Johnathan found himself feeling rather down. It was the zeitgeist; for everywhere there was corruption and vice. Decency, civility, industriousness and all the other virtues had gone out of the world. Decadence and rot, from the upper echelons of society down to Johnathan’s own place of business, had worked their worst.
And so as he walked through the dingy back-alleys to his gloomy little apartment, his mood was understandably grim. As he approached the stained white door, the faded American flag next to it caught the breeze and hit him in the face. He cursed and, in the imprudent fury that occasionally possesses a frustrated person, tore the banner, pole and all, from its fixture beside the door.
Grumbling profanities, he opened the door and went inside the dark apartment, flag and pole tucked under his arm. He set down his briefcase and entered his kitchen to make himself a meager dinner. The kitchen was dark; barely illuminated by the dim light that filtered through the window by the stove. He fumbled for the light switch and finally found it. But on turning on the light, he found he was not alone.
Seated at his kitchen table was a tall, olive-skinned woman, dressed in a style that Johnathan would have described as “Victorian”, though in fact that was not the correct period. She wore a full-length red and white striped dress, with a shiny blue caraco, with golden epaulettes at the shoulder.
After dropping the flag and recoiling in surprise, Johnathan managed to blurt out, “Who are you? What are you doing? I’ll call the police!”
The woman smiled slightly. “No need for that, my friend,” she said coolly. “Although I request that you pick up that lovely flag you have rather unceremoniously left lying on the floor.”
“What, this?” said Johnathan stupidly. “It’s old and faded. I may as well pitch it.”
“Please don’t,” said the woman, in a tone of annoyance that told Johnathan he had better pick up the flag already. Having done so, he returned to his line of questioning: “What are you doing in my apartment, ma’am?” he asked, and then added, “I did not invite you. Please leave before I call the police.”
“I have not, and will not, steal any of your belongings, nor harm you in any way.” she said calmly. “I only want to talk to you.”
“About what?” Johnathan said, with ill-concealed irritation. “I don’t even know who you are!”
“Columbia is my name,” she answered. “And I want to talk to you about America.”
“You want… what?” he said in confusion. “Well, I don’t know why you want to talk about that, but if you want to know what I think: America’s going to hell in a handbasket. It’s a disaster. The government is nothing but criminals and liars, out to make a buck.”
“Ah, but that is politics,” she replied. “That is not America.”
“Well, call it whatever you want, but the bottom line is nobody has a clue what they’re doing. They can’t hold anyone accountable, they can’t do their own jobs right–it’s chaos everywhere; people are out of work, they can’t afford decent food or a decent place to live, and criminals are all over the place–killing people, stealing stuff, and, and–and breaking into people’s houses in the middle of the night!” (He concluded this speech by pointing towards Columbia.)
“Can you really think of nothing good about the country?” she queried.
“Oh, it used to be better, back in the old days. People weren’t perfect, but at least they tried,” he muttered. “It was a great country once, but it’s all ruined because people are too stupid or too afraid to try to fix things anymore.”
“And what was it that made it great?” she asked.
He shook his head, “I… I don’t know. Do you think if I knew that I would be here?”
She folded her hands. “Let me tell you something about America: it does not have as much history as other parts of the world do. People who come here are looking to build something new–without all the baggage of the old world weighing them down.”
“Well, what of it?” said Johnathan. He tried to sound as disinterested as possible, and yet he found himself sitting down to listen to her all the same. “It’s all failed now, anyway.”
She replied crisply: “I believe it’s not about ‘success’ or ‘failure’–those are things that only apply in a contest with a clearly defined end. The beauty of creating something new is that it is a risk. You do not know how it will turn out–but there is courage in trying.”
“That is what really matters, you see,’ she continued. “When anything–a life, a country, anything–begins, there is no guarantee of ‘success’. And yet, if no one were ever willing to run that risk…”
She trailed off, and Johnathan now found himself mesmerized by her speech. He stared at her for a few moments. Her brown eyes had a strange calming effect upon him, and he felt like he was becoming hypnotized as he studied her dark, angular face.
“But what’s the use of any of it now?” he asked, forcing himself back to reality. “There’s nothing new here–it’s old and rotten and falling apart!”
Columbia closed her eyes for a moment and smiled patiently, as though she had expected this from him. She opened her eyes, looked directly into his, and said: “And don’t you think that in the past, others have felt just as frustrated and lost as you do now?”
“Yes,” he admitted, after a pause.
“And what did they do?”
“They… created something new.” he answered quietly.
“That’s right,” she said with a satisfied nod. “They faced their challenges, assessed them, and overcame them through courage and ingenuity. That is America.”
The two of them sat in silence after that. Columbia leaned back in her chair and glanced around the room with an expression of mild interest. Johnathan simply stared at her, the strange feeling of hypnosis growing stronger all the time.
A loud bang from outside jolted him to his feet. For an instant, he thought it was a gunshot, but when he rushed to the window, he saw glittering white sparks in the air and realized it was a firework display.
“Look at that,” he said with a smile, as more bright showers of light exploded in the darkness overhead. “Columbia, come and see–”
He turned to beckon her to the window, but she was gone. The chair was empty. Johnathan looked around in confusion. He ran back through the kitchen and out the front door on to the porch, looking around for her as he went.
She was nowhere to be seen. Johnathan stood on the porch in a daze, listening to the crackle of the pyrotechnic display building to its climax.
He looked around and caught sight of the empty metal bracket beside the door. The flag and pole, he realized, were still under his arm. He hurriedly unfurled the flag and restored it to its place.