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BLACK SCIENCE FICTION

WELCOME TO THE OLD SOUTH


WELCOME TO THE OLD SOUTH the sign said. On a white square post, with bushes growing around the base. It had come and gone as always. And as always he felt strange. Though, as he took in the land on both sides of the road, he wondered how could he have reservations about a place with such lush green countryside. And at night the moon was so bright, the craters so stark. Still....

And the crickets. In New York City he was used to car horns sounding all night, not crickets. Damn things—crickets—were never silent. At least car horns were the exception rather than the rule.

He took a deep breath. He had resolved to make the best of a less than desirable situation. To please his wife. But the heat, it was always so hot. Brutal, unrelenting. Thank God for air conditioning. Guy who invented that should have received a Nobel Prize. And he had to admit the sunsets were spectacular—bringing to mind Scarlett O'Hara and that scene in GONE WITH THE WIND where she stood with her fist clenched.

He reached up and scratched his head through the carpet of woolly hair. Well, thank God he didn't have to work outside or even go out unless he wanted to. And there was nothing that couldn't wait, as far as he was concerned, until the cool of the evening.

It was a strange little Southern town he'd moved to. Or so it appeared to him. There'd been strife here—in the sixties—but that seemed to be in the past. He'd been apprehensive, having lived in the North all his life and having heard so much about the 'Old South.' To actually go and live there ... but his wife had complained of the crime and impersonalness of the North. In the South, everyone was kind and polite, greeted everyone and people could leave their doors open without fear. Yeah, right, sure. He still locked his.

Still, he'd had enough of the cold North himself and had decided to give the South a try. Maybe he'd judged the place too hard, holding old ways against it. It was an economically progressive area now and, except for the occasional Confederate flag every old boy had hanging somewhere, seemed to have finally put the Civil War behind.

So he had come here. To live with his wife. He was not going to take anything from anyone and was ready to start killing any rednecks who did not show the proper respect. He would not live in fear as his ancestors had.

What would they think of his coming back to this land they had suffered so much in?

He sighed.

It was a charming little town. Quaint, he'd heard some tourists—white—passing through describe it. He could not believe how happy everyone—black and white—was to see him. They made him feel like long lost kin come home. Dinners and BBQs and picnics. "Hi y'alls!" everywhere they went. Still, he felt uneasy. Too much grinning and hugging and 'how-you'all's' for his comfort. As a lifelong Northerner, his experience was that when people grinned in your face, they were usually addressing a hidden agenda.

He'd tried to speak to his wife, but that had proved impossible. She was happy! since they'd moved down here. Fixing up the house—with the help of white and black neighbors, shopping, looking after kids and looking forward to good times.

Another thing bothered him. He stood slumped against a jamb of the door of their new large bright kitchen with every convenience modern technology could supply, admiring her hips while watching her putting the final touches on a kitchen that was already too clean and neat for his taste. When he spoke, he interrupted her humming.

"Something's been bothering me...."

She looked up at him, then went back to wiping and polishing. She was much younger than him. And beautiful—in a black way. She'd never win one of those European beauty contests, but she started his motor.

"What's that, Henry?"

"There's a lot of mulatto kids around here."

She stopped again, took a big breath and let it out. Then she went back to wiping and polishing. "That goes back to slavery. Because of the circumstances, a good many so-called 'blacks' are of mixed heritage."

"So...."

"It's a matter of chance."

"Chance?"

"At certain times in certain places, there will be statistical anomalies, that is, large numbers of children with high concentrations of white genes will be born. It's simple genetics. If a pure blood white and a pure blood black had sex and had four children, statistically one would be light enough to pass for white, another would be dark enough to pass for full-blooded African and the other two would be of a median between the two extremes. We've had experience with that sort of thing over the generations in the South." She also had more education than him which sometimes annoyed him, but he looked past it. Sisters had to take what they could get.

He nodded. "You have a point. I never thought about it. I guess it's so common, so much a part of African-American circumstances that it never registered. I mean, you see the diversity in a lot of black families. Still...."

"With all those white genes floating around in the African-American community as a result of slavery," she went on, "there are bound to be statistical anomalies resulting in communities from time to time with large percentages of light-skinned children."

