The Midwest |

Flag Girl

by Aram Mrjoian

Wearing a confederate flag as a cape, a suntanned girl walked across the muddy fairgrounds of rural southeast Michigan, her bare skin shining in the July sun. She appeared to James Yu like a figure in a pleasant dream about to devolve into a nightmare. Her jean shorts were high enough so that the soft white pockets poked out like cat ears below the hem, the denim lassoed tight around her hips with a brown leather belt, the buckle a piece of dull metal shaped like the state’s lower peninsula. She was covered with an American flag bikini top and matching running shoes that were beet red from toe to heel. Her brown hair was in a loose braid tossed over one shoulder. James couldn’t tell if she was walking toward him, but her gait was steady, and she looked his way with a mischievous grin. He maintained his route, returning from the beer tent with a fresh tallboy, back to where he left his friends across the lawn. She continued in his direction until she nearly ran straight into him. She leaned a hand against his chest. James realized she was drunker than she looked. Reflexively, he placed a palm on her hip to stabilize her. She was a head shorter and elevated to her tiptoes to whisper in his ear.

“You’re pretty cute for a Chinaman,” she said.

James pulled away. She pouted but kept a finger lingering on his sternum.

“You’re pretty cute for a racist,” he replied.

“Fuck you,” she mumbled, stumbling away.

She smacked his ass and veered past him toward the main stage. James glanced over his shoulder to see her backside, but the stars and bars concealed her body. When he turned back around, he noticed a man kneeling in the grass about twenty yards away, a camera lens the size of a paint can focused on him like an unblinking eye.

At Iron Horse, a four-day country music festival held on discarded farmland a short detour off of I-94, James was not having the time of his life, as he’d been promised. He never found much appeal in the country music, but did have a soft spot for camping and drinking outside. To his regret, his coworkers at the bank had neither mentioned the close proximity of their sleeping quarters nor the vague Nazi rally aura of the crowd. Their site was sandwiched in a sea of rusted F-150s, tents adorned with patriotic memorabilia, and the lingering apocalyptic smell of skunked beer and diesel wafted in the breeze. Beer pong tables, yard games, and gas grills occupied the remaining lot space, so that the entire campground felt like a gigantic tailgate. The booze and burgers were fine by James, but the composition of the crowd left him on edge. He had seen few, if any, people of color, whereas he’d seen more Celtic cross tattoos and flag-print clothing than he imagined existed. A pair of muscled men, blond behemoths with well-groomed muttonchops and matching red-white-and-blue tuxedos, sauntered around the campgrounds with fishing poles casting out business cards for their modeling agency to women they found attractive. Many of the men wore cowboy or trucker hats, and ketchup red baseball caps were scattered like lighthouse beacons across the masses. He even saw one guy wearing an enormous, intricately woven blue sombrero patterned with five-point stars, a sign taped around the cone that said, “build a wall.” Trucks loaded with bags of ice and volunteer medics circled the grounds on a labyrinth of dirt paths to ensure the 30,000 plus concertgoers could keep their food and beer cold for the duration of the extended weekend.

A cacophony of country music blared incessantly from disparate speakers. The couple one tent over had bickered for most of the previous night and prevented James from getting much sleep. Based on what he overheard, the man snuck off with one of his girlfriend’s sorority sisters to hook up in a port-a-potty. The couple was hammered and had lost any sense of volume control. The man kept repeating insincere apologies and the woman threatened to castrate him if he passed out. The litany of their argument circled for hours.

As James walked across the vast and deteriorated lawn, he still wasn’t sure why he agreed to come. At twenty-three, he worked as a junior manager at a national bank branch located within a supermarket on the outskirts of Grand Rapids. The bank was the first employer to offer him a job when he finished school. He graduated with a finance degree from Albion College and accepted the position despite having little interest in the work. The salary was decent for entry-level and James figured it would be a boon to his resume to have management experience. When they hired him, he wasn’t sure where he’d be assigned. He was grateful it wasn’t somewhere more rural. He loved Grand Rapids, with its gorgeous art museum, abundant microbreweries, and short drive to Lake Michigan, but had been yearning to break from his normal weekend routine. City life wore him down, and he needed some sort of adventure, an urge that made him amenable when two male coworkers, Dale and John, insisted Iron Horse was the outdoor party of the summer.

“You need to see the girls there,” Dale said. “It makes spring break look tame.”

