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Red Flag

Fall started early in Brewster. Green leaves transfigured into red, brown, gold. Children returned to school, donning peacoats and knapsacks, heading to Mrs. Benedict’s candy shop after class. Candy wrappers scattered on the sidewalk, tumbling in the stiff breeze. On weekends, housewives headed to the greengrocers, while couples studied the diamond engagement rings displayed at the jeweler’s.

Daisy Lee Obermann stared at a diamond ring, icily gorgeous against black velvet. She turned to her father Klaus. Her limp blonde hair brushed against her thin shoulders.

“I could use a diamond ring,” she said. “Second-hand. My birthstone is diamond.”

Daisy Lee beamed. Her pink complexion glowed. She had a presence in the town square, like a lioness in the African savanna.

Klaus, bald-headed and gaunt, shook his head. “Nein,” he said. “We have to buy Mrs. Schoen a gift.” The Schoens were close friends of Klaus, from their childhood in Hamburg, Germany. Mrs. Schoen recently bore her eighth child—blonde, blue eyed, and Aryan, like his brothers and sisters.

Daisy hated to think about childbirth. She read the medical books. She knew about vaginas and breech births and lochia. She didn’t enjoy what she read.

She followed Klaus across the street—toward Mrs. Benedict’s candy shop.

Inside the shop, the scent of chocolate and caramel filled the air. A glass display case covered the rows of chocolates, toffees, and other delectables, remaining fresh on wax paper. Mrs. Benedict stood behind the counter. Her breasts pillowed hugely, and her white face looked scarred by her crimson lipstick.

“Nice dress, Daisy Lee,” she said, sounding like a shopgirl paid to appear nice.

Daisy Lee nodded, keeping her mouth shut. She still wore her sundress—white linen, tight bodiced, with a full skirt hemmed by yellow daisy print. Her breasts swelled by the day. They peered through her dress fabric. Her nipples looked like pebbles. And they ached.

Klaus said that he’d buy Daisy Lee a training bra. He recognized the way men looked at Daisy Lee now. She was used to being poor.

She couldn’t handle her changing body.

Klaus ignored Mrs. Benedict’s glare. He approached the counter.

“I’ll have eight chocolates, please. Mix them up. And put them on my account.”

Mrs. Benedict smirked.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Obermann,” she said. “But you know that I’m a nice person. I try to help whenever I can.”

“I understand perfectly,” said Klaus. “Now help me with my chocolates.”

Mrs. Benedict leavened her voice. She was a shopgirl again.

“I’m a nice lady,” she said. “But I hate being used.”

“And I hate to disappoint my friends,” said Klaus. “I hope that you haven’t become stingy. Like your son-in-law down in the city.”

Mrs. Benedict’s daughter had married a Jewish lawyer from the Bronx. Mrs. Benedict liked to patronize toward Jews, Negroes, and all the other downtrodden people in the world. But she called jazz a savage throb. And she hadn’t visited her daughter—now a Jewish convert—in five years.

Daisy Lee snickered. She covered her mouth to remain polite. Mrs. Benedict burned almost as red as her lipstick.

“Mr. Obermann,” she said. “I can’t help you. Your remaining balance has to be paid before I can help you. I know that you’re destitute—I am destitute too. But we don’t give away candy, even to people worse off than ourselves. We have to pay bills too.”

“So,” said Klaus, “no candies.”

Mrs. Benedict frowned, trying to suppress her true feelings.

“Sorry,” she said. “No candies—till you pay the balance.” Mrs. Benedict sighed. “Have a good day.”

Klaus strolled out of the candy shop, stuffing his hands in his trousers pocket. He looked like a hustler with his faded trousers and thin hips. Daisy Lee stood beside her father. She started to feel angry. She feared that everybody else in the square noticed her fear and powerlessness.

“Get Mrs. Schoen another gift,” she said. “Like a greeting card. Greeting cards are inexpensive.”

Klaus stared at Daisy Lee, his blue eyes blank.

“Nein,” he said. “Helga hates greeting cards. And I shouldn’t be friends with the Schoens anyway. They’re bad news.”

“I understand,” said Daisy Lee. She understood perfectly.


