Originally published in Under Twin Suns: Alternate Histories Of The Yellow Sign
Edited by James Chambers
by Steven Van Patten
Rita sat rocking back and forth on the porch, watching the
sunset slowly explode into orange and purple slashes. Any other day, this sight would have been a comfort. Now, it only added to her helplessness. Just another thing she couldn’t stop.
Her youngest, Janey, came stumbling out past the screen door, tear tracks dried across her chubby, brown cheeks. “Mama! Mama!”
“Yes, baby?” To another adult, she would have sounded like someone in shock, or maybe trying to distance themselves from reality.
“Why did the men in yellow take Daddy?”
Janey is only four. She wouldn’t be able to handle the truth. “Daddy has gone to be with the Yellow King, baby.”
“The Yellow King?” the child asked as Rita walked over and fell on her knees.
“Yes, sweetheart.” Rita choked back a sob. She couldn’t break. Not now. She wasn’t the only one to lose a husband to the Yellow King and his Reputation Repairers and she wouldn’t be the last. She had to be strong in the face of this despair.
“When will the Yellow King stop taking people?”
“I’m really not sure.”
“What if the King takes you, Mama?” The child suddenly burst into tears, as if the sheer terror of what she’d proposed struck her as she’d uttered the thought. “He can’t take you! We’ll be all alone if he takes you!”
Rita held her daughter close, her right hand finding the back of the crying child’s head and stroking it. “I’m sure they’re not going to take me anytime soon.”
Sake and Ginger, Rita’s thirteen-year old twins both came to the porch over the commotion. Their eyes were also puffy from crying. Sake made to reach for Janey, but Rita was on her feet scooping the baby up.
Rita didn’t want to cry in front of the kids anymore, but Janey was not making it easy.
The twins wore a different colored version of the simple dress Rita had made, Sake in purple, Ginger in blue. The baby wore a pink onesie, a color which seemed to punch in the fading light of dawn as she was held against her mother’s black dress.
“We’re going to be okay, baby.” Rita kissed the crying baby’s cheek, as tears co-mingled.
Silently, she turned and sat back down in the chair. She proceeded to back in forth as Janey cried herself to sleep. The twins observed for a while, then retreated back into the house. Her eye sockets aching from holding back her own tears, she watched absently as the street lamps started to come aglow. A minute before she would notice two of the lights were too close together and moving closer.
Her tears were finally starting to dry as she spotted Clyde’s truck coming up the driveway. If not for the sleeping baby clinging to her chest and the example she had to set for the twins, Rita might have greeted the truck with a rock.
Clyde stopped the car just shy of her dead husband’s vehicle, a shiny black tow truck that was once the man’s source of livelihood. As Clyde turned his headlights off, he stared at the empty, metal reminder of his friend’s snuffed existence. He sighed as he stepped out of the car and made his way to the porch, stopping just shy of the last step when he saw the glare coming off of Rita’s eyes.
“I said everything I’m fittin’ to say to you, Clyde.”
Dressed in a weathered black suit and tie, the six-foot-three black man pressed his hands together in front of his chest as if to pray. “Rita, I swear to God, I had known them white folks had been listening to us…”
“When are they not listening to us, Clyde?” Her eyes narrowed. “Talking about stuff that ain’t got nothing to do the Suanee out in the open like that.” The baby stirred, adding to her annoyance. “Go home, Clyde.”
“I can’t just go home. Not after this.” Clyde finally took the final step onto the porch.
“Well, you’re not staying here.”
The twins exited the house again. “Hey, Uncle Clyde. You want some lemonade?”
He opened his mouth to answer, but Rita cut him off. “Your uncle has other places to be.”
The girls looked disappointed. Uncle Clyde had always been fun. And with their mother tied up with the baby, it would have been nice for them to have an adult to talk to, someone who could help them make sense of everything.
