800,042 Little Lights

800,042 Little Lights

The customers will let you know.

I mean angrily let you know.

When you work at a holiday light display in the local lakeside park featuring eight-hundred-thousand-and-forty-two little flashing, programmable, state-of-the-art, color-morphing LED lights, they will tell you if one light is out.

They stop at the donation bucket before they exit, Dad rolling down his window, no money in hand. “I brought my kids to see this, and you’ve got lights out?”

“Sorry to hear that. Can you tell me where–”

“You ought to know. You ought to keep an eye on that. Brought my kids out in this goddamned snowstorm. You ought to know.”

It’s no snowstorm. Just a dusting. He’s in a massive four-x-four truck that could probably survive an avalanche. Us workers, though, are out in the cold, seeping through our rugged gear after a few hours, hands aching and noses numbs in spite of our wood-burning stove and mulled cider.

We spiked the cider with rum.

“Happy to fix it for you, if you let me know.”

“I’m letting you know!”

His wife touching his arm. “Voice, honey.”

Sputter, sputter, sputter.

I peek at the kids in the back seat. Bundled in fluffy coats, one bouncing like a spring, the other, younger, blank stare, runny nose.

Husband finally says, “Damn it, Sheila.”

That’s what they do. Over one fucking light.

Not, Oh thank you for all your hard work, making those eight-hundred-thousand-plus lights put on such a mesmerizing spectacle for my family!

For free!

“Would you guys like to donate a little something? It might help us hire a few extra elves next year.”

Dude twists his lips at me and drive away.

Three of us standing there – Mel, the woman who hired me, then keeps throwing me under the bus when things go south, and Hercules, a hardened bastard with your typical Minnesota folksy voice. He’d literally gut a dude, then say, “Sorry bout this, don’t’cha know?”

“You could’ve handled that better, wouldn’t you say?” Mel is fifty and used to drive trucks before her husband passed and left her a load of insurance money, a lot of which she poured into this the last few years. She’s probably got callouses all over her hands and feet, but otherwise is a handsome woman. Handsome, not used enough to describe women, but it fits up here. Handsome. How do you say “sexy-ish but hard,” right?

The only reason I’m even mentioning her that way is because we hooked up a few times, out here setting up this shit in November. Got to talking, her goose-and-sandpaper accent telling dirty jokes, razzing me about my sex life or lack of it – I’m thirty-five, single, always have been, and I live with my widowed mother, the last of seven kids. She was forty-seven when I came along. A complete surprise. Keeping the house in shape, that’s pretty much my job. Girlfriends have been infrequent, except for a few in college, one long-term relationship I’d describe as “gaslighting” on her part, and sex? Three partners, and one was just hand-and-mouth stuff.

Maybe the gaslighting had gotten to me. Maybe I had a humiliation kink or something. All I know is Mel was mean. But then she wasn’t. We hung some stars in a tree, drove some stakes in the ground to hold up Santa and the reindeer, set up the web of programmed lights like a drive-thru tunnel, and before long we was up against an oak tree, her pants around her ankles, my tongue in her hairy crotch while she held the back of my head. Forced me to keep going until she’d gotten off. Definitely had a musk on her. Reminded me of a doe in heat.

The other times – the back of her Jeep Cherokee, in the gingerbread house in Santa’s Workshop – was purely me down on her, never the other way around. Said she’d gagged on enough jizz to last her a lifetime, thank you very much.

Oh, she’d jack me off after, but you could tell she was bored. “Hurry it up. Do I hafta take a boob out?”

Never even saw her completely naked, always in work clothes, sneakers on, tops all covered. But her ass and her muff were enough for me.

I think the other employees and volunteers suspected, though. Especially Herc. Definitely Herc. Herc for sure.

I sure didn’t spill the beans, as I was eager to continue. I figured she’d be more likely than me, the mouth on her, but I don’t think she told, either. But whatever it was giving us away, she turned surly on me soon after. Nothing I did was right, even when I was a thousand-percent sure it was. In front of others, she’d ride me hard, tell me I must not care about my job all that much, tell me I was an example of the lazy millennial generation, expecting everything handed to us.

But when we were alone, setting up the Minions with the changing mouths, or the big tree strands with the smaller tree inside it, she’d say things like, “Thought about you in the shower this morning. Except I pretended you were thicker” and “Don’t take me for granted. I’ll turn the spigot off on you.”

