Stamps From Foreign Places

Every day now my father goes down to the sea. I can see him from here: a small figure alone on the beach, standing near the water’s edge. His hands are in his jacket pockets, and the clear wind that blows to the island across three thousand miles of ocean is rushing over him. My father is smiling—I know it, although his back is to me—a child-like smile for the sparkling waves and the bright morning sun.

My father is dying.

I think he is happy here. The island paradise, he calls it. I forget sometimes that it is a beautiful island, I have seen so many like it. But my father is right. Lush green hills, vivid flowers, warm sand. He winks at me and asks where the hula girls are.

Our days here are much alike. We rise early and breakfast, then my father cleans our small wood house. It isn’t necessary, but he is eager to be helpful. So I let him putter about with his dustpan and broom, and when he has finished I say, “That looks real good, Dad,” and he nods, pleased. Then he stands for a moment in the doorway, gazing out to sea.

“Think I’ll go for a walk,” he says suddenly, as if he has just thought of it. But whichever path he takes, to the cliffs at the north end of the island or to the ruined plantation at the south, if I look out an hour from now I will see him down on the beach.

I spend the morning sketching. Dolphins leap, sails billow, sea gulls skim across my pad. The palm-fringed island scenes are especially popular for stationery and postcards. I sell them to tourists through a shop on the big island, eight miles to the north. But little income is needed for our way of life, and between my art and my father’s pension checks we have more than enough.

In the afternoon we walk over the peak, down to the harbor and the town. There you may find a dozen shops, a sleepy hotel, four bars, a post office and school. Fishing boats and visiting yachts ride at anchor in the bay. Once that bay beckoned the sea-weary ships of Europe, and leaving off war and discovery and the duties of empire, they came to rest awhile in Eden. Fair sailors, dusky women. Now the islanders have unexpectedly Caucasian features and gold highlights in their hair. They look into each other’s faces and are silent, knowing they are not what their ancestors were.

Once a week we sail to the big island on the ferry, a heavy old gaff-rigged schooner propelled by a thumping engine. The islanders crowd on deck carrying baskets of produce and handcrafts for market, and sometimes pigs and chickens are herded on as well. There is no place to sit, the engine thuds, the pigs squeal, spray rains aboard, and my father loves it. It is more adventure than he has ever dreamed of. On arrival we check in at the shop that sells my art. The tourists who come here are rich. They think they are the first to discover these islands, and they tell only their very best friends about it so it will not be spoiled. I am part of their image of the place—the grim, bearded white man, burnt brown as a native by the sun, the hermit who has abandoned civilization to brood in far-off paradise. I accept the role, not caring enough to correct them. Besides, it’s good for business. I settle accounts with the shop owner, then my father and I go out to lunch. “My treat,” I always insist, and he is the perfect guest. Afterward we do our weekly shopping, and at five the schooner takes us home.

In the evening we cook our meal, read, tend to the small details of life. My father retires early, and I resume my art. But every night, before bed, he climbs to the peak to look out over the harbor and watch the sun set. I have seen a thousand sunsets like it, beautiful, liquid, final. But to him it is still new, and he stands with his hands in his pockets, smiling.

I have been here two years now, a long time. Six months ago, my father came. It did not puzzle or trouble him that mine is one of the few houses on all the windward side. My father can look into that wind and smile. But I need it to blow hard through me, to strip me bare and white as the bones of a sun-bleached tree.

*****

My father was a postman: Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor gloom of night. I used to think: Neither war nor peace nor earthquakes in China, neither birth nor death nor the Second Coming…Nothing could shake the complacency of our little town. Round and round and round we went, the postman, the milkman, the housewife, the child. Each hour had its appointed task, and every day we repeated the hours with the cheerful goodwill of the townspeople in a first-grade reader. Round and round on the clean-swept sidewalks, the cement paths that channeled our lives. And with every step I felt my feet growing heavier, as if the concrete had penetrated the soles of my shoes and was creeping up my legs like some horrible disease.

