In a pink and salty green desert town in one of the new states, adobe Spanish churches thrust their steeples heavenward, the tips vaporously scraping against the cold blue veil and its cotton-ball clouds glued there like a childhood art project about life.
Down one of the hot, dry, and murderous streets named Olive, a man sits in a flat white house with a carport watching a movie about the Vietnam War. The police are across the way in the gutter drawing a chalk outline around a bent and defeated body.
A woman suddenly steps out of the shadows and into the room where the man is watching the movie and rudely wants to know, “What are we going to have for supper then…? Since you’re being so moody and antisocial.”
He pauses the war movie, sighs, and says to her without looking at her, “It’s called dinner.”
“Not where I come from.”
“Then go back to where you came from,” he snaps, and starts the movie again.
“I think we should go to the family cookout. It’s the 4th of July. Don’t you want to celebrate our wonderful country?”
Annoyed, he thrusts a thumb into the pause button on the remote. “It’s called a fry out.”
“What?” she mockingly laughs. “A fry out? You’re not frying anything. That’s just stupid.” She waits for a reaction.
“What the hell are you going to celebrate?” he wants to know.
“Um, America… The greatest country on the planet – our freedom, our liberty, our justice for all, our way of life that God has blessed us with.”
He scoffs, laughs for a moment. “I don’t want to be around people,” he says. “Especially those people.”
“Yes. They’re annoying and fake.” He restarts the movie, and a jungle is carpet bombed in a blaze of orange overflowing balls of burning fire and light.
“Could you at least turn that crap off while I’m trying to talk to you!” she yells, hands on hips. There’s gunfire spewing from a dark green helicopter. Then the screen suddenly goes dark. “Thank you,” she says. “And my family is wonderful. They’re wonderful people.”
“They hate me.”
“Of course, they do. You’re a loser, and they don’t like losers.”
The man gets up out of his chair, goes to the large picture window, and pulls the curtain aside. “Did you see that someone else has been killed?”
She goes to the dining room table and rummages through her overstuffed purse looking for her car keys. “It’s no wonder, considering the neighborhood you force us to live in because of your inability to succeed in this world. When are you going to get a real job so that we can live somewhere better? That house next to my parents is still for sale. Wouldn’t that be wonderful if we could buy it?”
“There’s a dead guy lying in the street,” the man reminds her.
She scoffs. “I don’t care. It’s probably just another one of those damn immigrants that come here to strain the system, commit crimes, and steal our jobs… A job you should have!” She makes her way to the door. “This is America, not Mexico.”
“You’re leaving?” he asks her.
“I’m going to my parents’ house. We’ll celebrate our freedom without you.”
When the movie is over, the man removes the videotape from the VCR and replaces it in its box. He walks out of the house and locks the door. Across the street, a black body bag is being loaded into a white van. A cop turns to look at him. The man turns away and starts to walk. It’s late afternoon.
As he makes his way through the neighborhood of sad houses and old trees, people are in the street cheerfully hopping around exploding firecrackers, waving sparklers in the air, and sending bottle rockets into the sky. Someone has a round grill set out in their driveway. A man wearing a tee-shirt with the words BBQ, Beer, and Freedom emblazoned on the front is flipping burgers in a cloud of smoke. “Hey mister, you want a burger?” he asks the man clutching the videotape box.
“No thank you. I have to get to the video store.”
“Well, surely you have time for some delicious Freedom fries?”
“No thanks. I must be on my way.”
The man flipping the burgers is immediately offended. “Seriously? Don’t you want to celebrate America?”
“Huh? Are you some kind of socialist asshole?”
“I think you mean communist.”
“What? It’s the same damn thing.”
“Actually… Never mind. I need to get to the video store before they close.”
“Do whatever the hell you want, traitor. I’m going to have myself a delicious burger and enjoy my freedom! Whoooo yeah! America!”
The man stood in line at Silver Screen video. The place was annoyingly crowded. When it finally came to his turn at the counter, the man set the videotape down and looked at the clerk. “I would like to return this video, and… Would you have any movies about the French Revolution?”
The clerk looked at him, puzzled and smacking gum. “The French Revolution?”
The clerk scratched at his head and looked around the busy store. “Uh. I don’t think so… But hey, what about Days of Thunder? We just got it in.”
“Days of Thunder?”
“Hell yeah,” the clerk said. “It’s got Tom Cruise in it and there’s race cars and hot chicks and all kinds of cool shit. It’s really good, and a true celebration of the American spirit.”
“I don’t think so,” the man said.
“Why not?” the clerk wanted to know, hurt and suspicious. “You don’t believe in the spirit of America?”
“Then get the hell out of my store and don’t come back!” the clerk yelled, and he pointed his big finger toward the door.
“Because you don’t believe in the spirit of America and that’s bullshit, man! Only true Americans are allowed to rent videos here. Now get out!”
When the man got back home, he walked across the street and looked at the asphalt. The chalk outline of the body was still fresh. There were splotches of blood within the lines. The cops were all gone. Everyone was gone. The street was hot and empty. He glanced across the way at the crappy house he lived in.
He unlocked the front door and went inside. It smelled musty. An air conditioner achingly whirred. He walked around the dark house, went into all the rooms. The place was a mess. Unopened boxes and piles of clothes and paper littered nearly every horizontal space. He went to the kitchen and began to work on cleaning up the mound of stinky, dirty dishes in the sink. Halfway through he stopped. He suddenly became seriously depressed about the state of his life and the world he lived in. It came on like a bolt of lightning and froze his bones and mind.
He made his way to the living room chair he called home within his home. He sat down in the silence and pointed the remote at the boxy TV. The screen filled with a snowy static. He tried to change the channel but every single one, all 57 of them, were the same – snowy static, and that low fuzzy buzz that went with it.
The man just sat there for a long time, falling into a catatonic daze, broken only by a sudden and frantic knock. His heart was pounding when he jumped up and went to the door. He pulled it open and there was a tall man with white hair dressed in a suit and a top hat, all resembling the American flag.
“Yes. Can I help you?”
The tall man with the white hair and dressed like the American flag spread his arms out in front of him in an imitation of fanfare, a gesture of ta-da. “It’s me!” the patriotic man exclaimed. “I’m Sam. Uncle Sam!”
“I thought you were just a made-up creature,” the man straightforwardly said. “Like Christopher Columbus.”
“Well, that’s just foolish,” Uncle Sam said. “I’m real!”
“What do you want?”
“Well, a little birdy told me you were being pretty glum about the 4th of July. I’ve come to cheer you up and help you realize what a wonderful day it is.”
“Don’t waste your time. It’s my least favorite holiday.”
Uncle Sam sighed in quick defeat, and then stepped inside the house without an invite. He took off his hat and held it in a headlock as he slowly studied the messy home. “You need a housekeeper,” he said. He moved closer to the man, looked around to make sure they were definitely alone, and then spoke to him in a secret whisper. “I’ve got a gal I can recommend. Don’t say anything to anybody… She’s kind of under the radar if you get my drift. See, she’s from Guatemala, but does a hell of a job for me. A hell of a job. And she’s cheap. Do you mind if I sit down?”
“No. You can take my wife’s chair. She probably won’t be back… Ever.”
The two sat there, quiet, and just thinking about life, dust dancing in the toasted beams of end-of-day light now fingering its way in through a slit in the curtains. They could hear fireworks popping outside in the neighborhood. Dogs were barking. Children were screaming with joy. Police sirens wailed in the distance.
The man glanced over at Uncle Sam. “I think your beard is scary,” he said.
Uncle Sam returned the glance and humbly smiled and nodded his head. “I know. I was made to be scary.”