Fiction by Leah Mueller


           I was twenty when my mother and three siblings moved to a trailer court in Laredo.  I lived alone in Chicago, so I was spared the misery of having to reside with my family in an elongated metal box, staring at my younger brothers and sister while they bounced off the walls.   My mother's fortunes had dwindled since my stepfather's suicide two years earlier, and my brother Donny's encroaching schizophrenia had reached a new, troubling level. After the pain of her husband's death receded, Mom felt a wild relief, and an accompanying urge to get the hell out of downstate Illinois. She sold the farmhouse and moved to San Miguel de Allende with her younger offspring.  Once there, she indulged herself in wild affairs and bouts of drinking. Often, she disappeared for days at a time, leaving the kids to fend for themselves.

            Donny roamed the streets in search of trouble, and usually found it instantly. Though he was only thirteen, Donny had spent so many nights in the town jail that the guards laughed when they saw him coming from across the street, hands shackled behind his back. Occasionally, when my mother was at home, she brought Donny to jail herself, and the guards laughed even harder.  Donny was prone to long bouts of disassociation, and would often sit in front of the mirror, talking to his reflection while gesturing wildly. He needed more help than he could receive in Mexico. Mom had a baffling notion that Texas' social service coffers were wide open, and that their agencies would be happy to offer assistance to her troubled son.

            The trailer court was a huge step down for my mother.  My grandmother owned a Lincoln Continental, a kidney bean-shaped backyard pool, and a pink driveway. Her second husband was a mediocre dentist who had made a killing in the stock market. Grandma was terrified of all of her grandchildren, especially Donny, and cynical about our prospects for redemption.  She gave my mother no financial assistance whatsoever.  A lifelong Republican, Grandma's bootstrap mentality extended to her only daughter.  She felt strongly that my mother should never have given birth to her three younger children-but since she had, they were her own problem, and no one else was under any obligation to help them.

            A few days after my mother had settled into her trailer, one of her lovers came up from Mexico to stay with her.  Harold was a fifty-something African American man, diabetic and portly, prone to long bouts of brooding while he munched on bags of Spangler's circus peanuts.  Harold also had a predilection towards binge drinking.  While drunk, he was the life of the party, laughing and dancing and slapping people on their backs.  However, when Harold was sober, his personality underwent a drastic change—he became silent for hours at a time, while he stared into space with a grim expression on his face. In my mother's trailer, this was easy to do, so Harold was right at home.

            I didn't relish the prospect of spending Christmas with my family, even if this meant getting out of Chicago during the winter. My boyfriend Mike had recently given me the heave-ho and had taken up with a fellow student at Columbia College-a woman named Amy who sat only a couple of rows away from me in poetry class. Every week, our instructor required us to read our work aloud, to show the class how dutifully we'd followed his instructions. Amy wrote poems about what a bad person I was, referring to me once as “a piece of dog shit steaming in the snow.” She didn't actually mention my name,  but I knew who she was talking about. My usually prodigious literary output dwindled to a trickle, and then ceased entirely.  I barely made it through the semester, and finally emerged from class with a “C” grade, and a gnawing feeling that I was completely without value as a writer,  a college student, a girlfriend or anything else whatsoever.

            My mother's new home sat directly in the middle of a particularly scabrous trailer court on the outskirts of Laredo. The trailers were coated with rust and positioned only a few feet from each other—so close that I could hear the people next door when they coughed or went to the bathroom. Mom and Harold occupied one of the bedrooms, and my three siblings slumbered in another. Their lumpy single beds were arranged in a semi-circle, with mounds of possessions piled haphazardly around each one.  Outside the trailer, sickly yucca trees and cacti dominated the landscape. All of the carports contained dusty pick-up trucks and twenty-year-old station wagons. My mother's car sported a plastic, Scotch-taped window and a drooping muffler that Harold had tied to the chassis with a piece of nylon rope.

            My siblings were always glad to see me, and they jumped up and down when I entered the room.  I threw my duffel bag on the floor and looked around the trailer.  Mom perched on the tiny couch, cigarette in hand, and watched me like a bird of prey. “Welcome to the palace” she said derisively.  “I'll do everything in my power to make certain that you're right at home.”

            Donny leaped out from behind his bedroom door and enveloped me in a hug. For a schizophrenic, Donny was surprisingly affectionate. He possessed a natural sweetness that might have flowered in a more sympathetic environment.  I returned his hug, and my other siblings wrapped their arms around my legs and pulled on them insistently, jealous of the attention.  My mother looked exasperated.  “Leave her alone” she said disgustedly.  “Let her BREATHE, for Chrissake.”

