“Flag Day” first appeared in our anthology, First Winter. It was subsequently nominated for a Pushcart and for Best American Non-Required Reading.
Suzie and I are all still at work, but we’re not really at work, if you know what I mean. I doubt anyone in the building is still at work, or, for that matter, in the whole damn country. Maybe that’s taking it a little too far. I mean, there are bound to be those skinny little pricks with the tiny bald heads who just keep typing away with squirrelly fingers or punching single keys with the eraser ends of their pencils. I’m sure there are a few of those out there somewhere. But you get my meaning. Pretty much everybody was drooling for five o’clock.
It’s always damn hard to concentrate before a holiday, especially a holiday that falls on a Friday so the holidayness kind of spills over into the next three days, and then you forget what work is like, and you feel like yourself again, breathing in deeper than normal, thinking big wide open thoughts, if only for a long, sweet three days. Suzie and I are sure as hell ready for this shit to kick off. Flag Day! Fuck Yeah!
So it’s finally here, five o’clock, or at least close enough that we can leave without it being enough of an issue to get mentioned on Monday by the higher-ups. We’ll say five-ish. What’s eight or ten minutes anyway? It’s nothing out of a life of work—a few emails, a bathroom break—but it means a lot when it comes to getting a start on the festivities.
“Move your ass, Larry,” Suzie says.
She parked in the last spot in the lot so she wouldn’t get stuck in the traffic jam leaving at quitting time. We’re sprinting in blue suits across the lot amidst honks and hollers. She looks sexy for a second flipping her heels off in front of her and kicking them along as she goes.
“I don’t want to sit on the freeway all night,” she says.
“I’m coming,” I say, and I speed up so now I’m in front of her, jogging backwards and looking as cool as I want.
We stop there at the back of the car and kiss, just one last little nibble while no one is looking. Then we’re in the car, and she burns it out right in front of Cecil, that fat curdled blob from human resource management who will probably spend Flag Day eating jerky and watching a show about mastodons. He ruffles up his face, and she giggles.
“Oh fuck,” she says. “I’m so fucking glad it’s Flag Day. Doesn’t it seem like forever since last Flag Day?”
“Fuck yes,” I say as I start my water binge. Glug, glug.
She’s packed away about fifty bottles in her back seat so we could get a head start. Sure, Flag Day technically isn’t until tomorrow, but everyone knows the party starts the night before, unless it falls on a Wednesday or something, in which case everyone just picks the closest weekend night. It seems more authentic, though, when it’s actually on the weekend like this year.
“I can’t wait.” She says it under her breath.
“You’re like a little kid, you know that? You’re so excited you’re going to pop.”
“I can’t help it.”
“Try,” I say. “At least until we actually get started. Then, be my guest. Don’t contain yourself. I know I won’t be containing myself.”
She doesn’t say anything. She just hums some little invented tune and starts putting on make-up even though she’s still driving. It’s a little scary, driving while applying eyeliner. But fuck it, it’s Flag Day. I chug another bottle of water.
Jake and Tina are meeting us because they always forget to get a card for their parents. So every year we have to wait for them at some dive bar with fucking license plates on the wall until they have scoured all of the empty Hallmark racks and found the last, cheesy, bullshit card that says something like, “Here’s hoping your flag is at full mast this Flag Day,” with a picture of a turtle winking. It’s pretty weak, but somehow that stuff is still funny to the older generation. We have to wait even longer this year because I think Tina also had to stop and get something edible to send home to her little sister. It’s kind of lame that we’re buying presents for this occasion now. I mean, that really never used to be what Flag Day was about. It seems like every year they up the stakes, though. My dad says he can remember the day when you didn’t even have to buy people a card. Back when it was new and pure and exciting, it wasn’t about thoughtfulness and niceties. There was no Flag Day aisle at Walgreen’s. There weren’t any tin trinket Flag Day pencil sharpeners or plastic party hats. Nothing about the Flag Days of old was crowded or complex. It was plain, and it was simple: random sex with anonymous people for no particular reason. That is what June 14th was for.
It’s already six-thirty, and people are starting to get into the spirit. Nothing over the top yet, but you see the occasional hint of what’s to come—a brassiere slung over a telephone line, some girls wearing those glowing Flag Day Over-Eighteen bracelets that come in cigarette boxes, a Dodge Stratus gently rocking back and forth in front of a parking meter. Nothing to write home about. The night is very young.
