United We Stand
Copyright © 2004 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
The Von’s shopping cart with one sticky wheel jitters across the parking lot pavement. His teeth vibrate; his skull buzzes at a sixty-cycle hum with square-wave dissonances. Heat wiggles off the car bodies around him.
He slows abruptly near a silver-gray Ford TaurusTM. It is not his vehicle. It is not the conventional contours of the mid-sized sedan that bring him to a halt or its scratched and dusty paint job. It is the fresh American flag on the car antenna, a square foot in area, and the flag decal almost equal in size that fills the rear window. The hand-sized flag decal on the left end of the rear bumper; the stars and stripes that dominate the bumper sticker on the right, which reads “United We Stand.” And the flag decal on the rear driver’s side window, and the other on the passenger side. Six flags in all.
He seethes as he shoves the shopping cart to his own fire-engine red Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXTTM. He spot-checks his flag decals–the one on the rear driver’s side window, the larger one on the back window, the red-white-and-blue license plate holder, and the stars-and-stripes motif of his own bumper sticker, which reads “Proud to Be American” under a scowling bald eagle with its claws outspread. He eyes the flag dangling from his own car antenna, smaller and more ragged than the Taurus’s. Five flags. He counts twice to make sure.
Brain boiling, he reminds himself his antenna flag has been there since last year’s war. The Taurus’s flag was brand new and obviously dates only to this year’s. Still, he would have to find a place to stick another flag to his car. No one is going to show up his patriotism.
He opens the rear hatch of the TrailBlazer. The third row of seats is folded away for better access to its 42-cubic-foot cargo space. He lugs from the cart a twelve-pack of BudweiserTM, then the plastic grocery sack containing a bag of nacho-flavored DoritosTM, a can of Frito-LayTM Bean Dip, and a SwansonTM Hungry ManTM Frozen Salisbury Steak Dinner with Mashed Potatoes and Mushroom Gravy. Load transferred, he slams shut the rear hatch. He scans for a place to leave the shopping cart, rests it against the convenient rear bumper of a neighboring maroon Volvo station wagon. He glowers one last time in the direction of the Taurus before climbing into his TrailBlazer.
His 275-horsepower 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder engine roars to life. So does the factory-installed dashboard radio, blaring a commercial for a Hummer dealership. Screeching backward in two-wheel drive on his B. F. GoodrichTM Rugged Trail tires, he brakes just short of an approaching mint green Hyundai ElantraTM all but eclipsed between the left rear roof pillar and a flag decal. It honks. He blasts angrily back.
“Motherfucker,” he says. He is tempted to continue pulling out ahead of it, but it is too close to his rear. As the Elantra cruises by, he turns in his seat to thrust up a middle finger. He hopes the other driver can see him through his tinted windows. After swinging into the aisle in a 44-inch arc, he lunges after the car. When it pauses in the exit driveway, he brakes as close to its rear bumper as possible. He starts to bounce out of the parking lot on its tail but has to stop for an oncoming jet black Cadillac EscaladeTM. “Shit,” he mutters as he peels out behind it, but then the good news erupts from the radio. As he comes to a stop behind the Escalade at the intersection, his spirit soars with sudden excitement.
We are bombing the hell out of the enemy. Hundreds of them are dying for every one of ours. And we are doing it all for freedom.
“Yes!” he cries aloud, pounding the steering wheel with his clenched fist. “Fuckin’ A!”
After another day at Radio ShackTM selling coaxial cable and AAA 1.5-volt batteries for remote controls, his blood surges. He thrills as details spill from the dashboard about our inexorable invasion and their inevitable defeat. We have 90,000 troops approaching their capital, 12,000 alone from the 101st Airborne. The light changes to green, and he hugs the Escalade’s bumper as he careens through the intersection, alive with the heady rush of freedom.
Entering the traffic on the crowded commercial boulevard, he is just able to dash into a gap in the right lane ahead of a pale blue Volkswagen PassatTM that has to brake to a rocking near stop. The 3rd Infantry Division is pummeling their Republican Guard with tanks and artillery. He passes the Escalade then follows a dark green GMC SierraTM four-by-four into the next intersection as the light turns yellow; he exults in freedom as the light turns red before he whizzes through. Two-thirds of our air strikes, tons and tons of bombs, are falling on the enemy troops that vainly protect their capital. It is a holocaust.
