Hit Me Page 40

“And it’s still around.”

“I’ll tell Dot I’m done. We’ll still be friends, but she can call me on the regular line. We won’t need Pablo.”


“It’s not important. We’ve got plenty of money, and I think I can make money in the stamp business, even if that’s not the original reason I got into it. And I just realized something else.”


“The real reason I didn’t explain Jenny’s name to Denia Soderling. It’s the same reason I didn’t sleep with her.”

“It would be long and drawn out and she might not get it?”

“It would be bringing somebody else into something that’s just for you and me. I didn’t think of it in those terms, I just knew I didn’t want to do it. Sleep with her or explain to her. But that’s why.” He drew a breath. “I suppose that sounds pretty silly.”

“No,” she said. “Not to me.”

“I’ll call Dot.”

She put her hand on his arm. “There’s no rush,” she said. “Call her in a little while.”



Well, I guess you could walk there,” the bellman said. His tone and expression suggested that the whole idea of walking anywhere struck him as outlandish. “It’s not very far,” he went on, warming to the notion. “You go out the door, you take a left, you go one, two, three blocks to Allen Street, turn right, and once you cross Pearl Street you’re pretty much there. You can’t miss it, really.”

Keller repeated the directions and the bellman hung on every word, as if he were the one who wanted to get to the Y. “That’s it,” he said, when Keller had finished. “There’s one-way streets involved, but you don’t have to pay any attention to that, not if you’re going on foot.”

That, Keller agreed, was the beauty of walking, along with not needing a quarter for the parking meter. How would he know the building?

“You can’t miss it,” the bellman said again. “It’s three or four stories tall, and it’s got a big red A on the top of it.”

Keller had read The Scarlet Letter in high school. Or at least he thought he had, but he might have scraped by with the Classic Comic Book version. A couple of years ago he’d read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he’d always thought he’d read in school, but the book turned out to be much richer and fuller than what he remembered, and he had a strong visual memory of Huck and Jim on the raft, and decided it owed less to Mark Twain’s description than to the broader strokes of a comic book artist. So maybe he’d read Hawthorne and maybe he hadn’t, but either way he recalled the woman’s name—Hester Prynne, nobody’d ever forget a name like that. And he knew the significance of the title. The scarlet letter was an A, and she’d been branded with it to indicate that she was an adulteress.

And the building, the YMCA, was one he couldn’t miss. Because it had an A on its top.

The bellman’s directions turned out to be right on the money, and Keller had no trouble spotting the building, four stories tall, with a classic limestone facade and, no question, the letter A mounted on its top, glowing like an ember to tell the whole world what poor Hester Prynne had done. Keller posted himself diagonally across the street and kept an eye on the entrance, then gave it up when he realized he didn’t know who or what he was looking for. He crossed the street and mounted a few steps and went inside, and a pleasantly plump woman with a kind face told him he’d find the stamp club on the third floor. “It’s to the left when you get off the elevator,” she said, “or to the right if you take the stairs.”

“One if by land,” Keller said.

“And two if by sea, and I on the opposite shore will be, and I forget what comes next. Ready to ride and spread the alarm through every Middlesex village and farm.”

“I thought you forgot.”

“It came back to me. Why Middlesex? What does a county in England have to do with Paul Revere? Well, let’s find out, shall we?”

She tapped away at her keyboard, squinted at her computer terminal. “Ah,” she said. “Middlesex is the most populous county in Massachusetts, and was first designated a county in 1643. There’s a list of towns, and Concord is one of them.”

“Where the embattled farmers stood,” Keller heard himself say.

She beamed. “And fired the shot heard round the world, and we’ve gone from Longfellow to Ralph Waldo Emerson, haven’t we? Now this is interesting. Since 1997, Middlesex has been a county in name only. The state took over all the government functions. They seem to have done that with all the counties. That’s not really terribly interesting after all, is it? I wonder why I thought it was.” She sighed. “Between Google and Wikipedia,” she said, “you can learn almost anything, and some of it may even be accurate. I’m keeping you from your meeting.”

“That’s all right.”

“This thing,” she said, waving a hand at the computer terminal, “is either the greatest time-saver ever invented, or the greatest waste of time. Do you know how long it would have taken me to learn about Middlesex County without it?”


“And then some. I’d have had to go to the library, I’d have had to pull heavy books off high shelves, and in the end I might still not have found what I wanted to know. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have bothered. ‘Why Middlesex?’ I’d have mused, and then I’d have thought of something else, and that would have been the end of it. A time-saver and a waste of time. But if you’ve got a question, the silly thing can give you the answer.”