Clyde could see the girls were going through it, but he knew better than to be rude. He nodded quietly and returned to his truck, the sheer weight of the man forcing groans out of the steps.
Rita watched the truck back up until it was k-turning in the road and gone. When Clyde’s headlights had faded from view, Ginger asked if they could eat.
“Of course, baby. There should be food left over from the repass.”
Once again, the twins went back inside. After a while another car drove by, a much nicer truck than Clyde’s. She knew nothing about makes and models, but she knew fancy and new when she saw it. Whoever was driving that thing was well heeled, white, and probably wearing yellow. Yellow was the one color Rita and her kind were not allowed to wear in Suanee. According to the scripture of the Yellow King, the darker complected were not worthy of the color or any of the other distinctions that came with it.
The white man that stepped out of the car, was indeed dressed in a mustard yellow uniform and hood. There was a gun, a luger probably, clipped to his waistband. The low-ranking ones wore the mustard color as the high-ranking elites wore the brighter shades, that much she’d known since she was a child. The man clearly had no intention of coming up to the house, and didn’t acknowledge that Rita was on the porch watching him. He was there to do one thing, leave the customary letter that Black widows would receive after their husband’s had been executed by the state.
As the sun finished setting, the last thing Rita’s eyes would focus on before she took Janey back inside was the license plate of the car that had stopped just at the head of her driveway before peeling off into the night:
A Reputation Repairer.
She wouldn’t bother with the letter until morning. For now, she needed to settle the girls and go to bed where she would spend a sleepless night missing her murdered husband and cursing the world.
Clyde parked his truck in the ‘Darkies Only’ section of the King’s Tavern and stepped out. The sound of gravel crunching under his feet would eventually be drowned out by the bluegrass playing inside as he walked to the door.
On one side of the establishment, a band comprised of barrel-chested white men in yellow graduation gowns and cowboy boots played their festive, high energy tune, while on the crammed dance floor, yellow-clad white people twirled and do-si-doed with drunken abandon.
On the other, a small group of middle-aged black men sat quietly drinking gut rot whiskey. To avoid trouble, they were seated with their backs to the stage. They didn’t even tap their feet for worry that the wrong person would notice.
Clyde walked over to his friends sat at their usual table. “Fellas.”
Only one of them, Barron, acknowledged Clyde with a somber nod. The other two, Jack and Mule continued staring at their whiskey glasses. Mule spoke first, mouthing the words just under a whisper, as Black men of Suanee often did for fear of being overheard.
“Did I hear you actually went to see Rita?”
Clyde pulled the sole empty chair at the table to him. He inspected it before sitting, since the chairs weren’t always in the best condition and plenty a Black customer had found themselves on the floor after being too trusting. “I did.”
“I surprised you’re still in one piece.” Mule sipped his whiskey. “I know my Yolanda would have hit you upside yo’ head with something, while you’re coming to the house to ease your damn conscience.”
“We are all responsible for what happened to Rick!” Clyde’s voice was so loud that the others turned to him with anger in their eyes.
“You tryna get the rest of us killed!” Jack hissed.
“Fuck that!” Mule turned in his seat. “Enough of us done died in that damn box.”
“Wasn’t that thing for them to commit suicide in?” Barron asked. “When life got unbearable?”
“Exactly!” Clyde was still talking too loud for Mule’s sake, but the band was covering it for now. “When was the last time they used that damn suicide box on anyone but us.”
“Lower your voice, Clyde. Please.” Barron sighed. “Can anyone tell me what happened?”
“Oh yeah, you wasn’t here that night.” Mule closed his eyes. “Well, we were here drinking as usual.”
“Because you guys can’t face our wives and kids who we mistakenly brought to this place.”
“Well, you don’t have a wife and kids, so the hell you doin’ here?” Mule challenged.
“Maybe I’m just trying to die slowly.”
“Shut up, Clyde!” Mule paused to cut his eyes at Clyde, before continuing. “Clyde and Rick were talking about how the white folks killed that boy in Mississippi. They got into a debate over who has it worse, those of us who came to Suanee and those you stayed elsewhere in the states.”
