American Graffiti?

Color Me Black

by Fabio Fernandes

 

When I walk to my job early in the morning, there it is again. No use taking another street to avoid it: the photos are all over the city, for everyone to see. A naked white child, maybe six or seven years old, too thin to know for sure, faces the camera with bleak eyes. Above it, sprayed in jet letters, three words: COLOR ME BLACK. Every time I feel the same: I try to turn my face away, but I can't.

When I arrive at the office, I'm still crying. It's been happening a lot lately, more than it should; I don't want anybody seeing me like this. Luckily, there's no one in the foyer. That gives me a chance to wipe my eyes clean quickly and go straight to my desk.

Only after sitting I notice what seems to be the last echoes of a commotion near the supervisor's desk. Nobody is working: almost everyone is standing, talking in nervous whispers near the coffee machine, and Amanda, Walter's secretary, is cleaning his table hurriedly. Walter is nowhere to be seen; I get up and walk as easygoing as I can manage to join the gang. I say good morning to everyone. They barely return the compliment. I pick a girl who is just passing by my side, a great-looking babe called Cindy, and ask her what's going on here.

"You remember that new office boy, that Malcolm?" she says.

"The one with that two, big golden nose rings?"

"And the ugly taste in multicolored sneakers, yes. Well, he sure has a very poor choice of words as well. He just plain told Walter that, as far as he was concerned, all Caucasians were as good as dead, for they weren't so good, anyway."

Walter is married to a white woman. "Shit," I say.

"It sure is. And he said all that very loud."

"What did Walter say?"

"Nothing. He simply switched the guy off on the spot. Malcolm is on his way to the hospital now." She giggles. "Almost had his jaw delivered there first."

Then the talking stops too abruptly. I look around, searching for the obvious source of the immediate silence. Walter has just walked out the men's room.

"He's very edgy today," she adds, before going to her desk. "His wife was scheduled for beginning the emergency therapy yesterday. He's waiting for news from the hospital."

I nod and finish drinking my coffee. Walter passes right by me, but doesn't say a word. I return to my desk and turn the computer on.

As always in the last few days, Walter is sitting at his terminal, striving to dodge the heaviest data traffic the Net ever saw and contacting biochemical research facilities in Pasadena and Palo Alto. He wants to help them to find a cure before it's too late.

But nobody knows how to do it. The plague spreads faster each day. The United States is under quarantine, but we've heard news that white people are dying in Canada, England, Argentina, North Africa. Not the Orientals. Not the Native Americans, not even the Brazilian Indians. Not a single case has been reported in Polynesia, neither among the Japanese nor the Chinese. In South America and Europe, so far, the white population hasn't been affected. But we know it's a matter of time.

At noon, Walter asks me if I can buy a sandwich for him. I say, sure, no problem at all, and he gives me the money and I go.

The streets are empty in a weird, ghostly way. I walk for ten minutes to the nearest Burger King. Ten minutes and couldn't see a single Caucasian. Same thing when I get there: no whites at the counter, neither eating at the tables. In the first few weeks, we all used to comment on what seemed to be a very weird feeling. But time passed. It's been two months now, and nobody I know wants to talk about it. But they feel the way I do, judging by what we have seen on TV and in the papers: Despite the empty streets, everything seems to be running OK. Energy and water distribution, transportation, food supplies; there's no lack of anything. Except for medical care - and this one just by a matter of numbers - all the remaining services in the city are doing just fine. The same can't be said about other cities: Last night, I saw on the TV the riots in Alabama, Washington, D.C., and New York. Not all of the white population was affected by the disease.

When I come back, Walter is on the phone. Talking to Pasadena. I put his burger on his desk and walk away. God, man, we're just computer program writers, not chemists, biologists, or some kind of scientist that can really make a difference. Not us.

Yesterday I got a call from Rio. Dad told me everybody is proud of me there. They know it's not easy for a Brazilian black guy to study and succeed even in Brazil, much less in the States. They are very happy, even if they don't really know if I can ever return; although scientists have proved that black people aren't guilty for transmitting the virus in the first place, that was all they could prove at the moment. Mom is very religious, and has been praying to every saint she knows ever since news of the plague got there. She firmly believes everything will be all right in no time.