Dale was a nice enough guy, but James took his assurances at face value. He was a mediocre worker. He liked to party and often showed up to work hungover. He was liberal with sick days. It was really John, the other teller on the trip, who convinced him. John was his best employee, reliable, with tireless patience for the most difficult customers at the bank. James once watched John help an elderly woman roll two milk jugs full of loose change during his lunch break, maintaining a lively conversation about her cats and houseplants all the while.

Dale and John had taken Friday off work so they could make the hour and a half drive Thursday night and set up for the weekend early. James was hesitant to spend three days in a drunken haze with guys who were technically his subordinates and – considering the staffing – he needed to work Friday anyway. It was a simple excuse to avoid an extra day at the concert. When he showed up late Friday night in the waning purple and pink light of sunset, Dale and John were blitzed and playing lawn darts with two freshman girls from Central Michigan University named Charlene and Dianne. They looked terrifyingly young. Unblemished. Flannel shirts tied in knots above their muscled torsos. James was grateful he brought his own tent, a small, thick four-season setup perfect for weekend trips, though he hadn’t used it since a short overnighter in winter, when most of the state parks were empty and he could camp in blissful isolation.

While his friends attempted to seduce undergrads, James dumped a stiff pour of rye into a Solo cup and grilled a bratwurst. The girls lost at lawn darts and by some previous arrangement gave the boys each a peck on the cheek. Dianne walked over by James and untied and unbuttoned her flannel to change into a long sleeve t-shirt and hooded sweatshirt resting on a lawn chair. She didn’t bother going into her tent.

“No peaking over there,” she said with a wink at James. Mid-chew into a greasy lump of brat slathered with too much Dijon, James obeyed and looked off toward the rising moon. The sky had returned to its soft blue and stars were coming into visibility near the treeline. The group of five played yard games into the night and between them ate the whole weekend’s worth of potato chips and pretzels. Dianne and James got along well and when they were sitting around in a circle of lawn chairs before heading off to their tents she clung to his arm and rested her head on his shoulder. Everyone was liquored up and exhausted, but once James finally turned in he rolled around in his sleeping bag listening to all the damn noise, the clear voices of his neighbors howling on until morning.

The distraction of flag girl sent James off course and he realized he had overshot the stage, walking too far toward the back parking lot. A group of men in swim trunks and women in bikinis played kickball in front of a rusty Ferris wheel. James veered around the game. Each base was an inflatable kiddie pool filled with water and foam. It was the middle of the afternoon and the sun glimmered off the players’ soapy bodies. John insisted the band playing the main stage that afternoon was garbage and suggested instead watching a young club-circuit septet from Nashville called Seven Spokes, who were performing an acoustic set in a renovated stable near the edge of the fairgrounds. Dale was blotto by noon and had been absent for most of the day, finding them occasionally to shoot the shit or talk about women in the crowd. By the time James relocated John he’d almost finished his beer.

“You took a while,” John said.

“Just admiring the scenery,” James joked.

“There’s certainly a lot to take in.”

“Did Dale come back?”

“For a second. Then he convinced some sophomore chicks from State to play horseshoes.”

James regretted missing the opportunity to play. Horseshoes was a game he enjoyed. Growing up in a sprawling suburb half-an-hour’s drive outside Detroit, his father had insisted on digging horseshoe pits in the backyard. He pounded four-by-fours deep into the lawn with railroad spikes, lugged bags of beach sand home from the local hardware, and ordered real horseshoes from a nearby racetrack. Horseshoes must have seemed like an inherently American pastime to James’s dad, who had moved from South Korea at eighteen to attend the University of Michigan.

“Are you getting hungry?” James asked.

“Yeah,” John said. “We can leave and go make dinner when the set’s done. Dale will find his way back.”

After Seven Spokes performed a lengthy encore, John and James meandered across the lawn, stopped by the beer tent to re-up on overpriced tallboys, and continued among the teeming crowds across a closed dirt road back toward their campsite. John called his mom while they walked. James had always admired John’s commitment to his family. John lived at home with his parents and most of his paycheck went to helping them out with their groceries and mortgage. John’s father was out of work on disability from an industrial accident at a tool and die factory and now relied on his son to help supplement the family income. Most weekends, John had a second job as a bartender to add to his meager paycheck from the bank. As a teller, he was paid hourly even though he worked full-time. The one frivolous thing John spent money on was a junker pinball machine stored in his parents’ garage. He’d slowly been refurbishing it, but sometimes finding a specific part took weeks of scouring the Internet. He gave James an updated progress report every Monday. James was impressed by his patience.