“You’re dying! You’re all dying! Can’t you see that?” I raged, while my mother wept and my father tried, and failed, to understand.

“But what’s wrong with our life here?” he would ask.

“I’m dying!” I cried, powerless to articulate my fear. Already my knees were locked in concrete. I was being petrified, my legs turning slowly and terribly to stone. While round and round we unthinking went, and round and round and round.

My father was a postman, and he collected stamps. Not by buying them through a dealer or at the post office as most people do. He collected them, gathered them, off the letters he delivered and received.

“Good morning, Mrs. Green. Got an interesting-looking letter for you today. Got a Canadian stamp on it.”

“Oh, that will be from my sister in Toronto. Her daughter just had a baby boy, and she promised to send me pictures. Oh, look!”

“Well, well. A fine-looking lad if ever I saw one. Say, Mrs. Green, I hope you’ll forgive my asking, but any time you get letters with stamps like that—stamps from foreign places—I wonder if you might save them for me? If you’re not interested in them yourself, that is. Stamp collecting’s my hobby, you see.”

“Is it? How appropriate! I must confess I hardly notice the stamps myself. Let me give you this one right now, and if I get any others, I’ll be sure to save them for you.”

“That’s kind of you, Mrs. Green. I certainly appreciate it.”

That was how my father acquired his stamps. His collection was fairly large, too. He had the same route for thirty years and made friends with everyone on it, and whenever anyone received a pretty or unusual stamp they saved it for him. Most of the stamps were American. Not many people in our little town had correspondents abroad. But occasionally my father came home beaming.

“Look here,” he would say, gently removing a scrap of envelope from his pocket and laying it on the kitchen table for my mother and me to admire. “Look, this stamp came all the way from Ireland. E-I-R-E. That’s Ireland.”

“My goodness, who could have gotten a letter from Ireland!” my mother would marvel.

And while they sat there exclaiming over the tiny stamp, the fear welled up and shook me, and my brain wailed, You’re dying, you’re dying, I’m dying!

I disappeared one night when I was seventeen, no message, no clues. I wrenched up my feet from the concrete, forced my knees to bend, fell forward into steps. My bones jarred as they hit the pavement, shocked out of their petrified state. Harder and faster I brought my feet down, pounding the moonlit street, until my stone legs shattered and broke and I ran. I was my parents’ only child, but I never considered whether they worried or grieved or whether I broke their hearts. For twelve years I did not think of them at all.

*****

At first my only thought was to get away, and I plunged off to the south, running for my life. Several days and several states later, out of money and out of breath, I dropped exhausted beside the road. I lay there an hour beneath a tree, staring blankly into the leaves, while respectable people in passing cars gave me curious, disapproving glances. Then a dented van slowed and pulled off onto the grass ahead. A sulky girl in a bikini top and faded jeans got out and walked back. Stringy, blond hair hung to her bare shoulders, and she was smoking a cigarette.

“You hitchhiking?” she asked.

I thought about it. I nodded.

“Well, you’re supposed to stick out your thumb.” She ground the cigarette into the dirt beneath the heel of her cowboy boot. “Anyway, I’m going to Texas and maybe Mexico. If you’ve got a license and you’re willing to help drive, come on.”

I got to my feet; already she was heading back to the van. Suddenly, clearly, I knew the weight of that moment. In the next few steps, my new life would begin. Things would happen now, things not possible in our little town. Adventures, people, places—the world opened—mine for the taking! I wanted to beat my chest and yell, I raised my arms to begin, then I threw up my hands and laughed to the sky. Startled, the girl turned. I caught up to her in a few long strides and held out my hand for the keys.

“I’ll drive,” I said.

In the next twelve years I circled the world twice. My course was reckless, my acts half-crazy. It was as if I had to make up for all the dull lives back in our little town, and each wild deed was a score for some upright, unwitting citizen of my past. I climbed in the Andes—that was for Mr. Johnson, the high school principal. I surfed in Australia—that was for Mr. Kemble, the druggist. I ran with the bulls in Pamplona—that was for Mrs. Washcott, the minister’s wife, and her potluck suppers. When I spent three days in jail in Tenerife for street fighting, that vindicated the whole town council. Like a comet broken out of its orbit, I went spinning away into deep space.