He cannot help grinning as he punches his TrailBlazer’s 5040 pounds forward. Approaching the next intersection–which is bounded by a Union 76TM station, a Bank of AmericaTM, a WinstonTM‘s Tire Center, and Jack-in-the-BoxTM drive-in restaurant–he hits his horn fiercely and freely at a gold BMW 540iTM that is crawling too slowly in front of him. He lurches around it, barely missing its left front corner. Three thousand prisoners have been hauled so far from the occupied towns into detention and interrogation centers, most of them non-combatants. It doesn’t matter; they are helpless.
At the corner where he must turn, he narrowly channels his TrailBlazer between a gray Jeep WranglerTM and the curb. Standing on the sidewalk is a white-haired man holding up a sign that reads “NO WAR FOR OIL” and an equally old woman with a sign saying “NOT IN MY NAME.” Bombs burst between his ears. He rolls down his window. “Traitors!” he yells in their direction. “Motherfuckin’ shit-eating pussies.”
He is not sure they hear him. Clenching his teeth, he thrusts a middle finger at them. The radio mentions that seven enemy women and children were shot to death when their car failed to stop at a checkpoint.
“Why do you hate America, you goddamn liberal motherfuckers!”
They wave their signs at him.
Freedom rings as he jams his accelerator and bounces over the curb. Off road, he hears a satisfying thud and a hoarse scream as one of the signs goes down. As he pushes his mass up the slight hill, he glances in the rear view mirror at the figures on the corner behind him, one kneeling over the other on the sidewalk. They’re not waving their signs any more.
His laughter booms metallically inside the roomy, well-chromed interior.
Her prayers are answered. She finds a parking spot on the shady second level of the cement structure not far from the bridge into Nordstrom’s. She remembers to thank her angel as she steps out of her white Toyota Camry.
She begins digging in her purse for her GuessTM sunglasses as she steps onto the pedestrian bridge, finds them half way across. As she reaches the glass entryway to NordstromTM‘s, she removes them from her face and tucks one plastic arm into the cleavage of her yellow top with the “bebe” logo across the chest. She enters the section of the department store that sells women’s formal wear, where she pauses to peruse then fondle a red sequined strapless party dress. She glances at the price tag but walks away without registering it.
She passes the juniors, the escalators, the petites, and the presently vacant piano. Although this is a weekday, the store seems full of shoppers, just as though it was a weekend or a holiday. In fact, she senses festivity lurking in the atmosphere, which is good because she is looking for an emotional lift. Strolling into Lingerie, she lingers at a table where assorted bright print panties are on sale at three for $18. She picks out a pair with rippling turquoise and green bands, one pink with a white waistband, and another in patriotic colors of red, white, and blue. She buys them with her Nordstrom’s credit card.
Leaving the department store through the heady garden of perfume and cosmetics, where women sit at counters receiving spot makeovers and free samples, she steps out into the mall. She notices flags draped over some of the storefronts, making the air of euphoria even stronger out here. She tries to remember if this is one of those patriotic holidays–like Memorial Day or Veterans Day or July Fourth–when there would be sales in stores all across the mall. It is April, however, and she cannot recall if any of those holidays falls in this month. She is pretty sure that July Fourth, for one, comes some time in July.
Then she remembers something about another war. When all those news breaks showing explosions first interrupted The Bold and the Beautiful, she could not understand why they would advertise some guy movie on her soap. So that explains why the flags are out. Perhaps they are having a War Days Sale. She is surprised she did not receive a mailing about it from the stores where she has credit card accounts.
She prays that she can find some good bargains. The first shop she reaches is Ann TaylorTM, where she spots a cute orange slip skirt in the window that draws her inside. She tries it on before learning it costs $69. Although it is not on sale she decides not to wait, and after pawing through a rack of sweaters and tops she buys it using one of her CitibankTM cards and leaves. At Charlotte RusseTM she finds some capri pants on sale for $29.99, and although they are last year’s style and she doesn’t really have anything to match the green and violet floral pattern, it is a bargain she cannot pass up, so she buys the pants with her Wells Fargo MasterCardTM.
As she walks past the Victoria’s SecretTM, a familiar model in satiny matching lavender panties and bra and fluffy white angel wings stares at her from a lifesized poster in the window, and she reflects briefly that her personal angel should look like that. Drawn inside, she fondles many soft and silky things before picking out a bright red bra with pushup padding that adds $34 to her other Citibank. As she stuffs the Victoria’s Secret bag inside her Charlotte Russe bag, she decides she has to make up for paying full price for the bra and finds a pair of cute sandals at Dales with low heels and lots of thin, crisscrossing white straps for a mere $15 which she buys with her Bank of America VisaTM.
