By Michael Keith
Jerome Niarhos had no great affection for colored people. On the other hand, he had no deep animosity for them, either. He had never made a big scene about race, like his buddies in the Klan. Mostly, he didn’t think it was smart for the mayor’s office to be involved in the festering controversy, since a growing number of voters in Cumberland, Mississippi, now believed coloreds deserved a better fate than the one they’d gotten. Jerome was up for re-election in what had become a tight contest, and he decided to give a wide berth to what the press called the Negro Question. He’d take more of a stand when, and if, he got re-elected for what he had decided would be his last term. Screw it, he thought, then I’ll say what I want about all the bullshit concerning equal rights for Blacks.
Niarhos had first been elected mayor in 1952, and he felt ten-years as a public servant was enough. He had other ambitions. It was time to make some real money, and he had settled on plans to go into business with his best friend, Fred Mullen, who owned a garage. The two would buy a Chevy franchise. Niarhos would be its business manager, and Mullen would oversee the service end. This was a solid venture from their perspective, since their only potential rival in town, a Dodge dealer, had earned a dubious reputation for overpricing repairs.
Despite the inherent aggravations in running for office yet again, Jerome felt better than he had in a long time. The dermatitis that had plagued him for years was now responding to his daily consumption of a homemade preparation of colloidal silver that his Aunt Emma had recommended. She sas the family’s unofficial physician based on the nursing certificate she’d received more than fifty years earlier. While Emma had never worked in the medical field, preferring life as a fulltime housewife, she had tried her best to keep up with the recent developments in treatments for the maladies that affected her family and friends.
“You take a good gulp of this concoction twice a day and apply it to your rough spots, like those on your chin and neck, and you’ll get better.”
“Thank you, Aunt Emma,” responded Jerome, a bit dubious given the curious nature of the solution he was given.
Despite his reservations, his aunt’s record for curing family ills was legendary, so he did as she ordered, and sure enough after a few weeks, her remedy was showing encouraging results. His blemishes had cleared, as had the irritation that accompanied them. Things were definitely looking up for him, and his improved mood was becoming an asset at voter rallies. Niarhos had never been a great speaker, and because he’d been so distracted by his acute skin condition, his oratorical skills had deteriorated. In great part it was his lackluster performances at political gatherings that had allowed his opponent to gain so significantly on him. But now his renewed energy and enthusiasm was clearly having a positive effect. He was certain that in the few weeks remaining of the campaign he would forge ahead to yet another victory.
* * *
About the only thing that continued to weigh on Jerome’s mind, however, was the growing number of disturbances caused by the protests of black people in his community and throughout the Deep South. And now to compound the problem was the news that his town was on the route of the Freedom Riders buses coming from northern cities.
“Them goddamn civil rights people from up north are coming down here to Cumberland to stir up the coloreds,” grumbled Sheriff Bo “Hammy” Hamilton at the special town meeting to consider strategies for dealing with the intrusion. “I say we kick their ass when they get off the bus.”
Cheers of agreement followed his suggestion.
Niarhos spoke up. “That will only make matters worse. It would be better to let them have their protest and move on. We attack them and they’ll take up camp here. Then we got a heap of trouble on our hands,” he reasoned.
“Nah . . . Hammy’s right! We just drive them the hell out of Cumberland with fists and bats. They ain’t gonna hang round here when they be gettin’ their natty heads bashed in,” offered Mel Carter, local leader of the KKK.
“Look, you know I’m no fan of all this race rights crap, but why draw attention to it?” responded Nairhos “That’s what they want. It’s the reason they’re driving all around on them damn buses. Just want to agitate people and get on the news.”
“So you just want to let ‘em come into town and take over like they’re as good as white folks? All the darkies here gonna get the same notion, and that will cause real butt aches for all of us.”
“I’m just saying we got to out think these outsiders, Mel.”
“Jerome’s got a point there,” chimed in Beverly Adams, manager of the local Winn Dixie outlet. “Why play into their hands. Best to ignore them protesters. Act like they don’t matter none. If they don’t get the attention they want, they’ll just move on to the next town to see if they can get it there.”
“We do that and we gonna look like we agree with all the shit they doin’,” declared Hamilton. “Maybe a little fire on one of them buses might get ‘em goin’ faster.”
The meeting continued past midnight without any resolution, and Niarhos called for adjournment, suggesting another gathering a few days hence.
In the black section of Cumberland, another meeting had also been held on the same subject. A plan to support the Freedom Riders had been reached quickly.
“We can’t do much, but we can be there when they come, sisters and brothers” declared Reverend Wilbur Howard.
* * *
Less than a week before the civil rights contingent was scheduled to arrive, Niarhos had the shock of his life. As he looked into the bathroom mirror, he discovered a freakish face starring back at him.
