considered the fact that the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who lived in the tumult of eighteenth-century France, was commemorated on a stamp. A hundred or so years later, Marie and Pierre Curie isolated radium from pitchblende and won the Nobel Prize. Their faces were on a postcard stamp issued by the French government in 1938.
One day his mother wagged her finger. “Your room is a mess. I will have to speak to your father,” she said, an idle threat he shrugged off. At the same time he noticed that a new housecoat boasted a print of liana vines and intermingling faces of Kwame Nkrumah, then the president of Ghana. When had she started to wear a muumuu that showed a run of zebras kicking up dust? Why was her hair pulled back into a ponytail? Sometimes she seemed more talkative, words bubbling out of her mouth in a stream. What was she telling him? Was it about the high price of rhubarb, azaleas in bloom, the neighbor’s new Pomeranian dancing in the lobby to “Anniversary Waltz” as it tinkled from a music box?
Her face took on the glow of an iconic Marianne, celebrated on a French postage stamp. He grew more puzzled after water from the faucet changed all at once into a towering spray like Victoria Falls over the Zambesi River, discovered by David Livingston in 1855. The boy recalled that Dr. Livingston and the American newspaperman, Henry Stanley, who famously said: “Dr. Livingston, I presume,” were similarly honored by appearance on stamps.
“The plumber will fix it,” said his mother whose long, perfectly oval, often frowning face assumed a beatific look, like that of a saint, he thought. But what did he know about saints? Saint Christopher, who safeguarded travelers, had a medal. Was there also a stamp for him? He had heard of Saint Francis of Assisi, who blessed the birds.
His mother said there would be a roasted green parrot for dinner. A roasted green parrot? It looked and tasted like chicken, but the plump cherries seemed real enough, and he noted the kola nuts and oranges were artfully arranged on his dinner plate. Gone was the familiar pairing of white boiled potatoes and gray chops, the wet clump of spinach on the side. The vacuum cleaner and the broom languished with the feather duster in the hall closet.
Now he heard leaves sweep against the window—green as penny stamps with Lincoln on them or postage from Aruba featuring parakeets feeding on cactus. What were these worth on the market? His father might retire on the proceeds, like the collector who made a killing by purchasing a stamp of a U.S. Mail biplane accidentally printed upside-down—the Inverted Jenny. Adjusting the string of his newly acquired pince-nez and silk cravat, the boy stirred a shaker of martinis and offered his mother a glass. “Un-cancelled stamps and stamps that come in a block with a serial number imprinted along the edge are ultimately worth more,” he intoned, smug with the facts. She, toying with her triple strands of amber beads, sat numbed in an overstuffed chair.
When his father came to visit with bags full of groceries, as he customarily did every four weeks, he was dressed as an admiral, sporting spiffy white with gold buttons and epaulets. A cap with visor and gold braid sat on his head at a rakish angle. The boy recalled a postage stamp of Arctic explorer Admiral Byrd, noting that his father somehow resembled him. Was it the high forehead? The wavy hair?
“My Cleopatra,” Father said, saluting his astounded wife. Then he turned to the boy and asked, “What delectable treat do you have for us tonight, my son?” The son took out his stamp album, slowly turned the pages, and all three—in the early autumn chill of their little kitchen in that Brooklyn apartment on Avenue J—sighed at the world’s variety and beauty.