He nodded. Not that he had anything against mulattoes, but they reminded him too much of white people and what they'd done to his people in the past. A mulatto was a living sign that said 'we used to rape your people any time we wanted to.' He sighed. But if the blacks of the South could put the past behind them, well, maybe he could too. He would give it a try. He loved his wife. For her, he'd make the effort.

* * *

He tried to sound out some of the black men when he was alone with them. But it was the old 'live and let live' or 'let bygones be bygones.' In church the preacher preached brotherhood and a coming together of all races. The people—white and black—smiled back, happy.

But as a born and bred Northerner, he found all that love and happiness unreal. Too suspicious. This was the Old South—surely some of his people still held grudges, still felt anger. Two hundred years of hate and animosity and ownership couldn't be put aside so completely. Look at Kosovo, Bosnia. Those people did not forget so easily. But he seemed to be the only one out of step.

* * *

As time went along, because he was always looking for them, he noticed little things: lots of whisperings, looks in his direction, strange disappearances by his wife. He tried not to be a jealous man, but he often found white men looking at her. She was a shapely woman, skin the color of milk chocolate, sweet-looking enough to lick, and he knew men found her attractive. Especially her rounded butt. And swollen 44D's. She was wonderful in bed. And had lips that were a fascination to men like himself who loved a certain kind of lovin'.

He supposed it was human nature for men to be attracted to attractive women. And whites were men unless he was going to deny them humanity. Certainly the way they'd behaved toward his people during slavery and for many years afterward, made it all too easy to dehumanize them. But in his logical moments, when he stopped remembering the past and hating them, he realized they were human. His wife was a beautiful, sensual woman. Men were bound to sneak peeks. And since they were white, they would be guilty about it. And probably envied him his nightly partaking of such heavenly goods.

He grinned. Yeah, they would be envious. His wife knew how to make the bed shake! And her full lips ... all a man had to do was look at them and know she would give pleasure a thin-lipped white woman could only aspire to.

Still, he found he slept soundly certain nights, waking in the morning with memory of nothing but total oblivion. His wife would be walking around with a smile as if he had truly taken care of business—so much so that he didn't remember.

Most men wouldn't have noticed, but he was still distrustful of this Old South, remembering tales of the old Old South too well.

He began to keep track and realized he was losing one night per month. A Saturday night. Too much drinking? He'd never been a heavy drinker. But he realized, once he started keeping track, that one Saturday night a month he'd go to bed with the intention of really laying it to his wife—and wake up totally refreshed the next morning.

So he began keeping watch on his Saturdays. And went over his days and the things said and observed. Thus, it came to him he'd been sounded out a few times and these people were waiting to hear certain things from him—and in his ignorance and oblivion of the questions, he'd never said them. His background was too different. So whatever was happening, he wasn't invited in as yet.

And might never be.

* * *

He became more and more secretive, appearing where he wasn't expected, eavesdropping on conversations. He came upon discussions of which he had no doubt he was the subject. Finally, he questioned his wife, feeling if the conversations were indeed about him, he had a right to know.

She laughed. "Yes, we talk about you. They don't think I should've married a Northerner. You know, the difference in backgrounds. We feel differently about things down here because we've lived next to them—whites—all our lives. Up North, where every thing is so separated—although you don't ever admit it—you have a different view about white people."

He grunted. "True. But how can you pretend everything's so hunky dory here. These are some of the most vicious people God ever let walk the Earth."

"You're talking about the old days. And you don't know them."

"Because I'm a Northerner."

"Yes."

"Well, explain what I'm missing."

"We're ...," she groped for words, "... like family."

"That's because you are—after all that raping and Saturday nights down in the slave quarters." He shook his head. He knew men. The thought of all that free booty must have driven those white men almost mad. No wonder they'd fought so hard in the Civil War to keep slavery.

She rolled her eyes but then looked squarely at him. "There is some truth to that. The reality is that despite the differences and the past, we are family down here—not strangers the way you are in the North. Like it or not, we are one people here."

He shook his head. "Like it or not, I think you 'Negroes' are one strange bunch down here."

* * *

Anyway, against his desire to, he came to the conclusion his wife, his lovely, sensuous wife with those gorgeous lips and Godiva Chocolate skin, who he trusted with his life and well-being, was drugging him. He was devastated when he realized it.