I discovered there was a whole world of people like me, a substratum of society that moves below the surface of ordinary lives. Rebels, hitchhikers, exiles, outcasts—we who had dropped out of the business of the world to blaze our separate paths. By the end of my first tour I was, in our reckoning, a rich man. I had tales to tell. I had scars.

By the second time many of those I had traveled with were gone. Some had returned to the ordinary world to resume ordinary lives. Others were hanging out along the way, working more or less steadily at some job. I scoffed at their desertion and embraced the newcomers, eager and fresh. To all the best places I led them, expecting to repeat past success. But familiarity proved disturbing, and the welcome was thin. From then on I deliberately went elsewhere and alone.

Twice I nearly stopped, a year in Australia working on a ranch, a year and a half in Greece crewing on a private yacht. For six months, nine months, I didn’t realize I was staying. I was like a denizen of the deep caught in an imperceptible, rising current, barely noticing the shift in water color as I drifted upward. Then the sunlight on my back became glaring, and I saw how perilously close to the surface I had come. Cursing, I sounded, deep into the substratum. But to stay down, each time became harder.

Finally, I returned to the Caribbean. I took a job at a rundown dockyard and lived on an old houseboat. It was there I began sketching, and it was there I met Marianne.

“Don’t you ever dust this place?” she laughed, flitting about with a cloth. Pretty Marianne, with her heart-shaped earrings and her soft brunette hair.

“No,” I replied, but made no move to stop her.

Marianne was teaching at the island’s grade school for a semester as part of her college curriculum. She went to one of those alternative study schools where credit is earned for tutoring migrant workers or studying the bird population in a swamp. Late at night she lay in my arms, sighing over the challenge at hand

“It’s hard, you know? The parents don’t care whether their children come to school. They can’t see how important an education is. And it’s tough to compete with the fact that if the kids weren’t in class they could be out earning a few pennies selling coconuts to the tourists.” I stroked her hair and listened in silent amusement. Her voice was clear and innocent in the dark. “I tell them, ‘You can be anything you want, anything! All you have to do is try!’”

Sweet Marianne. I could see what the kids on this island would become. Subsistence farmers like their parents, grubbing a few dollars at odd jobs, living in shacks, drinking too much, breeding indiscriminately and interested in no more. But to Marianne they were the future teachers, doctors, president of the republic. I wanted to laugh at her, but someone should believe that.

Once a week she wrote to her parents, and they wrote back. She read their letters aloud to me, sharing photographs, newspaper clippings, jokes. I didn’t know what to make of this strange, apparently enjoyable, relationship. We of the substratum did not have parents. We did not acknowledge families.

“We’re just very good friends,” she explained when I asked. “I can tell them anything.” She paused. “You’ve never mentioned your folks.”

“Dead,” I would normally have said, but for some reason I told Marianne the truth. She was aghast.

“And you’ve never let them know where you are?”

I shrugged.

“For how long?”

“Twelve years.”

“Twelve years! How could you do that? They don’t even know if you’re alive or dead. Couldn’t you at least send them a postcard? Tell them where you are? You wouldn’t have to give a return address. Just send a postcard to let them know you’re all right.”

“No.”

Marianne bit her lip and said no more. She stayed with me until the end of the term, when she was to resume her classes at the university. There was no thought of our relationship continuing. On our last night she cooked dinner on the houseboat.

“Do something for me, would you?” she asked.

“What’s that?”

“Write to your parents. Tell them you’re all right.”

“I’ll think about it.”

I missed Marianne, where I had missed no one before. I must have fallen a little in love with her, which was absurd. I had cut myself off from girls like that a long time ago. Three weeks after she left I sent my parents a postcard. No message—only a stamp, their address and my name.