            Instead of retreating, my siblings became increasingly manic, and they continued their insistent jerking of my clothing. “Get DOWN, goddammit!” my mother barked.  Donny released me first, wandered into one of the corners of the trailer, and smirked at her.  Jason and Emily gave my shirt a couple of extra tugs, then finally subsided.  I suffered bravely through the onslaught of affection. It was obvious that they were pestering me so they could get a rise out of our mother. 

            I had entered a den of snakes, and I would be stuck there for three days. What's more, I was unutterably depressed,  more than I had ever been.  I sat in one of the stiff vinyl chairs and stared at the trailer's contents. My mother had decorated the interior with battered pieces of furniture she had acquired from yard sales and thrift stores. Her living room opened directly into the kitchen, which was dominated by a stained Formica table. An overflowing ash tray sat in the middle of the table, ringed by plates of half-eaten food and glasses of sour milk.  It looked like a bizarre and hideous holiday centerpiece. Mom had always hated cleaning, and she usually screamed at her children until one of them broke down and washed the dishes.  Otherwise, the plates would have remained on the table indefinitely.

            “You HAVE to see what I bought Donny for Christmas” my mother announced.  She rose from the table and wandered into her bedroom.  In a daze, I trailed behind her.  Mom closed the door and reached into the recesses of her closet, pulled out a large plastic bottle.  “It's hand lotion” she said.  “I got it at Walgreen's for only two bucks. The little bastard is always jerking off.  Emily and Jason complain about it, but he won't stop.  He tries to be quiet, but of course they can tell.  I figured I'd do my motherly duty and help out.” She snickered.

            I stared at the bottle with horror.  “I…..don't know how he'll react when he unwraps it tomorrow” I stammered.  “But it's way more memorable than a sweater, I guess.” My mother guffawed loudly and tossed the bottle back into her closet.  “I'll wrap it tonight when everyone is asleep” she promised.

            Suddenly, an artillery of pebbles hit the side of the trailer.  I heard a hissing noise, then a low chuckle, and finally more hissing.  “What the hell is that?” I asked. “Oh, that's Marty” my mother said dismissively.  “He's a new friend of Donny's, trained extensively in the art of juvenile delinquency.  The little asshole has already been incarcerated more times than he can count, and he's only fifteen.  I won't let him through the door, so he just hisses and throws rocks at the kids' bedroom window until Donny goes outside.”

            I was impressed to hear that my mother had set perimeters around the sort of company she would allow in her home. As I pondered this, a new shower of gravel hit the window screen. Donny raced to the front door and flung it open.  Marty lurked in the weeds a few feet from the trailer,  fidgeting nervously.  He was stick-thin and pale, dressed in a soiled tee-shirt and jeans that were a couple of sizes too large. “It's about time you got here” he said to Donny.  He scrutinized me more closely and smiled, revealing a set of yellowed buck teeth. “This is your sister?” he demanded.  “Where have you been hiding her, man?”

            “Far from YOU” Donny replied.  He snickered.  “Stop looking at her, and let's get out of here.” Marty continued to gape at me, and then, to my immense disgust, he ran his tongue over his upper lip. “I'm in no hurry” he reported. Donny shoved him towards the clump of bushes, and Marty fell backward. Instantly, he sprang to his feet, fists clenched. “I've told you a hundred times to keep your fucking hands off me” he warned.  Donny laughed. “Try to catch me, then” he taunted. He took off running across the trailer court, with Marty in furious pursuit. 

            My mother stood behind me, staring at the place where the two boys had been.  The smoke of her cigarette spiraled above my head and drifted into the carport.  “Well, that's Marty” she said drily.  “He comes here several times a day, looking for Donny.  They fight, and then they go God knows where.  I'm too exhausted to find out exactly what they're doing.” 

            My mother used the word “exhausted” as an excuse to avoid just about everything.  She contracted pneumonia frequently, and smoked even more when she was ill. Mom strongly believed that fate had unfairly cast her in a maternal role, and she suffered as a result.  Harold was little help, since it was easy to forget that he was even in the room. Ostensibly, he had journeyed to Texas to offer aid to my mother, but it was difficult for me to determine exactly who was helping whom.  Harold usually sat in his chair, carefully rationing his supply of circus peanuts, munching on them slowly and thoughtfully.  He remained immobile for hours, except for his furtive, insistent chewing. I couldn't fathom what sort of passion that my mother and Harold might have once felt for each other. They had met at an AA group in San Miguel two years earlier, and one of them was usually drunk when the other was sober. Now, my mother made certain that Harold ate solid food, and he was there in case she went off the deep end. That seemed to be enough for both of them.

