Superman: Civil Rites

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#4 - “Summer Heat”

By David Marshall

Downtown Smallville

There was the sun and there was the Mississippi sun. And those who called the southern state home knew the difference. The blazing orb of solar misery that beat down on Smallville was responsible for the most oppressive heat wave the locals had witnessed in nearly thirty years.

Lex Luthor jingled the change in his right front pocket as he meandered along the sidewalk, oblivious to the hellish heat and humidity that vexed the small, rural town. He couldn’t believe his Sarah was gone. He missed everything about her but mostly the discrete, playful glances they stole while passing one another in the halls of the former antebellum mansion he called home. It seemed colder and more dreadful than ever before without her gentle smile to warm its dark corridors. Did she die believing he betrayed her? Surely she knew he hoped to save her by placating his father’s wrath.

Didn’t she?

Downtown Smallville had changed little since Lex’s first visit as a small child. The shops that lined the square were still local-owned and most had been in their respective families for generations. The sidewalk was new, as was the simple wooden sign in the heart of the square that welcomed visitors. It stood in a well-groomed flower bed that bloomed year-round with one kind of seasonal display or another, thanks to the efforts of the Garden Club.

An unknown man with dirty hands looked up from beneath the hood of his Chrysler and nodded as Lex passed. “Afternoon, Luthor.” The car’s radiator spewed steam into the thick, sweltering air.

“Afternoon, sir,” Lex replied, pleased to hear his name spoken with such a civil tongue. Similar pleasantries greeted him as he continued down the sidewalk.

He popped in and out of the small shops and mulled around each long enough to take respite from the sun. The mom and pops were nothing like the elegant department stores of Metropolis, relying still on the sun to light the quaint displays in their oversized single-paned windows. They also lacked the requisite air conditioning of the big-city establishments but the noisy, metal fans purchased from the local feed store still felt good. The proprietors seemed to genuinely appreciate Lex taking the time to visit even if he didn’t spend money. The owner of the hardware store even offered him a glass of lemonade. Such genuine, neighborly gestures sure beat the pandering of the high-end department stores he frequented when in Metropolis.

The stores also shared an earthy, old-wood aroma. No doubt the layers of oil soap embedded deep into the worn plank floors were the true culprit but Lex preferred to attribute the smell to the romanticized charm of small town, Main Street USA.

Smallville’s siren song tugged at Lex’s senses from every direction. Her haunting voice beckoned him to surrender to her allure. He would renounce the family name and become one of what his father dubbed “the local rabble”. His would be a world of the Farmer’s Almanac, community barn raisings, cheering the Smallville Crows on Friday nights, and church on Sunday mornings. Amazing Grace indeed!

The blare of a horn jolted Lex from his daydream. “Hey, Luthor! Why don’t you go back to Metropolis, you redheaded jerk!” shouted a young man waving his fist from behind the wheel of a red, Ford pickup filled with hay bales.

Apparently not everyone’s grace was so amazing.

Lex ducked into a piece goods shop. He fingered rolls of cloth destined to make clothes that went out of style a decade before. The charm of Smallville contrasted the turmoil in his soul. Why couldn’t he stand up to his father and find a way to save Sarah?

Lex knew the truth. He was a coward.

The clang of bells hanging from the shop's door jolted Lex back to the real world.

“See you next time, Mildred!” a middle-aged woman called as she exited the shop. She was what Lex called “housewife pretty”, a plain and simple woman but still pleasant to look at despite her farmhand fashion sense. “I’ll let you know how the dresses turn out!”

Lex followed the woman out of the store and watched her to her car. How wonderful if life were no more complex than a few yards of fabric and a sewing needle. Did the people of Smallville realize how fortunate they were with no billions hanging over their heads and no legacy to endure?

Continuing his grand tour, Lex spied a situation that piqued his curiosity. A black girl was buying an ice cream cone in the alleyway out the back door of a soda shop. A sign in the shop's window made it clear which clientele the proprietor favored. Once the transaction was complete the door shut and the girl stood alone.

“Excuse me,” Lex called after the girl.

She froze. “I didn’t do nothing wrong!”

“It’s ok,” Lex assured. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to ask you something.”

The girl eyed him suspiciously as he moved toward her. “I don’t want trouble.”

“I won’t be trouble,” Lex promised. “Honest.”

“What do you want?” the girl asked as she stepped from the shadows of the alley and into the sun.

Lex was instantly smitten with her beauty. Her dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail and brushed the shoulders of her pink and white sweater. Her lips were full and Lex couldn’t help but wonder about their softness. But it was her untrusting eyes that left him spellbound with a sparkle even suspicion couldn’t mask.

“I know who you are,” said the girl. “You’re Lionel Luthor’s son, Lex I think.”

Lex nodded. “That’s right, but I’m not like my dad.”