Between trying on skirts, pants, and tops at Bebe and BCBG she passes a Sharper ImageTM where a pair of small children, the girl taller and older than the boy, stare in silent trance at a huge television screen. Soundlessly it shows volcanic plumes of smoke pouring out of some city with foreign-looking domes and towers. That feeling of electric excitement mounts. Dazed with it, almost drunk, she drifts with the flow of other shoppers. It is almost like Christmas at the mall, with the same sense of common movement toward a shared goal. But instead of the carolers and Christmas decorations, there are the flags.
Like a bee buzzing from bloom to bloom, she visits ExpressTM and WetSealTM without finding anything she really wants except some cute dangly earrings with crystal chips at a kiosk on the route between them. She buys them for $14.99, paying by check. At GuessTM she cannot resist a pair of pre-washed, pre-faded low rise bellbottom jeans and manages to stuff herself into the Size 8s, even though they shove her waist out over the belt. She decides she looks hot enough, however, even at $168, which goes on her MasterCard
Her hands are cramping from all the bags she is carrying, and she stops at Mrs. FieldTM‘s for a break and one of those huge cookies with the M&M things, but when she sees they are having a sale–five cookies for $5.55–she picks up an assortment. She finds a place to sit and eats one with the M&Ms and one with white chocolate chips.
She glows with bliss as she wanders through Nieman-MarcusTM and finds a hot pink off-the-shoulder long-sleeved top for $68, which she puts on her store card. And then a painful twinge in her abdomen gives her pause. She prays it is not what it feels like, and asks a middle-aged floorwalker where the women’s room is. It is across the floor, past a section of women’s office clothing, near the elevators. She is thankful to find one stall open. Shutting herself inside, she arranges her bags against the toilet before peeling down her jeans and pale yellow panties. In front of a faint chocolate smudge in the cotton crotch, she sees a fingerprint-sized irregular spot of dark red.
“God damn it,” she mutters.
Legs apart to hold her pants taut, she rummages through her purse but finds no overlooked tampon, no panty liner.
“Shit,” she hisses.
And then she remembers her purchase at Nordstrom’s. Her angel is looking out for her after all. Sitting on the toilet, she snatches up the bag and reaches inside to feel for her new panties. She draws one out: the red, white, and blue. She decides to empty her bladder before changing.
She knows it is just a matter of time now before the bleeding increases, so she hurries out of the Nieman-Marcus and heads back down the flag-lined mall. Anyway, she tells herself, she doesn’t have the hands to carry any more bags. Except for this one glitch, it has been a good shopping trip.
The holiday spirit that still infuses the atmosphere re-ignites her. As she approaches Nordstrom’s again on her way back to the parking structure, the notion pops into her head that there might be fireworks somewhere tonight. She considers calling her friends to find out. If there is some patriotic celebration somewhere, she wouldn’t want to miss the bombs bursting in air.
The teenager sits at the keyboard of his HP Pavilion 701TM computer with 1.7 GHz Athion XP processor, three firewire ports, and S-video output. From the computer’s speakers music pounds and squeals and roars: the song “Bad Blood” by Ministry. He tucks lank, dark blonde hair behind his ear as he stares at the NEC MultiSync LCD 1550XTM flatscreen monitor.
He is looking at a bearded old man in a turban, smudged with dirt and blood. Apparently emerging from a heap of smoking rubble, he cradles in his arms a girl about ten, apparently unconscious in a frilly white party dress. What should be feet dangle from her legs like bags of hamburger, the boneless ankles eerily attenuated.
“Cool,” he breathes.
He is alone in the house. His dad is at work in his insurance office; his mom at her desk at the dentist’s. He would normally be at Westmoreland High today, but his suspension lasts through Friday. It wasn’t his fault, he tells himself; it was that gang of Mexican kids who started it. But it doesn’t matter anyway. He fails to see how a week off from school is punishment. He likes rising from bed at noon, having a Coke and Snickers bar for breakfast before sitting down at the Sony Playstation IITM for a long session of Mortal Combat. He is not wasting time with Western Civilization, Geometry, or Gym.
Sitting at his dad’s computer in the home office, it does piss him off that even this one blocks the porn sites. He misses the pages he used to have bookmarked: the Busty Babes, the Girls on Girls, the Animal Lovers, the Amputee Action. After his parents acted, all he could access was a breast cancer site with some pretty good pictures until his mom stumbled across it.
Until this war began. Now he has found some sites equally awesome.
As far as he can tell, no one else knows about these pictures. They have not shown up on any of the cable news channels his dad watches. They have not appeared on the covers of Time or Newsweek in the magazine rack at the local 7/11 where he goes afternoons to peruse Maxim and Details before buying a 32-ounce Dr. Pepper. He has not seen them in the newspaper his mom leaves on the dining table in the morning. Only websites in foreign languages seem to have them, which makes them hard to find but even harder for his parents to discover.
