WEDNESDAY: Square One

BY FRANK T. SIKORA

Frank T. Sikora is a freelance graphic artist and writer in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Copyright is held by the author.

RUPP’S LEGS shook as soon as he touched the glassine envelope with the stamp — Scott #292, Cattle Crossing River, regarded by most American collectors as the most beautiful American stamp ever designed and printed. The classic engraving, the rich earth tones, the drama of the event… Lord, it is beyond beautiful, Rupp thought. It’s transcendent, the cornerstone of any collection, and at  $525 almost the sum of my net worth.

“I shouldn’t even be considering this,” Rupp told the dealer. “It’s been nine months since I made my last mortgage payment on my house.”

The dealer exposed a gap-tooth grin. The dealer’s expansive, fleshy frame hung over the table: “Fuck your house, Rupp. You’ve been eyeing this beauty for — what is it — 10 years now? Mortgages are vicious scams run by soulless banks and their limp-dick accountants.”
Rupp didn’t disagree. He placed the envelope on the table and pressed his hands against his shaking knees. All the pills in the world won’t curtail my anxiety disorder, he thought. Screw the meds. They’re worthless, and the side effects are brutal: chronic headaches, chronic gas, and chronic fatigue. “Drug companies are just as bad.”

“No argument here,” the dealer replied.

“Do you know anyone who needs a well-seasoned-but-not-old lithographer?”

“Lithography? Christ. Are you still playing that game?” the dealer asked. “You might as well repair typewriters.”

“It’s not that bad,” Rupp said.

“Not yet, but give it time.”

“Jesus,” Rupp said. “Consider a course on sales tactics.”

“Okay, how’s this? If you don’t buy this stamp, I’ll end up as pathetic and as miserable as you.”

“Oh, much better.” Rupp leaned back and studied the hall. Maybe the dealer is right. Fifteen years ago the show would have been packed with kids and families. Now it’s just aging men shuffling around the basement of a church. “How bad is business?”

“Slow. Very slow. But, it’s not just the business,” the dealer said.

“Then what’s bothering you? You’re usually not this charming.”

“You don’t need to hear my troubles,” the dealer said. “Let’s just say a fat new shiny bauble around my wife’s neck or on her finger wouldn’t hurt our relationship.”

“Go ahead,” Rupp said. “Supposedly, shared misery is cathartic.”

“My wife  says all I care about are my stamps. I work too many hours. I’m preoccupied with the business. And why not? I don’t know if I can make a living at this anymore, and if I can’t then what?” The dealer sighed. “I didn’t even notice she had lost weight. Twenty pounds she claims. She’s a big girl and she’s worked hard to drop the weight. But hell, she still must weigh nearly 260.”  The dealer smiled. “Look, I don’t mind her size. Look at me. I tell her we don’t have to be in mint condition. I love her as is and I love my job.”

“What are you? 350? 400?” Rupp asked as he studied the stamp. Mercy. This is art. What kind of man spends his last dollar on a stamp: one who has given up or one who believes the future will turn?  Am I the former? The latter? Both? Neither? He looked at the stamp. Then as he glanced at the dealer an idea struck him: “Consider this: I’ll give you one dollar for each pound you weigh. My best offer.”

The dealer laughed. “I should be insulted, but you don’t expect printers to be clever.” He scratched his chin. “Come back after lunch. If I can find a KFC, I will consider your desperate offer.”

“Christ, again, please consider taking a course on dealing with customers.”

***

Rupp huddled in the doorway and watched the dealer approach. For the hundredth or thousandth time, Rupp ran the numbers: his savings, remaining weeks of unemployment compensation, credit card debt and cash availability, the remains of his 401(k) and job prospects. No matter how he did the math, he was fucked. He was worse off than when he was in school. Back then he had hope for his future. The whole American dream lay in front of him like the yellow brick road. Who knew each brick was a landmine?
Rupp opened the door for the dealer.

“Thanks,” the dealer said. “Rupp, I thought about your offer.”