“Not what I’ve heard,” the girl answered.

“Then you’ve heard wrong,” Lex replied. “Why do you shop here?”

“I didn’t go in,” the girl answered defensively. "I used the alley."

Lex waved off her defense. “No, I didn’t mean it like that. Why give them your money if they won’t let you inside?”

The girl looked at him as if he were crazy. “They don’t serve my kind in there! We might offend the white folks. But the Tates are good people. They serve us out the back.”

“That’s mighty big of them,” Lex answered sarcastically.

The girl nodded. “I think so. Is that all you want with me?”

“No,” Lex blurted. “What’s your name?”

The girl swallowed hard before answering. “Lana Lang.”

“Well Lana Lang, it looks like your ice cream is starting to melt,” said Lex. He couldn't help but smile as he jingled the change in his pocket. “Let me buy you another.”

Lana shook her head. “No sir, it's fine. This hot sun does that to ice cream. Don't you know? Listen to me babble! Of course you know that!”

Lex laughed. “No need to be so nervous.”

“For you maybe,” the girl shot back.

“What do you mean?” Lex asked.

“Do you know what can happen to me if I’m seen talking to a white boy, especially a rich one like you?” Lana asked.

“You’re worried about the Klan?” Lex asked.

The girl placed her hand on her hip emphatically and raised an eyebrow. “No! I’m not worried about no Klan! I'm worried about my daddy! He’d whip me good!”

Lex hadn’t really given much thought to black people being prejudiced against whites. He always assumed they envied white people. “I feel bad. Just let me buy you another cone.”

“Leave me alone!” Lana shouted.

Her yelling drew attention.

“Ok! Ok!” Lex answered. “Just stop with the yelling! Everyone is starting to stare!”

And with that Lana went on her way while Lex ducked into a small grocery.

Later That Night Clark Kent shot into the warm night air and inhaled deeply. There was no other feeling on earth that compared with the intoxicating freedom of soaring through the heavens. The brilliant full moon hung low in the night sky and lit the countryside so well Clark could see the land below laid out in neat parcels. No fence line was needed to demarcate the border between farms as the crops performed the task better than any man-made structure could ever hope.

As pleasant as patrol could be, it was also a chance to see the worst of humanity on display. Klan activity was on the rise with the community divided largely along racial lines over the proposed chemical factory. The white folks saw only the jobs the plant would bring to the area and their point was valid. The tiny agricultural community could certainly use an infusion of non-farming work to stabilize the economy. Even the grain factory relied on Mother Nature’s kindness and often operated with little more than a skeleton crew. Layoffs were far too frequent. The chemical plant was a promise of higher-paying jobs that would attract white-collar professionals to the area. With that would come an increase in home ownership and perhaps one of the country’s newest building crazes – the subdivision. After all, if anything was plentiful in and around Smallville it was large tracts of undeveloped farm land.

What the white folks failed to see was the other side of prosperity or maybe they just didn’t care. It was hard to separate the two with white people sometimes. Perhaps it was just easier to sweep the downside under the rug than to deal with it. Since the end of Congressional Reconstruction, the black community was forced onto the worst crop lands by default. They simply didn’t have the economic power or possess the political clout to fight for their fair share. White farmers bought up the land at a rapid pace around the turn of the century for a little of nothing. What wasn’t purchased fairly was taken by force while the law looked the other way. As a result the black folks lived in small enclaves scattered throughout the county, mostly to the south of town. Clark was proud of his people’s resourcefulness though. Like so many downtrodden through the ages, they adapted and carved a life for themselves out of the less-than-prime real estate they were relegated to.

Now the whites wanted that land too. Could they not see the families that would be uprooted and displaced? Clark’s father predicted the factory would be Smallville’s own Trail of Tears.

The sound of squalling tires from below seized Clark’s attention. Two cars were involved in a chase, a white Volkswagen in front, a rare sight in rural Mississippi, and the other a black Buick deuce-and-a-quarter. The two vehicles roared through a curvy section of road on State Route 119, dotting in and out beneath the canopy of pine trees that lined the road. The Buick was quickly gaining on the underpowered Volkswagen.

Clark wasn’t sure whether or not to get involved until someone leaned out the passenger side of the Buick and fired shots. The small rear window of the Volkswagen shattered. The Beetle swerved across the long dotted white lines into the opposite lane. Thankfully there were no cars to be seen for miles in either direction.

A second volley of shots rang out as the two vehicles started up Morgan’s Knob, one of the higher elevations in Lowell County. A bullet struck the Volkswagen’s left rear wheel and it exploded. The Beetle darted toward the guard rail and crashed through it. A moment later the car went airborne over an embankment.