            Donny returned half an hour later, shaking his head.  “That little asshole” he complained.  “He kept asking me if I knew what you looked like naked.”  Donny often behaved toward me in a protective manner, as if he was actually the sane, older sibling. “How the hell would I know?” he said.  “Marty's such a pervert.” I could tell that Donny was not just angry, but furious. He clenched his fists and shook his head. I averted my eyes and stared at the floor.  “It's pretty obvious what he's thinking” I muttered.  “I'll watch out for him. Thanks for letting me know.”

            As night fell, my mother became increasingly agitated. “We need a tree” she announced.  “I've been waiting for it to get dark, so we can drive over to a lot and steal one.  I scoped the place out for a couple of days.  The guy usually leaves around seven, but he'll probably go home early, since it's Christmas eve.  I can send Donny or Jason over the fence, and they'll just load the tree into the back of the station wagon.”

            “No fucking way” Jason said. He stood against the living room wall, arms folded across his skinny chest. “I'm not getting in the car.  Please don't try to make me.”

            “You little son-of-a-bitch” Mom snarled.  Jason smiled. “That says more about you than it does about me” he said calmly. My mother turned away from him and glared at Donny. “Damn, Mom” he said.  “You actually WANT me to steal something?” Donny considered for a moment, then smiled.  “Sure, let's go.”

            Without thinking, I followed them to the car. I sat in the front with my mother, and Donny piled into the back. He bounced in his seat, excited by the prospect of tree theft. My mother stared impassively at the windshield while she piloted her vehicle through the deserted streets.  Finally, she ground to a stop in front of a darkened tree lot, cut the engine, and turned to face Donny.  “There's a nice tree in the back” she said.  “See the big pine leaning against the wall of the office building?  I want THAT one.”

            My brother swiveled his neck, spotted the tree, and smiled. He leaped from the car, then raced over to the chain-link fence that surrounded the lot. Donny hoisted his body over the top of the fence and tumbled into the enclosure. He rose to his feet, looked around furtively for a moment, and headed straight for the office.  With one brisk movement, he scooped the tree from its position on the exterior wall.  He draped it over his shoulder as if he was a hunter who had just bagged a deer.  Finally, he hurled the tree over the top of the fence, and catapulted himself onto the ground beside it. 

            My mother smiled.  “My little felon” she said fondly. Donny flung open the rear door of the station wagon and stuffed the tree into the back seat. A pungent, festive evergreen scent enveloped the car.  The odor was curiously poignant, as if we had obtained the tree legally and were preparing to take it to a normal home for its ritual of decoration. The pine needles pressed against the back of my head, and I wiggled in my seat, trying to avoid the prickly onslaught.

            The car engine roared back to life, and we peeled away from the lot.  My mother jammed a cigarette between her lips and ignited it with a plastic lighter. She steered with one hand and exhaled explosively as she removed the cigarette from her mouth with her other, free hand.  “Let's get this goddamned thing home so we can decorate it” she said.  We rolled through the streets of Laredo, stopping briefly to purchase a six-pack of Schlitz malt liquor tall boys. Finally, we pulled up in front of my mother's trailer, and she killed the engine. “Jason!” she hollered.

            Jason's tall form appeared at the trailer entrance.  He leaned against the door jam, head cocked at a disjointed angle.  “Yeah?” he inquired. “Help your brother set up this tree” my mother commanded. “And tell Emily to get the ornaments out of the closet.  I'm exhausted.”

            My mother scooped her bag of tall boys from the floor of the car.  She climbed the three steps to the trailer door, then stood in the middle of her kitchen, surveying the tiny living area. Jason and Emily lugged a heavy cardboard box into the room and began the tedious work of separating the ornaments from their newspaper wrappings. There were several antique ornaments that my grandmother had given us grudgingly, after first extracting a promise from my mother that we would take care of them.  These precious items needed to be handled with extreme care, and Mom didn't really trust herself with the task. She found it easier to simply yell at her children until the job was done correctly.

