“Two cents postage due,” the day guard said, slipping a rubber band bound packet of mail through the bars to first offender, Mel Hulsey. The prisoner, wrinkled almost as much as the prison issued denim he wore, raised himself from the bunk. He observed that the offering was wrapped in a folded issue of Rodeo Monthly. The Marlboro Man was visible on the back cover. Mel stood and stretched, his long lanky frame eternally yearning for the great outdoors, and two-stepped to the cell door. He thought it odd that neither rain, nor snow, nor even a sentence of two years hard time, had kept the mail from his doorstep, except that now, when he in fact was one, he no longer got mail
addressed to Occupant.
“Send it back, Pete,” Mel responded to the guard. “Who do they think
I am? Somebody’s rich uncle?”
“It’s funny you asked,” the guard replied, separating an overstuffed
white envelope from its companions. “The letter is addressed to Uncle. Uncle
Uncle? Mel’s cynical mood was quickly replaced with surprise. He had
figured the letter to be another whiner from Doris Hulsey, his ex sister-in-law. She
had been axed from the family tree over a year ago by the death of his younger
brother, Royce, in a car wreck . Mel signed the guard’s chit sheet, assuring that
another two cents worth of his hide would be secured by the State of Wyoming
before his debt to society had been paid. He sauntered back to the bunk, wondering
what he had bought for two cents.
The letter was plastered with a green five cent stamp, and a red two
cent postage due stamp, both overlaid with the purple wavy lines of cancellation. A
dollar’s worth of time, trouble and color had been spent trying to collect two cents, he
mused. He turned his attention to the meticulously scrawled printing on the
envelope. The lack of a return address did not keep him from guessing who had
sent the letter. The Amarillo postmark, and the fact that there was only one person
who could claim him as Uncle, narrowed it down considerably. The letter had come
from little Beebee Hulsey. He smiled as he temporarily sat it aside.
Tucked inside the fold of the magazine were two other
acknowledgments that Mel was alive. The first was from Old Republic Life, offering
him the opportunity to convert his term policy to permanent coverage. They gave him
thirty days to decide, and to make the decision easy, they included a form to be
signed by him and beneficiary, Alice Faye Brown, and a bill for an additional
$122.00. His chances of securing either her signature or the money were nil. Both
were together, enjoying the good life somewhere out in Arizona. Mel wadded up Old
Republic’s paper thin promise and hooked it into the trash can.
The second item was a dun from the Merchants State Bank of
Casper, reminding him that the November payment on his GMC pick up was two
months past due. Mel smiled, suspecting that the Casper Sheriff had already
returned the truck to them in several pieces. In a stupid stupor, Mel had driven the
truck into the Silver Dollar Saloon. The confrontation had begun when the bouncer
had thrown him out. The truck had served as his means of glorious return through the
front door. Hand-to-mouth combat followed, costing a deputy part of his left ear, and
resulting in Mel’s incarceration.
“What is the bank going to do if I don’t pay?” he asked the wash basin
in the corner. “Throw me out of jail?” A carom shot off the wall sent that paper thin
threat into the wastelands.
Finally, he returned to the letter, holding it up to the light, and reaching
for his steel rimmed glasses. He wiped the dust off the lenses with the tail of his
threadbare shirt as he sat back down. Then, using a popsicle stick whittled down for
the purpose, he opened and unfolded the letter.
Jan. 20, 1963
Uncle Melford Hulsey
Dear Uncle Melford;
This morning my Sunday School teacher said you can cheer up someone with a
phone call, or a postcard, or a letter. I got to thinking about you, and how you might be sad
about going to jail. I didn’t call because I figured you had already used your one phone call. And
how much could I say on a postcard, except wish you were here? I know you already wish that.
That leaves writing a letter.
So. How are you? I sure do miss you. I miss the good times when you and that
nice lady Alice would come for the weekend and play dominos with Momma and Daddy. I would
pretend to go to sleep on the couch so I could listen to all the talk. I always thought it was funny
how you used short words and Daddy used long ones. Daddy would say. Who expelled
obnoxious fumes? You would say. Who farted? I know Momma didn’t like you to cuss and use
words like that. So, every now and then, I will say one so she will think about you.
