As Henry Forrester finished drying off his cherry red Ford, something caught his eye. His once vigorous arm movements slowed until the yellow cloth in his hand ceased its movement entirely, resting obliviously beside a stubborn water spot. Henry’s gaze was held not by the beauty of his car but by the simplicity of cloth hanging from a wooden pole on the porch. Barely moving in the ever-so-slight breeze, the red white and blue of the flag appeared worn out, the colors almost indistinguishable. The flag was so tattered and furled that it could hardly catch a breeze if it tried. Henry might as well have just hung the drying cloth in its place.
Rag still in hand, Henry scanned the neighborhood surrounding his family’s three bedroom house on Huntford Lane. The Forresters, like everyone else on their block, had kept their flag flying in all its glory since that fateful day nearly eight years ago when patriotism had suddenly become en vogue again. Across the street, the Douglasses’ flag flew freely, gliding magnificently on even a gentle breeze. Next door, the Trowelers had a flag dangled with unfrayed edges and vivid colors. The David residence featured a faded flag, but it looked vintage rather than deceased. The flag at the Brayford home, the biggest on the block, didn’t fly freely and had a few tatters, but the colors were filled with passion and the tears added character, as if telling the world that this flag was purposeful. Henry felt surrounded by flags that were superior to his.
Leaving the yellow cloth on the hood, he trotted up the concrete walk. Henry pushed his way into the door, not bothering to wipe his Converse shoes on the mat that welcomed him, and stormed into the foyer and subsequent hallway. “Honey,” he shouted at the wife who was dusting the furniture in the living room.
“I need your keys.” Henry was panting.
“What do you need now?”
Henry had already borrowed her car twice that morning, once to buy wax and once to buy a new yellow terry cloth to dry the car without leaving all the little particles that a regular rag left.
“I need to get a new flag,” he said proudly.
“Why do we need a new flag? We have a flag outside already.”
“Yeah, have you seen that thing? It’s a total disaster. It’s shameful to the country.”
“Well, that’s what happens when you insist on leaving it out all the time. Whatever happened to the notion that you were supposed to bring the flag in at sundown?” She resumed her dusting, gliding around the room and eliminating dust particles with graceful dexterity.
“Well, all the neighbors leave their flags out, and their flags all put ours to shame.” Henry wanted to tear the rag out of her hand and shake all of the dust back out onto the furniture.
“So this is about pride rather than patriotism?” she asked without raising her head from the book case.
Henry paused for a second to gather his thoughts. He had never viewed himself as especially patriotic, nor had he gone out of his way to instill patriotism in his two children. But he did believe in supporting his country when he could.
“If you want a flag that badly, just take your car,” she said.
“I’m not taking the Ford. I just washed it.” Henry threw up his arms in disbelief.
“It’s going to get dirty eventually anyway.”
“So are those shelves.”
“Well, I’m not refusing to use them.”
“So just because I know something is going to get dirty eventually I should get it dirty right away?”
“Does that mean you are going to keep the new flag wrapped in the original packaging and save it for a special occasion?”
“You’re missing the point. I worked hard to get the car to look like that. It would be like if you dusted the shelves and then poured dust all over them. Only a lot worse because it’s harder to clean a car than it is to dust.”
“Then next weekend we can trade,” she said before playfully snapping the dust rag at him.
“Just give me your keys.”
“Fine, if that’s how it has to be.” There was a glimmer of victory in her hazel eyes. “They’re in my purse. The red one.”
“Alright. Do you think I should go to Home Depot or Lowe’s?”
“I don’t think it really matters,” she said as she opened the back door to shake the rest of the dust off into the open air. “I doubt there’s a flag shortage,” she added, her voice barely audible from the edge of the deck.
“Home Depot it is,” he said to himself as he turned to retrieve the keys from her red purse.
As Henry backed the silver SUV down the driveway, he took one last look at the flag that hung so pathetically from the front of their house. “The neighbors must think I don’t care,” he said as he shifted the car into drive and pulled away.
Once inside Home Depot, Henry was momentarily overwhelmed by the vastness of the warehouse. He didn’t precisely know where to look to find the flags, but he knew it best to not ask anyone. Although it was part of an employee’s job to help the customers, it was also part of the customer’s job, especially at a place like Home Depot, to know exactly where to go.
After strolling through the expansive store, he found a section of lawn décor, which seemed to him the most appropriate spot to garner the flags. He glanced around the area, spotting heavy concrete frogs, wooden Uncle Sams, welcome mats with various greetings, and many other items, but no flags were in sight.
