“There’s not supposed to be a test,” I said.
The man behind the table gave me a skewed look, his mouth turned in a malignant grin, his blotchy skin risen to a heightened red I was all too familiar with. His Jim Beam ballcap was tipped low, an aggressive angle; his ears flared like a dog’s eager to attack. For all I know, he might have been thirty, but God if he didn’t look like a four-hundred-year-old museum piece of a cracker. With one crucial difference between him and that archetype. This man was high out of his mind. I could see the telltale gold shine in his eyes, a dead giveaway he had dosed, as if his words alone didn’t prove it without me even looking.
“You are not allowed to submit me to a test,” I repeated.
“I’m allowed to do anything I want if I’m the one checking in voters.”
“That’s not what the law says.”
“That’s what my law says.” He stuck out his skinny chest to emphasize the point. The pose would have been comic except that situation was so dire.
This latter-day White Power bull crap was hard enough to deal with on its own; but worse was knowing that it was chemically fueled. Also knowing that only four years ago, no one would have stood for it. No poll worker would have thought to dare try it. One of the first things the new administration did when it took over was to decriminalize fultamine phenylpropane; more commonly known as the Jim Crow Dope. Fultamine phenylpropane and its controversial properties were just a rumor when it was made illegal in 2020, twelve years ago. A mad lab creation that someone developed to treat severe asthma—for which it had worked—only to discover it had severe side effects. Reportedly it had been kept under wraps, but there was gossip all over social media then; someone had somehow found out about it. Still, the (supposedly) unseen drug had been kept under wraps, until it had been made lawful by the new administration in 2028.
There was, and is, nothing about fultamine that cried out to be made available to the public. We know that now. It is an instantly addictive substance, first of all. As in, instantly. Maybe even worse, it drastically modifies one’s sense of reality, so much so that entire personalities are changed; priorities overhauled; social instincts reversed; hatreds inculcated. And like all addictive drugs, the users wanted more and more of the drug at any cost.
Of course, that’s exactly what the administration had counted on. And boy did they keep giving out the dope. In a scandalous fashion. Unprecedented. Week after week. Season after season. Rally after rally. They turned entire regions of the country into rabid users, who could make no sense of anything except their need to keep loving the stuff and hating the determined enemy.
As you could guess, it was called the Jim Crow Dope because of its main effect: a rabid disgust it fostered for individuals who belong to other racial groups. And it did not matter how welcoming, tolerant, open-minded, or compassionate one had seemed before using; once one went to a rally and began using any chance of ordinary behavior was shot. Depending on the person, the newly un-civil actions could amount to taunts, snide comments, and brutal looks; or it could mean beatings. It could mean murder. The new administration was happy with all of that. Alcohol lowers inhibitions, we all know, but it has nothing on the Jim Crow Dope. Alcohol is known to allow the evil you inside to come out; but Jim Crow brought new, inextractable evil into even the most innocent.
I couldn’t know about the personal history of the man in front of me, but there was a good chance that before four years ago, he was an agitator for freer and fairer elections. Maybe even a peacenik, a loving husband, and a friend of humanity. Maybe a tree hugger. I’d seen worse reversals.
“And who are you?” I asked him.
“Raymond Wilson Wharton,” he said, lifting his chin. “Named after two granddaddies, both of whom fought in the Grand War, for Mississippi and Tennessee.” Then: “That’s a question I do not have to answer. In case you don’t know it.”
“Oh, so you don’t have to answer it? Just like the questions you want to ask me?”
“Naw-aw,” he said wagging an aggressive index finger, “the one I am set to ask you are totally verified and validated. You know by whom too, I think.” He glanced at a picture that I happened to know hung on the wall, several feet behind and to the right of me. White man. Dyed hair. Blue jacket. Red tie. American flag pin. I could tell he wanted me to look at it too.
I looked at my feet.
His voice went deader, darker. His eyes hard and cold. “You know by whom, right?”
I looked down at the other end of the gym. I looked up to the rafters. I could smell the impatience of the people behind me. I could feel it rising off them and settling thick around my shoulders. In their minds, I was the one causing this delay, not this haughty and high-out-of-his-mind cracker, with his ratty shirt and Jim Beam cap and gold-shining eyes. The one who, with every word, was breaking the law. What was still the actual, technical law.
“I think I’ll just go somewhere else,” I said.
His grin did two or three things at once, evil things. “What for?”
“I’ll vote somewhere else.”
“The library? The high school?”