Clark shot toward the vehicle and caught it in midair. More shots rang out and it became apparent those in the Buick were firing at him too. Of course the bullets posed no threat to him but could kill the occupants inside the Volkswagen. Rather than stand his ground and fight, Clark lifted the Volkswagen high into the air. A bullet struck the engine in the rear causing the vehicle to erupt in flames.

Clark flew the car to a nearby open field. With the fire spreading he couldn’t afford the time to set it down gently. He placed the front tires on the ground and dropped the car’s rear end. The remaining rear tire exploded upon impact. He made his way to the driver’s side door and ripped it from the hinges. There was only one occupant- Perry White, the reporter from Metropolis.

Racial epithets were scrawled across his forehead. Super-hearing revealed that his heartbeat was faint and he’d lost a lot of blood. A quick scan with X-Ray vision showed that he sustained a broken left clavicle and several fractures to his face and skull. It was obvious he had some altercation with the Klan and escaped but he was in bad shape.

Clark scooped Perry up in his arms and lifted his wounded friend into the cool night sky.

Once they arrived at Smallville Medical Center, Clark faced another dilemma. He couldn’t simply dump Perry off at the entrance. He needed immediate medical attention and SMC wasn’t a big city treatment center with emergency vehicles coming and going at regular intervals. Even security couldn’t be counted on to find Perry in a timely manner. Mr. Hankins was a retired deputy who made rounds a few times a night. It could be hours before anyone discovered Perry and he could be dead by then.

The only other option was to take Perry inside himself, though Clark knew he would be blamed for the beating. It wouldn’t matter that he brought him to the hospital for medical attention. It wouldn’t matter that Perry’s face was covered with racial slurs pointing to Klan involvement. It would all be twisted by the time it hit the papers and the headlines would proclaim that a white reporter was beaten by a young black man in his pajamas.

Clark decided the right thing was to assure Perry received the medical attention he needed and he would worry about the repercussions later. He landed on the sidewalk and rushed through the hospital’s double doors. To most folks a hospital smelled sterile, but not to Clark. He could smell the sickness and death and no amount of antiseptic cleanser could ever overpower that stench.

“I need some help here!” Clark shouted. “Someone please help me!”

An orderly was the first to spot Clark and Perry. “Why the hell are you dressed in your pajamas and a cape boy?”

“This man needs help,” Clark replied. “See to it that he gets it.”

Clark laid Perry on an empty gurney in the hallway and ran toward the exit as fast as he could without causing a sonic boom or doing something that may damage the facility.

A moment later he rose into the night sky above the hospital. The moon was lower now and the night seemed darker – more sinister. A crowd gathered outside the hospital looking for him in the skies. Using his super-hearing it was easy to pick up on their conversations.

“I swear it was a black boy in his pajamas!” said the excitable orderly. “I’ve never seen a human being move that fast in my life! He was there one minute and gone the next!”

“Someone call the sheriff!” a woman yelled. “Maybe he can catch the flying boy before he hurts someone else!”

Clark sighed and wished for once the morning headlines weren’t so easy to predict.

The Next Day As usual Clark beat Lana to the top of the old oak tree they climbed on since they were children. From its heights one could see clear to town even without telescopic vision.

“You were slower than usual today,” Clark taunted.

Lana nodded. “I have a lot on my mind.”

Clark took his usual perch in the middle of a thick fork. “Anything you want to talk about?”

“Something weird happened to me yesterday, Clark,” Lana replied.

“What kind of weird?” Clark asked.

Lana took a seat on a twisted knot at the base of the fork. “White people weird.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” said Clark.

“Do you remember that red-headed Luthor kid you helped that time?” Lana asked. “The one who turned on you afterward?”

Clark nodded. “Hard to forget that.”

“I was buying ice cream yesterday in the alley at Tate’s and he saw me. Started asking me questions,” said Lana.

Clark dug his fingers into the tree trunk. “He didn’t hurt you did he?”

“Calm down!” Lana warned. “No, he didn’t hurt me. Just spooked me a little. I’m not used to rich white boys stopping me and asking me stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?” Clark asked.

“About why I was buying ice cream there,” Lana answered. “At first I thought he was being a racist pig, but what he said made sense.”

Clark was confused. “What did he say?”

“He asked why I spend my money where I’m not welcome,” Lana replied.

“Sounds like he’s trying to make trouble,” said Clark.

Lana kicked off her shoes and sat them beside her. “Could be, but I don’t think so. He was checking me out Clark.”

“What?” Clark shouted.

Lana nodded. “I know, right? Even offered to buy me another ice cream because mine started to melt in the sun while we were talking.”

“Stay away from him, Lana!” Clark warned.

Lana crossed her arms and pursed her lips together tightly. “What? You my daddy now, Clark? Going to tell me what to do?”

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Clark stammered. “He’s up to no good. I’m sure of it. Why else would he target you?”

