Mrs. Murphy had grown uneasy about her flag. Hard to say when it started, but one morning in March she walked onto her porch and took it off the pole attached to her house.
“Yes,” she nodded to Mr. Murphy, “in the attic.”
He couldn’t hear exactly what she said, but got the general idea through his mottled, muted hearing and Mrs. Murphy’s gestures. He said he guessed they had better get a new one.
The Murphys had always lived at the corner of Cedar and Osborne, in a small square house built for them a year after their marriage. The cedar board siding was painted a gray you didn’t notice until the greens of summer surrounded it, bringing forth latent blues. It also looked extremely well in the snow, Mrs. Murphy thought, when its carefully painted white trim caught the winter light.
The small, high lot looked over Osborne from the front and from the steeper side over Cedar Street. Over the years it had become busier and busier with car traffic. One day it was suddenly a two-way street with a yellow line painted down the middle. Mr. Murphy’s hearing had grown steadily worse over time, so he couldn’t say he noticed such a difference, but Mrs. Murphy never turned the car onto Cedar anymore. She always took Osborne into town.
This winter Mrs. Murphy’s hip had gone out and she had to call the Kalbacher’s boy every other day to shovel the walk. It just didn’t stay dry long enough for the ice to melt and, even after she had recovered, she had to be careful making her way up the steep drive from the car to the door.
Mr. Murphy said as soon as spring came he would get a brand-new flag for the door, but he only remembered the flag on the rare occasions when he came home, and these days he barely left the house.
By the Fourth of July the flag had been forgotten. Mrs. Murphy was concerned how to get up and down to do her gardening, as her knees were not living up to her expectations, and there was always weeding to be done. It was already very hot when she got back from the store in the late morning. She tooted the horn from the car so that Mr. Murphy could stand at the door and watch her from the porch. This was the deal they had struck in the winter when the ice was treacherous and Mr. Murphy feared she would fall in her quiet way and freeze to death, right there in the drive. Both of them were now oblivious to the original purpose of their pact.
She took the grocery bags and headed up the walk when she saw it hanging from the pole. It stood out so loudly, clashing against the gray of the house. This was the brightest one she had ever seen. Or, were they making them brighter these days? The reds were so deeply, shockingly red and the whites were much whiter than normal. It looked unnatural to her in the heat, like an apparition, swaying slightly in the breeze, its brightness and its coldness a contrast to July’s golden haze.
It also looked like an advertisement. Mrs. Murphy couldn’t say for what. When she looked up Osborne she saw that all the houses on both sides of the street had their flags out. She must have known this; still, the symmetry made her anxious. It reminded her of those three-way dressing room mirrors when she was a child. The thick glass captured you each way you turned, multiplying you, swallowing you forever into deep infinity.
When Mr. Murphy called she turned her head sharply. She could see just his dark outline behind the screen door, hands on his hips, his elbows jutting oddly out. Closer, she saw his large grin through the faint metal weave. She didn’t speak, as was her custom, until she put the grocery bags down on the kitchen counter.
“Well,” she said to him, with all the hopefulness she could muster.
Their son-in-law, Roy, had brought the flag by while she was out, and had hung it himself. They couldn’t very well have an empty flagpole on the Fourth of July! She unpacked the groceries and then folded the paper bags carefully at their creases and stored them in their cupboard, careful not to meet his gaze.
After dinner Mr. Murphy moved the old electric fans into the bedroom for her. Their familiar sounds as their metal blades coursed across the imperfections in the grills were catalysts to other summers. She took barefoot steps out of the side door and into the tidy fenced yard at the back of the house. She sat under a close sky, falling slowly toward black. Already pinpricks of stark white fire splashed onto the dark backdrop and she felt the deep thumping of a giant drum producing slow trails of reds, blues, and sparkling, spangling gold. She sat for a long while with her head hung back on her chair, waiting for the silence, for the firmament to reassemble its dense ink and take back the heat from the earth. She heard the last of the smallest explosions, some surely as close as the end of Osborne, and wished that each in their beds that night, no matter where, might sleep safe.
Inside Mr. Murphy dozed in his chair in front of the TV, and she had a pang of nostalgia for the days when television went off the air at night. In the bedroom the fans only moved the heat around, shuddering and clacking at each end of oscillation. She turned from side to side on the bed, letting the air from the fan cool her left hip where her nightgown had stuck, then turning to cool the other side.
When the sky grew light enough for her to see she moved through the living room past Mr. Murphy and opened the front door. She looked down Osborne, and again on every porch she saw the familiar colors and felt a stab of pain just under her heart. She was astonished to find that she was angry, her heart beating like a drum inside of her.
She turned quickly and slipped the flag off of the pole. With her back toward the street, she folded it neatly over her arm, and climbed the stairs to the attic. Her pulse was racing. The thick smell of freshly sawn wood still remained in this untraveled room. In the middle she could stand upright under the roof peak before the walls on either side pitched sharply down. The morning sun was making its way through small holes where the roof joined, a pure white containing the last subtle traces of blue from the disappearing night. She lifted the blankets out of the cedar chest and put the new flag on top of the old one at the bottom. She replaced the blankets, patting them firmly down. She closed the lid, and dusty or not, sat on the top. Suddenly the morning heat was jungle heat. The thick air spread an inscrutable layer of moisture onto her skin and nightgown.