I got into big trouble about it last week. This man named Louie Loomis comes
by and takes Momma places. She fried us pork chops one night, and I asked him. Mr. Loomis
did you just fart or was that the chair squeaking? Momma turned red as a fire truck and about
killed me with the ironing cord after he left.
I don’t exactly like Mr. Loomis, but I guess I shouldn’t gripe. Do you remember
that night when your friend Alice got real sick and I came into the room? She was moaning and
shaking the bed all to pieces. You told me she had the Bluebonnet Plague, and you had to lay
on top of her to keep her from rolling off the bed. Well, Momma came down with a spell of that
same sickness. It was lucky for me that Mr. Loomis was here both times and knew exactly what
I especially miss how you always told me that you and me were like two peas in
a pot. I told Momma that someday, I want to be a bronc rider like you. She told me you are a
tumbleweed that goes wherever the wind blows you, and you are trouble for everybody. I know
better. I’ll never forget how you hugged me at Daddy’s funeral and cried with me and told me
how you would have gladly gone in his place just to keep me from hurting so bad. I still have that
handkerchief we used to wipe our tears.
When Momma is not home, I stand in front of the bedroom mirror and try to walk
bowlegged like you, then I hold my mouth a little crooked and say. Beebee, how’s about you
and me running off to Mexico tonight? But it’s not the same as when you said it. I wish Momma
would have let you stay here and raise those horses like you wanted to do. I heard you tell her
that you promised Daddy to watch over me, and you would be glad to sleep on the porch. I
know if you had stayed here, that deputy in Casper would still have his ear and you wouldn’t be
there in jail.
Momma sits in the kitchen alot with her beer bottle and says it is your fault. Then,
it is her fault. Then, it is everybody’s fault. When she starts crying, I do, too.
I stopped to read over what I wrote, and I don’t think this letter is very cheerful.
Since it is too late to start over, I will tell you something funny. Remember that older boy named
Rusty who always picked on me? Well, I did what you said to do. I kicked him right in the
nomads. He staggered and groaned like he was shot. I laughed until my sides hurt. He hasn’t
bothered me since.
Momma will get mad if she finds this letter, so I will mail it myself. I love you and miss
you. Oh yes. Don’t forget. I’ll be twelve years old next month.
Signed: Beebee Hulsey
P.S. What does an ear taste like, anyhow?
Mel dropped the letter to his lap and removed his glasses. He felt the
sadness in his heart overflow into his eyes. Beebee was right. It was too late to start
over. Doris was right. His life had been nothing but a wandering path of trouble. As
he looked back down upon the letter, he winced at this reminder of his deathbed
commitment to his brother. His heart ached as he remembered anxiously pleading
with Doris for the chance to fulfill that promise. He vividly recalled her ironic denial.
She had insisted it was best for Beebee.
Mel shuddered as he watched a teardrop fall upon the letter and
spread into a faint blue stain where it crossed the trail of Beebee’s handwriting.
Slowly, he refolded the letter, replaced it in the envelope, and reverently dropped it
into the trash can. He stretched back out on the bunk, and as he listlessly thumbed
through the magazine, an uneasy feeling began to surround him, prickling the hair on
his neck. A distant wind began to whistle through his dry and brittle soul, stirring an
unsated desire to move on. A startling gust followed, breaking away all shackles of
promises and commitments. Like an uprooted and unrestrained sagebrush, he
wavered and rocked, while his mind frantically groped through weightless straw,
desperately trying to find an anchor. Suddenly, he remembered the letter. Beebee’s
love was unconditional. Somehow, in spite of Doris, he had to return it.
After retreiving and stuffing the letter deeply into his pocket, Mel
stepped over to the bars. He grasped one in each hand and held on as the wind
swirled around him and swelled into a deafening roar. He lowered his head into the
brunt of the storm and gritted his teeth. This time, he would not be blown away.