The Unhappy Mother by Pamela Langley

The son keeps chanting, “threeeeee, twooooooo, wunnnnnn, fire!” twenty or thirty times; he’s a record with a deep scratch. When his launcher misfires, he shrieks, “backfire,” or “watch out!” and runs in thrilled circles around the yard throwing plastic army men or mini metal dump trucks. His kid sister has a friend over, and this girl’s getting nervous. Little sis suggests they escape the searing sun by returning inside. As she passes him, the boy grabs his sister’s pigtail—demanding they keep playing his game of shifting rules.

The visitor complains, “Gunnar, you’re cheating.”

But he denies this, ears blazing, he hollers, “I told you, saying ‘massacre’ undoes everything!”
The screen door bangs open and his mother slouches into the yard, adjusting the spent elastic of her waistband. “Why is the water on? I’m hearing water.”

No one answers her because the water isn’t on and they don’t understand why she’s asking. She stares for a moment at the children—even Gunnar, still and wary. She walks over to the spigot, squatting to examine it, saying, “Why do I keep hearing sounds from these pipes?”

She staggers back up the steps of the deck reeking of Altoids and liquor that Gunnar sniffs. She’s been shooting tequila from a plastic Six Flags Magic Mountain cup since just about noon. The Altoids are for when the visitor’s mother will soon arrive. She shakes her head like she’s shooing a fly, trying to recall the name of this kid’s mother, then plops her dizzy width on a cracked plastic chair and glares at the neighbor retreating back into her house.

Gunnar pokes his face up by hers and asks, “Mom, can I have a mint?”

His mother looks down at her chipped toenails, wriggling her feet to reposition her flip-flops, and mumbles that she just had the last one. She’s struck by how Gunnar resembles her dead brother. Suicide by gunshot when his wife walked out. Bitch. That bitch. She pulls up the hem of her slack T-shirt to dab at sweat accumulating along her hairline, a layer of belly fat herniating out.

Little sis whines, “Mom, Gunnar won’t leave us alone.”

“Stop!” the mother bellows, “you’re lucky you have a brother.”

She rubs the oily folds of her nose and sighs. “Bring me my smokes, baby.” She flips the pack end over end, fingering the cellophane corners and imagining the scent of gunpowder.

The kids head indoors where Gunnar prevents the visitor from entering his sister’s plastic Barbie House, demanding she obtain permission; then forbidding his sister to grant permission. He giggles when the visitor gives up, stuck, and begins to cry. His mood turns magnanimous and he pets her tangled hair.

“You want to see my bird?” He leads her to his room.

She nods, yes, and follows.

“What kind of bird?”

“Come here and see,” he motions when she halts at the doorway. Reaching for a shoebox he lifts the lid, “It’s a baby Robin I killed with a rock.”


Pamela Langley enjoys piercing snapshots that smash the ideal against the real (or vice versa). She has had short works published in M Review Magazine, and here on Drunk Monkeys. She judges a monthly writing contest, and recently finished her website where you can find her in The Paper Garden blog, over at langleywrite.com.