“And it wasn’t all loud like it is now,” Jack added.
“We think an off-duty Reputation Repairer must have been in here. Overheard something Rick said.”
“Something Rick said?” Barron’s eyes couldn’t have grown wider. “Clyde’s always the one talking about leaving, or some damn revolt. And was y’all not whispering? What the hell we teach ourselves how to lipread for if y’all aint whispering in this place?”
“You shouldn’t have been talking about it in the first place,” Jack snapped. “Look around this dump! Of course, there are off duty Reputation Repairers in here! That’s probably the reason they make us come here.”
Mule turned to Jack, with his lips turned up. “Hold on now, no one makes us come here. We’re just working men blowing off steam.”
“That’s a crock of shit, Mule,” Jack stopped and looked around for any yellow-clad eavesdroppers before continuing. “You know they have a ‘no boycotting law’.”
Mule’s lip sneer contorted further. “So?”
“That means if we want a drink in a bar, we have to come here right? Especially since we have the other law that says that ‘Darkies’ can’t be ‘trusted to keep alcohol at home.”
Clyde shook his head. “Mule, don’t you see. Back home we had it bad, but ol’ Cecil could through up some wooden slats and make a juke joint. We could stay with ourselves. We could listen to music we actually enjoyed, not this distortion of the Blues that we are forced to listen to when we come here. We could take our women to Cecil’s without worrying for what some white man was going to say to her.”
“And we could save something, like them people in Tulsa.” Jack added.
The mention of Tulsa turned the mood. “You know what happened to them.”
“Yes, Mule. The same damn thing that’s going to happen to us if we don’t do something.”
Keke, the waitress for the Darkie side appeared suddenly. She held an empty tray near her face so as to block her lips from the view of anyone not seated at the table. “You boys’re mighty animated tonight.” Keke’s abnormally large muscles bulged out of her skimpy black and white uniform. She was the first black waitress who’d managed keep the job working the Darkie side of King’s Tavern for more than two years, probably because she was the only woman in the whole town who was strong enough to fight off any would be after hours gang-rapists. “My condolences about Rick, by the way.”
“Thanks Keke,” Jack chimed in before anyone else could. Muscles or not, he was sweet on Keke. Many nights ago, the other men at the table had a good laugh speculating that if she were ever to sleep with relatively skinny Jack, she’d probably kill him accidentally. He was not discouraged.
Sadly for Jack, Keke’s attention was on another. “Clyde, you need something to calm you down before y’all get these yellowjackets looking this way?”
“Tell ‘em, Keke.” Mule chimed in.
“Keke’ y’all don’t serve nothing on the Darkie side but this gut rot whiskey, that pissy-tasting beer and that one tequila that makes your nose bleed. I’ll take the gut-rot.”
“You got it.” She nodded. “And I mean it. Calm down. I already lost one good customer this week.”
They all apologized, Jack’s words being the loudest. “We’re sorry, sweetheart!”
They all watched her walk away. When he figured she was far away enough, Clyde turned back to them. “I’m leaving.”
“You’re going home before you get your drink?” Barron asked.
“No! I’m leaving Suanee.”
“Are you nuts, saying that in here?”
“Stop Clyde, just stop.”
He waved his hands in front of his face. “I don’t care. Can’t do this anymore. Now I contacted some people on the outside. Said they’d meet us at the edge of the swamp. Grant us safe passage.”
Mule shook his head. “Now you’re really talking crazy. Whose coming to get us? Harriet Tubman?”
“No, dammit,” Clyde hissed. “They’re part of an army. They’re financed by men who survived Tulsa and Elaine. Some are the sons of black men who survived the draft riot in 1863. They have a common goal. Saving folks. Folks like us.”
“We need to change the subject,” Barron suddenly said as he noticed someone headed to the table.
