“Mikey’s Flag Shirts”
by Amzie Auguta Dunekacke
I don’t like American flag shirts much. Something about them seems gaudy to me, perhaps forced. I mean, I’ve been conditioned for patriotism since preschool taught me to begin every weekday morning with the Pledge of Allegiance. The routine carried on until high school graduation, the same emotionless recitation, the unconscious “One nation under God.” Maybe a red, white, and blue shirt is a more sincere offering of pride. Then again, maybe not.
Nevertheless, Mikey seems to like American flag shirts, which also seems to bother me for a number of reasons. For one, I wonder where he gets these dingy, white shirts that feature a variety of waving American flags. The homeless shelter is bound to have some in its stock of second chance clothing for the second chance people of the city, but an extensive collection like Mikey’s doesn’t just spring from an occasional hand out. I wonder if maybe he stole them or pulled them off the backs of his passed out friends. I’ve been told that when the street is your home, you have the right to “share” everything. But Mikey doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would steal, or leave a brother cold for that matter.
Mikey’s flag shirts also bother me because I can’t quite understand why he wears them. Why would Mikey want to sport a shirt advertising his loyalty to a country that was disloyal to him? A country that had turned its back on him a long time ago?
The government hasn’t helped Mikey out much even though he’s a war vet. When a car bomb went off ten years ago in the Basra Province of Iraq, Mikey was praying, or at least that’s what he told me. He said that he was praying to thank God for silencing the wind; for days it had been blowing in hot from the south, sending dust into his eyes like an insidious spray of splintered glass. Suddenly, hands clasped together and defenseless, Mikey was knocked unconscious. At this part of the story I believe he used the phrase, “Irony’s a bitch.” Mikey had what doctors thought was a severe concussion; it slowed his brain down a lot. Turns out, he still has that concussion. I know this because I’m one of Mikey’s volunteer reading tutors with the New Horizons program. It’s one of the few things I do as a college student that actually makes me feel like I might be ready for a world beyond glorified inebriation and class schedules that are treated as mere suggestions by my peers. When I first met Mikey, I asked him why he couldn’t read, only as part of the required line of questioning. Expecting a curt response or even no response, I received Mikey’s Iraq story. I think Mikey trusts me more than the other tutors, maybe because I’m young and my glasses are always dirty and I have a big smile that spreads into full cheeks. People open up to humility. Whatever the reason, I’m glad he trusts me. It means that our weekly meetings are an opportunity for me to learn too.
At this Tuesday’s meeting, Mikey sits by me at the long conference table without my needing to suggest it. As our lead instructor draws a game of Hangman on the whiteboard, a new student walks into the classroom as though he’s not five minutes late. A salt and pepper beard battles gravity, curling towards the sky from his chin, and he wears a pin-striped suit vest with a red leather bolo tie and a floral dress shirt. He looks odd, but at least he’s clean. We ask him to introduce himself. He tells us that his name is Terry and that he is conducting stem cell research. Terry feels that cancer is actually a very easy disease to combat; his speech is long and beautiful. I almost believe him at first. For a second, I think this man is going to save us all. He is going to keep our bodies from killing themselves. But then our leader asks Terry for the final letter of “April showers bring Ma_ flowers” and, after nearly chewing his lip off for a long minute, Terry excuses himself to use the restroom.
“I don’t think he’s actually a scientist,” Mikey says.
I smile and nod, “I don’t think so either.”
We begin working on a packet about homonyms, and I notice Mikey is wearing a flag shirt, one I have not yet seen. I ask him, “Mikey, where do you get all your American flag shirts?”
He seems distracted by the alien words on the page. I say his name again to break his trance, and he finally responds, “Oh, I buy them.”
“Where?” I know Mikey can’t afford much in the way of clothing. If he could, he’d have a place to stay at night too.
“Gas stations mostly. Sometimes garage sales or thrift stores.” Gas stations, I think. Where you can pick up a thirty pack of Busch and a small dose of patriotism for an additional $3.99.
I don’t ask him why he buys the shirts. I don’t suggest saving that money for necessities. Instead, I pick up a pencil, and we go back to wait and weight.
A couple days later, I get a phone call in the early evening. Mikey is on the other end. He has never called me before, but I try to keep my voice from sounding as though he overstepped a boundary. I mean, I did give him my number in case he had any reading questions for me. I just didn’t think he’d ever use it.
“I’m in a bit of a bind here. And I know this is really odd. I just don’t know a lot of people with phones, or cars for that matter, and—”
“Where exactly is ‘here,’ Mikey? What’s going on?”
“I’m at the police department. I was in jail, but they let me out. I was drinking more than I should’ve been, I guess. But I just want you to know that I don’t usually do that sort of thing, even though you might think I do.”
“I never thought that, Mikey. I know you aren’t like most of the guys on the street. What do you need?”
“A lift would be a nice start.”
Thirty minutes later, Mikey is in my car, tapping his unfashionably holey jeans to the beat of a song off my Coldplay album. He wears a faded, navy jacket, no American flag in sight. I wonder where I’m supposed to take him. Without Mikey saying the words, I realize it’s one of those “just drive” moments, so I wind through the twilight downtown area until Mikey says, “You can drop me off at Barry’s.”
“The bar? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
Mikey presses himself off the passenger seat slightly and pulls an unopened letter from his back pocket. He smooths it out in his lap, his dark hands treating the paper as though it could shatter. “It’s okay,” he grins. “I got a little out of control before, but it won’t happen again. Besides, I only got six dollars left, and that can’t get me too drunk.”
“What if I go with you?” The proposal is out before I have time to reconsider. “For supervision,” I amend.