A couple acres away from their site, James and John came upon six or seven men in jeans and cutoff t-shirts standing in a circle between two tents off the main path. At their feet, James saw the woman he’d bumped into earlier, the confederate flag spread out under her like a picnic blanket, the men’s muddy boots dirtying its hem. She was writhing back and forth and dry-heaved toward the sky. James could see her belt was undone and the buckle dangled off her hip.

“Ain’t she a peach,” one of the men said.

“A juicy one,” another added. “I bet she tastes real good. You know?”

“We get it,” a third said in annoyance. “C’mon, get her in the tent before someone comes looking for her.”

“Hey!” James yelled. The men craned their necks toward him en masse. The closest one had the nub of a stogie drooping from the edge of his mouth. He leered at James, sizing him up and down, smoke billowing from his face like a steam engine. One hand on his cigar, he moved the other to his back pocket. He walked toward James and pulled out a hunting knife.

“You got a problem?” he asked, wiping the blade on his shirt as if it needed cleaning. James didn’t say anything. He looked down at the girl on the ground. Spittle dribbled from her mouth. She stretched out her arms as if pining for something. Her left breast had slipped out of the bikini top and James’s eye gravitated toward her nipple, leaving him with an immediate sense of guilt. John stood next to him in silence. “Well?” the man continued.

As if magically revived, the girl sat up and vomited between her legs. The men stepped back. She went bug-eyed when she saw James. “You!” she shouted and pointed at him.

An ice truck turned the corner and drove in their direction. The man facing James saw it coming and tucked the knife in his belt beneath his shirt. The truck halted next to them and the gray-bearded driver poked his head out the window.

“Everything okay, boys?” the driver asked.

“Yessir,” the man with the cigar said.

The driver looked past him. “She doesn’t look so good. I’m calling a medic.”

The men surrounding her walked off, trying to look nonchalant. James turned to John and they lumbered down the road, having no desire to take any responsibility for the situation. The driver exited the truck to attend to the girl. After a few steps, James felt a hand tug at his shoulder and a smattering of cigar ash flaked across the back of his neck. He brushed at it frantically but one of the hotter chunks fell under his shirt and made him squirm.

A laugh came from behind. “We’ll be seeing you soon, you chink bastard!”

“I’m leaving,” James said, when they got back to the campsite. He yanked the tent stakes free from the ground and they sent clods of dirt bursting forth into the air.

“Fuck those guys,” John said. “You haven’t even been here a day. They’re all talk. We won’t even run into them again”

“Pulling a knife isn’t fucking talk. And it’s not worth finding out.”

James felt the beer kicking in and the drive back to Grand Rapids would take at least an hour and a half. He went into the cooler and removed a fresh bottle of water from the ice and gulped the entire thing. John stood by and watched. James tried to nicely fold the footprint of his tent, but soon lost patience and crumbled the canvas into a ball. John seemed to realize he would not be able to convince James to stay and opened a second cooler for some leftover bratwursts they’d grilled the night before.

“Let’s at least get some food in you before you go,” John said.

James understood the logic – the last thing he needed was a DUI. He finished packing while John readied the snack. Greedily, James gnashed away at the cold bratwurst and it was gone in three bites. John had added too much sweet relish and the pickle juice made the porous hotdog bun as mushy as a kitchen sponge, but it was not the time to be picky. James grabbed two more bottles of water from the drink cooler and got in his car, a silver Prius that stuck out among the horde of pickup trucks and SUVs. He rolled the window down to talk to John.

“Say bye to Dale for me. See you at work on Monday.”

“I’ll let him know what happened. Drive safe.”

James pulled out onto the dirt path and made slow progress down the road, which was clogged with wandering campers. He stopped to let a group of girls in cowboy hats cross and a hand thumped against his passenger window. James jumped and the car flinched as his foot shifted on the brake. He looked over to see Dianne waving at him. James rolled the window down in relief.

“Are you already leaving?” she asked.

“Afraid so,” James said.

“That’s too bad”. An ice truck honked behind him. “Take care of yourself.” She pounded her palm on the roof of the Prius.

