This is it: America: The big strip, mini-malls and freeways that yawn along an impervious shoreline for hours, cutting through cities and tracing the cozy suburbs.

If you dislike having your reasons questioned, if you are not a communist, if you are a patriot, a good citizen, then put a sticker of a flag on the back window of your car. With all your strength, stab the earth of your front lawn with a wooden stake and hang a flag from that, too.

If you stand in the center of your street, you will see rows and columns of red, white and blue forever. Though the houses vary, all sizes, all colors, clean cut grass and rooted daisies, they all sport flags that flail in sloppy unison on one breeze. This is called glory. This is patriotism.

Once upon a time you would have seen white picket fences. Don't panic in their absence; citizens have since admitted that they were unnecessary. You are still American if your yard has a metal gate with a rusty door. You are still American with no fence at all.

You may have a father who has been to Vietnam, and a grandmother who is slow and sad in all that she does. In her basement, stuffed in cardboard cigar boxes, you will find yellow newspaper strips, and letters that say the things your father never will.

In these pages, translated to the black language of ink, you will find guns, grenades, bombs. Mom, I'm doing fine. Fighting like fucking hell and maybe one day the General will tell us why.

If this is the case, and if you do find such letters, it will be best not to read them. Fathers, by nature, should not be known to lift their newborns with the same hands that once flew air-spitting helicopters into a foreign land and killed what was found. Ignorance is more of a curiosity than a bliss in this instance, but it is also necessary. You will want to look this man in the eyes later.

Your presence is informally requested on the fourth of every July. You'll sit on a picnic bench. Someone will be inhaling too many potato chips. There will be a pool filled with kids, lined at the brim with aunts and uncles who talk only to each other.

Should you decide to enter this pool, do so by jumping. Scream "cannonball!" and with all your might try to dampen the edges of the lawn with your one great splash. Ignore the white sticker on the side of the ladder that says: "Do Not Jump." This does not apply to you. As an American, you are invincible.

When the sky is barely dark, act eager. Tug someone's arm as often as possible and say: "now?" Eventually, someone will hand you what looks like a giant match. Watch as they light its tip. It will sparkle. Run through the grass with it, but do not bring it near the pool; this would kill it.

When the day is done, and the sky is a celestial canvas, sit on the ground. Bury yourself in strangers but make sure you can see your mother. You are less likely to disappear this way.

Crane your neck. The grass will tickle your skin. You'll wish you had heeded your mother's advice and brought a sweater, or at least some bug spray. But these regrets will be brief. Stare up.

Soon, you'll find that the sky is on fire. Pinks and yellows and purples crackle like special lightening. Dots of color appear and rise and fall to disappear. This will happen in your eyes, too. Try speaking and your voice will be swallowed up by the resounding bangs of the sky. You will have no words, and will gradually begin to like it.

You'll get anxious. The sky will eventually become a sky again. Go home and eat leftover refrigerated picnic food before bed. Soon, the night is over and it is the fifth of July, any random day of the year.

This next part will happen anytime. You may be in school, you may be in your flag-clad car with no direction other than the opposite of your parents. It doesn't matter where you are, but when you turn on the TV you will learn what the entire country has known for hours: something was bombed. Or flown into. Or otherwise destroyed.

This is called terrorism, and American media looks only when it happens within the borders of this country. Gradually, you will learn through this that America is not a country at all. It is a planet, a world of its own crises. You will perhaps cry at these acts, or sit quiet as a cat with no expression to be read on your face.

Forget your ideals now. Forget those sick, skinny, dark-skinned kids on TV swearing they could live off of ten cents a day. Forget the enslaved women of third-world countries who walk forever hiding their faces from the men who fill them up with children. Forget what stretches beyond the shoreline. Those are not your world now. Your world is a place with a smoldering grave in the center of New York City, morbid and hollow as death itself. Your world has letters from Vietnam in the basement. Your world is ending.

The president sits in your television, on a chair with a fake backdrop. Nobody knows where the hell he's broadcasting from. He'll talk and talk for hours. You'll stare and stare, trying to impress your parents with the profound interest you look like you have.

He is a soft-looking man. His eyes are sunken. He always appears to be laughing or sobbing dramatically inside. You will understand these things before you understand what he is talking about.

Panic a little; this is easier than trying to sleep. People around you will change. You will wonder what has happened to them. You will wonder what is happening to you. Avoid the subway, avoid tall buildings, skip a heartbeat when someone mentions taking an airplane to go to a tropical resort. You will be slightly neurotic, but it will comfort you.

To be an American, you must be resilient. Fear not, this comes naturally. In the days that pass, you will find yourself asking your mother what is for dinner. When she bakes apple pie, it will become intriguing. You'll regain joy in your favorite foods. You'll regain annoyance in homework, the returning dread of the alarm clock five mornings a week. Your neurotic angst will melt like orange sunsets. As time passes, you will be happy. But you will still not get on an airplane.

You'll return to the basement in your grandmother's house one afternoon, after helping her with menial chores. She is weaker lately, but you are there, in her old kitchen, opening jars and pushing in chairs, feeding her unfriendly gray kitten because you do not want her to be lonely.

When she asks you to find the broom, you turn to the basement. And you find the thing, a long, splintery stick with straw bristles on the stone ground. It is leaning beside a pile of old cigar boxes. Your curiosity will trap you there, between the creaky staircase and the chores that the broom implies.

Soon you are sitting on the floor, musing over newspaper clippings from nineteen-seventy-something. That is when you find them: the letters. They are already in your hands, and you are already interested.

Dear Mom, one begins. How is dad?

You scan.

Dear Annie, another shows you. Your mother's name. I never told you about Greggie. He smoked more things than I can tell you about here. I picked him up today, dirty and dead.

Some words confuse you, others bore you. And some? Some tattoo themselves into the grooves of your brain like little mechanical needles. They hurt and stab and sting, and you know that they will be in you forever. You know that you will see your father's scratchy, teenage handwriting in your eyelids whenever you think of him. You know that it will be hard to sleep that night. But you read anyway, because you cannot stop. Because time has turned curiosity into your only emotion and you want nothing other than to sit on the stone floor of the basement, hugging the broom with one arm as though to humor it, flipping through page after page until you know everything that has ever filled the long silences of your home.

Are you okay? Your grandmother will call to you. You'll look sharply at her pink slippers standing atop the stairs beneath her wrinkly, vein- traced ankles. Yes, you'll say, stuffing the letters hastily back into the boxes as you wonder how she came to acquire all of them.

You'll stand, holding a broom in one hand, and a bag of cat food in the other. The staircase feels longer than usual, and when you reach the kitchen, with its bright and yellow and green walls, you will feel smarter and braver, and maybe even a small bit prouder. There is more than a staircase and a cold basement behind you now: there is, written in weathered letters, the story of your parentage. There is the way your mother loved your father from across a handful of countries at war. There is the way your father survived to return to her because, yes, he loved her more then than he says now.

Later, when your grandmother twists her face to one side and says she's out of milk, offer to go to the store for her. Get into your car. Turn the key in the ignition. As you drive down the street, you'll find that you were never more aware of the little flag stuck to the window's corner in your car. Ponder, for the first time, how many have died so that it could be manufactured. Realize, with sharp certainty, that very few know what it must mean.

Drive to the grocery store, and grin when you see the milk. America's Choice, the carton says. Choose another brand, pay at the cash register, and return to your grandmother's house. Park your car so that the flag sticker faces the street, flaunting your newfound realization of its purpose. Leave your car facing that way for hours like a true patriot: You are an American. Nobody will notice.