Mr. Waller was a short, almost morbidly white man with a drinking problem. It was almost convenient that he own a bar, except for the way his alcoholism had deformed his face. In his yellow shirt, seated at one of the Subjects Of Yellow’s side of the establishment, Jack once joked that Waller looked like he was pretending to be the sunrise. Of course, this was weeks ago, during a much calmer period. Rick was still alive and the ‘yellowjackets’ were smiling more, even if the Darkies weren’t.
“Hey Boys!” Waller called as he walked up. There was a wet cigar in his mouth he appeared to be chewing more than smoking. “Condolences on your friend.”
“Thank you, Mr. Waller.” Mule and Barron seemed to say in unison.
“Of course, Boys.” Waller nodded. “Gonna send you guys some tequila shots, and now as for the main reason I came over here. Jack?”
“You ain’t played the pinball machine, yet? Whatcha waitin’ on?”
Jack’s eyes found the table top. “Just didn’t have the gumption to get up and play is all.”
“Stop being such a baby, Jack!” Waller shouted. “You know folks need their meatballs and you’re the best pinball player in here.” When Jack appeared unmoved, Waller added. “I’ll give you the fifty cents. Go on and play now.”
Jack finally found his voice. “Can I keep at least one meatball?”
“If you go play and no one wants none, sure.
“I’ll take a meatball, Jack.” Clyde only said it to be malicious. He knew he had the same chance to get a meatball as Jack did; none. But Jack would have to put in the work. Jack would have to sweat for it.
Jack finally left his friends, crossing the Darkie section of the bar to where the pinball machine straddled both sides. He had to walk carefully, as some of the wooden floor on the Darkie side had fallen to a state of disrepair and could easily have tripped him.
But he did make it to the pinball machine unharmed, except for his pride. He happened to look over at Keke, who was busy with other customers who had just walked in. At least she wouldn’t see this. He slipped his two quarters into the machine.
Because of a certain lack of hand-eye-coordination, none of the white people of Suanee could play pinball as well as Jack. By itself, in an ordinary world, this would have been only a novelty and nothing more. It’s source of humiliation for Jack because the King’s Tavern pinball machine generates seasoned meatballs if the right bumper sequence was hit.
The device was supposedly invented by Waller, but the truth was the Tavern’s first black cook had a hand in the development of the device. This was before he was picked up by Reputation Repairers for an attitude adjustment and was never seen again.
Satisfied that Jack would play, Waller turned without saying goodbye to the others. Still, he wasn’t entirely happy with what had just happened. “Darkie wanna sass me over some damn meatballs. Knows damn good and well that’s white people food. Like we don’t give ‘em enough fried damn chicken.”
As his friends watched from across the bar, the Yellow King Provides Pinball Machine came to life in his hands. Multiple ‘dings’ and ‘clangs’ sounded off as his hands hit the flippers. Occasionally, he would juke left or right, but never enough to send the machine into ‘tilt’. After a moment, an alarm sounded, whooping like an old time police car. In the tracks on top of the machine, three meatballs were rolling down.
Jack was about to stop playing and reach for them, when a white hand with a yellow sleeve beat him to it. “You just keep playin’ there, Darkie. Thanks for the meatball.”
As more white people noticed what was going on, more ‘yellowjackets’ began to leave the dance floor and make their way to the pinball machine. Paper plates and plastic forks seemed to materialize from nowhere. The white people cheered him on as they kept taking the meatballs. Some thanked him, some didn’t. When one man asked Jack for his name, a friend immediately corrected him. “He’s a Darkie! It don’t matter what his name is.”
The sight of the feeding frenzy and Jack’s humiliation for the sake of good pinball playing made Clyde sick to his stomach. “I’ve seen enough.” As he got up to go, he cast one last look at Mule and Barron. “I’m serious guys. There’s nothing here for us and these people are coming in two nights. You should come with me.”
