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James Lineberger

A Flag for the Fallen

A Flag for the Fallen

As I got on the 3A from Decatur
to midtown Atlanta
I had never written a single poem
or much of anything else
except newspaper flyers for Sears
and tv ads for the local savings and loan
so it didn't occur to me
how Yeats or Bukowski or even
Emily Dickinson
might have responded,
but that Friday,
the morning after King's murder,
there were only two passengers on the bus,
me and the woman I brazenly
decided to sit next to,
a frumpy redhead in her thirties
who gave a put-upon frown and edged closer to the window,
pretending to ignore me altogether.
We didn't speak,
but her name, I discovered, was Sarah,                        
embossed on the photo ID clipped to her blouse.       
God knows
what started it,
perhaps some crazed elegaic gesture,
for with Martin gone it seemed like the sky
was truly falling and how
could anybody even Billy Graham
make sense
of what God required.
And, admittedly, the foray had a certain sexual bias,
but grief (I told myself) is grief,
respecting no boundaries save its own,
which seemed reason enough to inch closer, thigh to thigh, and then,
when she didn't scrooch away, arm to arm,
until, almost imperceptibly, I felt her relax, giving in,
our bodies weaving and jouncing with the curves as the bus hurled
down Ponce to Peachtree,
just pressed against one another,
fear and reticence
falling away as we acknowledged our mutual need
with that curious boldness
only strangers can manage,
but when we got to the stop at Crawford Long Hospital,
she stood up with a forced
excuse-me smile,
and departed by the rear door.
Crawford was a busy hub for transfer passengers,
and while we waited
the alloted time,
I moved to a seat across the aisle,
watching Sarah cross Peachtree to a commercial parking lot
and sign in at the kiosk, relieving the attendant on duty.  An overhead sign
announced the franchise name, Quicktime,
and the particular lot, #6.
The bus driver closed the doors
and pulled out smoothly into the traffic lane.
Behind us, through the back
window, Sarah's silhouette slipped away like a receding mirage,
and I mused once again
at my unfailing
disposition to seize reality and weave it
into a tapestry all my own,
but in the mirror of my mind, I kept asking, people don't act like this, do they?
Yet, when I got off the bus
at Spring Street
and cut through the alley to our office,
the receptionist, Mary Lou, was not at her desk, but standing
in the break room with the account executive and the art director,
listening to a transistor radio
as an on-site reporter excitedly broke the news
from Memphis
that a man thought to be Martin's killer
had abandoned his scoped rifle on the sidewalk in broad daylight and fled the scene.
See, you see? said Mary Lou,
if this thing ever goes to trial, the perp will walk,
'cause, mark my words, a killer that throws away his weapon,
fingerprints all over it,
he's clearly
a basket case, certifiable.
And that's the way the hours ticked by,
but fragmented,
like the tiny mirrored face of a kaleidoscope.
Fuckit, I decided, it is what it is.
Retreating to my cubicle, I went to the yellow pages,
looked up the Quicktime locations,
and dialed the #6 kiosk.
It was the first time I heard Sarah's voice,
so different than I'd imagined,
neither a thirtyish alto nor whiskey timbre, but a pure and lilting soprano,
like a teenager in the church choir.
Number Six, she said.
You're Number One with me, I said.
Say what? she said.
What time you get off? I said.
Who is this? she said.
Who you think? I said.
Suck my dick, she said, and hung up on me. 
I stared at the dead receiver, grinning.
Playing hard to get,was she?
We'll just see about that.
So after work, when I boarded the 3A to go home,
I deliberately chose the very seat
we had shared that morning,
and when the bus made its stop at Crawford,
I turned my back to the parking lot with a mocking hautiness.
But as new passengers began filing in,
I heard that voice again, sweet and mean at the same time,
and turned to see Sarah outside the kiosk,
arguing with another attendant, a white-haired retiree,
who shouted back at her from within.
I couldn't make out what they were saying, but she shook
a folded Atlanta Journal at him angrily,
and no mistaking it,
she was crying,
the mascara trailing down her cheeks
like clown tears at a circus.
Whatever their squabble, the guy ended it. Giving her the finger,
he slammed the pay window shut,
closing her out. With a final yelp of disgust
she brought the Journal
to her breast protectively, cradling it like a child,
and retreated to the bus. The seats were nearly all taken, but I stood up
with an open arm, and gallantly (I thought) extended
an offer to rejoin me. She frowned in recognition, but reluctantly accepted,
and I took her elbow, ushering her
to the window seat.
She continued to sniffle,
and spread the Journal open on her lap,
glaring at the bold headline GETTING VERY CLOSE TO KILLER.
The bastard she said the goddamn fucking bastard
I hope he burns in hell.
I reached out sympathetically and took her hand in mine.
I know, I said, I know, and they'll catch him,
they will, you'll see,
whoever it is, he can't
escape forever.
She pulled away, staring me in the eye.
Mister sweet talk, she said. It was you called me,
wasn't it, you two-faced pervert.
And she turned away, staring out the window,
still angry, but distraught, too,
with the kind of mixed emotions that grief can bring on.  And I knew,
because it was the same with me, because,
when somebody like Martin
gets killed, it's not just a great leader who died, but somebody
you loved.  And last night I cried too, like a baby.
And suddenly, I wanted to tell her so, to share it, me too, Sarah, me too!
aching to put my arms around her,
just hold her close, the way
I wanted somebody to hold me when I first heard the news,
somebody like her, like
you, Sarah.
But how to say it so she wouldn't think I was just
some touchy-feely creep on the bus?
(Which I was, or had been, or whatever.)
Jesus. So, I just sat there and sat there, trying to find the words,
until we reached my stop,
and I knew I couldn't just leave
not like this,
without some wakened promise
that we were alive
alive goddamit!
and I started babbling
all in a rush
as I tried to introduce myself
handing her my stupid card at the agency
they don't like us to get personal calls
but see that's my home phone
there on the back
and uhh
did she know that old tavern
over by Five Points
maybe we could have a beer there sometime
or go somewhere for coffee or pizza how about pizza you like anchovies
and I might not seem very religious
but I'm really a decent Christian person who when I was a child
I got a gold star in Sunday School
for perfect attendance
that my mama framed and hung on the living room wall
and I always looked up to Martin so much and when he gave that speech
about he had a dream
he made me believe things were really going to change
so please don't think you're alone, k?
But she made no answer
and I let the words trail off, for I knew I had lost her,
that nothing I said was any help, and in my mind I saw myself
as I must have seemed to her,
pretending to care, to console her,
when really I just wanted a chance to talk about me, me!,
But just then, as I awkwardly tried to shape an apology,
the driver made a stop somewhere north of town,
next to a few scraggly pines
and a leaning mailbox.
Without a word or backward glance,
Sarah pushed her way by me and departed, crossing the street
to a ramshackle mobile home,
where an old woman sat in a wheelchair out front,
clutching a Confederate States of America stick flag.
Sarah bent to kiss the woman's forehead,
and took possession of the standard.
Staring hard at me, she held the flag high, waving it in defiance
as the bus pulled away.

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James Lineberger is a retired screenwriter. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard; The Cortland Review; The Main Street Rag; UCity Review; Natural Bridge; Pembroke Magazine; Quarter After Eight; Free State Review; Sheila-Na-Gig, B O D Y; and New Ohio Review, where he won the 2017 Poetry Competition, judged by Rosanna Warren. 


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