“Do you need some help finding something?” an old man in an orange vest said in a friendly voice.
“Yes,” Henry began, his eyes still wandering about in a last effort to spot his need. After a long pause he added, “I am looking for flags.”
“We have a wide variety of flags right this way.” The man led him to the next aisle where shelves and boxes were stashed with colorful flags and banners. Some were patriotic, and others were decorative, but none of them were The American Flag.
“No, I am looking for The Flag,” Henry stated proudly. “I want a brand new American flag. The highest quality you have. One with the big silver eagle on top of the pole.”
The old vested man hesitated for a moment, scratching his head with one hand and clinging to his vest pocket with the other. “I’m sorry sir, but we don’t have any American flags. We’re sold out. But we should get a shipment in next week.”
“Sold out of flags? How can that be? Is someone hoarding them? I saw dozens of homes without flags on the way here.”
“Perhaps they came when we were sold out of flags as well.”
“This is ridiculous,” Henry roared. “I’m an American citizen in an American store. I deserve the right to an American flag now.”
“If you need a flag that badly, you can always go to another store. But what’s the rush? We’ll have them next week. What do you need a flag for right now? Are you heading into battle or something?” the man asked before walking away.
Disgusted, Henry marched out of the store vowing that he would never go there again.
When Henry arrived home, he noticed the flag had been removed from the porch.
“Where’s the flag?” Henry inquired the moment he stepped into the door.
“I got rid of it.”
“What do you mean you got rid of it?”
“I mean I disposed of it. After all, you were buying a new one.”
“What did you do with it?”
“What’s it matter. We have a new one now.”
“No. They were all sold out.”
“Sold out of flags? That’s so bizarre.”
“Yeah. Sold out. And now we’re the fools on the block without a flag.”
“It’s okay. We’ll just buy one the next time we go to a store that has one. We can go a few days without flying the flag.”
Henry thought about her suggestion. Although he wasn’t quite sure, he supposed there was nothing he could do about it now. He wasn’t going to run all over town looking for a flag, especially not on his day off.
“Alright, we’ll pick one up later.”
For the next few weeks, Henry went about his business, forgetting all about his sudden need for a new flag. Every day came and went the same as it had before. Not having a flag made no difference in Henry’s world.
One morning when Henry was sitting at work, it occurred to him that the Fourth of July was nearing much more rapidly than he had realized. Instead of feeling joy about his three day weekend, he felt a nagging sickness in his stomach. Something was dreadfully wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. For the rest of the day he sat isolated in his cubicle, skipping out on his lunch break and both of his coffee breaks, desperately racking his brain. At first he thought that perhaps he had missed his anniversary or his wife’s birthday, but then he checked his desk calendar and verified he still had months before those dates. Perhaps there was a big family trip planned. Or a piano recital for one of the kids. Somehow he would have to get the information out of his wife when he arrived home.
Henry’s car ride home was so tense with trying to remember that he almost ran two red lights. “What the hell am I forgetting?” he shouted three times during a five block stretch, passing the same number of Walgreen’s stores in the process.
He was only three houses from his own when he realized what was wrong. “I need a damn flag,” he shouted at the steering wheel with his arms raised. The steering wheel turned slightly to the right in response, showing either indifference or pointing to a neighbor’s boldly waving flag. Henry corrected the wheel and guided the vehicle into his driveway.
“How was your day, honey?” his wife asked.
“It was the worst day of my life,” he replied. “I spent the whole day trying to figure something out, and then I figured it out on the way home. It was complete agony.”
“Well, glad to hear you remembered. What was it?” she asked while chopping carrots.
“We never bought that flag.”
“Well, let’s put dinner on hold and rush out to buy it,” she said with great urgency but without dropping her knife.
“That sounds great. I just need to take a leak before we leave.”
“I was just kidding dear. There will still be flags after dinner.”
“Oh really? You think so? Last time you told me there was no shortage of flags, that it didn’t matter where I went, and then there were no flags. The Fourth is only a few days away and we still don’t have a flag. Do you want to be known as the flagless fools? I’m buying a flag right now.”
“Suit yourself. I’m going to stay here and eat a hot dinner with the kids.”
“Alright, don’t help me out any. I’ll make sure the family stays afloat.”
“I’m glad you’re doing your part to save our family and the country,” the wife told him as she rinsed off the knife.
