Right around the time the war on terror began, I thought, Does Donna really need so many friggin’ flags? Most of us in the neighborhood hung up a flag to support the troops, though I can’t help thinking that some of us did it because others were doing it. We pulled out our flags from the last war or went to Hal’s and bought a new one, though Hal sold out pretty fast when the war became legit and so good for Hal because usually no one goes to Hal’s anymore, the way he charges, though he says he has to in order to compete with MegaWorld.
Donna went the extra mile. Her flag was twice the size of my flag, but I didn’t mind that so much as I minded having to look across the street at all the little flags stuck in the lawn and in the light holders on the garage and on the antenna of her Subaru. According to Donna Baker and her house, America consisted of 1,150 states.
After a strong wind or rain, I’d see her out there picking up those little flags and then pushing them back in the dirt or snow and packing the dirt or snow around the little sticks. I watched her do this while I had my breakfast, and I’ll admit, I timed my breakfast for when she did this. I did think how it was sort of sad that I had so much time, but my husband’s gone and I don’t drink or smoke and I eat well, and I thought, I deserve to be a little voyeuristic, don’t I?
Then one day, when I saw Donna driving off in her stupid Subaru, I went right across the street and took one of the flags out of the ground and buried it in my backyard. I don’t know why. I respected her patriotic pride. Really, I did. Her son Justin was over there and that must’ve been hard, but no harder than your son fixing city bridges or removing asbestos or driving a stock car. Actually, the most dangerous job in the world is cutting timber. And when Donna got back, she was carrying a bag of groceries in her arms, looking over the flags in her yard and counting them. She put down her groceries and stood there for a half-hour counting and recounting and scratching her head. She went next door to the Putters’s house, but no one was home because they both work. He’s a history teacher and she’s a hairstylist, actually a haircutter. She works at Uppercuts, and what they did to my hair once was not styling. Then Donna Baker walks across the street to my house and knocks on the door. I don’t answer. Then I hear her knocking on my back sliding door. She’s standing on my porch and we see each other and I make like I’m cleaning up some mess behind the couch and give her the “I’ll be there in a second” finger. Then I let her in. She says, “You think those hoodlums are back?” and I think, the last time we had hoodlums was when her son and a couple of his friends ripped out every mailbox on our street and tore down street signs and stole dog houses and dismantled a billboard and spray painted “Welcome to Fuck World” on it and put it in Barry Park and that Sunday kids were all asking their parents what’s “Fuck World,” and I thought to say we hadn’t had any criminal activity around here since your son left, but I didn’t, and I shrugged, and I said, “Would you like some coffee, Donna?”
We talked for a while. She was upset about the new standardized testing at the schools and I mentioned a movie I wanted to see that she hadn’t seen either and so we made a casual plan to go see it but never did. And then she said, “You know, if I had to do it all over again, I’d live close to the water,” and I agreed. Then she left and drove off in her Subaru and came back later with another little flag that she put right in the same spot where I’d taken her other one.
I know some things about Donna Baker. People talk. For instance, I know that her sister has a drug habit and stole all her jewelry and took off to Utah, and I thought, Utah? She hasn’t been back since. I also know that Donna drives down to the new development off 28 just to watch the men work. I know she’s put on 20 pounds, but anyone can see that, but not anyone can see that she sneaks mini-muffins in her car every morning. I also know that she drives 20 miles outside of town to the the Dark Horse in Fulton and sings karaoke all night because my cousin is a bartender there. He says Donna Baker’s a terrible singer.
I’m sure she knows some things about me, too.
She knows, like everyone knows, that my husband ran out on me less than a year ago after they shot a movie here in town and he got a bit part as a short-order cook at a diner with his line, “Flapjacks and bacon,” which he practiced day and night in the house. It was a redundant line. The lead, a detective, asks a waitress at the counter for flapjacks and bacon, then the waitress says, “Flapjacks and bacon,” and Paul repeats, “Flapjacks and bacon.”
They didn’t even use his line in the movie. But, Paul was passionate. He said it didn’t matter how old he was, he was going out to Hollywood to try his hand at it, and if he didn’t try his hand at it, then he’d resent himself for the rest of his life and he’d die an angry man. I’ll tell you this. If my husband was shot dead, more people would’ve come over and said how sorry they were.
Paul left around the time Justin Baker came back from his first tour of duty. We all knew Justin was a strange boy, ever since he was caught masturbating behind Lily Jameson’s house. Other thing was he might’ve killed Joe Falachi’s dog. No one could prove it, but we all suspected. Joe’s son found the dog just east of the general store on Lancaster, poisoned, and who hung out down there every afternoon lighting firecrackers and smoking cigarettes? Justin Baker, that’s who. Donna went door-to-door, sticking a pamphlet on the American justice system in our new mailboxes, but it didn’t change what we’d already made up in our minds. Justin was trouble. That’s what I could never figure out. Why would a boy like that want to go over there and fight for people he didn’t really care about in the first place?