Croaking “bad, bad blood” alongside the singer’s scream, he rolls his LogitechTM optical mouse to scroll to another photograph. This one shows a row of tiny bodies, neatly laid side by side in a chaos of debris. There are at least four of them, photographed from ground level. The nearest child can’t be more than three years old. All are ash gray, their skin and clothes powdery, their lids seared shut, eyes hollowed, as though flash-scorched.
“Whoa,” he drawls, impressed.
He imagines having the power to do that. It must be exhilarating as hell-better than entire days of Mortal CombatTM. He guesses that as an American he technically does have the power, since it is being done. But he feels more longing than satisfaction. Just having it done in your name is not the same as doing it with your own hands.
He clicks to other photographs: smashed buildings with smashed people stumbling out like zombies, pulped and headless bodies, limbs scattered across dusty streets.
He feels a hot pressure inside his boxer shorts. He adjusts the waistband until he frees himself. Moaning “bad, bad blood” as the song roars to its climax, he wraps his left hand around the stiffening phallus while scrolling to the next photo with his right. A close-up of a dead boy with bloodied face and emptied skull.
Perhaps it is time for the shaving gel, he tells himself.
And then his pulse surges as he gets a better idea.
He sets the plastic sack from Von’s on his off-white formica kitchen countertop and pulls out the groceries: the bag of nacho-flavored DoritosTM, the can of Frito-LayTM Bean Dip, the Swanson’s Hungry ManTM Frozen Roast Beef Dinner with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy. He rips out a can of BudweiserTM from the 12-pack before putting the rest in his refrigerator. He glances at the instructions on the rectangular box of the frozen dinner. It will take no more than five minutes to microwave. No hurry. He leaves it on the counter.
Taking a chipped dinner plate from the cupboard over the sink, he tears open the Doritos bag and dumps some chips out. He opens the pop top lid of the bean dip, grabs a spoon from a drawer, and scoops the dip onto the chips. He finds a jar of Kraft Cheez WhizTM Salsa con Queso in his refrigerator and pours a hefty helping on top. Thirty seconds in his Black and DeckerTM microwave oven and it’s ready.
He carries his Bud and his plate of nachos into the living room, sets down the beer to pick up the remote from the end table beside the sofa, and turns on his PanasonicTM CRT-based rear projection TV with built-in High Definition tuner and sub-woofer. It comes on to ESPN and a basketball game, but he switches to Fox News, where the news is always good.
And the war blossoms across his 44-inch screen with bright orange and white explosions and billows of brown and black smoke. Enthralled, he takes another swallow of beer before sitting down and digging into his plate. The blasts sound particularly impressive on his sub-woofer.
An on-the-scene Fox News reporter asks an officer in the field how his company’s barrage is going.
“We’ve got them right where we want them,” he answers boldly. “In fact, we want the bad guys to stick their heads up to shoot at us so we can pound them.”
His mouth full of chips and dip, he gurgles hoarsely, “Fuckin’ right.” He chews and swallows, washing the mouthful down with beer. “Pulp those motherfuckin’ ragheads.”
The camera tracks a pair of jets streaking by overhead. The crawl scrolling past at the foot of the screen shows numbers with lots of zeros, estimates of the enemy dead. The next shot shows bombs bursting in air over the city, each one a temporary sun. He hollers exuberantly, feeling the freedom.
“Kill every goddamn one of them.” Bouncing on the cushion, he nearly spills his nachos. Buildings explode, and smoke smothers the skies. It is hell on earth.
“Awesome,” he shouts. “Yes! Yes!”
She imagines she feels blood trickling onto her new red, white, and blue panties as she hurries through the Von’s supermarket. She picks up a small box of 40 TampaxTM super absorbent tampons and, just to be sure, a store brand bag of 24 four-channel maxi-pads. She is leaving through the paper goods aisle when she passes a plump middle-aged woman with short white hair, a red T-top, and a voile scarf with a stars and stripes pattern, and remembers that there is a War Days celebration going on. She turns into the next aisle, which is glass-lined with the frozen food section, and settles on a quart container of DreyerTM‘s Double Chocolate Chocolate Fudge ice cream.
Returning to her Toyota CamryTM, she wastes no time getting out of the parking lot, even though it means rolling right through a stop sign and forcing a driver in a big blue car to brake to let her by. Destiny’s Child sings “say my name, say my name” from her dashboard radio as she speeds up the slight hill to her apartment complex and parks in the red-curbed fire zone nearest her second floor apartment. It takes her two trips to carry both the groceries and the bags from the back seat of her Camry upstairs. She puts the ice cream in the freezer. Then she carries the grocery sack to the bathroom, where she can’t really tell if she has bled on the red crotch of her new panties. She just decides to trust her angel and simply inserts a tampon and a panty liner before pulling them back up. Only then does she go back downstairs to drive her car to her numbered carport spot.