Suzie and I are still sitting in this bar waiting for Jake and Tina. It’s pretty obvious by now that we are ready to not be around each other anymore. Not because we are sick of each other, or no longer in love, or mad or something. Being with your spouse is not in keeping with the traditions of Flag Day. We feel kind of queer as the only couple in here that’s on a first name basis. Also, we’re both pretty ready to get down and dirty with some random Dutch mailman or homeless, ex-teenage beauty queen. It’s nothing personal. I guess maybe we should put things in perspective and try to be civil to each other, but neither of us really wants to make the effort right now.
“Where the fuck are Jake and Tina?” Suzie says, like she expects me to know the answer.
“Strolling through the fruit roll-up panty aisle at Ralph’s, I suppose.”
“They sure do take their sweet time.”
She looks especially hot when she’s impatient. I occasionally kiss her gently on the back of the neck when she’s hungry because the pizza man is taking too long. I try not to think about it now. It’s Flag Day, and she’s my wife for God’s sake. I change the subject.
“Sometimes, not all the time, just sometimes I think they really aren’t all that into the festivities any more.”
“Yeah, I kind of noticed that.”
“I know they do all the bullshit with the cards, and now the gifts. I guess since they had a baby or something. I don’t know.”
“It’s like they’re just doing it to do it.” She nods and looks at me gratefully.
“Exactly,” I say. “Lame.”
“So lame,” she agrees.
We have to shut up now because Jake and Tina walk in holding a couple of envelopes and what looks like a giant ham in green wrapping paper with pictures of bells and snowmen on it. Turns out it’s an edible shoe made of barley and mushrooms. Not quite sexy. Maybe it was all that was left.
“Sorry we’re late,” Jake says and he’s got his arm around Tina’s shoulder which makes me give Suzie a little nudge, and she wrinkles her brow as if to say, I know, how lame.
“Big surprise. All the stores are just madhouses.”
“Big surprise,” I say.
“One of these years, you guys are going to learn to plan ahead a little.” Suzie says this chuckling.
They both laugh a little with her, and Jake puts his hand on Suzie’s and I think, “Okay, maybe now we’re getting somewhere.” So I throw my elbow around Tina’s neck, who is looking pretty fly, I might add, in her tight black business suit with the buttons that look about to pop off and shoot eyes out across the room.
Just when I start to get a little bit comfortable, Jake orders a Whiskey and Coke and removes his hand from my wife’s. I guess he was just being friendly. Someone tell this guy it’s Flag Day weekend! So now, I look like the asshole, trolling for my first Flag Day romp with my best friend’s wife before he’s given me a green light. And what’s this shit with the Whiskey and Coke. Hasn’t he ever heard of the effects of Whiskey on staying power, if you catch my drift? I’ve never seen anyone drinking anything but Gatorade, water, or goat’s bile (which is a kick-ass aphrodisiac) on this day. Especially Jake. He used to be a champion.
I pull Tina’s head towards me and turn my seductive sexy man move into a noogie. She screams and peels me off. Awkward situation averted.
“What’s with the whiskey?” I say.
Jake just shrugs and makes a dumb, happy face.
“I gotta give the other guys a chance, right?”
Okay, I guess that’s a pretty cool thing to say. Definitely more like my old friend and colleague.
“I guess it also gives the ladies a better chance to run away, huh, Jake?” Suzie slaps his back when she says it and now everybody is laughing.
“Touché,” he says.
“Maybe that way he’ll save some for me, when we get back to normal,” Tina says, which is kind of weird, so we all sort of ignore it. The bar is starting to fill up with horny people of all ages, races, shapes, and sizes. A few scattered weirdos play darts and don’t look at anybody. Most of them, though, are in the zone already, whistling and hooting, slapping bare asses through cowboy chaps, tossing back blue dolphins like they’re Tic Tacs. Barney the bartender, whose mother I did on one of the first years that I can remember, is hanging a flag with red penis stripes and little white booby stars on a window.
“I’ll salute that,” I say, and then I salute it.
“I’m about ready to salute something else,” Suzie says. She’s looking at a man dressed up like a Native American, although based on his complexion I assume he’s actually an African American, or maybe just an African. His skin is very black. Suzie likes that. I think she’s about ready to go, and I’ve got to tell you, I was born ready, so I try to motivate the troops.
“How about I grab us a quick bucket of oysters, we suck them down, and then we head off to graze a little bit.”
Everyone nods, and I go off to the bar and grab a gray bucket filled with ice and oysters. I dribble a little chocolate syrup on there, just for a little kick, and when I get back everybody chows down like animals.