            Two hours later,  I placed a battered plastic star at the top of the tree and stepped back to admire my handiwork.  My mother had already tucked into her fourth beer, and three crushed cans lay at her feet, waiting for somebody else to take them to a garbage can.  Harold sat in his usual chair at one corner of the kitchen table, chewing thoughtfully while he stared at the tree. He had been silent for several hours, but finally he spoke.  “That's beautiful” he said. Then he resumed chewing, and my mother laughed.  “Well, it was cheap” she replied.

            I slept fitfully on the couch for a few hours.  In the morning, we dove into our tiny pile of gifts. My mother hauled a lopsided package from underneath the tree, then handed it to Donny.   I knew immediately which present it was, and I stared with horror as he gleefully undid the wrappings. He pulled the plastic bottle from its nest of paper, stared at it, and shook his head slowly. A look of bewilderment came over his face. “Why, Mom?” he said.

            “You don't like it?” my mother asked, puzzled. Donny placed the bottle of lotion on the floor and stared at the label with incredulity. His eyes met Mom's, and the two of them looked away from each other, both of them saddened and embarrassed.  I realized that Mom had meant for her gift to be endearingly humorous, that she'd hoped that Donny would laugh at the joke. Instead, the two of them had hurt each others' feelings on a profound, fundamental level, but neither of them would admit it.

            During my own adolescence,  I had perfected the art of leaving. When domestic situations became especially toxic, there was nothing like a long, brisk walk to clear the fog from my head. My mother normally stuck to beer, but Christmas meant an endless parade of Bloody Marys, as well as the possibility for real violence. Since the presents had been opened, there was no reason for me to hang around the trailer.  Also, I felt certain that Marty would stop by as soon as his own meager pile of gifts was ravaged, and I didn't want to be around for that. 

            Besides, much better options for entertainment awaited me. Three days earlier, I had stashed a plastic bag of psilocybin mushrooms inside my purse.  The mushrooms had accompanied me on my tedious bus ride from Chicago to Laredo, wrapped inside a carefully knotted handkerchief.  I'd purchased them from my upstairs neighbor.  The enterprising fellow seemed to have an endless supply of drugs for sale. He obtained them from an undisclosed location that was probably within our own building.  It was best not to ask him too many questions. 

            I stepped outside, then walked swiftly through the court.  After I picked my way through the trailers, I entered a vacant field. I realized that I had officially arrived at the edge of town. The expanse was brown and dusty, dotted with scrub cacti, and ringed on the far end by a ragged wall of abandoned cars. I sank to the ground and pulled the plastic bag from my purse. Astonishingly, the mushrooms were still fresh.  I popped one of them into my mouth, then another and another, until finally they were all gone.

            Earlier that morning, I'd tucked my journal into my purse, and it still rested there beside a cluster of pens. I had planned to spend my mushroom trip constructively, writing poetry while I worked diligently to undo the knots in my psyche.  I placed the journal on the ground beside my feet and waited for the mushrooms to take effect.  I hadn't eaten breakfast, so the lysergic process would undoubtedly be swifter than usual. I felt a surge of nervous anticipation.  Hopefully, the mushrooms would provide me with the insight that my conscious mind so obviously lacked.

            Tense and immobile, I perched on the ground and waited for the portal to open. It remained stubbornly closed, resisting all my efforts to coax it from its stuck position. I felt a sudden, cold blast of wind.  This didn't seem possible, since the air was stiflingly hot and still.  For a moment, I thought I heard the rumble of machinery, and I realized that I was shaking uncontrollably.  The ominous sound was coming from inside my own body.

            I slumped forward onto the dirt and pressed my hands against my ears. The rumbling grew louder and more insistent, and I gritted my teeth against the onslaught of noise. It had no discernible source, and seemed to come from all directions at once. I collapsed more deeply into the earth and began to rock slowly back and forth, arms clasped around my knees.  “Please go away” I begged.  “Leave me alone.” I had said these words to my mother many times over the years, but she'd never listened. Instead, she usually became more demanding, turning the screws harder until I begged for forgiveness.

            The noise finally subsided, and I heaved my body into an upright position.  My journal still rested in the dirt, and I scooped the book from the ground, flipped it open to an empty page. My pen felt like a metal tool, dense and unfamiliar in my hands. I lifted it carefully and placed the tip on a lined piece of paper.  “I feel heavy and dull” I wrote.  I pondered for a while, then added, “I am so useless” and finally, “I care about everything but I care about nothing and I wish it would stop.”

            Obviously, profound thoughts were not on the menu for the day. They weren't even my words, they were my mother's.  She had put them inside my head years beforehand. I had never been allowed the luxury of my own identity. Egos were for people who could afford them, and I'd been overdrawn for a long time.