Last year, Daisy Lee was suspended from school for six months. She was considered a bad influence on her classmates; or, more likely, she probably learned something bad from her father. Klaus had followed the Schoens into the Bund—a chapter in Peekskill. Klaus changed his intellectual diet, from Marx and Freud, to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the anti-Semitic writings of Wagner and Spengler. Klaus became leaner, colder. He didn’t hurt or mistreat Daisy Lee—heck, Daisy Lee was the only person he trusted. But he decided to trust his brothers in the Bund too. He went to rallies, protesting against Jewish and Communist influence in the media and government. He told Daisy Lee that Jews liked to use Aryan babies in sinister, sacrificial ceremonies. Father’s behavior seemed too bizarre for Daisy Lee to understand, much less promote. She stayed silent at school, until her classmates taunted her too much, and her teachers and superiors considered her a threat. Daisy Lee stayed home and watched her father distance himself from the Bund. His brothers supported Nazi atrocities in Spain and Czechoslovakia, and Klaus left, saying that he couldn’t abide murder of Aryans by Aryans.

Klaus still muttered the occasional tirade against rich, greedy Jews. But for the most part, he had no connection to Nazism. And Daisy Lee felt normal again.

Until she returned home and entered the bathroom. The overhead light shined pale yellow on the checkered wallpaper. Daisy Lee approached the toilet, ready to pee. She wondered if she peed on herself. She sat down on the toilet seat and pulled down her panties.

“Do you want cabbage for dinner?” hollered Klaus. He sounded like the mother in those soap operas Daisy Lee listened to. But he didn’t have wealthy sponsors like the radio families.

Daisy Lee stared at the spot of blood on her panties. She heaved. The medical books said that girls started to menstruate at age fourteen. Daisy Lee was thirteen—early. She glanced into the toilet bowl and saw more blood.

“Cabbage?” cried Klaus. Again.

Daisy Lee felt vulnerable again. She became the girl at school who had to see the nurse during math class. She imagined pads with security belts. Tampons shoved up holes.

Daddy was thinking about dinner. Daisy Lee imagined her innocence dripping away like blood.

“Yes,” she hollered back. “I’ll have cabbage.” She finished using the toilet. She slipped out of the bathroom. The kitchen glowed yellow. Klaus stood tall and too whittled thin. He held a cabbage, the way a cannibal held a human head.

“I feel sick,” Daisy Lee said.

“Stomach?” he asked.

Daisy Lee put her hand on her stomach.

“I need the doctor,” she said. She slunk down on the kitchen chair.

Klaus paled. He pressed his large, rough hand against Daisy Lee’s forehead.

Daisy Lee was afraid of contaminating her father.


Adair Howard, Mrs. Benedict’s nephew, stood in front of history class. He handed the teacher Mr. Maxwell a pair of boxing gloves. The gloves had red leather that split like overripe fruit. Outside, the sky was cloudy, making the classroom gloomy.

“What do these gloves represent to you?” Mr. Maxwell asked.

Adair smiled, baring cigarette-browned teeth.

“A fight,” he replied. “My cousin Frank pummeled this Mohawk Indian named Jack LaRue. And Frank won $200 too. My cousin can thrash anybody. And he does it with those gloves.” Mr. Maxwell noticed dried blood in the gloves.

He returned the gloves to Adair. And smiled thinly, tittering cordially.

“Good memento,” he told Adair. The rims of his glasses gleamed like gold. Adair walked toward the rows of desks, smirking when he reached Daisy Lee.

Daisy Lee still had her period. She never got along with Adair Howard, but she felt inferior to him now. If he pummeled her like Frank Benedict pummeled the Indian, she wouldn’t be able to fight back.

Her pad felt like a diaper.

Daisy Lee remembered that she was supposed to meet Father after school. At the soda fountain near the park; Daddy claimed that he’d announce some good news. Klaus had talked about moving to California. Buying an old Model A, driving to the coast, finding a decent job out in San Bernardino or San Diego. Klaus used to be a sailor. He could find work at a shipping yard.

At the end of the school day, Daisy Lee slipped into her red peacoat. Outside, her blonde hair glistened. The sunlight poked through the clouds. The breeze was weak, and fallen leaves lay scattered on the streets, mingled with the candy wrappers. Daisy Lee wished that the garbage men cleaned the streets more. She reached the town square. Mrs. Benedict’s store stood behind her.

