SHORT STORY CONTEST
SIGN OF THE TIMES
Lawton, Alabama 1943
by Arnold Edwards
The sun blistered down on the dirt and semi-paved streets of Lawton. The two black men who ventured out in this hell on earth were engaged in a fraught-filled conversation. Hiram Liston was the older, his face creased from his eyes to his chin, as if the tears of a hard life dredged up his skin. On the other hand, Jefferson Baxter had the smooth complexion of youth, but the eyes of an older person, a witness to an unpleasant history.
“You sure about this?” asked Hiram.
“What’s there to be sure about? I’m enlisting. We’re at war,” said Jefferson.
“That’s right—the United States of America. We at war on two fronts.”
“This is white man’s stuff. Ain’t got nuthin’ to do with us.”
“How can you say that? Pearl Harbor? Hitler? My God, Hiram, something needs to be done. We citizens too, you know. We have a right—a duty—to defend and serve our country.”
“Yes. As citizens, we do.”
“If we citizens, why ain’t we treated like citizens?”
“That ain’t the point?”
“Then what is the point, Jefferson?”
“We get the chance to fight, we prove that we belong, that we can pull our own weight, do our share.”
“Prove? We done proved ourselves way befo’ any Pearl Harbor. Why we gotta prove ourselves anyway? We were born here, wasn’t we? They say we Americans, don’t they? But we cain’t vote, we cain’t shop or eat where we want. What kinda citizens are we?
“You see what they done to those Japs out west, didn’t you? Just took away they homes and put ’em in those camps. That’s yo’ America.”
“But if we fight side by side, we could show them that we can do battle just as good as they can.”
“And you gon’ fight this battle?”
“Not just me. American gon’ fight it and we can be part of it, show the world. You say them Japs was put in a camp? Well, that’s what Hitler’s doin’ to the Jews right now; puttin’ ‘em in camps and killin’ ‘em.”
“Sound like a Jew problem to me. Let them figure it out. Don’t need us none.”
“When Jesse Owens won them medals back in ’36, Hitler didn’t even shake his hand.”
“Then maybe Jesse should drag his black ass back over there and put a bullet in Adolph’s head his damn self, show him what’s what.” Hiram produced a smirk on his face as his eyes wandered to a building across the street. The smirk soon blossomed into a grin. “See that restaurant over yonder?”
“Yeah, Bell’s Diner. So? What’s it got to do with what we talkin’ ‘bout?”
“Why don’t you stroll on over, grab you a seat or even a booth, get yo’self a hamburger and one of them fancy milkshakes? Light up a cigarette and talk some stuff with them cute little waitresses? Sound good?”
“White only, you know that. We gotta go to the back for our food from there.”
“You right, but you know who can do alla that when we cain’t?”
The silence told Hiram that Jefferson already knew the answer, but he continued just the same. “You know that compound out on Route Twelve near Hester Road? They keep them POWs there, German prisoners of war. Nazis, Hitler’s own.
“Them guards come into town with them prisoners fo’ whatevuh and eat at Bell’s. They sit at the counter or at a booth and them German Nazi prisoners—Hitler’s boys—laugh it up and flirt with them cute waitresses like they at a church social and those gals eat it up like peach cobbler.
“And when yo’ Jesse Owens come back from Berlin in ’36, gold medals and all. Wasn’t soon aftuh they gave them a parade, Jesse was racin’ racehorses at a county fair near Nashville. Saw it myself. All I heard was ‘that coon can sho’ ‘nuff run’ or ‘cain’t beat a nigga runnin’, gotta give ‘em that’.”
But if we don’t go, how we gon’ prove we can do the job?”
“There you go with that ‘prove’ again. Prove what? To who? How come white boys go to war to fight fo’ freedom, fo’ country, and when we be provin’ somethin’? We cain’t fight Nazis with mops and brooms. They the closest things to a gun they gon’ give a black man. Wake up, Jefferson. Hitler be somebody else’s problem, not mine, and not yours.”
“Hitler’s everybody’s problem.”
“You think? Tell you what, Jefferson, you go sit yo’self at that counter in Bell’s, order that burger and shake, flirt with them white gals, and just see if you don’t have a bigger problem than Adolph ‘Fuckin’ Hitler. Hell, you and Hitler sit down together, see who get served and who get lynched.
“Nah, Jefferson, we ain’t gonna get equal by provin’ ourselves. We ain’t gon’ be equal until some white man decide we equal, and then, believe me, that white man gon’ have hell to pay right here in the good ol’ U S of A.”
Arnold Edwards is a writer from Chicago, Illinois. He has previously published in Downstate Story, Black Lace, YAWP, Cricket Magazine, and Catholic Medalist Magazine. He was a finalist in the 2003 Storybay Screenplay Contest, and a winner of the Chicago Dramatist Workshop in 1995. He’s a graduate of Southern Illinois University with a BA in History.