            I staggered to my feet and began to walk aimlessly.  A few minutes later, I remembered that it was Christmas. My mother had undoubtedly spent the day cooking a holiday meal. This tradition was a holdover from earlier years, when we were a more normal family.  I wondered briefly whether Mom had noticed my absence.  Most likely, she was half in the bag from all the vodka she'd consumed. She hated it when anybody tried to help her in the kitchen, and none of us ever volunteered our assistance, anyway. Drunk or sober, her cooking was mediocre. She was strangely proud of that fact, and wanted to take full credit for it.

            Hunger seemed like a foreign concept to me. The idea of shoveling undercooked turkey into my mouth caused me to gag reflexively.  I felt lightheaded and queasy, and could hear the rumbling of my stomach. Undoubtedly, this was the same sound that had caused me so much distress a couple of hours beforehand. I had been terrified by the workings of my own digestion.

            I heard a sudden rustling, and realized that I was no longer alone in the field.  A man strode towards me in a rapid, single-minded manner.  He wore a rumpled, hooded sweatshirt, and one of his hands was clenched into a tight fist. I fumbled inside my pocket for my keys. I was a Chicago girl, and always kept a set of keys in my pocket, though I had no idea how to use them in the event of an actual attack.

            The figure drew closer, and I realized that it was Marty.  I looked around quickly, but there was no place to hide in the barren expanse. Marty stopped a few feet in front of me and smiled lewdly. I clutched my ring of keys and glared in his direction to show that I meant business.  “Donny told me you were here” he said.  “I've got something you'll really like.”

            Marty extended his right arm in my direction eagerly, and opened his fist. A crudely rolled joint lay inside his filthy palm.  It nestled between his pulsating fingers like a bulbous slug. “Want to smoke with me?” he asked. He crooked one of his eyebrows suggestively, and licked his lips.  “It's really good stuff.”

            I backed away from him and shook my head. “No thanks” I said. Marty gaped at my body and smiled, revealing his set of crooked, yellow teeth.  A bit of saliva remained on his upper lip, and it glistened in the mid-afternoon sun.  “You sure?” he asked.

            I began to walk away—slowly at first, and then with increasing speed.  Marty remained in the field, staring at my retreating form.  “Hey, wait!” he hollered.  I peered grimly at the ground while my feet continued their too-slow progress towards the trailer court. Suddenly, I recalled a recurrent dream from my youth, one in which I was trying desperately to escape from a terrifying situation, but my feet couldn't move. It was never clear why I was trying to run, or what would happen if my attackers caught me. I always woke up before I had the opportunity to find out why I was so frightened.

            After a while, I slowed my pace, and continued at a more normal speed, chastising myself for my fear. Marty was only fifteen, and more pathetic than terrifying. I tried to imagine his mother, and wondered whether there had ever been a time when she had loved him. He'd been a vulnerable child not long beforehand, until the harshness of his life had caused him to age too quickly.

            Besides, it wasn't exactly the first time that I had received unwanted male attention. I lived in the third-largest city in the United States, and men came on to me all the time. If I walked down the street with Mike, they left me alone, since there was an unspoken understanding that another man had already claimed me. If I was alone, however, I felt as though someone had declared open season on my body.  Most of the time, I mentally shielded myself from the stares and whistles, the whiny exhortations for me to smile, and the increasingly strident demands for my attention.  These verbal assailants were fully grown men, but poor Marty was just a kid.  I needed to get a grip on myself.

            I felt a sudden spasm of longing for Mike. He would certainly have something to say about the events of the last twenty-four hours. Mike was known for his witty, yet profound quips. His sense of humor never failed to deflate my fears. It simply wasn't possible that he could have ceased to love me entirely. Since it was Christmas, he would be at his mother's house in downstate Illinois, far from the villainous Amy. She was undoubtedly spending the holidays with her parents at their mansion in Evanston. Perhaps if I called Mike, the two of us would be able to resolve our differences, and everything would go back to the way it was before.

            I spotted a pay phone at the edge of the trailer court, and moved towards it rapidly, excited by the prospect of speaking to Mike again. I stepped inside the booth and rummaged through my purse for quarters.  Finally, I pulled a fistful of coins from my wallet and placed them in front of me on the grimy metal ledge. The surface of the ledge was littered with cigarette butts and scrawled bits of paper. Somebody had kicked a hole in one of the booth's plexiglass walls, and jagged spider-web lines extended in all directions.