“This is living,” I say, and I look right at Jake and Tina when I say it so maybe they’ll start to remember what they once loved about Flag Day. Al Green croons from the jukebox. Suzie walks off to dance with the African Native American and Tina follows. It’s me and Jake, and I put my hand on his shoulder.
“So it begins.”
Our routine—it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but we’ve been doing it for a long time—is to split off into pairs by sex. Tina and Suzie take off on foot because that’s really the best way to travel as a lady on Flag Day. Jake and I split in his Camaro with a little bit of Bachman Turner Overdrive Greatest Hits Volume One blaring out of his power speakers so loud it makes your ribs vibrate. It’s a thing of beauty.
“Fucking Flag Day!” I say.
“Fucking Flag Day,” he replies, only quieter.
He’s driving kind of fast, which is all right with me. Lord knows I love the whistle of the hot night air, but he’s driving a little too fast for me to check out what’s passing by. I hear a couple odd squeals in our wake, and some foxy thing yells something like, “Come here, oh Camaro,” only Jake doesn’t even slow down. He just keeps on driving real fast and steady, using his blinkers, checking his blind spots.
“Whoa, captain,” I say. “I think we’re missing some real prime time stuff here.”
“Oh, shit. Sorry, I’m a little off this year.” He slows down next to a few little tricks in denim with puffy-paint all over. They wink. He tosses over a couple of pez rolls and they load them into suggestively shaped dispensers. I lean across him to get a better look. They’re all right. Not really what you want for the first of the night. Jake starts to pull over anyway.
“What are you doing man?”
“Flag Day, baby. Fuck yeah,” he says.
Okay, I guess I’m glad he’s sort of getting into it, but not these two hussies. Maybe around dawn we hit something kind of skanky like that, but not now.
“Come on man, not the first ones.”
“They’ve gotta be somebody’s first one.” He turns his lips up in what is supposed to be a smile.
“No,” I say. “Actually they don’t have to be someone’s first one. Someone has to be their first one, but there is no rule, mathematical or otherwise, that says that they can’t be everyone’s eightieth choice.”
“Come on man,” he says. And now he’s really pissing me off because I’m thinking of Suzie probably already enjoying a little slice of heaven in someone’s yard with the sprinkler on. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some jealous monogamist Flag Day hater. I just think it’s important to keep the score even among spouses. Maybe it is jealousy, but she wouldn’t want me to throw down more times than she’s been thrown down, either. Whatever. Point is, Jake and I are sitting here like idiots arguing while these two blue-jean strumpets kind of tap their feet and wait for us to make up our minds.
“Just fucking drive,” I say, and he does—thank God. I hear some chicks make lusty squeal noises as we screech out. Jake drives a few blocks, too fast again. I can tell something is really on his mind. He hasn’t even noticed that the tape needs to be flipped over. So here we are: two reasonably handsome, gainfully employed, intellectually stimulating guys in a goddamn Camaro for Christ’s sake, and it’s almost eight o’clock and we’re sitting in silence with nothing in our laps but our twiddling thumbs.
Jake pulls up to a stoplight and we’re stuck there extra long because there’s this parade going by for the kids. There must be twenty floats, made of chicken wire and papier-mâché, all with different flags from different countries displayed tastefully and with no reference to Flag Day’s more commercial elements: Argentina, Sweden, Cameroon, Peru. They ripple past in no particular order with glitter and streamers. Old granny types walk by with Pomeranians, waving at the people behind police tape who’ve come out to watch. Trumpety music reverberates off everything. Some girls and boys dressed like Betsy Ross and President William Howard Taft ride on the floats—the younger ones stuffing their faces with Cheerios, the older ones gazing up past the modest crowd to where the fields are filled with pasty skin and dangling legs.
I get bored pretty quick and start texting my uncle Ted, who is a real hound, to wish him all the best. I hit send and look over at Jake, and he’s just watching the parade go past, with this sappy, far-off look in his eye. The light is green, but he just puts his chin on the wheel.
Some bastard behind us honks.
“You want to go,” I say. “Light’s green.”
“No. But I will.” He drives, and I don’t say anything even though I know he wants to talk about it.
He’s got something that’s really getting to him, and I feel bad because I’m his best friend, but I really don’t want to spend the start of Flag Day weekend having some heavy conversation about whatever the fuck is more important than the only time of the year that we get to do this. He keeps sighing like a little prick. I break down.
“Okay, Jake. That’s enough. What the fuck?”