Me, I try to believe in that. Every morning I walk to my job, and see the funeral cars take what's left of entire families. A month ago, when the plague broke, the streets were crowded. Now, whole neighborhoods are empty. And I must walk past them every single day. And see the graffiti and the photographs.

It's four in the afternoon when Walter's phone rings. He picks up the receiver on the double, and tries not to sound too anxious. I pretend I'm just doing my job, but I try to hear whatever fragments of conversation I can. As I'm sure everyone else is doing.

After just a couple of minutes, he puts the receiver down on the cradle and looks to everybody in the small room. Now we drop all the pretenses: we are waiting expectantly.

Then he smiles.

"She's fine for the moment," he says, his voice barely loud enough. "They found a way of stopping the advance of the disease, and she's recovering." He got up. "I'm going there."

Suddenly, however, these last few days of stress and malnutrition finally catch up to him. He stumbles, and almost falls on the floor. My desk is one of the nearest; I hurry and get him before he falls flat on the carpet.

"Let me go with you, Walter," I say. "You are too tired to drive."

"Maybe you're right," he says. "Thank you, Ricardo."

*    *    *

We drive all the way to the hospital in silence. I don't feel comfortable, but I can't find anything to say, either. It doesn't matter, though; the look in Walter's face is worth the silence.

When we get at the hospital, he is so anxious he can't wait for me to finish parking the car. He gets out of the vehicle and almost runs to the main building. By the time I enter the facility, he has already disappeared into the maze of corridors, of course. I find a waiting room near the information desk; that's where I go.

There's only other person in there: a middle-aged, balding man, reading a newspaper. Looks Italian. Doesn't look friendly: he eyes me suspiciously when I sit near him. Could have chosen another seat, but I want to see what's on TV. I'm lucky, it's a rerun of an old "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode. It's the one featuring Spock's father, Sarek. I like that one.

But the good, old pointy-eared Vulcan can't attract my attention for more than a few minutes. For someone else stands in the doorway, and calls a name in a trembling voice. I let my eyes trail off the TV set for an instant, just out of curiosity.

The girl standing at the door to the waiting room is black. But this is just the shade of her skin, and even that is strange, as if someone has smeared a kind of oil or gel in it; at her side, a woman in her fifties is carrying a small suitcase in one hand, and holding the girl's shoulder with the other.

The Italian can't believe his eyes. Neither can I believe mine.

He lets the newspaper falls to the floor and gets up slowly. He is utterly silent. I pretend to watch the TV show, but the slightly green face of a fictional Vulcan is no match for reality. The Italian can't bring himself to touch the girl. She is trembling all over. They disappear down the corridor.

Suddenly I feel my mouth dry. But I wait a few minutes before leaving the waiting room. I don't want to see them again.

In the lounge, a normal nurse - just the right shade of black - walks by me, and I can't help myself. I touch her arm. She stops and glares at me.

"Excuse me," she says.

"I'm sorry," I say, as quickly as my numb tongue allows me. "B-but· I just wanted to know... What was that out there?"

"What was that what?"

"That·." I can't bring myself to say the word 'white'; somehow, it doesn't fit. "The family that just got out·."

"Oh, you mean that," she says, and suddenly her tone is more understanding. "A palliative treatment people in Louisiana found. Silver nitrate under the epidermal tissue. Apparently the disease is related to the amount of melanin in one's skin."

"Everyone is going to get the same treatment, then?"

She nodded. "At least until we can have a vaccine against it. I heard they are even thinking of genetic therapy. DNA tampering, these things."

"Oh." It's all I can say. She excuses herself and goes to see her patients.

I don't return to the waiting room. It wouldn't do, anyway. In two minutes Walter appears down at the lounge. Much like the Italian guy, he doesn't say a word. I can't read his face. He gestures to me and goes right to the exit door. I follow.

Driving back to the office, the silence frightens me. Not knowing what I could possibly say or do, I decide to turn on the radio instead. A local station is playing David Bowie's "Changes". Walter turns it off. I don't blame him.*

 

Story copyright © 1999 by Fabio Fernandes <fgentile@zipmail.com.br>

Artwork "Color Me, Too" copyright © 1999 by Kalazar <kalazar@earthlink.net>

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