When he left, Donna Baker stuck a dozen or so yellow ribbon stickers to the back and sides of her Subaru. We all know the yellow ribbon sticker is there to support the troops, and who wouldn’t? But I’ll bet Donna didn’t know that the yellow ribbon sticker is also a symbol for suicide prevention, bladder cancer, and endometriosis? It’s true. I looked it up. After he died, she took down the yellow ribbon stickers and stuck a white ribbon sticker to the bumper of her Subaru. It’s a symbol of innocence. It represents victims of terrorism. It’s also a symbol for retinal blastoma, which makes sense. But it has gone black from the mud and dirty snow and you can’t clean a ribbon sticker, and a black ribbon sticker is a symbol for gang prevention, which I know Donna Baker supports too, after all, but I don’t think she knows that’s what it means.
Justin’s welcome-home party was not fun like parties should be, like Gail Little’s party for her father who turned 101, which made him the oldest man ever to live here in town. He wasn’t too sprightly, but being around him made you feel good to be where you were in life. There was a cake, but Mr. Little couldn’t eat the cake because he couldn’t open his mouth wide enough to take in food, and when Gail’s four-year-old nephew, Todd, tried to feed him the cake, he ended up just smearing it over Mr. Little’s lips and cheeks, and we all laughed.
That was a feel-good party, and when he died a few months later, we all said, “He lived a long life.”
It’s hard to feel good when someone comes back from war. You see it on television and you figure the one you know is the one hollering and firing his automatic weapon into the dunes, and, really, how do you react to someone like that?
There wasn’t any cake. There wasn’t even music. What kind of party doesn’t have cake and music? Justin brought a woman back with him. She was so tall, almost another body taller than me. She had a big, round chin and wore gaudy makeup and was dressed in this leopard-print sundress, and we all figured she was a whore because we’d seen how soldiers like the whores in the movies. She ate more than anyone at the party. Justin was sitting on a beach chair on the back lawn rolling cigarettes and smoking and sipping a beer and we all walked around him and stood near him and some of the neighbors shook his hand and asked him questions. His super-tall woman sat down on his lap and at one point I saw them necking and it looked like she was eating him. Calvin Baker grilled hamburgers and hot dogs and brats because that’s Justin’s favorite, but Justin didn’t eat one and the brats were piled up on a serving plate that Donna Baker gave to Joe Falachi to feed to his dog, and Joe said, “Is this a joke?”
The reason why it wasn’t a good party for me was because later Donna Baker and I got into an argument about the war. She was saying how we were doing great things over there, building schools, establishing a government, letting the people decide what’s best for their country, etc. And I interrupted, saying how I thought that was all political propaganda, that we couldn’t even get that right in this fucking country, how were we going to get it right over there? Right? And she called me a traitor, and I called her a gullible bitch, and she said I was a condescending wacko, and I said she was an unrealistic cunt, and she said that my collection of wind chimes drives her nuts, and I said her collection of flags and ribbons drives me nuts, and she said that the brownies I brought over were dry and you could see nobody wanted them, and I said her potato salad tasted like fucking glue. Then she called for Justin, and everyone stopped and stared at him. Donna Baker said, “Tell her, Justin. Go ahead.” And Justin said, “Tell her what?” and Donna Baker said, “Tell her what it’s like,” and Justin said, “It’s like nothing.” Then we sort of drifted back to our houses, trying not to upset all the little flags in the yard. A month later, Justin was called back, and Donna Baker kept up with her flags and ribbon stickers, and we didn’t talk for a while.
I didn’t even think about Donna Baker until a few months later when Nancy Dwyer stopped by with some gossip. She was all excited like she gets when bad things happen to one of us. She told me she saw Donna’s husband Calvin out in Fayetteville having coffee with a gorgeous woman at Dunkin’ Donuts. I don’t know too many gorgeous women who drink coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, and Nancy’s a big liar, anyway. (She once told Cindy Putter that the reason I didn’t have kids was because I didn’t like the way they looked. All kids, mind you. Of course I don’t like how some kids look. Some kids are real ugly. Kids like Cindy Putter’s kids. The reason I didn’t have kids is because I didn’t want kids.) Either way, I thought, hearing that about Calvin, Donna might stop by to ask me what it was like to lose a husband, because, even though I didn’t like a lot of things about her, she was still my friend and my neighbor and we saw each other every day. But she didn’t stop by, and so, I thought, you’re on your own, Donna Baker.
Then I heard that Donna was setting up a committee to send parcels and gift boxes over to the soldiers to let them know that we cared over here. Those I had spoken to said they didn’t RSVP because of how things turned out at the party. And even though I wasn’t invited, I said I didn’t RSVP either. We all agreed that it was better we didn’t have it right in our faces anymore. Most of us didn’t keep up with the war, and because it was almost football season, our neighborhood was more concerned with what the Spartans were going to look like in the fall, rather than any new development with the war.
