In bed that night Roy told Cynthia that anyone who would steal an American flag had better think twice about it because it wasn’t just what they had done to a poor old woman, but what it symbolized, and at a time like this when the hurts were so deep still. He couldn’t believe that someone, even a common criminal, or a kid, even a kid, could be so thoughtless. And just to think of Mrs. Murphy’s empty flagpole made him angry, and not just on the face of it, but deep inside, a deep sorrow for people in general, especially American people in general, and this kind of thing couldn’t be taken lying down. This was just the kind of thing that caused other things to happen, and he wasn’t going to just let it go by. This was just the kind of thing that should be reported to the police.
When Lieutenant Watt came to the door Mrs. Murphy kept to the back of the house. She heard Mr. Murphy say “Yes, sir,” and then, “No, sir. No one saw a thing.”
On Thursday Cynthia called to tell her mother that she’d made it into the police logs.
“That’s your 15 minutes.”
“Fifteen minutes?” Mrs. Murphy asked.
“Your 15 minutes of fame, Mother.”
That night the Murphys sat on chairs on their front porch and watched the street go dim. If you closed your eyes the intermittent rush of cars on Cedar sounded like the ocean less than a mile to the south, rising and ebbing, almost soothing.
Mr. Murphy pushed himself out of his chair and steadied himself against her shoulder before he made the stiff steps into the living room for the news. She could hear shouting. There were crowds of thousands sometimes shouting in languages she didn’t understand, waving flags she didn’t recognize. She was sure there was not anyone anywhere in the world that didn’t recognize her flag. Even cave dwellers in the most remote place on earth would know full well what it meant. She didn’t have to be a part of something so big, did she? Mr. Murphy might have thought she was getting old if she asked him, didn’t he feel the panic she felt. If she asked him, didn’t he see that the flag was multiplied over and over, and the message was so diluted that people had to say it more and more, and brighter and brighter, and louder and louder. If she told him after all they all knew where they lived — so who were they telling? That’s what she would ask Mr. Murphy if she could.
Roy and Cynthia had insisted that the Murphys start locking their doors at night. Roy had said they were “living in a fool’s paradise.” And Cynthia had said, “It only takes a minute, Mother.” But the Murphys hadn’t had a key to their house as long as she could remember. Besides, what was there to steal? Mrs. Murphy had consented to bolting the doors from the inside at night, but couldn’t lock the house from the outside when they left. She didn’t tell Cynthia this.
When she rose to go in, it was almost 9 o’clock but the last rays of orange light were glimmering across the wood planks of the floor that she still waxed and polished twice a year. No one else knew that Mrs. Murphy lived inside of her house as though it were a portal, the one and only place where it might be possible to enter another world, or have her son enter back into this one. But would he remember? Or had it been beaten out of him? How would she recognize him if he came to the door?
There was no need to tell anyone. Sometimes she polished things so hard, the dark oak of the dining room table for instance, she might have been a genie rubbing a lamp, asking for her wishes back; to be taken back to the place where she hadn’t used them up on silly things — that his team win the baseball tournament, that he be the first swimmer to touch the cement edge of the pool, that his first love, the small, dark Sheila, might accept his invitation to the high school dance. All of these had been granted, used up before she could have known she might need the power of all of them combined.
Before she turned off the TV she sat down to watch a commercial that seemed especially important: The family is safe, their house is an island of golden light. Outside is nothing but vast and dark. On this night, and it is always the same night, little blond children are baking in the kitchen with their mother. Father is visibly absent. The camera movement becomes jerky and frightening. She sees the family from the outside, where nothing is good. There is only darkness beyond the window. Suddenly a shady face. He raises a shadowy arm that emerges out of nothingness. He is trying to break in! An alarm shrieks. Everywhere there is an impossible sound, and underneath this sound, which must be heard everywhere, which is a visible, vibrating thing, the children run to their mother, and she clasps them to her breast under a lone ring of light. The phone rings. It is the men who put in the alarm system! Is everything all right, they ask? The features of her face are distorted by fear. No! No, the mother says, still holding her children around her. Someone is trying to break in to her house!
It is out of proportion for the commercial, Mrs. Murphy thinks.