In another place, or another house, just as different from this one as this one was the same every day, there was the possibility that her son was alive. No one else knew this. If he was somewhere else, then he could be anywhere, and if so, then he could be here, or in a house just like it, with glass knobs on the doors that jangled lightly when a body came down the stairs. The days were still the same no matter where you were. The sun started its climb in the mornings and sank slowly from view at night.
This house might as well be his house, only outside the windows there would hardly be any sky — just jungle blotting out most of the sun, filtering its searing rays down through towers of trees into a cooler, liquid green at the bottom; just jungle and the roaring of thousands of insects. Vines might hang, tangled, in front of the windows. Monkeys could skitter up and down, their ferocious chatter a comfort to him maybe. She knew there was a possibility that he might never return. But 30 years of waiting had carved an unimaginable aching that, at its worst, rose and fell inside of her breath and even pulsed in the intricate tributaries alongside her blood. It was capable of hiding itself in the house, waiting for her in cupboards or high shelves, old boxes, in this attic, which was itself only another large empty cupboard.
She lay on her back beside the chest on the floor with her hands folded carefully across her breasts. No. She was sure there wasn’t anything else that could make his absence any easier; not even this age of everyday disasters could blunt his vanishing, not even planes crashing into buildings, or people just two hours away jumping burning into the streets. Suddenly there were flags everywhere. They were painted on the sides of barns, some strapped to roofs. They were taped to cars. Big flags. And little ones stuck into car antennas. They were on every T-shirt. Every TV commercial and every shop window had a flag. She was sure she didn’t feel the way she was supposed to feel. Then she felt worse and worse. What did it mean? She could not place this response to grief in her catalog of responses. Once, just last week, she had sat on the edge of the bed and had tried to cry. Had she woken up to find herself somewhere else, lost in a place that looked just like this one? She couldn’t ask Mr. Murphy.
The shouts from downstairs jolted her out of a sleep she wouldn’t have thought possible on the bare attic floor. She had agreed to feed Cynthia, Roy, and the boys lunch before they went to the beach. Patting her hair and clothes down as if she had been engaged in something illicit, she carefully descended the narrow stairs.
As she pulled jars and bottles out of the fridge she noticed how loud everything was. Cynthia’s children shouted above everything to be heard. She hadn’t brought up Cynthia this way. And the children’s clothes were loud. Oranges and Day-Glo greens and, of course, the inevitable red, white, and blue of the flag on stickers stuck to their beach buckets, woven into their sweaters, even in the rubber design on the bottoms of their sandals, everything advertising itself to itself.
“What are you doing, Mother? We brought food.”
Is that how they had left it?
Her daughter hastily unpacked grocery bags filled with cold cuts and tubs of coleslaw and potato salad. She held cartons of ice cream aloft as the boys begged and squealed at her feet. Summer food, Mrs. Murphy thought. Her daughter didn’t really cook. She didn’t seem to find the time.
Soon there was a commotion on the porch. The screen door slammed and she could hear Roy’s voice, louder of course than Mr. Murphy’s. The boys rushed out, running under her feet, their voices rising in volume until Mrs. Murphy thought she might fall down.
“Grandma! There’s no flag!” they screamed, breathless.
When she heard her name being called she swung the kitchen door back and saw Mr. Murphy standing uneasily, resting his hand against the doorjamb. Roy stood beside him, a suspicious look in his eyes.
“I think we should eat,” Mrs. Murphy tried.
“Roy wants to know about the flag, Mom.” Cynthia said, trying to sound matter of fact.
“Did you notice that it’s missing?” Roy said quickly.
“I did, yes.”
Mrs. Murphy moved to the table and began spooning potato salad onto plates.
“I don’t want any of that!” the youngest boy screamed. “I don’t want any!”
“Because,” Roy continued, “it took some trouble to find it on a holiday, and it cost some money.”
“Roy,” Cynthia began.
“No,” he continued, “this is weird. Nobody else on the street took their flags down. I just want to know.”
Mrs. Murphy was saved from any explanation by the boys, who screamed and jumped and tugged at their father’s shirt.
“It’s stolen! It’s stolen! Somebody stole Grandma’s flag!”
“Is that what happened?” Roy’s face fell.
“Is that what happened, Mother?” Cynthia looked at her awkwardly.
“I guess that’s what could have happened,” Mrs. Murphy replied.
To Be Continued
Kara Westerman has published her fiction in The New Ohio Review, and the anthology, “Submerged: Tales From the Basin.” She received her master’s degree in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and was awarded the Edward Albee Fiction Fellowship. She lives in East Hampton and New York City. Her blog can be found at nocountryforoldwriters.blogspot.com.