Mule and Barron remained quiet, but something in their faces said Clyde’s point had been made.
As Clyde made his way to the door, the band kicked in with a new song:
Give us those meatballs, Darkie!
Give ‘em to us now!
Give us those meatballs!
Or we’ll get you like we
Got that cow!
Give us meatballs, Darkie!
If you know what’s good for you!
Give us meatballs Darkie!
Or you might end up a
In a meatball too!!
Jack wouldn’t be able to stop until he’d fed white person in the place at least two meatballs. By that time, Mule and Barron had also left.
He was back in New York. But the streets were empty. Not a single vehicle or a person in sight. He wasn’t sure how he got there, but he was happy to be back. In fact, opulent buildings he once resented were now comforting sights, as were the old buildings and familiar landmarks. There was no one on the street, which was odd and unnerving, especially for Manhattan. Memories of his past life before Suanee flooded back. His hometown was at times frightfully expensive and spiritually cold. Everything was about money in New York. This wasn’t the South were people cared. They’d let you starve in the streets up here. But while struggling in New York was difficult, it at least allowed for the preservation of a fraction of one’s dignity. Even if you were to die penniless, you could do it with your honor intact.
In contrast to New York and pretty much anywhere else in the country, Suanee had been sold as a Black people’s paradise. Affordable real estate. Good jobs. No Klan. Big, warm houses. Schools and playgrounds. For the first year or so, it had been all of that and more.
Even though he was nowhere to be seen, he could hear Rick’s voice. “You know there was nothing better than how we all first came together and moved down here after the war. Me, the family man from West Virginia. Barron the moonshiner. Mule, the farmer from what used to be Alabama. Lazy ass Jack the Mississippian and his always lovin’ on women twice his size. And you, the playboy all the way from New York. Talk about your extended families.”
And that is what they had been and somewhere in that state of figuring out he was in a dream and remembering his friend was dead, Clyde felt comfort in hearing the voice.
Comforted by Rick’s recollections, he’d all but forgotten what it was like before the cult came and drove the nice white people away, with their yellow clothes and their strange religion and their suicide box. At first, the co-existence had been tense, but peaceful. Then, the yellow-garbed bastards started electing each other to public offices and everything went to shit.
Curfews. Property seizures. White people who weren’t in the cult going missing. And then the mandate that Blacks should not wear yellow. Any ‘Darkies’ caught wearing yellow ultimately subjected to torture and a one-way trip to suicide box.
Still no one in the streets as far as the eye could see and now it began to rain. It came down normal at first and then, it began to sting. Then sheets of it, as the sky grew black as night. Harder still, the water beat him until he was on his knees.
“Rick!” he cried, suddenly overwhelmed with the need to see his friend. Unable to walk, he began to crawl as the water cascaded down on him, blanketing him and weighing him down until his belly was pressed against the asphalt. Then came the pull coming from the storm drain. He felt himself going under.
“It don’t matter what you did in New York! You’re a good man, Clyde! Take care of my babies! You can do that!”
Now came the panic and the remembrance that his friend was dead. “RICK!”
He gasped as he woke up to a cold darkness. The familiarity of his bed slowly calmed him, but Clyde would sleep no more that night.
Not wanting to call attention to himself, he reported for work as if it were any other day. His boss, Mr. Higginbottom greeted him with the usual indifferent silence when he walked in and said ‘good morning’. There was no conversation outside of Higginbottom falling to his knees to pray when the bells signaling someone had entered the suicide box had sounded.
“You’re not going to pray?” Higginbottom chastised when Clyde had failed to prostrate himself. Not wanting to appear obstinate, he fell to floor and closed his eyes. He was at a loss as to who to pray to.
When sunrise had come and there were still no calls for anyone needing a tow, Higginbottom turned to Clyde. “That Darkie that had to be put down the other day, was he a friend of yours?”
“I knew him, yes.” Having to downplay his relationship with Rick set off the taste of bile in his mouth.