He pulls into some bank parking lot where there is a security guard making sure no one sluts around against the ATM.
“I don’t know, Larry.”
“Sure you do. Out with it.” I look at my watch subtly, but so he notices.
“Alright. Here goes. I know we’ve been doing this thing for a lot of years.”
“Twelve,” I say.
“Yeah, twelve. And I’ve had a shitload of fun every year, and it’s been a really cool way to get to know you and Suzie and so many other people around here.”
“Sounds good so far. I know it’s great. So why don’t you get to the point? Why are we sitting here when we could be out there doing that?” I point to a man and a woman riding a Vespa while copulating. Jake snorts.
“I know, man. That’s great and all, and I totally respect that you’re keeping it real and keeping it going. I just feel like I’m in a different place now.”
“What, the driver’s seat?”
“No, I mean my life. Having a new baby boy at home, buying a new house in Ferrisburg—it just makes you look at things a little differently.”
“Oh, what is this bullshit?” I say, and I know it maybe isn’t the most compassionate thing to say, being that I am definitely his best friend and I should care about his mid-life, no-sex-with-strangers-on-Flag-Day awakening. I’ve seen this too many times though, with Ralph and Glenn and Carla and Zed. They all dropped off this same way, and me and Jake used to say how lame it was and how we wouldn’t do that bullshit.
“I’m sorry, Larry. Call it whatever you want. I call it growing up a little bit. Come on, man,” and he gets really close for this part, right up in my face. “Flag Day should be about flags.”
“Oh, this is real smooth, Jake. Are you yanking my chain?”
“Flags are beauty and color and the most vibrant symbols of life and civilization.”
“Please. This is a fucking joke.”
“They are pure and sacred and all that it is to be a nationalist. It’s nothing personal, Lar. It’s just what I believe. It’s the reason this whole thing got started.”
“No, I mean it. Don’t we have the attention span to observe the true meaning of this special day? Has the world gone to crazy?”
“The true meaning of Flag Day?” I say. “Who are you, Charlie fucking Brown?”
He leans back in his seat all annoyed and licks his teeth beneath his lips. “You’re very rude,” he says.
I chug a last bottle of water, undo my seatbelt, and climb out of the car. Even though it’s night, it’s really too hot to be walking around outside in the authentic bear-fur suit from the bear that I tell people that I killed last October. But Jake brought it for me to wear, and though I’ve about had it with him, I retrieve it from the trunk and put it on. I don’t want to turn into a sweaty mess now, but I’m also too pissed to sit in his car. So I walk out to the parade route, behind the police tape, and I just start hoofing it down the street where he can’t follow me, because of the tape and all. I can hear him calling my name, “Larry, Larry come on, man,” in that deflated little voice. Fuck that, though, if he wants to sell out. I hope he doesn’t think I’m going to just ride around with him to get a coffee at Dunkin Donuts and watch through the windows with nostalgic grins as some six-foot three-inch nurse rides a wheelchair-bound midget down the bike path. No sir, I’d rather walk the streets like a chick. But, fuck. It’s so damn hot in these bear-fur slacks, and I’m not going to pull any action sweating like this anyway. So I slow down and turn around, so he can see that I’m this mad, but also that I’m still willing to hang with him because I’m his best friend and I’m not rude. I go back to the Camaro.
“Come on, man,” he says. “I’m sorry. I know it’s lame, but I can’t help it. I look at flags differently now, like they are something special that keeps us safe and helps us to claim territory.”
“Yeah, whatever. I don’t need a flag appreciation lesson.”
“I know, and I don’t want to lecture you. Nobody can make you understand the majesty of the flag until you are ready. Give it time.”
I get in the car, and he still hasn’t flipped the tape over, so it’s just making this winding sound.
“Okay, fine,” I say. “I get it. You’re out. So what the fuck am I supposed to do?”
I guess he’s a pretty good sport about it. He drives me around for the rest of the night to the spots I want to hit and to pick up more sex-bribe candy when we run out. It actually works out really nice because he’s got his fly fishing get-up on, and we run this story that a bear swatted his apparatus, so he can’t perform this year. Luckily I was there and I killed the bear with a gun that I made, and turned him into a bear suit. Most chicks usually wouldn’t buy that story, except that Jake actually doesn’t try to get any action from them, so they assume it must be true and his apparatus must be in pretty bad shape. That gets him some sympathy, which, because of the alleged state of his apparatus, can only be expressed by giving me, the killer of his bear, a little sweet loving. It’s a nice system.