“Well, sure. But you ain’t old enough, are you?” Mikey’s brow is furrowed as though he’s trying and failing to determine my exact age. The answer is nineteen, but Mikey never settles on a number.
Since I have my sister’s old ID on me (disregard her freckles and we’re nearly identical), I simply respond, “I’m not that young.” We head to Barry’s.
Barry’s is one of the university students’ favorite destinations. It’s Thursday night, so the party scene is decent. Mikey stands out, older than most of the crowd and dirtier too. He’s not sloppier though. I leave that adjective to the two ebony-haired girls I notice drunkenly pawing at a group of thirty-year-old men who will likely argue about who gets to take whom home later. I’ll probably end up supervising the girls as well by the end of the night. That’s okay. I’m sort of a pro at the hold-her-hair-back routine.
Mikey takes a seat at the bar, and I join. After he asks for a beer and I “just want some sparkling water,” I tell him what I’ve observed. “Mikey, you’re only here because you’re avoiding something. Could that something have anything to do with that letter?”
Mikey looks down to the letter as though he didn’t realize it was still in his hands.
“Do you need me to read it for you?” I ask.
“At the end of the night, you’d better.” Mikey takes a long swig of the beer that has just been set before him by one of my classmates, I think. This guy is probably wondering why in hell I’m at the bar with a homeless man. I shrug it off and think, let him wonder what he wants to. Meanwhile, I’ll wonder how on earth the bartender from my Writing and Communities class even got into college. He used u in place of you in his last Rogerian essay.
“But let’s not read it right now,” Mikey finishes. He takes another long gulp.
Wanting to slow him down, I ask, “Where are you from, Mikey?”
“Do you want to know where I was born, or why my skin’s brown?” Mikey chuckles. I sweat.
“Ummm, both I suppose.”
“Well, I was born in Kentucky, but my parents are from Mexico. My birth name’s Miguel.” Mikey looks like someone whose ancestors had been in Central America for centuries. He has the high cheekbones and sienna complexion to prove it.
“How’d you get to Lincoln?”
“By bus.” At first I want to whack him for being a smart ass, but then I recognize his answer is genuine. Mikey tends to take most everything literally.
“I meant to ask why. Why are you in Lincoln now, if you were born in Kentucky?”
“Cost of living’s a lot cheaper here. Found that out real fast when I was trying to support myself as a teen back in Kentucky.” Mikey traces a finger through the condensation on his beer bottle.
“Where were your parents?” Please don’t say dead, I think.
“I don’t know about mi padre. He was never a part of my life, but mi mamá is in Mexico. The government sent ‘er back when they found out she was living here illegally. Since I was born here, I got the option of staying or going. I chose to stay and enlisted myself as soon as I could.” I swallow down the closing space in my throat. I couldn’t imagine choosing to be away from my only family like that.
“What did your mother think?”
Mikey exhales. “Mi mamá would never have let me go back with her. She told me all about how she got to the states—the days without water, how she and the other women were touched by some of the men they traveled with, the nightmares about me being shot in her arms. She said she did it all for me and that I was to stay here and build a life.”
I stare at the bar counter, because where else am I supposed to look?
Mikey slides an empty beer bottle to the bar tender. “Some life, right? But hey, I’ve still got time.” Fanning his face with his last three dollars, Mikey smiles, a smile believed by most, but not me. He is a Sea World dolphin, I think. Always smiling, never meaning it.
Questions, hard questions, slither through my mind. I pluck one up and ask, “What’s the letter about, Mikey?”
“Oh. A lady with Wounded Warriors helped me apply for funding to get this new procedure that could help me do some of the things I used to be able to, like reading I s’pose. I’m betting the response is in this envelope.” Mikey slashes the envelope open with a fingernail and hands the letter to me. Someone plays a Tom Petty song on the jukebox. Trembling, I unfold the letter, wishing this sort of power wasn’t in my hands. One way or another, I am about to change Mikey’s life.
After scanning through the letter quickly, I place it back in its envelope. I can’t say, “Mikey, it looks like you’re never going to read again,” so instead I just shake my head and suggest we get going. The ebony-haired girls are doing Tequila shots now. One sloshes hers on the other’s impeccably sparkly jeans. I’ll come back for them later.
We’re in my car again, and I ask Mikey where he would like to be dropped off. He just says, “Gas station.” It’s the first thing he’s said since I shook my head. I suggest the shelter instead, and he repeats, “Gas station.”
I pull up to the corner Kwik Shop and shiver, because it’s dark and 50 degrees outside, and I’m imagining trying to sleep on the sidewalk with passersby gawking at you like some zoo animal that’s not cute. Mikey gets out of my 2012 Chevy, the one my Mom passed down to me because she “needed” another upgrade. I really hate driving it to the shelter.
“Have a good night now, Mikey,” I senselessly say as he walks towards the store entrance. He waves back at me, smiling once again like he thinks I won’t worry. But someone has to worry about all the tearless dolphins of the world.
Without Mikey noticing, I park my car and watch him peruse the fluorescent aisles through the store windows. He’s probably getting a hot dog or a deli sandwich. Maybe a can of Pringles. I don’t think he ever ate supper.
When Mikey shuffles away from the checkout counter with no food in hand, I know I’ve been stupid. He slips on a new American flag shirt and tosses his rejection letter and its envelope in the trash.
Amzie Dunekacke hails from rural Elk Creek, Nebraska, and is a sophomore studying English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Amzie currently works as an intern with the literary journal Prairie Schooner and spends her free time writing, painting, and, of course, volunteering as a reading instructor at the local outreach center.