Bewildering Stories

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Price Gougers and Other Ash Holes

by Susan Kingsolver

Susan Bell got out of the old beat-up Celebrity and walked into the flea market. A woman at the last fabric store she went to in Athens told her the people out here had plenty of flags.

Fred, her husband, pleaded with her to make it quick. “Take the walkie-talkie so we can keep in touch, but please remember we need to get home to the other critters.”

For the last couple of days they had been mindlessly riding around town, and today came almost 40 miles looking for flags. American flags. Her hubby sat in the car with two of their dogs while she went in the stores. Buster a big red chow mix and Desi-mae a brindle pit bull mix loved to go on road trips. When it was hot they stayed home, but the cooler days they got to ride. It felt so cozy in the car with the two pups. They had a small animal shelter and always hurried to get back. Her mom and daughter lived close by, and kept an eye on the place, but still they worried.

She couldn’t believe she had just paid over a hundred dollars for material to make flags and patches for the kids at the local elementary school - anything red, white and blue.

* * *

It all started Tuesday morning when all hell broke loose in the United States of America. Her husband woke her up and told her they had been bombed in several different states. It turned out to be terrorists using our own hijacked commercial planes to blow up the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon. Another commercial jet headed for God knows where crashed outside of Pittsburgh. The whole world had been in shock since the news hit the streets.

The first day they stayed glued to the TV, searching the Internet and on the phone with friends and family members all over the country and world. The second day Susan and her husband felt numb and prayed they were having the same nightmare.

It was on the second day that the leaders of the country got it together enough to lead the stunned citizens. Susan listened and followed instructions. She wanted to help. She knew enough about stress disorder and grief to understand what was happening to her, but she still felt like she was losing it.

Now they were at the action stage. They gave blood and donated money.

It was suggested to the American people to display their flags. She found one flag at the Army Store in downtown Athens. She paid ten dollars and ninety-eight cents for the flag and bought the last three bumper stickers proclaiming love for the United States. The next day they hung the flag on top of their 20-foot bat-house pole. They also had an old flag they put down at their mailbox.

* * *

Friday evening it was more of the same. They watched CNN and talked on the phone and Internet with friends and family. Susan did as advised by President Bush; she stuck to her normal routine and chaired her Saturday night Nicotine Anonymous meeting. The meeting helped her and all that attended. She’d been doing the Yahoo! meetings for three years and her life remained calm in all the bad things that happened to her through that time. All but this.

* * *

The last few days she’d seen the best and the worst come out in people all around her.

She didn’t understand the makeup of a person that would take such tragedy and use it for their gain.

Several ministers of the Christian faith used people’s pain to drive home their personal beliefs of a vengeful God.

Then, there were the bomb threats, all over the country. Building after building, even the White House, a target for evil. A country and people already brought to their knees still being harassed.

Now the sleeping giant was wide awake and pissed.

* * *

Susan had watched in horror as the price of gas jumped to four and five dollars the first day of the attack. The powers that be put a stop to that fast enough, but now she was noticed other things, like the red, white and blue material she bought today. Last week the same material was at the most three dollars a yard and today she paid seven. She still wanted some flags. It was almost an obsession. She planned on buying as many small flags as she could and maybe another big one.

* * *

Walking into the flea market felt like a dream in itself. She asked a middle-aged woman in the first booth, “Can you tell me if they have American flags here?”

“Sure we do, go right around the corner and you’ll see them.” The woman pointed to the right.

Susan felt a rush of pleasure course through her veins. Almost like a dope fiend finding her next fix.

“Oh, damn.” Susan cursed under her breath when she saw the line. There were maybe forty people in front of her. She looked at the supply of flags and felt assured she would get some.

She used her walkie-talkie to call Fred. “It’ll be a wait so why don’t you take the dogs for a treat. They’d love some ice-water and a hamburger. You could get a shake.”

After she took care of her call she joined the long line.

* * *

She talked to some of the people in line and discovered some of them were from further away than Athens, all of them with the same obsession. They had to have American flags. She learned Gainesville, Atlanta and all the towns around this area sold out yesterday. The people she met in the line became her comrades. They all shared the same disbelief and shock at what the week had wrought. They all ran from the sad feeling survivor’s guilt could heap upon the already hurt soul. As they waited, they talked and looked to each other for a tiny bit of comfort. The old couple from Commerce, the young couple from Winder, several folks came down from Atlanta, all colors, sizes and from different walks of life. A gay couple Susan hugged and felt them tremble. Her country united the way it never had been. She felt her heart healing.

* * *

Then she heard voices raised in anger and saw the nice young couple from Winder take a defiant stance up at the cash register. The place was loud so she couldn’t make out what was being said. It looked like the man selling the flags got the last word in and the couple turned and with a dejected look left the building.