“Hey, John has my number.” James said. Dianne grinned and knocked twice on the roof again. James rolled up the window and drove away.

By the time he navigated out of the web of fairgrounds, it was early evening and the roads were barren. The drive home was dull, a flat stretch of farmland and forest preserves. The unchanging landscape had a soporific effect on James. Coming off the booze gave him a headache, but he tried to remain hyper-alert, holding his arms rigid at ten and two to prevent any swerving. There was no telling whether or not he’d pass a field sobriety test if he were pulled over. He didn’t realize he was only going sixty-five miles per hour, a crawl by Michigan standards, until a red F-150 towing an aluminum fishing boat flew by him in the left lane. He guessed the boat was about an 18-footer, a cheap model purchased to fuel some hobbyist’s perch and walleye habit.

Sizing up boats was a habit James learned from his father, who had moved from Gwangju shortly after the May 18 Uprising to earn a niche degree in naval architecture. University of Michigan was one of the few schools that offered such a program. James grew up in a house with ship blueprints framed on the wall and model sailboats mounted on the mantel. His father owned a successful consulting firm and had advised on projects ranging from classified U.S. Navy research to gaudy yachts and gorgeous sailboats custom designed for billionaires. His mother was of German decent and grew up in Dexter, Michigan, which abutted Ann Arbor. Her parents once owned an apple orchard. She was a freshman majoring in political science when she met his father, a gangly junior at the time, who approached her in the library when he noticed she couldn’t prevent her table from wobbling back and forth on an uneven leg. After he fixed the problem, the table became their regular meeting spot to study. They married a year after his mother graduated. Six years later they had James, their only child.

James leaned on the gas pedal and turned on the cruise control once he reached seventy-five. The drive was flat enough that it gave him the perception of being in a giant dome. He rolled down the windows to wake himself up. The wind was hot and thick, but it felt rejuvenating on his weary eyeballs.

He made it back to Grand Rapids near sunset and the city was bustling with foot traffic. His apartment was above a dueling piano bar, and as he drove by he identified the distinct colorful garb of a bachelorette party, a tribe of women in pink drinking aquarium-like cocktails around a lone woman in white who looked ready to topple over at any second. A neon sign glowed in the window – Billy Joel requests cost double.

James pulled into the garage beneath his apartment building. His headache was amplified from sobering up and he wanted to lean his forehead against the steering wheel and nap. He opted not to unload the car and took the elevator to his sixth-floor one-bedroom. A package was waiting at the foot of the door and he kicked it into the apartment with indifference. After a glass of water, he yanked most of his clothes off and belly-flopped onto the bed. The bedroom was inundated with light from the setting sun, but it took almost no time for him to fall asleep.

James slept restlessly. He woke up sweating numerous times, shaken by dreams of a knifepoint held to the crook of his back. He didn’t have air conditioning and the torrid bundle of sheets dampened into an unpleasant, balmy membrane around his body. When he arose, James found he’d been in bed for nearly sixteen hours, but felt no more rested than the night before. He lacked the energy to make breakfast and was in desperate need of a hangover cure. Grand Rapids, like any city revived by a new wave of young professionals, had become a weekly brunch haven, rife with deals for bottomless mimosas and elaborate bloody Mary’s with fixings ranging from slices of pepperoni pizza to rainbow licorice straws. He shrugged into basketball shorts and a faded rec league tanktop and guided his toes into the thongs of rubber flip-flops. Then he plodded down the street to the nearest breakfast joint. There were groups of people sitting in the lobby and meandering about outside waiting for tables. James snuck past the hoi polloi and headed straight for the bar, shortcutting the queuing process. A stool was open to the right of a stout elderly man wearing striped suspenders, a magazine and cup of coffee sheltered in his hunched shoulders. On the other side a bronze bar gated off a set of French doors leading to the kitchen. The man’s elbows jutted outward leaving little room for someone to squeeze in.

“Is anyone sitting here?” James asked the man.

“You are now,” the man replied. He shook his paper and folded his arms to his sides to make himself smaller. He looked annoyed by the inconvenience.