Locked inside her apartment, she strips down to her new patriotic panties before fishing her new Victoria’s SecretTM bra from its sack. After hooking it up, she ogles herself in the full-length mirror on the bathroom door. She loves the way the satiny red bra pushes her breasts together for just the right amount of cleavage and adds the equivalent of a full cup size to her bust. The red even sort of matches the red in the panties. She rests her hands on her hips and swivels slowly back and forth, trying to recall the poses of the models with angel wings on the displays in the Victoria’s Secret windows. Anyway, she decides she looks hot.
One by one she empties the rest of her shopping bags onto the cranberry-colored crushed velvet duvet covering her queen bed. She spreads out her orange skirt from Ann TaylorTM and her capri pants from Charlotte RusseTM and the GuessTM jeans and the hot pink top from Nieman-MarcusTM and the other two panties. She sets the sandals she bought on sale on her pillow before putting on the earrings she bought at the kiosk in the mall. Her purchases almost cover the duvet. Head spinning with joy, she thanks her angel for making this a good day. She hopes there will be more War Days like this.
Falling forward on the bed, she reaches for her Ann TaylorTM skirt with one hand and her top from Nieman-MarcusTM with the other. She clutches the clothes to her cheeks, relishing the smooth feel of the fabrics. The crushed velvet of the duvet caresses the bare skin of her torso and thighs. She rolls over her jeans, over her capri pants and her new panties, over and over, hugging everything in turn to her chest.
“Yes,” she hisses.
She feels another twinge in her abdomen, but it is a twinge of intense pleasure. It shoots all the way through her loins, suffusing them, nibbling the tender junction between her thighs. She wraps her legs around her GuessTM jeans and squeezes. She brushes crumpled panties across her lips. She feels intense warmth inside. Her breathing accelerates.
“Oh yes,” she says more loudly. “Yes! Yes!”
The teenager stalks through the corner park, cuddling the unaccustomed load inside his surfboard cover. His earphones are tucked into his ears; his Creative LabsTM Nomad Iic 64MB MP3 player is in the pocket of the baggie skater’s jeans that slump around his hips. He is listening to Monster Magnet pound out “Heads Explode.” He tries to appear as casual as he can, hoping nobody notices him. There is no one in the playground except a Mexican mother gently pushing her child on a swing. They are well behind him by the time Pershing Middle School comes in sight.
He slows down only when he can clearly see the high wire fence and the bleachers inside it and the playing field beyond. As expected, there are students seated in the bleachers–a lot of them, in fact. Some sort of outdoor assembly appears to be going on.
He stops near a medium-sized tree. Removing his earphones, he aims his hearing forward. The ragged wailing of a school band rises on the breeze, playing a disharmonic tune he eventually recognizes as “God Bless America.” The students are standing in the bleachers. The familiar colors of flags parade across the field. He does not look at them. He looks at the backs of the students standing in the bleachers.
Kneeling beside the tree trunk, he unzips his surfboard cover. He draws out his dad’s rifle, a Remington 710TM with bolt action and three locking lugs, and hefts its 7.1 pounds: the 22-inch cold-forged, ordnance-grade steel barrel set into a gray synthetic stock. Reaching into the bottom of his cover, he retrieves the detachable four-slot dual-stack magazine of 7mm Magnum shells and shoves it into the fiberglass reinforced and self-lubricating nylon receiver insert. He lifts one knee from the grass, uses it to brace his elbow as he lifts the pre-mounted, bore-sighted Bushnell SharpshooterTM 3-9×40 scope to his right eye.
After some wobbling movement, a head comes into the scope, the back of a boy’s head-shiny black hair over a brown neck. Probably a Mexican kid. He remembers the visions of the dead on the computer screen, brown kids with black hair scorched white.
He caresses the small, smooth curve of the trigger. He presses the hard metal of the rifle against his cheek. Amid the heart-pumping exhilaration, he relishes the pulsating hardness that swells again inside his boxers. So this is what it feels like, he thinks as he holds the boy’s head in his sites, the boy’s life in his hands.
He tells himself he is only practicing. He is not really going to pull the trigger this time. He just wants to enjoy the flavor of this ultimate power–the power over life and death.
But he probably wouldn’t shoot. Yes. Maybe he won’t. Yes. Yes.