            Mike answered on the second ring. I was relieved to hear his voice, since it meant I would not have to speak to his mother.  Mike's father had died of a heart attack a few months beforehand, and his mother sat in the house all day, watching television and eating oatmeal. Both of Mike's parents had loathed me on sight, and I felt certain that his mother blamed me for her husband's death. “Mike, it's Laura” I said cautiously.  “Merry Christmas.  I miss you.”

            There was a long, uncomfortable silence.  Finally, Mike spoke. “How's your family?” he asked. His tone of voice was distant, like he was delivering a message to someone he'd just met.  “Same as always” I replied.  “My mom's shitfaced, and the kids are tearing the place apart.  I'm going crazy over here.”

            Mike was silent again.  “Are you going to be there much longer?” he finally asked. “One more day” I assured him.  “I'm taking the bus back to Chicago tomorrow.  Can we get together and talk when you return? I have so much that I want to tell you.”

            Mike cleared his throat abruptly.  “I don't think that would be a good idea” he said. “You and I aren't together any more.  Seeing you will bring up a lot of stuff that I'm frankly not ready to deal with.”

            I felt tears swelling behind the bridge of my nose, and I gulped. “Mike, I promise to be more kind.  I'm sorry that I was so insensitive.  I'm paying for it now, I guess.”

            Mike sighed heavily.  “Laura, it's too late” he said.  “I don't want to go back to the person I was last year.  I've been changing and growing.” His tone of voice somehow managed to sound firm and priggish at the same time.  My grief was instantly replaced by a white-hot ball of rage. “Jesus fucking Christ!” I exploded. “You'd better take care of that growth right now before that bitch Amy catches it.” I slammed the receiver into its cradle and stormed out of the booth.

            As I strode furiously across the trailer court, it occurred to me that I had spoken with my mother's voice. She would have uttered identical words, and delivered them with the same intonation.  This realization made me even more angry, and the anger felt good.  Rage was much more empowering than grief, but it needed a target.

            I burst into my mother's trailer and stood in front of the kitchen table. Harold sat placidly in his chair, masticating.  He hadn't budged since I'd left, hours beforehand. “Where's Donny?” I demanded.  Harold pointed in the direction of the kids' bedroom. “Your mother went to the store for cigarettes a little while ago” he said.  “It's the first time all day those kids have been quiet.”

            Donny sat on the edge of his mattress, staring at the floor. He looked more melancholy than usual, as if he had recently been the recipient of unpleasant news. I glared at him and demanded, “Why the hell did you tell Marty where he could find me? I was in the field behind the trailer court a little while ago, and he showed up.  He said that you informed him of my whereabouts.  Don't try to deny it.”

            Donny looked up from the floor and shook his head.  “You don't understand” he said.  “I didn't tell Marty anything.  He came over here after he saw you in the field and asked if you had made it home yet.  He wanted me to trick you into going outside so the two of us could drag you to an empty trailer for sex.” Donny looked more bewildered than angry, as if he was having trouble digesting the implications of the scene. “I said, 'Who the fuck do you think I am?  That's my SISTER, you little pervert.' Then I punched him in the nose.  He'd better not come back here.”

            I gaped at Donny with horror. Since our altercation in the field, I had been feeling charitable towards Marty.  The poor boy had grown up in incalculable squalor, and he'd most likely suffered severe emotional and physical abuse.  I was inclined to be compassionate towards victims,  since they were members of my own tribe.

            I struggled hard to grasp the fact that Marty had wanted Donny to ambush and rape his own sister.  An image of Marty's gaunt, leering face floated into my head. I shuddered as I imagined his yellowed rodent teeth with their permanent coating of spittle. Feeling suddenly dizzy, I sat down on the edge of Emily's bed. “When was he here?” I finally asked.

             “Oh, right after Mom left for the store” Donny replied in a dazed tone.  “About half an hour ago, in fact. His nose was bleeding.  I guess he ran home to his mama.” He snickered.

            “I'm sure she's very nurturing” I responded.  “To think that I was feeling sorry for the little prick.  I won't make that mistake again.”

            The trailer door suddenly opened, and my mother strode into the kitchen.  She tossed a couple of bulging plastic bags onto the table, looked around the room, and sneered.  “What a fucking mess” she said to no one in particular. “Has anyone checked on the turkey recently?  Of course not.  It's probably burned to a crisp.”

