He Couldn’t Take Them Back

I couldn’t really tell whether or not it was a pile of 44 cent stamps  from where I was standing – second on line, and  as usual, impatient to send off my package.  The customer was upset, we learned, because the post office clerk wouldn’t take back his stamps and he wasn’t going to leave until he got his money back.

The man behind me was shaking his head, but I couldn’t tell if it was because of all the waiting or because he held certain convictions about the etiquette of returning stamps. When I asked him, he pointed to the clock and mumbled something about having had enough with the stamp return business.

“Why can’t you just give him his money back?” the woman two places behind me shouted out.

The clerk, who frequently sold me the king and queen love stamps, was now shaking his head even more vigorously than the man behind me had.  “It’s impossible to return stamps.  Against the rules.”

The frustrated customer wouldn’t give up and turned to all of us for support.  “I bought them here. Look, I have the receipt. I want my money.  Shouldn’t  I be treated fairly – you don’t think so?”

The postal clerk could see that he had an audience of curious onlookers, who likely had never seen anyone try to return stamps before. He looked down at the stamp pile and then gently pushed it off  his scale. The lobby hushed down and then a fellow clerk joined in and said in a low tenor, ”Contamination.  Once they leave the post office they could become contaminated. We can’t take the chance. Once they’re out the door, they can’t be returned.”

Relishing the prospect of somehow resolving the dispute, I inched over to the pile, thinking I might buy them at face value – or maybe even make a deal with the would-be stamp salesman.  They weren’t 44’s – what were they?  My curiosity was tempered by a sharp glance from the contamination expert.  I headed back to my place in line, recognizing that any hopes of a Nobel Peace Prize nomination had been dashed by my lack of courage.

The man with the stamps persevered. ”Where does it say that you can’t return this merchandise?  We have laws in this state that protect lemons  — why can’t you respect my rights and take these uncontaminated stamps back and refund my money.  It was a mistake. You don’t make mistakes?”

“The rules, sir.  On the bottom of the receipt – look here, sir – it explains that stamps are non-refundable. Set them aside and there’s a good chance that their value will increase over the years.  They’re in mint condition,” the contamination specialist said loudly, so that everyone on line would grasp his interest in trying to serve the public..

I turned around to listen more carefully to the man who showed me the clock;  he grumbled to me that he didn’t like this year’s Chinese New Year stamps as much as last year’s oxen, and without confiding that I liked the new tigers, he whispered that he sympathized with the man who was now scooping up his unreturnable stamps. But – and he paused — he questioned the wisdom of his buying such a large amount if he weren’t sure that he could use that many, and then, without the slightest apology, he spilled his coffee all over my shoes.

The woman next to him speculated that they may have been purchased for wedding invitations and that maybe his son, the groom, had changed his mind – or the bride, added another woman who was looking for certified mail slips. “Why do people think that only men get cold feet?  I changed my mind when we were arguing about the silver pattern. Called up the caterers that afternoon.“

Having had the closest view, I thought it was my duty to inform the crowd  that they weren’t wedding stamps –- I’m not sure what kind they were – just that they were dark brown and unfamiliar.  That’s when  a young woman I hadn’t noticed before stepped up to me and impolitely informed me that different people use different types of stamps on their wedding invitations.  Then knowing that every word she uttered would fill the room, she asked me if it was really my place to decide if they were wedding stamps or not.

Silence followed; the contamination clerk leaned forward for my reply.  And for a moment, the unrefundable stamps were forgotten –  instead, my hanging jaw, my stooped shoulders commanded center stage.

Coffee-stained, ridiculed, and unable to recognize the stamps in question, I felt myself becoming unglued. The package to Houston could surely be mailed a day later — my son would appreciate the perils I’d faced and understand that my postponement was the right thing to do. The power bars wouldn’t melt, everything in the box would be no less valuable with a delayed arrival.

As I walked out the door, with wet feet, it came to me that if each of us had bought just half a block of the stamps, we could have all had a very happy ending.  I know I would have taken my share and pasted it on my parcel, or saved them for another day. I’m sure they weren’t contaminated – he seemed like such a nice man.