She watched Klaus and Frank Benedict. Frank had an olive complexion and a tight body. Sweat clung like oil on his body. Frank waved his fist in Klaus’ face; his dark eyes bulged out of the sockets, ready to attack.

“You better pay,” Frank crackled, among the beer cans smashed on the pavement. “You better pay my mother back.”

“I have an arrangement with your mother,” Klaus replied, sounding calm. Daisy Lee once heard that sounding calm defused bad situations.

“Fuck your arrangement!” Frank screamed, yanking Klaus by the collar. “Pay today or you’ll die. Get it? I will punch and kick you till unconsciousness.” He burped out the beer, before shoving Klaus back. Klaus slammed against the pavement. He hollered something about his knee.

Daisy Lee raced to her father. She kneeled down and pulled Klaus from the ground. Frank Benedict had stormed away.

“You creep!” she yelled at Frank Benedict. “You evil creep.”

Frank Benedict moved at a faster pace. Klaus sat on the pavement. He held his swollen knee.

“I hurt my knee,” he said. “I twisted it a bit.”

“I’ll get the doctor,” Daisy Lee replied. She kissed her father on the cheek. Tasted his sweat. Miss Rosenblum, one of the teachers at Daisy Lee’s school, approached the square. Her brother was the only Jewish doctor in town. He treated the poor people.

Daisy Lee yanked Miss Rosenblum’s skirt. Miss Rosenblum stopped.

“Yes?” she asked, her deep voice sounding empathetic.

“Help my father,” Daisy Lee said. “Get your brother to help my father. My father hurt his knee.”

Klaus still flinched from his injury.

“Yes...” he murmured.

Miss Rosenblum stared into Klaus’ blue eyes, searching for some humanity. Humanity was in short supply among Germans now.

Miss Rosenblum sighed.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll go to the pay phone and call Joe over here.”

Daisy Lee rose and hugged Miss Rosenblum.

“Thanks,” she said.

Klaus nodded. He then looked down. He shook from the pain racing through his body.


Dr. Rosenblum placed Klaus’ knee in a cast.

“Lay off it for six to eight weeks,” Dr. Rosenblum said. “The cartilage has to heal.” Klaus used the meat money to take a taxi back home. Daisy Lee saw several more days of cabbage and rice for dinner.

But Daddy would be okay. She helped him to the sofabed. His crutches leaned against the coffee table. The crutches gleamed like honey against the mahogany of the coffee table. Klaus reclined on the mattress, enveloped by the white woolen blanket and crazy quilt. He still looked gaunt. But as he talked about his new job in California, his complexion brightened. He looked stronger.

Daisy Lee would be with him. She could handle a new place and new people. Daisy Lee entered the kitchen. She turned on the RCA sitting atop the kitchen table. The kitchen reeked of boiled cabbage.

On CBS, the announcer said Great Britain, France, and The Soviet Union have declared war on Germany. Prime Minister Chamberlain’s compromise had failed. Would the United States join this Allied effort against the Axis nations of Germany, Italy, and Japan?

“War,” Daisy Lee muttered.

“What?” asked Klaus. “What did you say?”

Daisy Lee returned to the dimness of living room.

“You don’t have my water,” Klaus said. “What’s the matter?”

“The radio,” Daisy Lee said.

Klaus heard the announcer. He sighed.

“The Schoens said that the Third Reich will come,” Klaus said. “Realpolitik is part of the empire-building. Like the Romans.”

Klaus sounded intellectual. Mr. Maxwell would mention the war in class tomorrow.

Klaus liked to repeat a theory by Spengler. History ran in cycles. The Greeks rose; the Romans fell. Nothing could be done to stop the cycle. It happened to every society and every individual.

Daisy Lee knew that she’d stop bleeding. Become clean until the next month arrived. This war started. It would end.

But she stared at her father. He looked more than thin now. He started to look old, the age of tree leaves, as they darkened and fell from the branch.

She saw her father’s powerlessness.

“I’ll get the water,” Daisy Lee said. “You want ice? Or nein?”

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