I do this hot little Pippi Longstocking type that kind of reminds me of Tina, only I don’t think about that, because I’m still pretty mad at her and Jake. I also do this giant, fat, heart-attack cow of a woman, who is pretty awesome because she’s got that grateful, needy thing going. Then there are the triplets who only kiss because they’re religious, but that was neat anyway because everyone knows about them, and when I say on Monday, “Hey, so you know those triplets,” and then do the fist pumpy thing, everyone will know what I mean. The prime cut of the night, though, is this little firework from Louisiana. She wraps her thighs around me so tight in the back of this pick-up that she rented that I think she’s going to crack me like a walnut. Her hair is kind of stringy and loose and she wears a red graduation gown that’s all weathered and torn, but it doesn’t matter. She hangs on tight to my hair and there are long tears on her cheeks that don’t roll down, but rather stick right in one place the whole time we’re doing it. This is really what Flag Day is about. It’s about sharing some communal thing with someone who you would probably never have met otherwise. It’s about release and acceptance, and running in the dark, not away from anything, but not towards anything either. It’s about oysters and ecstasy, staying up and getting down.
I look up as I’m doing the graduation gown lady in the truck to make sure Jake has a good view. He’s reading a pamphlet some guy gave him about the significance of the colors of the flag: Red symbolizes Hardiness and Valor, White symbolizes Purity and Innocence, and Blue represents Vigilance, Perseverance, and Justice. He tells me this as I’m walking back towards the car, buttoning up my pants. There is this tranquil smile on his face. I get in and ask him if there’s time for one more. He puts his arm around my neck.
“Sure, buddy. One more.”
We drive off and actually run into those puffy-paint denim girls again. This time it’s late enough, and I haven’t been keeping up with the fluids, so I don’t know how good I’ll be anyway. I give it a go with both of them, using the bear swatting apparatus story and a few gobstoppers to break the ice. I explain why we were tentative earlier. Jake throws in a nice one. “I was embarrassed and jealous that I couldn’t partake in your beauty this night.” That seals the deal. I know he’s got this new thing for the purity of the flag, and he’ll probably subscribe to Flag Mag and start voting for those amendments, but at least he’s still a pretty cool guy. That’ll keep our friendship strong, even if we can’t share Flag Day.
Jake drops me off at home, which is kind of weird for Flag Day, but I guess it isn’t technically Flag Day until tomorrow, so it’s all right. I can see Suzie sitting on the vertical part of the L-shaped couch watching television, so I guess she probably had an equally odd night with Tina. Jake gives me a hug and tries to stick some Flags O’er the Whole World trading cards in my pocket. I tell him to keep them, and then I wish him well the best I can, considering that everything I thought I knew about him turned out to be superficial.
I walk in and sit on our L-shaped couch. Suzie shakes her head slowly back and forth and so do I.
“So, I guess Jake, too?” she says.
“Oh yeah,” I say. “They’re both goners.”
Part of me wants to come up there and snuggle with her, but that’s just because this has been such a weird start to Flag Day weekend. She looks pretty cold on purpose, so I won’t try anything. My apparatus feels like it’s been swatted, anyway.
“Do you ever think we just don’t get it? I mean, maybe this flag thing is for real.”
“Come on, honey,” I say, although I really shouldn’t call her honey. “It’s just some shit that people force themselves to believe when there isn’t much else to get excited about in life. It’s a way to just say ‘fuck it’ and be boring.”
“You make it sound simple.”
“It is simple. Can’t you feel it?”
She tilts her head and thaws a bit when I say that. “I can. I always can.”
“I know,” she says. “Tina had this record on her iPod by a group called Guitars and Stripes Forever. She listened to it the whole time while I got action. When she went to the bathroom and I wasn’t getting action, I listened a bit, and I mean, it’s just loud, streaming bull.”
“I know. It’s crazy to me, and I’m glad you feel the same way.”
“Maybe it’s just the way they were raised,” she says.
“I think it’s something else,” I say. “I think this whole damn world’s about to change. Like maybe we’ve overstayed our welcome.”
“Fuck it,” she says.
We go to sleep in different beds, tired and sore. I don’t sleep much because tomorrow is actual Flag Day, the main event, the big shebang! I guess Suzie and I will try going out trolling together. Lots of couples do it. So we’ll give it a try. It’ll at least be something different, something we’ve never done together. And who knows, maybe something amazing will happen that will sort of make every other boring thing in life worthwhile.