“Yeah, please take my last dollar,” Rupp said. “The final blow is when I tell my son he’s on his own for college. He’s going to have to take out loans that will dog him for 20 years, and all for a job that will bore him to tears or, if he’s lucky, drive him to an early death.”

“Better he knows all this shit now than in 40 years when he ends up like you.”

“Christ,” Rupp said. “I’m considering spending my last few dollars here.”

“As well you should, Rupp. I’ve accepted your offer. You deserve this stamp for all the shit you’ve eaten over the course of your 60 years.”

“I’m only 47,” Rupp replied.

“Ah” said the dealer. “Let’s find us a scale.”

***

“What’s the damage?” the dealer asked as he precariously balanced his less-than-perfect physique on an old bathroom scale. The scale groaned under the dealer’s weight.
Rupp knelt beside the scale. A half-dozen dealers and a few show patrons had gathered around the two. “One hundred sixty-five pounds,” Rupp said.

“You wish,” the dealer said. “I heard that sucker spin. If it’s more than 400 pounds don’t tell me. I don’t think I want to know.”

“Okay. Hold steady, and take your hand off my shoulder. Let’s see. All right then. It’s not so bad. It’s not so good, either.”

“Come on,” the dealer said. “What’s the damage?”

“Okay. It’s just about stopped spinning. And the winning total is… 335 pounds. Jesus. Do all of us a favour and never make a sex video.”

“Too late,” the dealer replied.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, had a website and everything,” said the dealer amid snickers from the growing crowd, “but it only got a few dozen hits. Didn’t make a dime.”

***

Rupp sat at the dealer’s table and examined the stamp. “I can’t help but think I’m going to regret this purchase, like when I need to eat or gas up the car today. I can’t show this to anyone, especially my son. He’ll shit. He’ll think I’ve lost it.”

“You’ll figure something out,’ the dealer said. “Besides, you’re here because you need this stamp.”

“Need? I’m not sure what I need. I surely don’t need a mortgage, a car payment, my son’s college tuition, and my ex-wife’s monthly maintenance.”

“Yet you just paid $335 for that stamp.” The dealer paused leaned close, and spoke softly, seriously. “Deep in your heart you know it’s a good idea. That stamp is something you’ve valued, no, coveted for years. You bought that stamp because it’s your way of telling life, and all its bullshit, to go to hell.”

“This is a selfish, impulsive move,” Rupp said. “I now have roughly $200 left in my checking account. I’ve buried my 401(k).”

The dealer lowered his gaze. For a moment, Rupp thought he was going to tell him a secret, some little nugget to salvage the moment, or something to justify his purchase. Isn’t that the way it happens in the movies?

“Rupp, you are one truly fucked and lucky dude. Your life has finally achieved the perfect balance. You owe the world everything and you are worth nothing. You are back to square one.”

“And this is good?”

“Absolutely,” the dealer said. “It’s like being born again, but without the religious crap. You just have to have the courage to clear away the excess baggage — all  the bullshit responsibilities you’re expected to carry. And strip yourself of all unnecessary possessions. Keep only the things that matter; a few changes of clothes, a couple of key books, your tooth brush and, of course, your stamp collection. Start fresh. Start over. Hell, you’re barely 50.”

“I told you, I’m only 47.”

“Even better,” the dealer said.

Rupp exhaled a tired breath. He looked around the hall. Could the dealer be right?  Look at the suckers, he thought. Tomorrow they have to go back to their jobs, their families, their debts, and their responsibilities — their everything. Christ. A smile suddenly blossomed. For the first time in a long time his legs didn’t shake.

Rupp turned back to the dealer and then back to his stamp. He suppressed the urge to remove it from the envelope. To touch it without tweezers, bareback would diminish its value, but it would seem more real. He had waited a long time to own this beauty. He had waited until … well, until he had lost everything… everything that didn’t matter.
Square one, indeed. Rupp thought.

Rupp stood, placed the envelope in his shirt pocket,  and reached across the table for a stamp album of U.S. rarities, where more treasures awaited. “You know, you’re not such a bad salesman after all. Say, what can I get for 200 bucks?”

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