Christmas Lights

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By Sean Dietrich

A trailer park. I am 16. I am a dummy. Lots of sixteen-year-old boys are. Today, there are three dummies here to help Johnnie Miller’s mother decorate her trailer for Christmas.
His mother goes all out for Christmas even though his house is—how should I put this?—a dump. It’s an ugly, brown, 60-foot mobile home, with a rusted roof and a hot water heater in the backyard.
She has lights, giant lawn figurines, a plastic Santa with reindeer. She owns a lifetime’s worth of Christmas junk, and her collection only seems to grow each year. Johnnie has been putting up these decorations each December since he was old enough to sprout armpit hair. This year he’s recruited help.
We boys climb on ladders. We deck the halls and decorate every square inch of the ugly house. The windows, trim, gutters, eves, porch posts, even the steps.
And his mother doesn’t use modern Christmas lights. These are the kind from 1951, with thick bulbs and aluminum wiring you often hear about on the evening news. (“And in local news tonight, a 16-year-old boy electrocuted from faulty Christmas lights, police used fingerprints to identify the melted body. Back to you, Lisa.”)
Johnnie and I and two other boys are working from noon until night. And after several hours of work, it occurs to one of us: “Hey! Why doesn’t your mom just leave the decorations up year round?”
Johnnie’s mother overhears this. She is standing on the lawn, smoking a cigarette.
“It ruins the excitement,” she says. “There’s nothing special about decorations if you leave them up.”
She is older than other mothers. She has white hair, she looks like she’s lived a hard life. Her voice is like a tuba, and she always wears embroidered sweatshirts.
We work on the house until dark. We are ready to go home because we think we’re finished. But we discover that we aren’t even close to being finished. Because now it’s time to decorate the inside of the trailer.
“The inside?” we all say in unison.
(Cue “Jaws Theme Song.”)
His mother brings dozens of cardboard boxes from storage. And just when you think this woman couldn’t possibly have any more Christmas-themed junk, you realize you haven’t even scratched the tip of the holiday-crap iceberg.
She has boxes of porcelain figurines, Mr. and Mrs. Claus saltshakers, advent calenders out the wazoo, throw rugs, disco balls, inflatable elves, flame throwers, etc. We apply garland to every surface, we decorate her mantle into the world’s busiest nativity scene.
At the end of the day, the house is so gussied up that you could charge admission to see it.
Johnnie’s mother turns off the living room lamp and we see nothing but flashing lights, twinkling tinsel, and little elf dolls that stare at you with creepy “Children-of-the-Corn” eyes.
That night, Johnnie’s mother feeds us. And we all end up sleeping over. We do what all sixteen-year-old boys do when they have sleepovers. We watch old movies.
Before Johnnie’s mother goes to bed, she thanks us for our help, and tells us she doesn’t know what she’d do without us.
We blush. We mumble a “you’re welcome” that sounds about as sincere as a kazoo playing the national anthem because we are sixteen, and, like I said, we are dummies.
That night, we all decide to go for a walk. Once we are outside, Johnnie fumbles a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He asks if I want one. I refuse because I can’t smoke, it breaks out my tongue. I never could get past half a cigarette without feeling like I licked a porcupine.
The trailer park has one big paved main road that makes a loop. We meander along the, acting like grown men talking about meaningless things.
Johnnie starts talking about how much he loves his mother. He talks about what a saint she is. Which is a little unusual for kids our age. Most boys complain about their mothers. But not him.
“She adopted me,” he finally admits. “She ain’t even my real mom.”
We all sort of look at our shoes. Because what do you say after that?
“She’s not your real mom?” says one.
“Nope,” Johnnie goes on. “She found me, I was a baby, screaming in an empty apartment, nobody knew where my parents disappeared to, they said I was alone for days. But I don’t remember it. She took me home.”
It is all he says about the matter. And neither of us have the guts to ask him anything else about it. Because when a 16-year-old boy shares something deeply personal, you just let him alone. Then, after the appropriate amount of time passes, you clear mucus from your throat, spit, and say something about a professional sports franchise.
Which is what I do. The other boys thank me for this because it breaks the tension.
We finish the loop around the trailer park and we finally get close to Johnnie’s house. We stop walking. Because we are overcome with admiration.
In the center of a sea of ugly mobile homes is one little trailer in the distance. Sixty feet long, brown, rusty roof, a water heater in the backyard. But you can’t see those things in the darkness. All we see is a little house, lit up multicolored in the night, brighter than anything around for miles, and lovely.
We slap each other’s backs like a bunch of dummies.
“Hey, the house looks really good,” says one boy.
“Yeah,” says another.
“It really does.”
Silence.
“You know, you’re wrong, Johnnie,” another boy adds. “She is your real mom.”
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.

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