Once a week, Jean and I peered through the screen door and watched for the postman. As soon as Mr. Klein pulled his little white car back onto the paved road, we raced to the mailbox at the end of the driveway. Before the letters started coming, we had watched the dust settle and the day cool down. Before the letters, we waited even when we knew the postman had left us gum on top of the mail--round purple balls wrapped in cellophane. But now we rushed to the mailbox for Uncle Ed's letter.
Against the gray corrugated metal, among the sales announcements and brochures lay one white envelope--the thin dime store kind with matched writing paper. Even though there was no return address, the letters were always boldly sealed with a pouty red kiss and reeked of perfume, as if a bouquet of flowers had suddenly blossomed inside the hot metal box. Cursive bold script spelled out Uncle Ed's name and address full of curlicues and tiny hearts instead of dots over the letters "i" in Williams.
According to Grandma, the postmark was from Chicago and in those days, it was as distant and as foreign as any star in the galaxy.
"Let me get it this time, Lacey," yelled Jean. Even before she completed the sentence, I had already pulled down the mailbox door, searching for the letter. The corners of the white envelope stuck out among the sales circulars.
"Here, Jean.” She reluctantly took the circulars. Grandma was waiting for the mail. She liked to look through the circulars and plan her shopping trips.
"It's my turn," I said, turning over the letter, drawing it up to my puckered mouth, attempting to match the envelope's kiss meant only for Uncle Ed.
"Let me try it,” Jean cried. But I still held the envelope up to my face and practiced the kiss. Until Grandma noticed, we would practice the red pout on the back porch steps or hide under the scuppernong vines. The green tendrils curled down the sides of the enclosure like curtains. The scuppernong arbor, supported by railroad ties, was our make-believe house, shaded from the sun and hidden from Grandma's view.
Uncle Ed would never question how the perfect little pout became smudged across the back of the envelope until it was nothing more than a soft, pale smear. After all, he never saw the perfect red kiss that arrived all the way from Chicago.
It would be hours before Uncle Ed came home from his school bus route. Long before we awakened, he pulled the bus into the highway and began his journey. He picked up all of the high school and junior high kids and drove them miles away to the one all colored high school in Lamar County. Once there, he and the other drivers waited in the equipment room, playing cards as they smoked and talked away the hours in between until the final bell sounded. Then, the drivers lined up the buses in the big half-circle driveway near the evergreens and waited for the stampede of children.
Late afternoon, we watched from the back porch steps, as Uncle Ed slowly backed School Bus No. 33 into the rutted spot near the scuppernong vines.
Although Uncle Ed was Grandma's oldest child, he had always lived at home and never married. He had left home only once during the Korean War. Once a week, we dusted his picture on the mantle where he stared back, looking distant and young in an Army uniform.
"Gone long enough to make the world free to peel potatoes," he said laughing.
"Did you kill anybody?” I asked.
"Little girls don't need to know such things," he said and yanked my braids.
There was no other talk of the war. Sometimes when Grandma had guest, she showed them the white and gold bedroom furniture that Uncle Ed paid for with his Army money.
"Where's the mail?” Grandma yelled from the back porch. She stood on the top step, the screen door ajar. Hurry up before flies get in. ”Rarely would Grandma leave the porch in her good shoes, the ones that had come mail order.
Jean ran up the steps with the other mail while I hesitantly walked to the house with the letter.
"Y'all gone get germs kissing those envelopes. You'd think a grown woman like Belle would have better sense than kissing writing paper and wasting perfume. ”She raised the letter up toward the sky, as if she could read it. Her own lips and nails were painted a dusty rose to match the flowers in her dress. When she walked, the soft scent of talc, sweat and lilac water floated about her.
Uncle Ed always took the letter into his room and closed the door, even though it was hot and the only fan was down the hall in Grandma's sitting room. Jean, and me took turns watching him through the keyhole. He would sit on the edge of the bed with a green ceramic ashtray balanced on his legs. Grandma would have been mad if she had known he was smoking on the bed.
But Uncle Ed would light a cigarette anyway, the smoke curling upwards as he read the single sheet of white paper with fancy blue writing. Sometimes, he would smile and then the furrows in his brow would deepen. Once he finished the letter, he lit a corner of the envelope first and burnt it carefully in the ashtray and then the letter. Before he left the room, he tossed the ashes into the fireplace in one smooth movement and pushed the ashtray back under the bed.
Before he crossed the room to open the door, we scurried down the hall to the sitting room. Grandma was there watching TV.
"Fine. ”Uncle Ed knew Grandma wasn't a fan of Belle's. Mama said Grandma never thought anyone was good enough for her precious sons. Even though Jean was just a baby, she already knew that Mama would beat our butts if we repeated her words to Grandma.
"When's she coming back?"
"She got a job?"
"What in the world would make Belle just up an' leave her poor Daddy here--I just don't know about young folks these days. ”She took an empty glass from the table beside the recliner.
"Are you thinking about leavin' here, too?"
"Get me a glass of water, Lacey.” She like ice water from the big pitcher in the refrigerator.
"Saw poor Uncle Bob yesterday. He wasn't looking too good. She could visit him some. His time may not be long.” Grandma spent a good deal of her time checking the obituaries and attending funerals.
"If she was any kind of daughter, she would."
Uncle Ed headed for the porch and picked up the sack of dog food. He whistled for the two hounds, Sandy and Blackie.
Grandma walked out to the porch and stood on the top step, looking down at Uncle Ed. He puffed on his cigarette and watched the two black spotted dogs competing for the food.
Belle had left late last year. For ten years, she'd waited on Uncle Ed to propose marriage and then she'd packed up and moved to Chicago with her sister, Albertina.
"She's just trying to force your hand, son."
Uncle Ed blew two smoke circles and winked at me, as if I were a conspirator. Mama said to keep my mouth shut and not get involved.
"You sending her money?" Grandma asked angrily.
The dogs pushed and muzzled each other vying to get a bigger portion of the dog food. Uncle Ed didn't look up; he watched the dogs eating.
"You sending Belle money?"
"That's enough now.” He patted Sandy on the head and then Blackie and walked toward the barn with the sack of food.
Late in the summer, the shades of lipstick had changed from deep brick red to rose and then ruby, just like names on the Avon samples that Grandma gave us in tiny white tubes.
Finally, it was Jean’s turn to get the letter. She handed Grandma the white envelope, the lips face down and out of sight.
Grandma flipped over the envelope. "That's an evil shade of red," she said and placed the letter on the kitchen table. But even then, we knew she was admiring the bright shade of red because she had a dresser full of lipsticks and matching nail polishes, too.
"Your uncle's a fool."
Uncle Ed read the new smudged letter the same as always--behind closed doors and away from prying eyes.
But then the letters stopped coming. For weeks, we searched among the flyers, the circulars and bills. But it was ordinary mail without the one pristine white letter sealed with a kiss. And he never asked if any letters came or checked the mail to see if his letter was overlooked among the other circulars and bills.
We began using the sample tubes and created our own lipstick seals on the back of notebook paper until Mama said stop wasting paper.
When they integrated the school system, Uncle Ed stopped driving the bus and took a job at the local nursing home. He finally married someone else much younger than him and had a son. Yet, his young wife died first and the son moved away and forgot him--forgot him even when crippling arthritis rendered him helpless. Grandma never liked Evelyn, either.
From other Chicago relatives, we’ve heard that Belle still lives there and never married. But she drinks too much and needs help "drying out". Even now, I imagine that her only kisses caress the many liquor glasses that line her nightstand and even in the glare of the morning light, the curved imprints are an evil shade of red.