As ‘‘With All Flags Flying’’ opens, an eighty-two-year-old man named Mr. Carpenter lives alone in a two-room house located on the last bit of farm property he owns near a superhighway in Baltimore County. He has felt weaker recently and household chores have been neglected. He has come to the conclusion that he can no longer live alone. Carpenter has been expecting that a more obvious sign or health problem would drive him to make this change, but ‘‘it was only weakness that put a finish on his living alone.’’
One Saturday morning, Carpenter gets ready to leave. He packs a hunk of bread and two Fig Newtons in a paper bag along with a spare set of underwear and a razor. He puts on T-shirt, work boots, and a suit he bought in 1944. Carpenter leaves his other possessions in the house, which include a pen, a few clothespins, and a comb. Before he departs from his home, he reflects on his life. He was born with nothing but built a life with his wife, their five children, and many possessions. Now Carpenter feels like he needs next to nothing. As Tyler writes, ‘‘Now he had the brown paper bag; that was all. It was the one satisfaction in a day he had been dreading for years.’’
To leave the house, Carpenter climbs up a steep bank to the superhighway. It takes much effort on his part. His knees buckle twice, forcing him to sit and rest. When Carpenter makes it to the superhighway, he can walk for long periods of time, but sweats profusely. After a half an hour, he sits down to rest, and a young man on a motorcycle stops. The rider offers Carpenter a lift to Baltimore, where Carpenter is headed.
Riding behind the young man, Carpenter soon relaxes and enjoys his ride on the motorcycle: ‘‘It was a fine way to spend his last free day.’’ Within a half an hour, they reach the city. The motorcycle rider drops him off at his oldest daughter Clara’s house. Nearly fifty, Clara is married to a salesman and has six children. Carpenter is rather disappointed that the ride had to end.
After Carpenter gets off the bike and the motorcycle rider roars away, Clara comes out of the house and hugs him. She also admonishes him for not calling her to pick him up. Carpenter immediately tells her that he wants to live in an ‘‘old folks’ home.’’ He also states that while he likes to visit her, he does not want to live with her. Clara reminds him that she and her family have always wanted him to live with them when the time came. Carpenter remains firm in his decision, but tells her ‘‘What I will rely on you for is the arrangements with the home. I know it’s a trouble.’’
Inside the house, Carpenter eats his bread and squished Fig Newtons with a glass of milk. Though Clara offers to make him a hearty breakfast and give him fresh cookies, he wants to eat the food that he has brought with him. Tyler writes of the Newtons, ‘‘They seemed to have come from somewhere long ago and far away.’’ Carpenter then asks his daughter to clean up his house. Clara offers to bring all the contents back, but he does not want any of them and tells her to ‘‘Take it to the colored people.’’ Clara is confused by her father’s request, but he does not explain why he does not want his possessions.
After her father eats his lunch, Clara leads him to the upstairs guest room. All Clara’s children come up to greet their grandfather. Carpenter admits a particular attachment to his only granddaughter, Francie, who was ‘‘too young yet to know how to hide what she felt.’’ Carpenter enjoys hearing about her life and love interests. When she leaves, ‘‘the room seemed too empty, as if she had accidentally torn part of it away in her flight.’’
Carpenter begins the process of getting into a home and handling his family’s expectations about this phase of life. Getting into a home proves to be difficult, as there are waiting lists and expenses. His family proves problematic to Carpenter as his son-in-law tells him nightly that he is welcome to live with the family. But Carpenter has no intention of staying there because he has already decided to live in a home and does not want to change his mind. His grandchildren also work hard to impress upon him that they want him to stay. In addition, his other daughters, spread around the country, tell Carpenter he can come and live with them if he does not want to stay with Clara. They also warn him that old folks’ homes are not pleasant. Though Carpenter feels pride at the kind of adults his children have become, he remains firm in his decision.
While staying at Clara’s, Carpenter continues to feel weak but fights it by walking two blocks every day. He also helps out around the house, shelling peas and fixing household items. Yet he is only able to climb the stairs once a day and spends many hours sitting in a chair. Tyler writes, ‘‘Never once did he disgrace himself by falling down in front of people. He dropped nothing more important than a spoon or a fork.’’
Carpenter’s name has been placed on a waiting list at a home, but Clara struggles with the idea of him living there. She tries to get him to change his mind, but Carpenter has known for many years how he wants to spend his elderly years. He believes that many old people chose to be weak and were forced to live according to their families’ desires, but he remembers a teacher he once knew named Lollie Simpson who had determined what kind of old age she wanted to have. A thin woman, she had a plan that left her dependent on no one. She wanted to sit in a chair, read magazines, eat fudge, and get as fat as she liked.
Like the teacher, Carpenter does not want to be dependent on anyone else. He has lived his life this way and wants to go into the home by himself. Tyler also notes, ‘‘He could have chosen to die alone of neglect, but for his daughters that would have been a burden too—a different kind of burden, much worse.’’ While waiting to get into the home, Carpenter fends off his family’s many attempts to change his mind. He also refuses to talk about the past, even about his deceased wife with Francie.
On the day Carpenter is to enter the home, Clara and Francie drive him there. Clara is in tears, but her father tells her ‘‘There’s no need to be sad over .’’ Clara wishes he would change his mind about living with her, but he remains silent and sure of his decision.
When they arrive, Carpenter climbs the steps on his own and carries his paper sack that contains his change of underwear and razor. He checks himself in and answers all pertinent questions himself. The intake woman, Carpenter, Clara, and Francie ride an elevator to the second floor and go to room 213. There, the intake worker introduces Carpenter to his new roommate, Mr. Pond. Pond says he is used to sleeping by a window, but he offers either bed to Carpenter, who says he does not care.
Carpenter then tells his daughter that she can go home, but adds ‘‘Don’t you worry about me. I’ll let you know if there is anything I need.’’ After saying good-bye, Clara and Francie leave and Carpenter unpacks his few belongings into the bureau. Pond insists that Carpenter take the bed by the window so he can watch his family leave.
Looking out the window, Carpenter watches Clara and Francie get into their car. Clara is still crying. Pond tells Carpenter, ‘‘ they cry. Later they’ll buy themselves a milk shake to celebrate.’’ Carpenter tells him it was his choice to come, while Pond reveals that his son chose to put him in the home because his wife is pregnant. Carpenter tells Pond that he had options within his family, ‘‘But I’m not like some I have known. Hanging around making burdens of themselves, hoping to be loved. Not me.’’ Pond replies, ‘‘If you don’t care about being loved, how come it would bother you to be a burden?’’ Pond resumes reading the Bible and Carpenter sits on his bed and watches Clara’s car drive away. He takes off his suit coat and shoes, lies down on the bed, and looks up at the ceiling. He feels fatigued and weak. He repeats his promise to live gracefully until ‘‘the moment of my defeat.’’ He also hopes that Lollie Simpson is alive somewhere eating fudge and gaining weight.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Anne Tyler, Published by Gale Group, 2010