Still number seven in line, Susan became worried the flags would be gone by the time she got to the front. She had waited in line over two hours and was very tired. Her arthritic knees throbbed. With her walkie-talkie she called Fred again and told him to be patient. She wouldn’t be long now. He sounded fine and told her he’d just called home from his cell phone, and everything there was okay. Buster and Desi-mae had had their ice water and a hamburger and now were snuggled in the back seat taking a nap.

* * *

Third in line and Susan could still see flags laid out on the counter. She had her Visa card in her hand and was happy to be this close to her beloved flags.

“We don’t take credit cards, only cash.” Susan heard the man say in a squeaky voice.

“Damn.” Mentally she counted the cash in her purse. She could come up with maybe $30.00, enough to buy a couple of the big flags and some of the smaller ones.

The customer at the counter looked so sad. He left in a huff, before Susan could offer to buy a flag for him. He had come all the way from Atlanta. The woman in front told her he was going to find an ATM machine and come back. That made Susan feel better for him. Then the woman paid for her flag and left with her prize clutched to her heart like her precious child. Susan proudly took her place in front of the cash register and grabbed two of the big flags and five smaller ones. The clerk put them in a bag and quoted,

“That’ll be one hundred and fifty dollars.”

“What?” she asked.

“The big flags are fifty dollars and the smaller ones are ten. Do you want them or not?” The man said with a sneer.

“I paid ten ninety-eight for the very same flag in Athens. The smaller ones go for one dollar.” Tears ran down Susan’s cheeks and she felt so foolish.

This was just too much. Gouging on gas and material was one thing, but to gouge on the American flag was outrageous. “You know there’s a law against what you’re doing. Don’t you feel ashamed?”

“Look lady, you don’t have to buy my flags. If you don’t want them, get out of line.” He waved Susan away with his big arm and yelled. “Next.”

“Okay, I’ll buy a couple of the small ones.” Susan gave the man the money and with her cheeks on fire she turned around to go.

As she was about to reach the exit, she watched as several men pushed and shoved what appeared to be Indians. She hurried over to see what the problem was and realized the Indians were being assaulted and accused of being terrorists.

“We don’t want any rag heads in our country taking our jobs and money and then murdering us.” An angry young man shoved the frightened easterner into the wall. The poor man’s wife and two small children cried and begged for mercy.

“I am not a terrorist. I am as upset as you are about what happened. I came here to buy American flags.” The man looked pleadingly into the faces of his tormentors and saw only hatred.

“What’s going on here? Have you lost your minds?” Susan stepped in between the bullies and the terrified family.

“Get out of the damn way or you’re as guilty as they are.” Then she saw his knife. The bullies friends coaxed him on.

The crowd of people who waited in line to buy the flags walked up behind the bullies. Susan had no idea what would happen, but she prayed to her kind and loving God. She felt like the whole world had gone crazy, and only by the grace of a gentle caring Higher Power, the one she knew, could any good come from all of this. She was backed up to the wall with the scared man, his wife and the two small crying children; she used her chubby body as a barrier to protect the innocent family.

“Look son, you don’t know that these folks are terrorists and you’re scaring the kids. Why don’t you put the knife away and go on home.” It was the black business man from Atlanta.

“Yes, listen to this gentleman and leave these people alone. They haven’t done a thing to you. They’re scared to death. You should be ashamed.” The old woman from Commerce shook her finger at the boy with the knife.

“What the hell’s going on here?” It was the owner from the flag booth. “Why are you people picking on my son?”

Now it was all clear to Susan, and she remembered why she didn’t go to church anymore but worshiped at home. She would bet her life that this greedy man, who taught his son how to hate, attended church regularly.

Before Susan could finish her thought another man walked up and put his hand on the flagman’s shoulder. “Why George, we spend every Sunday together in church. Something told me to come here today to visit you.”

George hung his head. “Preacher Harris, I, er, we,” he stuttered and turned to his son.

“Jim, put that knife away and leave those people alone.”

“But Dad, you said --” His dad hurried over to him and hustled him and his bully friends out the door.

* * *

The minister went up to Susan and her new friends and said, “Young lady, I felt your prayers.” He suggested they all pray together. They joined hands around the scared family and each person joined with a prayer to his or her own personal Higher Power.

* * *

When Susan finally got to the car, Fred and the doggies were asleep. She got in and woke them.

Fred said. “It’s about time. Why were you so long, did you have to make the flags?”

Susan was going to tell him what happened, but not now. She had to think about it. She witnessed a miracle today and miracles always made her quiet.

Copyright © 2002 by Susan Kingsolver