            For the first time, I became aware of the acrid odor of charred turkey. This was surprising, because my mother usually preferred her meat extra-rare, and she assumed other people felt the same way. “I just got back” I said apologetically.  My mother shrugged.  I was a guest, so I had a free pass to behave however I wanted.  However, there was no way in hell that she was going to extend the same courtesy to her lover and her younger children, even if it was Christmas.

            “Where are Emily and Jason?” Mom demanded. She looked around the room wildly, and her eyes finally settled on Harold. Wordlessly, he rose and left the table.  This was his long-standing tactic for avoiding my mother's scenes.   That way, he could continue to pretend that he'd come a thousand miles to live with a sane woman. Harold vanished into my mother's bedroom and closed the door gently.  It had been a long day of chewing, and he was ready for a well-earned rest.

            My mother was undaunted.  “The little bastards have some work to do” she announced.  “This place is a pig sty, and I'm not going to clean it up when I've been cooking all day.” As if on cue, the trailer door opened and Emily and Jason stepped into the kitchen. Emily's face wore a guilty, terrified expression, but Jason appeared nonchalant.  “I heard you all the way from the other side of the trailer court, Mom” he said calmly. “Would it be possible for you to speak a little louder?  I'm deaf in one ear.”

            The aftermath of Jason's quip was immediate and explosive. With a swift movement, my mother swept the dishware and ashtray from her kitchen table. Butts and milk splattered together on the floor, and a couple of glasses rolled towards the living room. Mom lunged wildly at the Christmas tree, as if she was attempting to tackle and devour it. She shoved the tree hard with both hands, and it toppled onto its side. One of the larger branches snapped, and several ornaments shattered as they hit the floor.  I noticed that three of them were Grandma's precious holiday gifts, and felt a brief swell of satisfaction.

            My sister burst into tears. She groped behind the refrigerator and pulled out a tattered broom. “I found the broom, Mom” she sobbed.  “I'll clean up the mess.  I promise.” Emily swept blindly at the mess, and cigarette butts flew in all directions.  My mother stared at her with incredulous fury.  “You're making it worse!” she screamed.  “That's it.  I no longer want to have a thing to do with you little shits.  I resign as your mother. I'm leaving right now.”

            Emily began to cry even harder, emitting loud blubbering noises that made it difficult for me to hear her words. “No, Mom” she begged. “Please stay here with us.  I promise to make sure that the house is clean before we have dinner.” She mopped the tears from her face with one hand, then resumed sweeping.  “I'm sorry, Mom.  This room will look perfect in a few minutes.  Just have a seat, and I'll fix everything.”

            My sister was enacting a scene that she had learned from watching me when she was a toddler. Since I'd moved out of the house, she had assumed the role of rescuer, and she was playing it to the hilt. I stared at Emily's puffy, sodden face, and my body flooded with compassion, but I kept my distance from her. People in my family didn't know how to comfort each other; it wasn't part of our emotional vocabulary.  We were much more comfortable with anger than we were with pathos.

            My mother threw the front door open and stormed into the carport.  I turned to Emily, lay one of my hands gently on her arm.  “I'll get in the car with Mom, and see that she gets back here safely” I said. “I'm sure she won't travel far.  There's no place for her to go.”

            Emily wiped the snot from her face with one of her fists.  She sniffed loudly, and a new wave of tears overtook her.  “Please make sure she gets back soon” she said.  “I'll pick up the tree and take the turkey out of the oven. I promise.” She lifted the tree from the carpet and positioned it carefully in its stand.   Then she grabbed the broom and resumed her task of sweeping up the mess our mother had made.

            Mom was already in her vehicle, warming up the engine so she could make her dramatic exit.  The ailing car made departures more difficult than she liked, and she sat at the wheel, smoking furiously.  “Those goddamn kids” she fumed as I slid into the passenger seat.  “I never wanted them in the first place.”

            “It's too late, Mom” I said.  “You made the decision to have them.  Now you're stuck with the responsibility.  You'd better buck up and deal.” It was a conversation we'd had many times, and my mother pouted, as she always did.  Our familial poles had reversed themselves years beforehand, and I was the one who gave advice, while my mother listened sullenly. Mom jammed the car into reverse and backed away from the carport. Then she peeled out of the trailer court, leaving a shower of gravel in her wake.