“Good luck avoiding a test at those places.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I know the gals running those stations. They use tests too. It’s only right.”
You mean they use dope.
“It’s only right?” I said to him.
“Got to make sure citizens are true citizens if they want to exercise a citizen’s right.”
“And who’s a true citizen?
“I think you know.”
“I think I don’t.”
He leaned back, crossed his arms, and leveled at me a mocking gold stare. “Then that’s just too bad for you, isn’t it?”
“That’s not what the law says,” I said.
“That’s what my law—”
“All right, all right, all right,” I said. “You said that already.” I let out a deep breath and considered the situation. I scored all A’s in government and history when I was in high school. Every day I read the websites of our local paper and a famous national one. I watched MSNBC every night they were permitted by the administration to broadcast. Any test on citizenship matters, I should ace.
He was still staring at me. “Give me the stupid test,” I said.
In the weeks before the newest election—the one in which our country would decide to keep the administration, or summarily kick it out—it became more and more common to see gangs of men and women tanked up on the Jim Crow Dope, chanting cult slogans in empty parking lots and ballfields. Some of the worst abusers had taken to lighting living bodies on fire, hanging young children from tree limbs, busting up schoolrooms that were filled with students of color, and firing live ammo at unarmed gatherings.
Don’t think, either, that the answer was for BIPOC persons to become users too, and therefore join the battle. First, fultamine was impossible for people of color to get. It was controlled and carefully distributed by the administration. Mainly at rallies. But the more pressing issue was that the drug had almost no effect on people with dark skin. For some reason, only those of European ancestry were altered by it. Others—those of Caribbean heritage, or South American, or African, or Native American, or Arabic, or Innuit, or Spanish, or Portuguese, or Mexican, or Cuban, or Indian, or Mediterranean—the drug affected not at all. Not even if they wanted it to. And most of us were convinced that the government had made sure it worked out that way. They were said to have tested hundreds of drugs and thousands of drug cocktails to find just the one that did what they wanted, and only to white people.
It was not a fair fight, no matter which way you looked at it.
Sometimes it seemed, especially during the election season, that the only way to survive into the next day was to lock your door and never come out for any reason. Least of all to vote, which, if we couldn’t actually be allowed to do, couldn’t alter the course of this stoned-out-of-its-mind nation. That’s why the administration made sure that the polls workers were always toked. Several healthy shots before any shift. I’d never heard of an addict who turned it down. And I knew those poll workers were probably, in the long run, doing more damage than the chanting murderous cults. Because they stifled hope, they muffled morale, they brought out in us exactly what the administration wanted: lethargy and despair. A complete loss of hope in the sacrality of the vote.
Fact is, a whole lot of us had stopped even trying out the polling stations. A whole lot of us just sacrificed our right to vote in the name of helplessness. Hell if I was going to do that. Why should I give up a right that was generations old just because a bunch of tanked-up white boys decide they want to take it from me, by hook or crook? Why should I cooperate with that? Was I possibly taking my life and my health into my hands? Indeed, I was. But, there are worse things than taking our life into your hands and by placing it before the mercy of an angry redneck. Worst thing of all is not to try.
Wharton’s grin stayed, and his eyes still glowed from the dope, but his eyebrow went up and his face went flat. He hadn’t expected me to say that. He uncrossed his arms. Then he rubbed his chin. “Well, let’s see. I’ll need to retrieve the test first.”
His smiled went as wide as a Great Lake. He tapped his head. “From here.”
“Then just do it,” I said. If he was going to be a shit about this, I’d rather the shit start sooner than later.
“You can’t rush a good test,” he said.
“A fair test.”
I chortled at that.
“Something funny?” he said.
“Nothing fair about any of this, and you know it.”
“All’s fair in war and voting,” he declared. It came out as practically a cackle.
Yeah, I thought, and in addicts.
“Shut up,” I said. “Give me the test.”
His shoulders stiffened; he raised his head an inch; he barreled another gold-eyed glare at me from his considerable height, and made it clear that he was not a man who accepted, or was the slightest bit used to, being told to shut up. Especially not by people like me.
“What are the names of the judges on our Supreme Court?”
I scoffed. “The Supreme Court? That’s your hard test?”
“The state Supreme Court,” he said. “This one. Ours.” He pointed at the floor as if we were in the courthouse as he spoke. Then he unleashed his addict’s grin again. It pushed to the ends of his face. “Every true citizen of this great state ought to know his own Supreme Court judges.”
“Or hers,” I corrected.
