Old Glory Jr.
Old Glory Jr. was embedded with ragged greasy strips, soiling the stars against the blue background. The stitching was unraveled where the stick should've been.
I sighed, gently folded up the flag and reached into my purse. Extracting a clear, plastic sandwich bag, I deposited the flag in the bag and sealed it shut. It was the fourth one I'd found this week, and it was only Tuesday.
A slight breeze ruffled the brown leaves in the gutter where I was standing, teasing my left ankle. I'd spotted the replica on my usual morning walk to the bus stop, and without even thinking about it, stepped off the curb, formed my left thumb and index finger into pincers to extract the flag from the refuse. Luckily the gutter was dry, (it was early; the rains wouldn't come to Echo Park for another week or two). It made this retrieval almost respectable, instead of the others times where I felt like I was dredging for corpses in thick, fetid rivulets of mysterious fluid.
A Torino drove by, bass notes shaking the front grill and metal fleck sparking on the side. Two Lakers flags were mounted on the back of the car, fluttering gaily in the breeze. As the Torino drove away, I wondered if the flag I'd just rescued came off that car.
Then, in an instant, I knew it hadn't. I knew the same story of each flag. All of them were cheaply made, maybe in Taiwan, or wherever. They'd flown for less than a year, and then thrown away by some careless housewife or husband, who'd bought it on sale at Wal-Mart.
It bothered me, the flippancy of their patriotism. The way everyone around me flew Old Glory so proudly off the hoods of their cars, weore the likeness emblazoned on sweaty wife-beaters or trendy tote bags. How easily the image of folks jumping off the 109th floor of the World Trade Tower could be replaced by an instant replay of Kobe executing a jump shot to keep his millions. I saw more purple and gold these days than red, white and blue… oh, and the darkening haze of my anger.
Old Glory had become nameless. I knew this now-nameless flag was flying again because of nameless wars, the many nameless wars of thousands, those millions who would die to save the façade of greed and corruption.
I looked up into the sky. I'd been looking for weeks for blue, true blue, but for weeks the horizon held no such color. The tone was nameless; a cross between gray and null. At times like these I'd yell to myself. Deep in my soul. I'd scream so no one would hear, "I'm alone! I'm alone! This lonely country hasn't one fucking friend! Not one!"
I sighed, decided to skip work (it was boring, I deserved a day off) and kept walking. This little piece of trendy patriotism would join the others. I had a huge bag of them, over 100 - all retrieved from the streets or garbage cans, sometimes even off car antennas. I don't know where this anger came from; I don't know why I started to collect these orphan flags, or even what I was going to do with them.
As I walked, I saw an old man in the park lying on one of the concrete patios that had four old, rusted park benches sitting on the perimeter. No one was around. He was breathing slowly as a thick, dark red puddle of blood blossomed under his head. It was his pillow, comforting his brain. His eyes were not closed. He smelled like he had been lying there awhile. His beige pants were wet and stained from where he'd pissed in them hours before. I didn't say a word as I passed him.
The endless sidewalks. The new white of them had departed a Depression ago. I liked the sidewalks; they pointed for me a direction to head my steps. I didn't have to think, I just would follow the sidewalks to wherever they led.
I heard a groan behind me; it snuck up and stole into my ear, tugging at my guilt. As I turned, the old man was trying to prop himself on one elbow, his other hand feeling the back of his bloody head, trying to make sense of the loss. I stopped, not sure of what to do.
He collapsed back onto the concrete, tears streaking his dirty face. He heaved one sigh, and lay there. My heart beat faster. I didn't make it a practice to help the homeless, feeling more comfortable with anonymously donating money to charity. I'd seen, more than once, a seemingly helpless vagrant turn sly, then nasty as he begged for money from anyone walking by, spitting curses out in the air when he didn't get so much as a dime.
Well, I could consider this my chance to help a fellow American, or I could just keep walking wherever the sidewalks took me. The sidewalks leading to nowhere were easier than helping another human, an old man heading straight for silent death, the kind of death millions in this country die each year. No obit. No funeral. No fucking crying. Nothing, only silence. I thought quickly, "That is the death I want to die in LA. A sprawling, lonely, quiet death." No one heard me, not even the homeless man.
I walked on and saw another flag, a cheap one attached to a mom-and-pop laundromat. I tore it down. No one noticed. I threw it in one of the twenty year-old washing machines. I felt it belonged there. Maybe it would be cleaned the next day and the old woman doing her wash would look at it, smile and take it home to hang it by her door. She would tell her buddies on the block and they would giggle about the free flag. I knew later, much later in the week I would stop by to give the flag its proper rest with me.