The meaner she was, the more I’d wanted her, and now it was goddamn aggravating, her telling me I needed to find someone my own age, who didn’t have enough experience to be disappointed as she was in me.

But I wasn’t going to clue her in. I took everything she dished with a grin and an “Aw, come on, now.”

Two weeks into the season, that dad is one of fifty, sixty others who feel the need to lodge a complaint about a light out, a faulty program, or not all the stars working on the giant American flag that’s supposed to look like it’s waving, but instead looks schizo. And what says “Christmas” more than a forty-foot-tall American flag with elves at the bottom saluting the drivers. Not the flag, no sir, but the drivers. Dead-eyed creepy elf fuckers robotically raising and lowering their hands to their foreheads. Salute!

He drives off and Mel tell me I should’ve been nicer.

“How much nicer could I be?”

“You didn’t have to ask him for money.”

“No lie. We need more help.”

“We don’t need more help.” She sighs and looks at Herc like, You believe this guy? “We need you to work faster and stop looking at porn on your phone.”

I shake my head, smiled and thanked a few cars on their way out, all of them stopping to let their kids drop change in the donation basket. Real coinage. The small ones, too. Not the quarters they keep in the ashtray to rent their Aldi carts.

“Well?” Mel stands with her hands on her cocked hip.

“Well what?”

“Well what? Well, let’s go walk the path, find the light that’s out.”

Herc snorts. Herc glares.

Eight-hundred-thousand-and-forty-two lights. Most of them blinking in and out all the time. “Sure, Mel.”

“I’m not kidding.” She takes a step closer. Lots of cider on her breath. Lots of rum. “We find it, we fix it.”

So off we go down the snow-crunchy path, temps in the low teens, windy, to find the bad lights. I’ve got a bucket of spares, but there’s no order to them. Probably take an hour to find each replacement. The twinkly stars in the trees don’t matter. Hard to tell if any of those are blown. But the digital ones, running on programs, like a web of the damn things? When a chain of those goes, the whole effect is ruined.

We examine the drive-through arch, and Mel finds it, like a creepy shadow. Looks like a bat flying across the pinks the greens.

I tell her, “I don’t think that’s the light bulbs. I think that’s the program.”

“So you’re a computer expert now? All that porn on your phone makes you Bill Gates?”

“Hey, I don’t look at porn on my phone, okay?” But of course I do. Everyone does. “If it was the bulbs, it wouldn’t follow across the whole net.”

The truth is I don’t know. I just don’t want to get the ladder and stand up there testing each one.

“Okay, so the next pissed-off dad who complains, you explain it to him. How it’s the program. How he should pay us for better computers.”

She’s got chapped lips. I want to lick them.

We walk on.

Santa’s got one bad eye. I replace it, but it’s the wrong shade of white.

The “seizure dragon,” as we call the monster, has a good twenty or more red and green flashers not working. I spend the next half-hour blinding myself trying to pop them out and pop new ones in. Mel just waves at the cars and says, “Hurry up, you’re ruining the illusion.”

When I turn to her, all I see are strobing globes. “What illusion?”

“That this ain’t fucking hayseed Minnesota! That this is the big city, a fucking winter wonderland! That the kids believe in goddamn Santa Claus!”

“Mel! It’s a dragon!”

“Yes! A big goddamn whale of a dragon that surprises and delights!”

“It ain’t Christmas! Dragons ain’t Christmas!”

She stomps over to me and slaps the sass right out of my mouth. In full view of a Lutheran church van, too. “Never tell someone what is or isn’t Chrsitmas. We’ve got Somalis come through here, Muslims, and they don’t want Jesus. They want America and a big dragon and Santa Claus. We’ve got Mexicans, working hard, who want to feel closer to home, the heat and the sand, so we’ve got palm trees and camels.”

“What? Camels? Mexican camels?”

She drops her jaw, does googly eyes, mocking me. “I didn’t say they were Mexican camels. I just said…forget it. Just forget it .Just…go. You’re fired. Go.”

Maybe I want to argue with her. Maybe her getting pissed at me is a turn on. But it just so happens my strobes wear off, and over her shoulder I spy some teenagers in a car more expensive than my mother’s house and louder than Mel, windows down, laughing and taping the drive through the magical lights.