Not sensing the sarcasm, he nodded assertively to acknowledge her compliment and darted for the door. “I’m going to Lowe’s this time. Home Depot can kiss my ass.”
“Yes, I’m sure the men in blue vests will be much more helpful than the ones in orange,” the wife said as she emptied the carrots into a glass bowl.
Henry didn’t bother to tell her that they wore red vests at Lowe’s before he slammed the door.
Henry returned home forty minutes later with a boastful look on his face.
“Where’s the flag?” his wife asked.
“It’s in the garage. I’m going to wait until the Fourth to put it out. It’s going to really shock the neighbors. It’s one helluva flag.”
“That’s great to hear honey. I am sure that everyone in the neighborhood will have flag envy. You know what? We should host a neighborhood barbecue to christen this momentous purchase. You were so right. Rushing out to get a flag was much more worthwhile than a dinner with your family.”
He gave her a firm kiss on the cheek and a gentle slap on the bottom. “That’s a great idea honey. You can call the neighbors tomorrow and let them know.”
“You want me to tell them about your flag?”
“No, you’re gonna invite them to the party.” With these words he rushed upstairs to change, loosening both his tie and his belt on the way.
When the big day finally rolled around—Henry had utilized his obligatory day off from work on the observed holiday by playing golf while his wife went to the grocery store and lugged watermelons, cases of Budweiser, and packages of meat into the house—the Forresters were prepared to throw the best Fourth of July party the neighborhood had ever seen.
While his neighbors wiped barbecue sauce off their hands onto disposable American flag napkins, Henry went to the garage to retrieve the guest of honor. He had thought about unveiling the new flag before the guests arrived, but he wanted to see the looks on their faces as he unraveled the majestic cloth in front of them.
With the tightly packaged phallus held in his firm grip, he marched like a soldier out of the garage and into the backyard where his neighbors were feasting. “Excuse me everyone,” Henry bellowed proudly.
The crowd looked with mild interest at him as they continued to eat.
“I’d like to cap off this fine celebration with a brief remembrance of what this day is all about.” He cleared his throat regally. “Please follow me,” he added as he turned to lead the dozen feasters to the front of the house.
Henry ascended the few steps up to the porch. Like a knight, he unsheathed the flag from the transparent cellophane, his hand just above the grand eagle that sat with wings spread atop the pole, guarding the mighty stars and stripes with its menacing talons.
Henry imagined oohs and aahs as he slid his hands down the fine cedar shaft. In one grandiose swing, the flag unfurled with exceeding power, cutting through the wind, its stars and stripes in such vibrant colors that he could see the entire history of his country in each minute detail. He waved the flag twice more, its thick cloth beating powerfully against the wind like the wings of a great bird. In one swooping motion, he slid the wooden pole into the metal holder that had served the old flag so well. The flag securely in place, he stepped back and offered a salute, a few tears glistening in his eyes as he prepared for the grand finale. He bent over and pressed the play button on a hidden Sony boom box. Within seconds, “God Bless America” blared from the crackly speakers of the portable stereo. As the song filled the neighborhood, Henry raised his hands like a conductor to prompt the small crowd to join this fine celebration of the greatest country in the world.
He stood in his grand posture through the final note, holding it out himself longer than the backing tape, the flag still full sail in the breeze. When he could no longer hold the note, he erupted into an applause that was reciprocated half-heartedly by his neighbors, most of whom still munched on potato salad and watermelon.
“And now for dessert,” his wife suddenly chirped. “You’re all going to just love what I’ve made,” she said in the bubbliest voice she could offer.
The neighbors turned to follow her, and Henry, content with his display, marched down the steps methodically, wondering all the while what the dessert was.
As he turned the corner to head to the backyard, a strong gust of wind roared through Huntford Lane, its force ripping the old rusty flagpole hanger right off the wooden pillar. The flag flopped to the ground like a wounded aircraft, smacking first into the concrete step before rolling off the porch and into the thick juniper bush adjacent to the home.
Henry didn’t notice the red, white and blue hidden in the evergreen until a week later when he was mowing the lawn and saw the sleek metal eagle resting lifelessly on a thin branch.
Nathaniel Tower writes fiction, teaches English, and manages the online lit magazine Bartleby Snopes. His short fiction has appeared in over 50 online and print magazines. A story of his, “The Oaten Hands,” was named one of 190 notable stories by storySouth’s Million Writers Award in 2009. His first novel, A Reason To Kill, is due out in July 2011. Visit him at www.bartlebysnopes.com/ntower.htm