A policeman stopped me. He was big, muscular, with a clean head, shaved and gleaming. He stared straight into my eyes and said, " How much do you love your country?"
"How much do you love your country?" he repeated.
"Why are you asking me that?" I countered, trying not to sound defensive, and clutching at my purse. I wondered if he'd seen me tearing down the flag from the laundromat. Great, just what I needed: to be branded a flag-hater.
He stared at me for a minute. Sweat trickled from my armpits and down my back. I sweat a lot when I get nervous, it's a dead give-away-that I'm nervous, or frightened, but most people think it means I'm guilty… which I wasn't.
"I'm curious," he replied, raising up both hands to straighten the collar of his uniform shirt. This made me notice how big the gun was, the one strapped to his belt, tucked into a holster with the tab unsnapped and the safety on...or at least I'd hoped.
"You save flags from being desecrated…yes, I've seen what you're doing around the neighborhood. Picking them up out of the gutter, taking them off old car antennas, throwing them into washing machines. I bet you even have one in your purse right now." His eyes fixed on my bag, which I tucked behind me.
"You save flags…but you won't save an old man, bleeding and helpless; you know, the one you passed in the park. A fellow American, or at least a fellow human being. Now, let me ask you again: how much do you love your country?"
"As much as you."
"Hey lady, I’m just an officer of the law. I only get paid to see if anyone is breaking it. I’m not going to arrest you. I'm just asking you questions. Is that okay?" The cop started to look up, but turned his gaze away from my eyes.
I said, "Just do you job and lay your guilt elsewhere. Maybe your wife, if you have one?"
The cop again looked down at me, "I had one. A long time ago.
She didn’t like my job or my words. She took our two girls and headed over to Encino to live. I hate Encino."
I smiled and said, "Smart lady." I looked in the other direction, but no one was around.
He frowned. "My life isn't the issue here. So don’t change the subject. You seem - at least to me - to have an ass-backwards set of values. You'll save symbols, but not someone in need. So, for the last fucking time, let me ask you; how MUCH do YOU love your country?" We both fell silent.
"I don't know my country. I mean I don't know it anymore, this America. The one I knew, has disappeared. I thought I knew it when I was a kid. But things have changed," I said.
"Bullshit," said the cop.
"Yes, that is what it has become."
He frowned, took three steps toward me, leaned in and closed the space between us.
"Yes, and I will find a way to arrest you if you keep that kind of speech rolling with that kind of sad crap. I'll be keeping my eye on you, so watch it. You have to love our nation, and remember it's your duty to help others, especially your fellow Americans…no matter how bad they smell."
Tears filled my eyes. I was angry and pissed. Who was he to tell me something like that? I wasn't a hero, I was just afraid.
The cop walked away from me, back towards the park. I followed him, wiping away the drops that fell from my eyes.
He was headed back to the old man, who was still lying on the ground, and I saw the puddle of blood was leaking from a gash on the left side of his head. The cop knelt down, reached into his back pocket, and pulled out a pair of latex gloves. He slipped one on his right hand, and put two fingers against the old man's neck.
The old man stirred but was unconscious. The cop looked up.
"Got a cell phone? My car is at the end of the block. Call 911 and I'll go to my car to call this in."
"Yeah," I said, fumbling in my purse. The bag containing Old Glory Jr. fell to the ground. The cop picked it up as I fished my cell phone out of my purse.
He looked at it for a couple of seconds, and then opened the bag. Folding the material into smaller sections, he beckoned me to kneel down next to the old man. I knelt down and the cop took me by my left arm, put the other latex glove over my left hand. He placed the folded Old Glory Jr. in my hand, and pressed it against the old man's bloody scalp.
"This is what I'm talking about," he told me, straightening up and taking the latex glove off his hand. He wadded it up and tossed it into a nearby trash can.
"Don't forget to call 911. I'll be back in a few minutes," he said, walking away.
I flipped open the cell, and dialed 911. The operator came on the line and I told her where I was and to send an ambulance, while my gloved hand tried to keep steady pressure on his head. I watched the white stars of Old Glory Jr. darken to crimson from the old man's blood.
As I waited for the ambulance and the cop to come back, the sky filled with low clouds. For no reason, I started to cry again. The old man woke, smiled at me through my tears. All I could hear was " Old Glory, Old Glory, Old Glory"… it became two awful words inside my head.
Marie Lecrivain & Daniel Gallik