The smile again. “Or hers. Indeed. Pardon the error.”
Pardon the error, my ass. I maybe had less patience for phony southern courtesy than drugged-up racism.
“Do you know their names?” I asked.
He didn’t even hesitate. “I’m the one asking the questions.”
“So, you don’t?”
He eyebrows came lowed; he leaned forward, his voice went lower. “I am the one asking the questions,” he growled. I named all nine judges, straight out, as if it weren’t a thing. Wharton’s face fell off a cliff. Obviously, he didn’t think anyone could get those names. Truth is, I’m sure from where he stood nobody in the damn state could, not even the governor. Except I could. I know things like this.
“All right, well,” he said, “that’s the first question on the test.”
“Who said there is more than one question?”
“Who said there isn’t?”
He had me there, except, in reality, he had nothing. This whole damn test was illegal to begin with. Even then. The laws had not actually changed just our attitude toward them, what we would permit. These were laws once were known as, you know, laws; but ever since the administration came to power, laws were regarded as mere inconveniences, easily ignored by those with the power to ignore them—or the lack of inhibitions to try. If it weren’t for his high, and the racist haze it brought on, this fool would have known about laws. Or, no, I don’t mean that. Not known about laws—he knew about laws even now—but been restrained by them.
But now? As he was? Raymond Wilson Wharton was a liberated cracker. And liberated crackers, the ones whose empathy pains has been chemically muted, had a way of turning the entire world into a living nightmare. There had been two murders in my street just since last week.
Wharton wasn’t smiling any longer. Even the high of the dope couldn’t encourage pretend happy feelings. “Give me the names of everyone on the quorum court.”
The quorum court? I almost laughed. Did he really think anyone in this town knew all the members of the quorum court? I would have bet only one in ten city residents knew we had a quorum court or what it does. Then, I realized, of course, that he didn’t think anyone would know. That’s why he asked. His was indeed a killer question. His glinting eyes told me he knew it. That he had me.
Then I gave him all the names. Every one.
His mouth pressed itself into a line, I saw the gold in his eyes become tinted with something hotter. And meaner.
“That’s only the second question,” he said. “There are more.”
“Yeah, how many more?” I glanced behind me in order to remind him that he wasn’t just delaying me. He was delaying everyone.
“I am under no obligation to reveal that information,” he answered.
He spread out his arm. “Says me. Or are you just too stupid to understand what’s happening here?”
“I understand perfectly,” I said. “But I don’t think you do.”
The mean look went meaner. He couldn’t really know what I meant—if he were sober he probably couldn’t know—but he could tell I’d insulted him. That was twice now. I knew I better watch it. Being doped, he could do far worse than initiate impromptu poll tests. He might decide to up and crucify people. I mean that literally. It had happened already. In five states.
“When was this city incorporated? Who named it? And who were the eleven people whose signatures are on the documents for the incorporation?”
Shit, shit, shit. This game was getting borderline impossible. That was a question that I was sure no one in this town could answer. No one. Not even me. Not without a cheat sheet. Did he have a cheat sheet? Stupid thought, I realized. Of course, he doesn’t. But I still had to play. I had to play, and I had to win, or everything would be lost. I’d be the next lynching. Another discarded body. Where do you think those crucifixions came from?
I wracked my brain and realized that maybe I knew the year of incorporation. Hadn’t we celebrated the sesquicentennial several years back? How many years exactly?
“1859,” I said. The look in his eyes told me I was right. I took a complete guess at the second part, pulling out of my ass the one name I could remember that might fit. “Caleb Carlton.” The eyes again. I could not believe I was pulling this off. Now, eleven signatories? How in the world could I come up with those dead white mens’ names?
Wharton must have noticed my new discomfort. I saw his eyes change from anger to amusement. I could see what he was thinking: He finally had me. “You do realize,” he said in a forced light tone, “that I made it awfully easy on you by telling you there are eleven signatories. I could have asked you to just give me the names of the signatories.” He smiled, maybe his cruelest smile yet, and just stared.
“You want me to thank you?” I said. “For questioning me illegally?”
He chuckled, but with a jagged leering edge to it. “Oh, yes. Feel free to thank me.” He stretched his hand out. “Thank all of us. We are protecting you people, after all.”