“What are they advertising?!” runs in a loop in her head, although she knows “what” perfectly well. She wonders whether she was ever this woman, this woman who doesn’t realize that there are always wolves at the door, that nothing you can do will matter. Certainly not locking them out. Certainly not bolting yourself in. There isn’t anything more that can be taken from her that hasn’t been taken already. On her way to bed she visits each door to bolt it, but turns backward and leaves the front door unlocked. She goes again to the back and side doors, and makes sure these are unbolted too.
First fall would come. Then winter. And then spring. This was the only thing of which she was convinced.
That winter there were days and days when it was well below freezing. The sky was a blank sheet of white. Mrs. Murphy would have been happy for snow even, something besides the static of the days. On certain days at the end of February she was sure the air smelled like spring. The light spilling through the windows lay in forgotten ways, having little to do with winter. The birds sounded on mornings when the temperature climbed, and were silent when the cold set back in. When Mrs. Murphy drove to town she squinted until the branches on the trees were black etchings against the gray sky. In their clamoring and tangled silhouettes she was certain she saw tiny dark bumps. The beginnings of buds!
One morning she woke with a start while it was still dark. The flag was made by a person. Mrs. Murphy put on her slippers and robe and took the stairs down into the basement. She pulled the chain on the overhead light and the bulb swung slowly, illuminating Mr. Murphy’s workshop on one side, his workbench a still life with tools hanging unused in neat rows, and on the other her sewing area. Everything was as she had left it — how many years ago? She sat down and pushed the foot pedal on her machine, which whirred in the pleasure of being used. She was wide awake, more awake than she ever was in the middle of the day. She stood on a chair and lifted the topmost box down from the metal shelves. Always start at the top, her mother had taught her, back in a time when cleaning house was a real job that required the passing down of secrets, such as left to right, and top to bottom. There were the boxes of dolls, labeled and saved for future granddaughters or great-granddaughters, who might exult in the discovered treasure. She pulled down her box of scraps. She unfolded a favorite old sheet, holding it wide with her hands across her body. It had hung on the line when she was a girl, and she had run into it to feel the cool damp fabric slapping against her face. No one used this pattern anymore, large flowers crowding each other, repeated in violets and blues, swarming over yellows.
The tears surprised her as they landed on her cheeks. She had imagined they would have a color, be brown or rusty, be more than visible, and be capable of staining whatever they came into contact with. Now she caught them in her hands, hot and transparent. They tasted right, salty in her mouth.
She climbed the attic stairs, lifted the flag out and laid it down on the attic floor while she measured it, and replaced it carefully in the trunk. Downstairs she spread her flowered sheet onto the sewing table. The cutting shears were sticky and slow from years of disuse and Mrs. Murphy’s wrist was not what it had been; even so she managed the cutting. She sewed a two-inch hem around the square of the floral sheet and then a loop to slide it onto the flagpole.
Her fingers trembled as she slid it into place. She was sure some of the neighbors slowed down as they went by, but no one shouted or honked. She had been afraid they would, worried that she might even be arrested for such a subversive act, but no police came to the door. Cynthia and Roy gave her cool looks as they came in, but they didn’t mention it when they arrived for dinner. While she dried the dishes she heard them hushing the boys in the living room and she heard Cynthia shout.
“Yes! All right!”
Mrs. Murphy moved to the swinging kitchen door and put her eye to the crack.
“Is this the beginning of senility?” Roy said sharply.
“I don’t know what it is,” Cynthia said softly.
“That’s not a flag!” one of the boys screamed as he danced across the living room.
She saw Mr. Murphy rise from his recliner and open the front porch door.
“So what?!” Cynthia was angry, raising her hands and letting them slap against her sides. “Is it a federal offense? My mother lives in a different place — so what?!”
“Another country!” Roy shot back.
She saw Mr. Murphy’s back shudder as he braced himself in the doorway to see her new flag. He let out a great hollow chuckle. This was his signature sound. She hadn’t heard that strange, spontaneous bellow for what seemed like years.
That night, in the windowless, sutured attic, her house was a ship at sea, floating seamlessly over whole continents, bobbing in squalls, roof rafters and floorboards creaking under the strain of wandering. No papers were required. No one else saw. The house had moored itself by morning, blue new light staking it again into the ground.
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.