September 10, 2016

Swallowing the Pride of a Nation.

Ragged Flag

Author’s note: The American flag is a symbol for some of the greatest ideals I know. But the status of the symbol has in many ways surpassed the substance it stands for. Whether we love it or hate it, we so often offer it the attributes of an idol. Woody Shylock, the hero—or, depending on your perspective, the antihero—of this story, makes a difficult and very reluctant decision to destroy the idol—even though it requires him to, ahem, swallow his pride—in order to regain the substance lost.


Woody Shylock’s America has changed.

Originally, he only noticed it on the news. He thought that maybe the news outlets were working in overdrive to manipulate public opinion. Liberals burning flags. Conservative threatening to kill those liberals.

So-called artists creating exhibits where gallery goers are forced to walk on the flag.

Black activists making statements by standing on the flag, fists in the air. Gun rights activists posing in front of flags holding firearms Woody didn’t even understand.

Here in America! These weren’t folks in the streets of Tehran. These were American citizens!

Of course, Woody remembered the sixties. But the sixties were an anomaly. The divisions weren’t as encompassing as today–at least the stakes didn’t seem as high then. Maybe they were, but Woody senses a new level of turbulence.

As he looks out his window onto the suburban street he calls home, he realizes that if the news propaganda machines were cooking stories to manipulate folks, it worked–in fact, they’d cooked a reality. And if all those stories were true, after all? Then the chaos has finally reached his front yard.

His street is lined with homes displaying flags, most of them four by six feet. But Eddy Markle, whose house still in the middle of the block, displays a six by ten foot flag, the pole it stands on the tallest on the block.

The street—and its red, white, and blue display—has been controversial as of late. Some college students have been lobbying for the banners to be taken down—if necessary, by force. Woody has no emotional attachment to his, or any other, flag. After all, it’s a piece of cloth, a symbol, a reminder of much deeper substance.

And it’s the substance Woody has the emotional attachment to.

The confrontation occurring right in front of his house made him aware that, to many, the symbol was of greatest importance. The symbol had eaten away the substance. Eddy Markle is outside, face-to-face with one of the college protestors, gun in hand. The protestors had shown early in the morning to link arms and sit in the middle of the road, flags serving as the the blankets to protect them from the filth in the road.

The confrontation quickly escalates to fingers being jabbed into chests, mouths outlining angry shouted threats, faces turning red, necks veins bulging, arms pushing, fists punching… Until it finally ends with a gun shooting, a college student fallen, bleeding onto an American flag on the ground, a gun dropping to the ground, Eddy Marble’s newly-freed hand moving to tear at his own hair, screaming, crying.

How did this happen?

The cops appear to clean up a mess that makes no sense. As they leave after the clean-up, accompanied by a handcuffed Eddy Markle, Woody speaks into the empty air.

“It’s time for the substance the eat the symbol.”

Now, after all of the excitement, he is alone in his apartment. He looks at the flag in front of him. The American flag. The same flag that had been displayed in his front yard. Now folded multiple times. Resting on the table.

He begins to speak into the empty air.

“This, the most recent version of the star spangled banner of these United States of America, adopted in 1960, has been the official, and longest standing, version of our national flag for fifty-five years.”

The empty air chooses to remain silent as Woody unfolds the flag once.

He unfolds it one time further.

“But after all these years, I think we’re through.”

He sighs, pats the still partially folded flag, then stands from his seat. He walks to the kitchenette, to his mini-fridge. He opens it and grabs a bottle of mustard, a baggie filled with sliced tomatoes, a jar of pickled jalapeños, and the nearly empty half gallon carton of milk. He has to carry the baggie of sliced tomatoes from his clenched teeth on his way back to the table. Once he gets there, he drops his haul in front of the flag. The mustard bottle and the milk carton topple onto their sides. The baggie of sliced tomatoes slides down to the floor. He picks up the baggie and places it back on the table. He sighs again and sits down. He takes off his glasses and rests his head on his hands, rubs his eyes with his palms.

“I don’t really know what happened…”

His right leg begins to shake restlessly under the table. He rubs his face, then slams his fists onto the table.

“Damn it all!”

The baggie slides onto the floor again. His leg stops shaking and he bends down to pick up the baggie. He tosses it onto the table and it slides until it hits the flag. He looks curiously at the baggie resting against the flag.

“If you weren’t so damned sensitive about everything…”

Another sigh escapes him as he rubs the back of his neck and stretches.

“Well, fuck it. Let’s do this.”

He looks around the table, trying to find something. He stands up and heads to the kitchenette again. He opens one of its two drawers and leafs through its contents. He grabs the pair of scissors and closes the drawer. He starts to head back to the table, but quickly turns back around to grab a loaf of bread from atop the microwave. He returns to the table and sits down. He stands up the fallen mustard bottle and carton of milk. He arranges everything neatly in front of him. He unfolds the flag a bit further and inches the scissors closer.

“This might hurt. But it’s gonna hurt me a lot more than it hurts you.”

He cuts a section from the flag, a section about the size of a bread slice. He places it upon a piece of bread. He adds a tomato slice, a few jalapeños, and a squirt of mustard. He slaps another piece of bread on top. He takes a drink straight from the half gallon of milk. Then he raises the sandwich toward his lips. He takes a bite but he can’t manage to tear the flag with his teeth. He pulls the bread away and tosses the slices toward the wall. The toppings splatter across the room.

“I’ll be damned. You’re not going down without a fight, are you?”

He cuts the section of flag small enough so he can simply swallow it. He squirts a bit of mustard onto it. It slides down his throat easily. He keeps up this pattern for hours, occasionally wetting his throat with the milk.

“You’re not setting too well inside of me…”

Once he’s finished, he cleans the table and puts everything back in its place. He brushes his teeth, strips down to boxers, and goes to bed.

“I hope you settle down a little overnight.”

He feels accomplished. His job is complete.

It doesn’t take him long to fall asleep.

He dreams more vividly than ever before. Of new realities where people are substance of ideals. Of people who link arms to express what they love instead of what they hate. Of people who use guns to protect people instead of symbols. Of people who use guns so very reluctantly. Of new realities where flags, skin colors, outward appearances are not confused with the substance behind them.

When he wakes up, he walks onto his front porch to grab the morning paper. His house, along with the surrounding homes, is pictured on the front page above the fold. This isn’t a propaganda machine—it’s who we’ve become.

But he sees a glimpse of hope when he finds a note taped to his front door. It’s from the group of college protestors. They have written an apology, claiming that the flag had blinded them. The protests would end. They don’t blame Eddy. They know the shooting was accidental, a slipped finger in a moment of great tension.

Woody smiles and turns to take in the neighborhood before he goes back inside. All the flags on the street have been taken down.




Author: Chris Hawk

Image: walkadog at Flickr 

Editor: Renée Picard

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