Here’s this girl, maybe ten, eleven years old, wearing a familiar-looking jacket, army green with red patches, unbuttoned. I’m in Oakes, North Dakota. It’s maybe 6:30 in the evening. A week after a decisive election that still draws red states’ dispute. Not a mask in sight. I’m standing behind one person at the counter paying for a tin of tobacco and something else I can’t see, when the kid enters the Circle C gas station and budges in front of me. I was trying to observe the six-foot rule, but the kid must think I’m too far back to be standing in line. In addition to the only mask in the place, I’m also wearing my suit of armor: an American flag hat.
I’m from a small predominantly white town in northeastern Iowa where people know me; where people don’t perceive me as a threat, and I’ve learned what the flag means to certain parts of the populace. I know how well it disarms strangers suspicious of someone who doesn’t look like them. A few weeks ago, I was pulled over by a State Trooper for a burnt-out brake light in another small town not far from where I live. As the man approached my vehicle, I pulled the hat on (I had inadvertently left it in the car since receiving it from my father two months before). He registered my hat, commented on it, and let me go with a warning. He’d said, “I like your hat.” And I told him it was a proud gift from my father who had served in the military. And he said, “Wish there were more people like you around—proud to wear the red, white, and blue.” Now I take it everywhere as a way to blend in. It’s the best protection I can think of while traversing parts of rural America where people don’t know me.
And in Oakes, I’m a stranger to this town. Brown man, long black hair. People gawk. Their eyes ask the inevitable questions: Who are you? Where are you from? I was born and raised in Iowa, and my mother, an immigrant from the Philippines, is a U.S. citizen and has lived here longer than she did in the P.I., but when they spy the American flag hat, like the State Trooper, their stares turn to nods of affirmation, smiles of welcome. Hello from me to you, fellow patriot.
The kid, snarly blond hair and barefooted, is wearing either a dress or pajamas. She stretches her arm over the counter and delivers a scratch-off lotto ticket and what turns out to be a note so she can fetch someone’s cigarettes. The kid and the clerk don’t acknowledge each other. A custom of familiarity. The clerk hands her a pack of smokes and money she must’ve earned from the ticket. The kid disappears to the back of the store, toward the section of intensely caffeinated energy drinks. I’m acknowledging to myself her inefficiencies. A product of youth; of not being in a hurry. Or maybe she wasn’t aware of how much money she’d get back from the ticket. I set two bottles of Squirt, Carmex lip balm, and the most recently published local newspaper on the counter. I’d already flipped through it while standing next to the newsstand. I know the obituaries take up two-and-a-half pages. This in a town whose population is barely two thousand. Not a single county has been spared here in North Dakota. People are dying in droves while the fervent deniers and unwitting pawns of misinformation dawdle on like nothing’s the matter. That seems to be the case in Oakes anyhow.
“How’s everything tonight?” I ask the clerk, trying to sound friendly.
“Oh, you know, it’s going okay.” She’s a young woman who gives sidelong glances as she scans each of my items. She has long dark hair and very little affect. She’s wearing a black t-shirt, untucked, and tells me the total. She’s not wearing a mask. I hand her the money, and she rummages through two different change holders where people leave an extra penny or two for the next customer. She’s trying to help me out here so she can give me dollar bills back instead of a bunch of change. By the time I figure out what’s going on, I tell her, “Thanks for that.”
“Oh, it’s not a problem,” she says.
At the exit, I pretend to study my receipt, but I’m mostly curious about the kid who uses money from a lotto ticket to purchase a caffeinated beverage along with a new item—the clerk pulls a pint of whiskey from behind the cash register.