            The two of us were silent for several minutes. My mother festered and drove, and I looked out the window at the tract houses and convenience stores.  It was hard for me to fathom the depths of my mother's talent for self-sabotage. She had left her home in Mexico and come to Laredo to find help for her mentally ill, lawbreaker son, only to encourage him to become a better thief. Since she'd spearheaded his theft of the Christmas tree, the only way to assuage her guilt was to destroy the evidence.  Of course, she hadn't been successful, and my sister had made it worse by trying to stop her.

            Perhaps I was giving my mother too much credit.  I stole a furtive, sideways glance in her direction. She seemed strangely calm, as if the act of departure had somehow placated her.  Her shaking subsided, and her posture became almost relaxed. She reached down and set her smoldering cigarette in the car ashtray, then placed both hands on the wheel.  “Let's go to Denny's” she suggested. 

            My mother's grip on reality was such that she saw a trip to Denny's as an antidote to the misery that was embedded in her brain.  She loved Denny's because the food was cheap and plentiful, and the waitresses always did exactly as she asked, without argument.  The restaurant loomed in front of us like a bright, plastic oasis, and my mother pulled into the parking lot. She cut the engine and strode purposefully towards the door of the restaurant, as if she could hardly wait to get inside to place her order.

            The hostess was elderly and no-nonsense, a withered veteran of many holiday shifts. She padded over to us in her white nursing shoes, menus in hand, and escorted us to a booth.  The cushioned orange seats appeared almost radioactive in their brightness.  After several minutes, a nervous young waitress arrived at our table, and asked what we wanted. My mother was already on her second cigarette, and a pile of ashes rested on a napkin in front of her.  “A cup of coffee, black, with sugar” she said.  “And an ashtray.”

            The waitress scuttled away, and finally returned with two cups of coffee and a battered tin ashtray.  She set the cups in front of us and smiled uncertainly, but my mother took no notice.  Instead, she fixed me with an intent gaze and said, “You know, you're right.”

            I was stumped for an answer.  “Right about what?” I asked, befuddled.

            “I did decide to have those kids.  Joe wanted them, of course.  Then he left me to raise them by myself. I'll never forgive that asshole for what he did to us.” Mom ground out her cigarette in the ashtray and lit another.  She exhaled fiercely and stared at the wall.  “Buck up and deal” she said, bitterly.  “Really, what choice do I have?”

            It wasn't exactly an epiphany, but it was the best my mother could offer.  Despite her intelligence, she'd never had much of a talent for introspection. I averted my eyes and stared dumbly at my garish, plastic-coated menu. The photographs offered enormous hamburgers, chicken-fried steak, and steaming platters of all-you-can-eat spaghetti.  None of it looked even remotely appetizing.

            It had been an exceptionally long day. I felt weak,  like someone had turned on a faucet and drained the energy from my body. The mushroom trip, the altercation with Marty, and my short phone conversation with Mike all seemed distant, as if they had happened to somebody else.  I wasn't upset with Mom, though I knew anger would be a much more noble emotion than the numb indifference I felt.  In a few hours, I would return to Chicago and begin the arduous task of accepting the fact that Mike had left me because I was just like my mother. Meanwhile, I needed to conserve my energy for the long bus ride ahead.

            There was no denying that Mom was the Queen of Rage, and the rest of us were her witnesses. No one else came close to approaching her volume of malevolence. My mother's job was tough and uncompromising, and she was probably as exhausted as I was. Glancing up from the menu,  I studied her lined, drooping face. “Let's finish our coffee and go back to the trailer” I said.  “We can eat at home.  I'm sure Emily has taken the turkey out of the oven by now.”

            My mother took a final gulp of the bitter coffee and set her cup gently on its saucer. “All right” she said. She paid the check and left a quarter tip. We rose simultaneously and filed out the door towards the darkened, almost empty parking lot. The restaurant's holiday lights flickered onto the blacktop and bathed the remaining cars in multicolored light.  Mom fired up her engine, and the two of us settled back in our seats. We merged into the traffic and began the long trek back to the trailer court—just another mother and her eldest daughter, going home to eat Christmas dinner with their family.

Leah Mueller is an independent writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of one chapbook, “Queen of Dorksville” (Crisis Chronicles Press, 2012), and two full-length books, “Allergic to Everything” (Writing Knights Press, 2015) and “The Underside of the Snake” (Red Ferret Press, 2015). Leah is a graduate of Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. Her work has either been published or is forthcoming in Blunderbuss, 2 Leaf Press, Origins Journal, Talking Soup, Silver Birch Press, Semaphore, MaDCap, Cultured Vultures, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to Quail Bell magazine, and was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival.