Every year, Mom gets into a flurry of activity ‘round Christmastime. I’ve always thought it was her seasonal affective disorder kicking in or a long-lost desire to reclaim her childhood, but this year was more hectic than ever.
Her boyfriend of 20 years was dying of brain cancer. To take her mind off that, in addition to decorating the house, baking cookies and pies, and cooking the turkey, she had taken it upon herself to clean the cabin, rearrange the furniture, make new curtains, and put new straw down for the horses.
Of course, her frenetic activity was easier because Carry-Lou came in from Dallas with a quarter ounce of speed. Mom had mostly stayed off the stuff ever since we moved from San Antonio to the outskirts of Uvalde but I guess she figured a relapse now and then wouldn’t hurt.
After setting up the Christmas tree and hanging the lights, she started some cookies baking. Then she decided to sweep the floor. She got a big pile of dust gathered when she realized she forgot to feed the horses that morning. So she left the dirt in the doorway and headed towards the barn. And that’s when she saw the mess in the stable and decided to put down fresh straw.
But before she put in fresh hay, she decided to clean up the manure from the past month. The horse shit was sprinkled with mouse and rat droppings; nasty work. After an hour, she got thirsty and came back in the house for a drink of water. She tripped over the pile of floor-sweepings as she recognized the odor of burning cookies. She pulled them out of the oven, burned her hand, and cussed. Then she turned off the smoke alarm.
“Might as well make a pie,” she mused through the smoke, and began gathering the ingredients. After slicing the apples and rolling out the dough, she remembered to wash her hands. “What’s a little straw in the pie? Adds fiber,” she smiled.
The speed was working well. Mom hadn’t thought of her boyfriend now for two hours. Vernon had been a serious alcoholic in his younger days and still liked to hit the bottle. He was still in his room at four p.m., sleeping off last night’s drunk. We all wondered if the brain cancer was going to kill him before he died of alcohol poisoning. His disease had come up fast. He was okey-dokey last summer when he added the fireplace to the east wall but now was little more than a reptile.
Mom found Vernon’s bottle of Caribbean Captain and decided to make some rum balls. Then she remembered the horses. Dale and Roy must be starving by now. So she left the spirits and syrup on the table and ran back out to the barn, kicking the pile of dirt in the doorway again.
Horses fed; Mom came back inside to find the kitchen full of flies. That’s the way winters are in South Texas; you get a hot day and all the horse flies from Helotes to Hondo come swarming in. She grabbed the fly swatter and commenced to killing. Damn things looked just like the raisins, she laughed.
All the dough on the kitchen counter reminded her of the amphetamine back in the baggie in the back room, so she took a break for another toot. When she came back to the kitchen, dead flies, raisins, rat turds, it didn’t matter now; it all went into the rum balls. After popping them in the refrigerator, she headed towards the couch for a break.
But then she thought, “Wouldn’t it look nicer if the couch was over there?” So she began rearranging the living room, no easy feat since the house was always cluttered. After moving the divan, the ottoman, and the end table, she reached for the broom. But it wasn’t there. Then she remembered she left it by the doorway with the previous pile of sweepings.
After moving around the furnishings – and the dust – Mom noticed the way the evening sun came through the window and made the dust motes dance. And decided the window needed some curtains. So she got out the sewing machine and the fabric she had been saving for years and began to cutting. And sewing. And cutting. And sewing. And she realized that no matter how much she cut the curtains, they were still too short.
By now, it was getting dusk and the light wasn’t shining through the window anymore and curtains weren’t so much of a necessity and she figured she could finish the job tomorrow. Besides, she only had a gram of amphetamine left. So she called up Carry-Lou to go with her to San Antonio to get some more speed. No sooner than they had left, Uncle Gene came over with his dog. He was a raggedly, long-eared, ornery cuss – and his dog was only a little better behaved.
Mom’s brother gathered some two-by-four pieces and some trash tree cuttings from the garbage dump and put ‘em in the fireplace. The chimney had only been tested once before, last summer when Vernon built it. But it seemed to work well, and soon we had a good blaze going. I opened the door because the burning smell of treated lumber always made me sick. It was starting to get chilly.
We called Uncle Gene’s dog ‘Shit-Diver’ for his propensity to roll around in crap, and now old Diver was digging over by the cesspool. Uncle Gene pulled some pot out of his sack and began to rolling joints. He had three more rolled by the time he finished smoking the first one so he lit another.
Uncle Gene was out on bail for allegedly molesting his daughter but everybody said it was only false accusations from his soon-to-be-ex-wife. That’s what they said – but many did not believe the district attorney could be wrong. Some felt there was no way the prosecutor could bring charges against an innocent man.
I knew Uncle Gene was innocent though. My cousin, now fourteen, had only dated black guys since she was twelve. And despite Uncle Gene’s arrest for killing buzzards last year on an ill-fated deer-hunting trip, he was, after all, the Justice of the Peace over in Dabney. Uncle Gene always had some good pot (skunk weed, he called it), but damn, I wished he would bathe. He reeked worse than Shit-Diver sometimes.
We were smoking by the fire, about ten p.m., when Vernon woke up. He stumbled into the room, smiled when he smelled the pot, and went to the fridge for a drink. He came back with a beer, cussing ‘cause he couldn’t find his rum, but smiling cause he found some tequila. But he didn’t know Mom had rearranged the furniture. He tripped over the end table and hit the sewing machine. Hard. Right were Mom had left the floor sweepings. Vernon came up bleeding but still smiling, proud he didn’t spill a drop. He reached for the joint.
I didn’t want any more ‘cause of the bloody lip prints he left. Vernon had his HIV under control but I didn’t want to take any chances. Anyway, he and Uncle Gene didn’t give a shit. They began comparing arrest records to see who had been busted for the most crimes; sort of a contest to see who was the baddest – Subpoenas Envy.
Vernon would win hands-down, I knew. It’s not that he was a career criminal; he was way too stupid for that. About the only thing Vernon managed to do well was license plate manufacturing; his top job was foreman at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville. But Vernon had been arrested for everything from car theft to credit card abuse, from drinking while driving to assault. My dad called him ‘Vernon the Felon.’ No contest.
I went on outside and watched the smoke and embers rise from the new chimney. It was a beautiful night out. Despite the cold, I stayed out there for a while. The stars in the country shine much more brightly than in the city. I could hear the coyotes call from out in the South 14 (that’s what we called it, since Mom’s ranch wasn’t no 40 acres). There’s something about Christmas that brings peace to a soul.
When I came back in, I really noticed the toxic smell of the treated lumber in the fireplace. But it wasn’t just from the scraps of pressurized wood that was stinking up the place; the fireplace itself was on fire. “God damn, you guys; get up,” I yelled at Uncle Gene and Vernon – but they just sat there. “Fine time to take a nap,” I screamed!
But they didn’t budge. I started hitting Uncle Gene in the chest, then the face, before I realized they were both passed out from the noxious smoke. Vernon didn’t move. Uncle Gene began to stir when I splashed his face with Vernon’s beer. I thought to douse the flames on the wall with the tequila. Bad move, I didn’t know that stuff was so flammable.
Anyway, Uncle Gene opened the window and door to let out the noxious smoke – but the fresh air fed the flames even more. He grabbed the water hose, turned it on, brought it inside, and began squirting the flames. I called 911. Vernon didn’t move.
The Volunteer Fire Department got there in short order, so did the Sheriff and the ambulance. The V.F.D. saved the house but we lost the fireplace, the chimney, and the wall. The medics lost Vernon as well.
Once the county sheriff ran Uncle Gene’s name through the computer, we lost him too. Being a St. Mary’s Law School Graduate and a Justice of the Peace, Uncle Gene should have known he should not be holding. They busted him with more than four ounces of pot, a felony – even more serious since he was out on bond. Maybe Uncle Gene would win the arrest record contest with the most subpoenas after all.
After the commotion, I went outside and called up Mom. I left her a message and then called my friend Joey. He had recently married Maria, another friend from high school. He said they were in the waiting room at Memorial Hospital, fixing to have a baby.
Maria had dropped out of the nursing program at Southwest Texas Junior College when she found out she was pregnant. She had always figured Vernon would die of an AIDS related illness. I trusted her judgment because she knew more about medicine than anyone I knew; even Mom, and she was a pharmacist. Well, she was before she lost her license.
Now Maria was concerned Vernon died from a head injury or smoke inhalation. “‘Course it could’ve been the brain cancer or alcohol poisoning,” I said. “We’ll have to wait for the medical report to find out for sure.” As if it matters to anyone. Vernon had cheated most of his friends on bad dope deals; the rest he had ratted out to the narcs. Nobody liked him but Mom.
I went back inside the house and was startled to see a javelina nosing the bloodstain where Vernon had been sitting. “Damn, maybe he died from blood loss,” I thought. The javelina nonchalantly walked through the open door – followed by a trail of little piglets. Mary and Joseph were not the only ones who had a baby at Christmas. This peccary mama had her own brood. Hey, Maria and Joey were expecting too!
I stood in our former living room and stared out at the night sky. Wall’s burnt down; now I can see the moon. And look, there’s that coyote and he’s fucking Uncle Gene’s dog over by the cesspool. Ole Shit-Diver, he looks like he’s liking it. I know the coyote is; he’s even ignoring the trail of baby javelinas walking under the moonlight.
Look, there’s the star in the east, just like the night Baby Jesus was born. There’s something about Christmas that brings peace to a soul.
EDIT: “White Trash Christmas” was originally published with the incorrect author. Diane Lefer is not the author of “White Trash Christmas.” It was written by Sandy Denim who holds full copyright.