It’s dark now except for a line of pink smeared across the west, just beyond the apartment complexes, then nothing but black sky. They call Montana “Big Sky,” but North Dakota’s a close second. They aren’t runner-up in everything, however. First place prize in the world, right now, for the number of COVID cases per capita. I take a deep breath of the fresh prairie air. It might be thirty-five degrees. Warm for this time of year. During the day, thousands of snow geese gather in sloughs and cut cornfields. My cousin is here doing research on those flocks. I’m helping him out for a week. Keeping him company. But really what I want is a distraction from what’s going on everywhere else—the COVID deaths, the election deniers—though I’m not unaware of the irony in traveling to a place where my disagreements with a high percentage of people span wide and deep. My cousin and I—we pack out all of our meals. We try not to enter public places. Lip balm wasn’t on my packing list, but the cold and wind have turned my lips red and raw. And I’d forgotten how much my cousin likes vodka and Squirt.
A truck badly in need of a new muffler pulls up and a few guys pile out. Flannels, camo stocking caps, work boots. They keep the truck running. They don’t talk to each other, but when they approach me, they splinter off so they’re now lined up three across. They stare at my bag. The guy in the middle says, “Anything fun in the sack, Pedro?”
“Do I know you?” I clutch the bag tighter and take half a step back.
“Let’s see what you got there.”
He reaches for my bag, but as he steps closer, the guy looks up and stares at my hat. It takes him a moment, but when he finally processes Old Glory, he says, “At least your hat’s worth a damn.” And then the bell on the door dings, and the girl toddles out. The guys shuffle past, inadvertently cutting her off from the sidewalk, so she now has to walk past me. I take a deep breath and finally feel my heartbeat pounding in my chest. The kid’s holding a paper bag burdened by a high-octane energy drink, cigarettes, and cheap whiskey. We make eye contact. I keep silent, but she says, “It ain’t polite to stare.”
“You’re not wrong,” I say, which strikes me as a stupid comment.
She scoots west toward the apartment complexes, toward the fading pink light, behind the Circle C. Her jacket appears darker outside, and I realize, finally, why it’s familiar. It’s one of those military-style jackets with the buttons on the shoulder, except the buttoned shoulder straps hang loose as she walks past the garage at the back of the gas station. She disappears behind a row of pines.
I think about the military jacket my father wanted me to have, except when either of us tried it on we could barely get an arm halfway down the sleeve. He laughed, talked about how out of shape he’d gotten. The military had kept him taut. I’ve never been as fit as my father, but I kept the jacket anyway, and it’s much like the one the kid was wearing. Now, occasionally, for Halloween or other random occasions, my own kids don it like it’s some fashion statement. Some new trend. It fits them well, and though it’s a touch long in the arms, the buttons on the shoulders are still stitched on securely. Come to think of it, all the buttons are still intact, and the Sergeant stripes on each of the arms are in solid condition.
Why does it matter that the girl walked out with whiskey and smokes? They’re most likely, almost certainly, not for her. She’s likely bringing them home to some military or combat vet who let the jacket go to shit. If not, then somewhere along the way, the person who used to own that jacket stopped caring. Something about that neglect doesn’t sit well.
I cross the street, bag in hand. When I get to the side entrance of the house where we’re staying, I glance at the apartment complexes, but there’s no sign of anyone—only drawn shades and unlit windows. The front yards are as dark as any country darkness I’ve seen.
Just then, my cousin strolls out of the garage.
“Oh, shit man, didn’t see you,” he says.
“Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Nah, you didn’t. Just out for a quick smoke and a piss. You get those sodas for me?”
“Right here.” I hold up the bag.
“Nice, I’ll be in in a minute.”
I set the bag on the kitchen table and walk up to the room where I’m staying. My cousin is the next room over. It’s a big two-story with asbestos siding and a fallen-down deck and piles of tires stacked outside and broken appliances crammed into the garage. The place usually houses a dozen hunters or itinerant workers, but this week, it’s just the two of us.
I apply the lip balm I just purchased and right away my lips start to tingle—a burning sensation. It’s that process of revitalization—repairing injured parts exposed to the elements—that’s always painful to endure for the first few moments.
Keith Lesmeister is the author of the story collection We Could’ve Been Happy Here. He’s an editor at Cutleaf, co-directs the Luther College Writers Festival, and teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College.