by Starsky Hutch 76
When Clark Kent looked through the window of his hotel room the next morning, the clouds were gray, and the asphalt was wet. The outside looked like he felt inside. He didn’t need to be hit over the head with a baseball bat to understand what was going on. Usually, his unassuming manner won people over pretty easily. Now people treated him with suspicion. Yet nothing had changed but the color of his skin. All these years he had thought of himself as an outsider, an alien. He’d never realized how easy he had it.
Clark headed for a diner he had seen the day before. White customers occupied all of the tables. There was one black patron at the counter, and Clark took a seat next to him.
“Where you from?” the old black man asked him. The man’s face and shoulders were those of someone who had carried a heavy burden his entire life. Clark couldn’t imagine what it must’ve been like for him, spending his entire life in this place.
“Metropolis,” Clark answered.
“Stay there,” he said. “Why you want to come down here?”
“What do you mean?” Clark asked.
“Look, son, you’re here ’cause you heard about the New South, right? You’ve heard we’ve come a long way, and you want to find a new place to start. Well, let me tell you, Atlanta might be the New South, even Birmingham, but here in Gadley, in all these little towns, this is still the Old South,” he said. “What do you think happened to all those fellows who used to tell me and your daddy to sit in the back of the bus or to go around back to find the black bathroom? You think all those people died when they killed Mister Crow?”
They walked together out of the diner to the town square. “What do you know about Forton County?” Clark asked him.
The old black man gave him a horrified look. “I know you don’t want to go there. I don’t want to go there, either,” he said, coughing nervously. “So it’s best just to not talk about the place. Look, you’re new here, so I’d best warn you. It’s not a good idea to ask too many questions. When things go wrong around here, just accept them and pray they don’t happen to you. That’s how you get by.”
“That doesn’t sound like any way to live,” Clark said.
“It’s not,” the old man said sadly. “But you ain’t always got a choice in how you get to live.” They shook hands and then said their goodbyes. “You take care of yourself now,” he said with a wary look.
The main feature of the town square seemed to be the large church. Clark entered the stately blue doors, only to find the main room empty, save for a homeless guy who was blond-haired and blue-eyed. Clark asked him about the church’s shelter in detail, leading him to believe he was homeless, too. His name was Chris. He’d been living on the streets for five years.
Clark asked Chris if he had ever lived in Forton.
“Oh, you don’t want to go down there,” he said.
“Because you’re black,” Chris said, looking at Clark as if he had just asked why the sky was blue. “Simple as that.”
Clark continued down the street, heading south this time. There was an abrupt change in the landscape. Pool halls, liquor stores, all the buildings were run down — this was the black side of town. A young, bald, black teenager was hanging outside a pool hall. He had a fierce expression on his face. Clark gave him a friendly smile.
“Whazz up?” he nodded.
Clark had opened his mouth to ask the young man a few questions, when suddenly a police car passed, made a U-turn, and stopped directly in their path. The young man, who’d looked so proud only a few seconds earlier, immediately looked down at the ground. The sheriff waved Clark over. He walked to the car and put his hand on the roof of the cruiser.
“Get your hands off my cruiser,” the sheriff said. Clark put them in his pockets.
“You don’t want to do that, either.”
Clark folded his fingers in front of his chest like a choirboy. The sheriff regarded him a moment.
“You’re new in town, ain’t you, boy?” he asked. His breath stank. “Well, we’ve had plenty of trouble ’round here. I hope you don’t have any more in mind.”
“No way. No, sir,” Clark assured him. He prayed silently that he wouldn’t ask for his I.D. How would he explain the white man’s driver’s license in his pocket?
“OK,” he said. “Stay out of trouble now, you hear? I’ve got my eye on you.”
Clark headed toward the town square, where there was a poultry festival going on. It consisted of tents, steel drum barbecues, and picnic tables in a parking lot, scored with the live music of a twangy country band. The first thing he noticed was the lack of black folks, except for one family eating at a picnic table.
The aroma of chicken filled his nose and stirred his stomach. He walked up, taking a seat at a table not too far from the black family near an obese white woman, hoping to spark some sort of conversation.
“Hell-o,” she sang pleasantly. “Are you enjoying the festival?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Clark said. “The barbecue chicken is great. I don’t get to eat good home cooking like this back in Metropolis.”
“Metropolis?” she cooed with a tone of admiration. “And you wanted to come down here? Where you off to next?”
“Forton County,” he said, hoping to find out what she knew of the place.
“Forton County?” she repeated as a look of alarm and disbelief crossed her face. “Why would you go there? You lookin’ for trouble?”
“Of course not,” Clark said. “I’m just looking to get away from the city, and there’s good farmland out there. Surely, it can’t be as bad as people say. I’m an American citizen, so I can live anywhere I want. Right?”
“Well, not there,” she said with a derisive snort. “They’d make you leave.”
“How could they do that?”
“They’d make your life miserable. Bad things would happen. They could change your mind; trust me.” The sudden change in her voice and her argumentative posture was frightening.
“Well, I think I’ll just go and check it out for myself,” Clark said.
Her face turned even redder. “You people never get it,” she chided. “Some folks just don’t like living with you people. Look what you do to your neighborhoods. You make everyone leave. You ruin everything. You think–”
Clark stared at her, astounded at the gradual change in her demeanor. From sugary sweet to controlled rage. Across the street, someone began calling, “Ma! Ma, are you all right?” A young overweight boy was looking at Clark reproachfully.
She looked over at the overweight boy, waving her hand. She raised herself off the bench, a strained sound escaping as she pushed herself up. “Well, goodbye,” she said. “Don’t be stupid, now, you hear?”
Clark felt tired and sick. The fatigue was coming over him again. He decided to head back to his room, feeling as though he could sleep the rest of the day and night. Just as he was leaving the park, the same police cruiser from earlier pulled in front of him. “Still making trouble, I see,” the officer said.
“What? I haven’t done anything,” Clark said.
“You calling me a liar, boy?” the officer spat. “Look how you upset poor Greta over there,” he said, pointing to the obese woman Clark had just been talking to. He turned back and looked at Greta. She looked down with a sad, ashamed expression.
“Eyes front, boy. We don’t like strange darkies coming into our town, asking questions and upsetting our women. We like our colored folk to behave themselves, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t see what I’ve done wrong,” Clark said.
“That’s for me to decide. I’m the one with the badge. Up against the car.” He started frisking Clark. His hand went for the back pocket with Clark’s wallet. Instinctively, Clark moved to stop him, and the sheriff’s nightstick slammed into his back, delivering a blinding flash of pain.
“What are you afraid of, boy? Got something to hide?” the sheriff chuckled. He opened the wallet and saw Clark’s driver’s license and press pass. “So you been pickin’ pockets? I knew you was no good.” He jerked Clark’s arms behind him, slapped on a pair of handcuffs, and threw him into the back of the squad car.