I heard that last bit loud and clear; I understood it immediately. I was supposed to thank people that looked like him just for my being here and not yet being murdered. No, for me, people like me, he was saying, voting wasn’t any citizen’s birthright. It was a privilege, disposed by this junky white asshole. I burrowed down. I burrowed deep. I knew that at some point in my life I must have heard those names. At the very least I knew the names of the town’s leading families, the descendants of the original founders. Everyone knew those family’s names. We lived among them and drove by their businesses every day. We saw their names on buildings. The real problem was the first names of those eleven.
“Jasper Thornhill,” I said, and I watched Wharton’s smug face crumble. “Reuben Benecke.” He winced. “Walter Roebling.” I hesitated, but then I came up with the fourth one, and after that, with something of a guess, the fifth. “Edmond Grosz. . . . Samuel Bowers.”
Wharton started blinking, his gold, tanked-up eyes flashing and dimming, flashing and dimming. His mouth began moving in chewing motions. “Nah. Don’t you,” he said. “Don’t you try. No one’s gotten the eleven.” I knew that no one had probably gotten past parts 1 and 2 of this third question. He was shaking and flaring and practically flailing now. Because he could see what was about to happen. He was about to have his poll test broken. He was about to have to let me vote. “You best just stop and leave,” he said. I didn’t move, so he only spoke louder. “I said, you better leave.” He came a step closer. “Just leave.”
“Elijah Adler,” I said. “Martin Wingate. Melvin Strauch.”
I was more than two-thirds of the way there. My brain, I have to admit, was starting to pinch and hurt. I’d just about pushed my memory to the furthest of its limits. But I couldn’t let Wharton see that. Otherwise, he’d invent some other ridiculous question for me to answer. I had to keep going and I had to nail this, and I had to finish it. And when the elections were over, the new administration was going to have to make the Jim Crow Dope illegal again. The new government was going to have to lock up the dealers. The new administration was going to have to restore the law. “Lionel Molitor,” I said. Then, after a delay of some ten or twelve seconds, followed by head wagging to unlock the name, “Levi Boddington.”
For the last minute I’d seen nothing but naked fury on Wharton’s face. His hands curled and uncurled into fists. He somehow managed to hold himself from actually attacking me. But he knew the stakes. He could see what was happening. He could see I was doing the impossible. He could see I was about to defeat his illegal maneuver. I was about to bring an end to this. To all of this. Even he realized that if I nailed all eleven names, he could not ask me anything else. It would be a violation. It would be a horror. I lowered my head and stared at my feet. I tried to penetrate the folds of my memory.
Those were all the big names. Those were the families. There weren’t any others. Then I remembered something. Or an inkling of something. Was it possible that two members of the same family signed? That one family had that extra bit of influence? Something about that formulation sounded right. And then out of the dim fog of my recollections came a name. Rather, an idea about a name. Another Molitor. There was another Molitor. Almost as famous as his brother. I’d heard his name spoken before. Seen it written down. Was this person a signer, or just a famous family member? I didn’t know, but it was the only guess I had. There were no other names on the tongue of my mind.
I suddenly had a sinking feeling. I worried that whatever name I said it would inevitably be the wrong one. But I had to say something. He would not let me hesitate forever. I decided to speak my answer slowly. I could at least speak it slowly. If I was going to be wrong, I wouldn’t be wrong in a flash. “Ab-ner,” I sang, a slow approach to a full recitation of the name. And then I saw it. The delirious glee in the Wharton’s eyes, the sun-bright resurrection of gold, the evil smile he was trying his worst to suppress.
All of a sudden, I had another first name: “I mean Arthur,” I said. “Arthur—.”
“No!” he shouted, before I could emit the last name. He waved his arms, his fingers passing millimetres beneath my eyes. “You can’t say that now! You didn’t say that! You said Abner.”
“I didn’t finish my answer. That wasn’t my answer. Let me give my answer.”
“You said Abner!” he called. “I heard you. You said Abner.”
“No question is answered until you answer it fully. Everyone knows that.”
“You said Abner,” he shouted. “Everyone, you heard her, right? She said Abner.”
I heard a murmur of assent behind me, and I was at once aware of the voters behind me, all looking at me, concentrating on me. In a new way. Possibly, probably, they had been looking at me that way since the beginning. Or at least since I started acing this illegal test. Was it possible that in them, still beating beneath the intoxication of the dope, was a civil fairness? Was that even possible? Could I actually appeal to these junkies?
“I said Arthur. You heard me. Now let me give my answer. It’s Arthur Mo—”
That’s when I was hit. From behind. On the head. I never finished the answer. I was not allowed to give the final answer. And, as a result, I did not pass the test and was not allowed to vote.
That’s how it went on. Why it goes on.
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