Spoiled rotten. A fucking Acura SUV in candy-apple red, the driver not even out of high school and probably drunk on pink lemonade vodka. Her friends all holding thousand-dollar smartphones out the window, probably posting this all to their Instas later, narrating.

“Here.” I hand Mel the bucket. I walk over to the Acura. I ask the girls if they mind me hitching a ride back to the beginning.

“What about your mom?” The driver asks.

“She’s not my mom.”

I climb in back and listen to the girls describe the festival of lights with a mock awe that doesn’t seem like ridicule so much as, like, wonder.

“The dragon is Mrs. Claus’,” they say. “It can see in the dark better than Rudolph.”

“Oh, the elves! Remember the gay elf, the one who wanted to be a dentist? I love him!”

“Is pink a Christmas color? It should be a Christmas color.”

Then the giant American flag.

I swear, they all go, “Oh say can you seeeeee?”

They applaud when it’s over, and even though they don’t donate anything, they drop me off back at the start and thank me for all the hard work I’d put into it.

They say, “Next year, add Barbie! No, wait, add Beetlejuice!”

They drive away.

Herc shakes his head. “Mel’s already been back and told me.”

I reach out to shake his hand. “Been real.”

He won’t shake. “I ought to bust you over the head.”

“What did I do?”

He won’t say anything else but, “Get your ass out of here.”

So I do. I drive home, I let myself in, tell my mom I’m tired, and go up to my room. Still strobing. Little fireworks behind my eyelids.

When Mel finally calls, which I knew she would, at two in the morning, it’s to tell me, “I’m outside. Come with me.”

I throw on sweatpants, no underwear, and a Gophers t-shirt. Flip-flops. You grow up in Minnesota, you get used to the cold, what can I say? I sneak out, and I feel like a child because if I were to wake up my sainted, snoring Mom, she wouldn’t stop me, obviously, but she’d judge me. Disdain me. She knows about me and Mel and I don’t know how, but she does. So I sneak out like a middle-schooler.

I get in Mel’s Lincoln and we start rolling down the street.

“So, you make out with any of those girls?”

“Geez, they were kids, Mel. God no.”

“They liked you though.”

“Not my type.”

She’s quiet for a few blocks. Is she jealous? Honest to god jealous?

I take a look at her. She’s put on heavy lip gloss. Some eye make-up, a bit raccoony.

“You weren’t really fired.”

“Herc thought I was.”

“Herc wants you gone because he wants me to himself.”

She reaches over and rubs my thigh. Inches higher.

“You and Herc?”


“But he knows about –”

“He knows. I tell him. Makes him mad. Makes him fuck like a bull, I’m telling you. Thinks he’s winning me back.”

I look out the window, houses going past. Not sure where we’re going. “God, I don’t need to know that.”

But my dick betrays my feelings, growing as she kneads me.

“You sure about that?”

“Where are we going?”

“Herc wants to watch.”

“Wait, what?”

She gives me a pat. “Don’t worry, he’s not going to kick your ass. But he wants to watch. I might let him join in. Thought you might like it.”

I need a girlfriend my age. I need one who likes Olive Garden and going to the movies. One who can talk to me on the level, not trying to belittle me, humiliate me. One who won’t call at two in the morning.

One my mom will like.

But Mel knows what type of porn I watch on my phone. She’s guessed right. And I’m not happy about it. But there’s a pit in my stomach, a throbbing dick in my pants, and a catch in my throat. Mel’s got the upper hand.

“So, you okay with it?”

Of course I am. It’s the nicest thing she’s ever said to me.

I say, “Ever thought about putting in Beetlejuice lights?”


About the Author

Anthony Neil Smith is a novelist (Yellow Medicine, The Drummer, Slow Bear, many more), short story writer (HAD, Cowboy Jamboree, Reckon Review, Exquisite Corpse, Bellevue Literary Review, many more), and professor (Southwest Minnesota State University). His work appears in Best American Mystery & Suspense 2023. A former editor with Mississippi Review Web, Smith now lives and teaches in Lake Country, Minnesota, where he enjoys Mexican food, California red wine, and Italian exploitation flicks from the seventies. 


Photo by Nelly Antoniadou on Unsplash