Higginbottom shook his head. “He was the wrong kind of Darkie. We’re good to you Darkies. Not like those white people in other parts of the country. We wouldn’t even need Reputation Repairers if not for Darkies like that.”
It was everything Clyde could do to swallow the bitterness. “No, I guess not.”
“Of course, if you ever felt otherwise, you could always willingly give yourself to the Yellow King. I hear they’re building more boxes.”
The two men stared at each other quietly for what felt like an eternity to Clyde.
“I should be getting home,” Clyde finally said.
“You do that,” Higginbottom said with a nod. “Be sure to pray to the Yellow King as you head on home in that car to that home. I swear, Darkies never had it so good.”
“Good night, Mr. Higginbottom.”
Higginbottom turned back to his desk. As usual, he couldn’t be bothered to grant a polite salutation. Not to a Darkie.
Finally in the car, Clyde let out a sigh as he drove back to what had been Rick’s house. He checked his rearview mirror more than usual, but thankfully no one was following him. When he pulled up to the driveway, Rita was on where he’d left her, on the porch rocking back and forth with the baby in her arms. As he climbed the steps to the porch, he’d hoped his eyes were deceiving him.
Stunned by the sight of her, this beautiful Black woman in a yellow dress, it took a moment for him to find his voice. “Rita? What are you wearing?”
She ignored the question. “They came by. Mule, Jack, and Barron. They told me about your rendezvous in the swamp.”
“Yes!” he all but shouted. “That’s why I’m here. But you can’t be dressed like that. They’ll be on us like white on rice if someone sees you.”
“Girls! He’s here. Get in the truck.”
The twins emerged onto the porch, each one with a small, tattered suitcase. With tears in their eyes, they turned to their mother. “Mama, please.”
Rita stood up, walked towards Clyde and handed Janey to him. As he cradled the child, Rita slung a small bag around his shoulder. “Get my girls out of here.”
“You’re not coming?”
Rita fell to her knees and hugged the twins, only to break the embrace almost immediately. “All right, get on!”
He watched the weeping girls as, Ginger took little Janey from Clyde and the three of them descended the porch steps and climbed into his truck. “Rita, what are you doing?”
Rita reached into her pocket and pulled out a letter and handed it to Clyde:
From: The Office of Reputation Repair
To: Rita Hightower (Darkie, Female)
Please be advised that we have determined your entire family has been selected for special reconditioning. After completing the program is, it is our determination that you and your children will be placed in a breeding farm that we have created for properly conditioned Darkies. Of course, if you for whatever reason do not find this arrangement to your satisfaction, you can enter the life-ending program where you will be boxed humanely. Reputation Repairers assigned to your case will report to your residence this evening to assist with your relocation. Please be packed and be ready to go by 5pm.
All Praise to The Yellow King-
Roland F. Goggins
Clyde looked at his watch. It was 4:45pm.
“I’m going to buy you some time. Get my babies out of here.”
Awash with conflicting emotions, Clyde grabbed Rita and hugged her. He felt the sting of tears coming but he held them back as he let go of her and jumped down the porch steps. He climbed into the truck, backed up out of the driveway and sped out against the setting sun as if the world were on fire and he had the last glass of water.
Rita went back in the house and locked the door.
The Repairers were punctual enough. Sitting at the kitchen table with a picture of Rick in one hand and the letter laid out in front of her, Rita chuckled as she listened to them pounding on the door and calling her name. They bothered to learn my name, she mused.
When they finally broke the door down, they actually expected her to get up and leave the kitchen and just come to them like a dog. She chuckled at that too.
Rita looked across the house, through the living room at the four angry white men dressed in their yellow uniforms. She watched them march towards her, all filled with purpose. It wouldn’t be long now.
“You know you’re not supposed to be wearing yellow, Darkie!” The oldest of the men declared. “I guess you have chosen the box! Well, let the Yellow King’s will be done!”