“What the . . .!” he yelped, leaping backwards.
He slowly peeked back into the mirror and let out a deep moan. The vision that appeared before him filled him with dread.
“It can’t be,” he muttered, running his hands across the dark blue color of his face. To his growing dismay, he noticed the discoloration was not confined only to his head but ran down the length of his body.
In a panic, he called his Aunt Emma to report the situation.
“Afraid I just found out that that stuff I gave you to drink can cause the skin to turn color. Called Argyria. But don’t fret. The article said it’ll fade. Better stop drinking what I give you, hon. Best not put it on your skin neither.”
“How long will it take?”
“Might be a while. Maybe a few months. Could get darker before it gets lighter, too.”
Too distraught to continue talking with his Aunt, Niarhos hung up and began to scrub his face until it felt raw. Despite his efforts, the blue pigment seemed to take on an even deeper tint. When he arrived at the town hall, those people he encountered thought he was playing an odd joke on them.
“Jesus, Mr. Mayor!” exclaimed the town hall janitor. “Ya look like some kind of Martian. Scared the hooey-gooey outa me. Ain’t Halloween yet, you know.”
The reaction of Jerome’s secretary was even more dramatic. When he entered his office, she let out a scream and dropped her coffee cup.
“Hold on, Millie! It’s just me. Got up this morning and looked like this. Aunt Emma’s concoction for my dermatitis turned me blue. Says it will go away eventually.”
“My lord, Jerome. I never saw anything like that. You almost look . . .”
“Like a bluish toned colored man,” responded Millie, hesitantly. “Your features and the dark skin . . .”
“So you’re saying I look like an alien Negro?” responded Niarhos, making a feeble attempt at levity.
“No . . . I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to make you feel bad. Must feel bad enough looking like that,” said Millie, blotting the spilled coffee from the papers on her desk.
“It’ll go away,” assured Niarhos.
An hour later, he attended the scheduled meeting on the Freedom Riders dilemma. When he entered auditorium, he was met with loud laughter and snickers.
“I know I look pretty weird. The medicine I’ve been taking to treat my skin did this.”
“Mr. Mayor, you look like you come from another planet,” hollered someone in the audience.
“Or from Colored Town,” bellowed another. “Say them coons sing the blues a lot, and you sure got the blues.”
The comments inspired a round of laughter louder than the first.
“Okay, let’s direct our attention to the matter at hand. Order! Order!” shouted Niarhos until the uproar eventually ran its course. “Thank you. We’re here to continue our discussion about how to deal with the Freedom Riders, and it’s still my opinion that we should ignore them rather than make a big deal about it. That’s what they want, so let’s not play their game.”
“That’s a gutless way to deal with them Yankee agitators,” responded Mel Carter. “’Sides, I don’t think someone the way you look right now should be telling us how we should treat them spooks.”
“What do you mean, ‘the way I look?’”
“You look more like a darkie than a white person. Don’t think you should be dealing with this no more. Least not until you turn to normal color,” added Hamilton.
“I’m the mayor of this town, and it’s up to me to represent it at moments like this.”
“You more colored than white now. So how you gonna do that?” inquired a member of the audience.
“Yeah!” agreed several others.
“We got them goddamn Freedom Riders coming here. How’s it gonna look with you that way representing the town?” growled Carter.
“What’s the matter with you folks. Just because I have a little skin problem you think I’m no longer qualified to do my job as mayor?”
“We can’t have you standing out there looking like you do. Be embarrassing with all the press there,” declared Billy Rider, the town undertaker.
“Looking like I do? What do you mean? I look like me, Jerome Niarhos.”
“No, you don’t. We didn’t elect no colored as mayor,” countered Hamilton.
“But, I’m not colored! I’m blue from the medicine. It’s a reaction called Argy-something. I ain’t black, for God’s sake.”
“Well, you sure not white.”
“To hell with all of you. You’re a bunch of . . . bigots!”
For the first time in his life, Jerome slowly began to appreciate the plight of those with different pigmentation.
“Just get out of here until you get your right color back. If you ever do,” blurted Carter.
“I’m a human being with a medical problem!” proclaimed Jerome, who then stomped off the stage.
“You ain’t no human with that color skin,” called Carter after him.
* * *
Niarhos was not seen or heard from for the next two days, and then the Freedom Buses arrived in Cumberland. They were greeted by sheet-clad Klan members, town officials, and over a hundred local residents. Kept at a distance were several dozen people of color. As the large vehicles pulled up to the town square, they were greeted with chants of “Segregation Forever!”
When the buses came to a stop, the mob fell silent, anticipating the doors to open and the unwelcome passengers to alight.
When the first Freedom Rider appeared, the crowd let out a resounding gasp. Standing before them was their missing mayor holding a placard reading:
Category: Fiction, Short Story