He took the stairs, climbed two flights of them, and turned right, and a sign on an easel pointed him to the stamp club meeting place halfway down the hall. Inside, five men and a woman sat behind tables, while another dozen men and women perched on modular white plastic chairs, the kind you could stack when the meeting was over. The ones at the tables would be dealers, he knew. Vest-pocket dealers, part-timers who helped finance their hobby by selling what they could at local shows and club meetings. The ones in the chairs would be collectors, but some of them might do a little dealing now and then, just as most of the dealers were more interested in their own collections than the few dollars they might make tonight.

Everyone was watching the screen at the front of the room, where a man with a wispy mustache was guiding the audience through a PowerPoint presentation on the various post–World War I plebiscite issues. This surprised Keller; the topic was one that actually interested him.

In the aftermath of the First World War, the victors had redrawn the map of Europe, in accordance with the principle of self-determination of nations as voiced by Woodrow Wilson. Plebiscites were scheduled for disputed regions, and the residents could cast ballots to determine which country they would be a part of.

Until then, each plebiscite region had its own administration, and its own stamps, and they were interesting in themselves, and so was their history. One such district in East Prussia, Allenstein to the Germans and Olsztyn to the Poles, issued two series of fourteen stamps each in 1920, both consisting of overprinted German issues. Keller owned both complete sets—they weren’t expensive, or difficult to find—but an Allenstein collection wasn’t limited to those twenty-eight stamps as listed in the Scott catalog. There were color varieties, shades, several of them Scott-listed, some noted in the German-language Michel catalog. And there were other German stamps, five in the first series and one in the second, which had been overprinted, as the rest had been, but had never seen postal service. These unissued varieties were noted in the Scott catalog, with a value given to them, and Keller owned a couple of them and would have been glad for the chance to acquire the others.

And if he did, he might find himself with another specialty—Allenstein, specifically, or plebiscite issues in general. Then he’d find himself seeking out shades, which he didn’t ordinarily bother with, and adding items of postal history, such as envelopes mailed to and from Allenstein and Memel and Schleswig and Marienwerder and both Upper and Eastern Silesia.

That seemed to be how it worked. Keller’s main specialty was Martinique, the French island in the Caribbean. Keller had never been there, and had no particular desire to visit the place. He’d collected its stamps as he collected those of every other country, and without making any particular effort he’d reached a point where he owned examples of all of Martinique’s stamps, except for two high-priced rarities. Then, when both stamps came up in an auction just after he’d had a nice windfall, he’d been high bidder on both lots and his collection of Martinique was complete.

Except it wasn’t, because the next thing he knew he was seeking out additional items, like doubled and inverted overprints. Scott 33, a common one-centime stamp from 1892, bore the island’s name in red, but there was a variety—number 33a—with the word Martinique in blue. It cataloged at $650, and Keller would have paid twice that for a decent example, but so far he’d had no luck in finding one. And there were other minor varieties, some of which he owned and others he was still looking for, and then there were the covers, envelopes bearing Martinique’s stamps. You could go on amassing covers forever, because in a sense every last one was unique, mailed on a certain date, bearing certain stamps, sent from this person to that person, from this place to that place, and carrying the postmarks and stickers and imprints attesting to its peregrinations.

He wasn’t sure he wanted to get into all that with Allenstein, let alone Memel and the rest. But he wasn’t ready to rule it out, either, and he sat there and paid close attention to what the earnest gentleman with the tentative mustache had to say.

The presentation ran a little under half an hour, and ended with the speaker inviting questions. The first hand raised was that of an older man who wanted to know why the plebiscites almost invariably ended with a decisive vote in favor of the territory’s being returned to Germany. The speaker didn’t know, and another man suggested that the inhabitants wanted to avoid the harsh Polish winters.

Then a boy raised his hand. There were two boys in the room, both about fourteen, and they were seated side by side, and Keller had been glancing their way from time to time. It was the smaller of the two who raised his hand, and the speaker knew him. “Yes, Mark,” the man said. “Do you have a question?”

“There’s something I was wondering about the unissued Allenstein overprints,” he said. “Two of them are on German stamps with shade varieties. The German five-pfennig stamp can be brown or dark brown, and the twenty-pfennig green also comes in yellow-green and blue-green. Are there shade varieties in the unissued overprints?”

Keller was impressed. Mark had asked a remarkably sophisticated question. Keller didn’t know the answer, and neither, apparently, did the speaker, who said he didn’t know of any such varieties, and would guess there weren’t because so few of the unissued overprints had been produced. But, he added, he couldn’t absolutely rule out the possibility, and why had Mark raised the point? Did he have an example of what he thought might be a shade variety?

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