Six months later, from Buenos Aires, I sent another. As I was fixing the stamp, a thought came to me, and I went back to the post office window and asked for a variety of small denomination stamps. I filled the postcard with them, though it was three times the postage needed. Then I signed my name.

For the next two years I sent a similar postcard every few weeks. My father would be retired now, and I wondered what he did with his days and where, besides me, his stamps came from now that he no longer made his rounds. My own course had grown listless, and I began to think, consciously now, of stopping. The ranch in Australia came to mind, and from Panama I found a yacht that was Sydney bound. But after forty days at sea we put in here, the island paradise, and all the wandering drained out of me like sap from a tree.

I built my house on the windward slope. I was thirty-two and an old man. There were no more wild things to do, no more untamed places to explore. All faces had become familiar. It is not true that there is no place like home. The truth is, all places are like home, and my life was no better or worse than my parents’, it was the same. Round and round and round I had gone, as we all go, as we must. We cannot be very different. So at last I sent a postcard, “I live here now,” and a return address. The reply was in my father’s hand. “Your mother died a year ago and I am all alone.”

I took the letter down to the beach and kneeled in the wind. I looked across the ocean to the land and over the land to our little town. And there I saw my father in his empty house, with his stamp collection, his pension check, and the occasional postcard from a dead son. I let the letter go, and while the wind blew it away I dug my hands into the sand and rocked on all fours, demented. The ocean blurred, the sea gulls cried. My hands dug deeper and deeper, grasping like roots to hold.

In the morning I went to town. The islanders stared at my tangled hair and sandy beard and whispered among themselves. From the post office, I sent a telegram: “Forgive me. Forgive me.”

*****

Four months later my father arrived. I saw him first, coming through the gate at the airport on the big island, a suitcase in either hand. He seemed a bit bewildered, as if unsure how he had come to be here, but he made his way gamely through the crowd and the official checkpoints, and between formalities his eyes searched for me. He was older, yes, more wrinkled, his hair completely white. But somehow the aging did not seem drastic. I stepped forward, and my father blinked a few times while his brain told him that this tall, bearded stranger was his son. Then he set down his suitcases and held out his hand.

“Hello, son,” he said, smiling hopefully.

I shaped my mouth to a rusty word: “Dad.”

That night, by lamplight, he showed me his stamp albums. Even after he retired, friends along his old route had saved their stamps for him. In the front pocket of one album was a pale blue envelope, carefully labeled: Stamps from Foreign Places/Postcards from My Son. The next day we tacked a new envelope to the post office notice board with a note soliciting unwanted stamps. We check it every afternoon, and there is often something inside.

The islanders quickly guessed most of the story of my father and myself. Normally, they are cool and indifferent to strangers. But they can understand English when they want to, and they speak to my father with a kind of slow respect.

“Say, that’s a fine-looking fish you’ve caught there,” my father will say to the fisherman unloading his catch. “Wonder what kind it could be?” And the fisherman will answer gravely and perhaps tell where he caught it.

In a way my father is still the postman, making his rounds: to the sea every morning, to the town in the afternoon, to the peak every night. He greets the people on his route, waves to the children and pets their dogs. Often my father reminds me of Marianne. He never expects anything but good from people, and perhaps that is why it is so often returned to him. We have never spoken of the break between us, of the years of silence or this strange reunion. My father came to the island prepared to accept my life, and so all words were unnecessary. Why could I not have done so much for him? Why could I not have been patient, waited out my time at home, shown him his life was valid in the eyes of his son? But our fathers’ lives can never be good enough. We must wound what we shall become.

My father is dying. It is hard to say how. He is not unwell and the days pass easily. But certain lives have a clear and knowable term. They are like glass, you may see through them to the end. My father’s life is nearing that end, and we all know it, my father, the islanders, and I.

When he dies I will return once more to our little town. There is a quiet and shady cemetery, and the plot where my mother lies is a double one. I will see my father buried. Then I shall return to the island paradise and live alone in the wind.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1989)

Stories & Letters Digest, Fall 1989

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