In October, Justin was killed by one of his own men. I found out from Nancy who had read about it at the grocery and I knew she was telling the truth because she was shivering and crying and she hugged me and Nancy never hugs. After she told me, I spent the next couple days looking across the street to see if Donna Baker would come out and then maybe I’d act like I was leaving to get something at the store and then I could just bump into her and say how sorry I was about her son, because really I was.
But I didn’t see her, not until that Saturday when Calvin Baker showed up. And Donna came out crying and crying, and then Calvin tried to hug her, but Donna stepped away and doubled over, and even though we weren’t on speaking terms, I couldn’t stand seeing her cry, and I started crying. Then Calvin grabbed her from behind and pulled her into him, and I could see some of my neighbors looking out of their windows, and I figured they were thinking like I was. Thinking what it must’ve felt like to be Donna Baker just then.
The funeral was really sad. The biggest, toughest men you’ve ever seen broke down. Donna Baker took the folded flag and put it on her lap and she let Calvin hold her hand, which was sweet, considering. Joe Falachi wore sunglasses, though there wasn’t any sun that day. Nancy Dwyer asked me how much I paid for my bouquet at Jane’s, and I told her too much. Gail Little wasn’t there and we all noticed that. Cindy Putter and her husband brought their two young boys and they ran around the plots, jumping over the buried bodies, taking the flags from the ground and playing swords with them.
When the soldiers raised their guns and fired, I flinched and looked up, thinking a shell might strike me in the head, and who would I blame?
After the funeral, I decided to take my wind chimes down. I’m not sure why I started collecting them in the first place. I used to like them because after Paul left they’d clutter together and ring in uneven tones and it was a good distraction in the morning and at night. I didn’t think; I listened. It’s good for me not to be thinking all the time.
As I was taking them down, I heard footsteps behind me and I turned and there was Donna Baker, and she said, “Why don’t you leave a few up? I can hear them from across the street. They’re pleasant at night.”
I said, “Okay, Donna.”
Then I felt good. I felt so good that the next day I planned on returning her little flag. I had put down a bluestone over the hole where I’d buried the flag and I uncovered the flag and picked up the bluestone to put it in the garage, when I saw Donna Baker pushing a cross into her lawn. I thought, This is ridiculous, and really I was going to go over there and pull it right out, but the bluestone fell from my arms and landed on my foot.
When we got back from the hospital, Donna helped me inside. Then she ran to her house and grabbed an ice pack and set me up on my couch with a pillow underneath my foot and the ice pack wrapped around my toes. She sat down in the chair next to me and we watched the television for a while.
“How is it?” she said finally. “How’s the pain?”
“There’s no pain,” I said. “It’s just numb.”
“Oh, look,” she said, pointing at the television.
There was Paul, right in front of my eyes like he’d been all those days in this house, except now he was on the TV screen. Donna turned up the volume. Paul was sitting with two young boys trying to explain to them the importance of brushing their teeth. Then a big green space alien tore open the roof and came down with a glowing fluorescent tube and a giant toothbrush. He smiled and his teeth blinded Paul and the children with their brightness. Then the kids looked in the mirror and saw that their teeth were as clean and white as the alien’s. They cheered and Paul crossed his arms over his chest.
“Well how about that,” Donna said. “I can’t believe someone from this town is famous.”
“He’s not famous,” I said. “It’s a commercial.”
“But, still. Didn’t he want to be famous? Isn’t that why he left?”
“He left because he didn’t want me anymore,” I said.
“That’s not true,” Donna said.
I sat up on the couch.
“How do you go on like this?” I said. “Tell me the secret, Donna.” My voice was sharp, and Donna pinched her knees together and her shoulders tensed up. “Really, Donna. I’d like to get inside that head of yours and figure you out.”
“I don’t appreciate the way you’re talking to me,” she said. “I’m leaving. I hope your foot feels better.”
“Goddamn it,” I said.
She stood up and slapped down her skirt, sending out a puff of loose hair and dust.
“I pray to God you don’t think it was worth it,” I said. “Do you, Donna?”
She turned to me. Her lips straight and cheeks flexed. I thought I saw it in her. She was deriving pleasure from her rage. She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. She put her hands out and her fingertips shook like little Christmas bells. She had been fighting for a long time, like me. Then her eyes opened just enough so that I could see she was trying to forgive me for what I had said. I can’t say if she did, only that it seemed to me she was trying.
We haven’t spoken since then, but I feel closer to Donna Baker than I ever have before. I know she is there, across the street, with her pain and fantasy, and on certain days when I cannot find any peace in what I am doing, I will pretend to be Donna, and imagine what it must be like to live the way she does.