The bartender brought over a menu and James promptly ordered a Greek skillet and man-mosa, which substituted hefeweizen for the champagne. A television mounted behind the bar played the morning news, which was covering a brief story on the running of the bulls in Pamplona. James remembered when he visited Spain in late March of the previous spring. He had graduated in December, a semester early, and the bank wouldn’t take him on until June, when they trained the rest of the fresh graduates in their junior management program. With savings from summers working as a golf caddy, along with a generous graduation gift from his parents, James backpacked across many countries in Asia and Europe, beginning with a month-long stay with his grandparents in Gwangju. They visited the states every couple years, but James had not returned to South Korea since he was nine-years-old. After leaving his grandparents, James traveled to China, India, Japan, and Bali, before looping back to France, which was originally planned to be his final destination, but he somehow felt more at home on the road and had saved enough money to continue traveling. He worried his parents would be upset by his decision to extend his vacation. To his relief they had the opposite reaction.

“This might be your once in a lifetime chance to do this,” his mom said via Skype. “Go see other cultures. Live a little. You should head over to Germany and explore your roots.”

James had always related more to his Korean heritage, but Germany sounded exciting and he took his mother’s advice, though perhaps not how she envisioned. During his week stay in Munich and Berlin, he first experienced club drugs and good kolsch. He spent nights in sprawling discotheques and days wandering around aimlessly, relegating most of his money to expensive beer and cheap junk food.

When he arrived back home, he found his mom had already framed several gorgeous pictures he’d emailed her after a walk through Munich’s English Gardens, she none the wiser to the fact that he had ingested ecstasy with two Australians and a photographer from L.A. beforehand. It was the photographer’s camera he’d used to capture such clear images, and later when by chance he bumped into her in Madrid they slept together in a squeaky hostel bunk.

The news story flashed from high-kneed Americans avoiding being trampled by the Pamplona bulls to a special feature on Iron Horse, which was wrapping up for the weekend. The local police force reported record crime for the music festival, citing polarized political views for fueling fights and an uptick in thefts in unattended campsites. A montage played of country artists on stage spliced together with dim fireside brawls filmed on smartphones and beer cans flung into dense crowds; then, a pause on a still photograph, in which it took James a moment to recognize himself, to fully comprehend the smirk across his face, his hand cupping the hipbone of the woman with the flag, the way in which the angle made their embrace appear seductive, almost lascivious, a romantic rendezvous among the chaos; a chance stumble into intimacy. The image disappeared, vanished, as they cut back to the anchor’s face, a graying marmot of a man in a tailored navy suit and sheened paisley tie. The elderly man sitting next to James looked at him as if he wanted to ask a question. James instinctively gave him a scowl. To distract himself, James grabbed a sugar packet from the coffee caddy and tore at the edges.

His drink arrived and he gulped the entire flute, sending a dribble of sticky orange liquid down his chin and neck. He dabbed at his throat with a napkin and thought of the girl with the flag. On the ground she had looked like one tortured by an exorcism. She had jerked involuntarily, attempted to shake something from her body with each spasm. She was lost in her alcohol-induced stupor. Somehow outside of herself. Saliva bubbled toward her ear from cracked crabshell lips, the spring of her spit seemingly endless, until all the poison projected out of her. When she had sat up, James was terrified by the look in her eye, as if she knew he didn’t belong there and was seeing his doubts and fears.

His phone rang. It was an unidentified number. The area code looked familiar but James couldn’t place it. The news segued into a baseball game and James watched a pitch before picking up the call. He didn’t greet the person on the other end.

“Hello, James? It’s Dianne,” she paused. James couldn’t get himself to speak. “John told me what happened yesterday. Are you okay? I don’t mean to call out of the blue, but John was pretty upset and when I heard about those guys I started crying and I think I just made him feel worse.”

“I’m doing alright,” James croaked. He hadn’t realized how little he’d used his voice. “I’m sorry the whole thing upset you. There’s no need to worry.”

“Well it’s good to know you’re okay. John is kicking himself because he feels like he should’ve done more. I think he thinks he’s partially responsible since he invited you. He told me he’s worried about things being weird at work now.”

“No. He did nothing wrong, it’ll be fine. Did those guys come back?”

“John hasn’t seen them, but we’re being careful. We’re leaving soon anyway.”

“Good.” James said. He watched a pop fly arc toward center field and get nabbed to end the inning. A commercial came on and faded into scenes of hikers walking through lush forests and breakers crashing on the shores of endless dunes. It was a long-running ad for state tourism James had seen dozens if not hundreds of times. “Dianne,” he continued. “Could you do me a favor though? Would you let John know I’ll need him in early tomorrow? I’m going to take a personal day.”