Why? Was she having an affair? Was that why she was so restored, so full of energy on the Sunday mornings after his missing Saturday nights? But how could that be? Everyone knew everyone else's business down here. She could not hope to keep it a secret. Hell, there were more people on one block in Harlem than in this whole town.

The next Saturday night he pretended to take the drug—mixed in his soda. Actually he took a little so he would be groggy and could easily slip into what seemed a deep sleep for a while.

He was apparently asleep when she came into the bedroom.

"Is he asleep?" he heard her friend, Nadia, a black woman her age, a childhood friend, ask.

"Yes."

"Then let's go. Don't want to be late." He heard the excitement, the anticipation, in her voice.

He felt his wife kiss him lightly on the lips. It took all his control not to respond. He smelled her—a heady combination of a touch of perfume and her own natural scent. The lights went out. He heard them walk down the hall and outside, heard the screen door slam shut. Then the car start and drive off. Silence. He was alone.

He got out of bed, dressed quickly in jeans, dark t-shirt and athletic shoes and sneaked out of his own house. He took the other car and followed discreetly. The night was filled with the chirp of crickets. They drove for miles through heavily wooded country in a part he hadn't visited before. But then he was still pretty much unfamiliar with all the area about.

They slowed eventually. He eased his car through the darkness after them until he saw a checkpoint. He turned off into the woods and when he was deep enough in, left the car and continued on foot, flanking the checkpoint.

What's happening? he wondered. He had a feeling he was about to find out about that 'one big happy family' thing.

He crept up close and watched. Everyone was dressed in old clothes. The whites in clean, expensive looking, old-fashioned outfits. The blacks had on dirty, ragged, old ones.

What in the Hell? Looked like some kind of re-enactment thing.

They dragged Ben Oldson out. Middle-aged, black, his mostly bald head fringed with grey hair, he had the house several places down. He struggled but they tied him up between two trees. Everyone gathered around. A couple of white men tore the shirt from his back. A third limbered up with a bullwhip, snapping it experimentally.

One read from a paper. "Ben Oldson, you were three weeks late paying your mortgage."

"I—

The whip snapped. His fleshy body shook. Ben howled, tugged at the ropes holding him. They didn't give. There was now a streak on his sweaty back.

Oh yeah, all hunky dory down here.

He moved on, saw a street of a reconstructed small town. It was filled with people. He spotted his wife and Nadia. They had on old-fashioned full-skirted dresses and wore bonnets on their heads and carried parasols. As he watched an arrogant white man stepped in front of her and motioned toward a cabin. She shook her head no. The man unslung a bullwhip. She drew back and then dropped her head, turned and walked into the shack.

Without thinking, Henry bolted out. He didn't know what was going on but he knew why his wife was so happy one Sunday morning in four. He was putting a stop to this. He took out his 9mm semiautomatic. He was going to kill him some white people tonight.

"Let's get them!" he screamed as he ran near a group of black men. They looked at him. One of them stepped out—swinging. Not expecting it, he was defenseless. He went down. And out.

He came awake, tried to move. Couldn't. Someone had chained him to a pike hammered into a tree. A crowd, black and white, stood about him. Four German police dogs strained at their leashes as a black man he'd never seen before came forward and unchained his foot. But two chains, a man holding each, on his wrists controlled him. At gunpoint, his arms stretched wide between the two men, they backed him to the woods. He looked at them all—black and white—and cursed them all.

His wife had said they were one big happy family down here. They were. And once a month they got together to relive the good old days—playing slave and master. And now they had themselves an outsider. One they didn't care for. But as everyone knew, every now and then you had to have an escaped slave. Added authenticity. And excitement. They could hunt him down and kill him as an example to the others. Nothing personal about it. Just the way it was done back in the old days.

His wife kissed him. He ignored her and spat when she stepped back. She shrugged and let her lover's tanned arms close about her. They gave him a ten-second head-start. Then they released the dogs.

Yeah, he thought as he ran, as he heard the dogs eagerly yelping behind him and the bullets flying past, as he pictured the sign at the entrance to town, Welcome to the Old South.

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