“So a rich white boy is too good for me? Is that what you’re saying? That’d better not be what you’re saying Clark Kent because that’s what I’m hearing!” Lana huffed.

Why was it that Clark could change the course of a raging river with his bare hands but Lana could fluster him so easily? “No, I meant… I mean…well, you know.”

“Spit it out, Clark,” said Lana. “Enlighten me. What do you mean?”

“You’re too good for him,” Clark replied. He lay back in the fork of the tree, confident he had righted the course of the raging waters.

Lana slipped on her right shoe.

“What are you doing?” Clark asked.

Lana shook her head in disgust. “Grow up, Clark Kent!”

“Lana, wait! What did I do?” Clark asked dumbly. “I said you were too good for him!”

Lana slid her other shoe on and darted down the tree. “You’re the one always going on about equality and your dreams about brotherhood! The first white boy that looks at me and you show your true colors! You hate as badly as they do, but yours is the worst kind! At least the Klan says what they feel even if they have to hide under a bed sheet to do it!”

Clark started down the tree after her.

“Don’t you dare follow me, Clark Kent!” Lana screamed. “I’m going home and maybe you should sit up there awhile and think! Perhaps you’ll find the courage to be the man you claim to be!”

One question burned in Clark’s brain as Lana ran through the field toward her house. “What the heck did I do?”

The Kent Farm, A Few Minutes Later

As soon as Clark walked through the door, his mother tried to warn him with “the look” that something was amiss and he chided himself for not catching it sooner.

“Care to explain this son?” Pa Kent asked. He held up a copy of the newspaper he bought at the farmer’s market earlier that morning. “Don’t you lie to me neither!”

Across the top of the paper was the headline Clark dreaded - “Reporter Beaten! Flying Negro Boy Blamed!”

Pa’s ensuing rant was as fiery as any sermon Clark could recall and lasted nearly thirty minutes. He paced the room with the paper in one hand and gesticulating wildly with the other. Occasionally he’d stop and slap his empty hand with the paper to emphasize a point.

“It says other witnesses have reported seeing a flying black boy too!” Clark’s father spat. “How long have you been sneaking out of the house?”

Clark shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. A couple of weeks, I guess.”

Pa ran the fingers of his free hand through his graying hair. “A couple of weeks? It’s like you’re a different boy than the one we raised! What do you have to say for yourself?”

The Kent home fell eerily silent.

“I’m not going to say I’m sorry,” Clark half-whispered. “I have these powers for a reason! If I hadn’t been there last night Perry would have died!” His words grew louder and more confident as he spoke. They lacked his father’s zeal but certainly not the conviction.

Pa raised his eyebrows. “Perry? You’re on a first name basis with the reporter?”

Clark knew he said too much. “This is the second time I’ve saved Mr. White. The first time was from a lynching.”

Pa laid the newspaper on the table and sat with his hands folded against his forehead. At last he looked up. “You’re making very powerful enemies, son.”

“I’m very powerful myself,” Clark argued. “You’ve always preached that God equips those he calls to a task. Maybe I’m supposed to play Samson to their Philistines.”

Ma cleared her throat. “At some point we have to let him be the man God wants him to be, Jonathan. I’m scared to death for him but we’ve always known Clark’s destiny was greater than sharecropping. God gave you mastery over His Word. He’s given Clark other gifts to do His work. God’s hand is moving in Mississippi and I, for one, don’t want to stand in His way.”

Pa bowed his head and sobbed beneath the weight of his burden. It almost seemed as if his heaving shoulders pumped the welled-up tears into his eyes. “Lord, I give you my son as you gave yours for me. Do with him what you will. All I ask is that you guide his heart and keep him humble.”

Following the prayer, Pa wiped his eyes and looked up. “We’re family. For better or worse we’re in this together.”

Downtown Smallville, the Next Day

Lana Lang enjoyed Bixby’s Five and Dime and knew every inch of the store by heart. She worked there the summer before, cleaning up after-hours and getting the stock ready for the next day. Even in Smallville the color of one’s skin didn’t matter to some people.

She threw open the doors and rushed inside. This trip was more than an attempt to get out of the heat. “Did it come in?” she squealed before she even reached the counter.

Mrs. Bixby smiled behind the counter. “Did what come in, dear?”

Lana could barely contain herself. “Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King!”

“You're barking up the wrong tree, young lady. Those rock and roll records are all the same to me!” Mrs. Bixby laughed. “You know where we keep them, dear.”

Lana tore through the store like a tornado in a cornfield until she found the tall, two-sided record display rack. She hurriedly thumbed through album after album in search of the disc she wanted.

“Any suggestions?” asked a voice from the other side of the rack.

Lana recognized the voice and stopped flipping through the records. A peek around the rack confirmed her suspicion. “Are you following me?”

Lex Luthor shook his shaggy red hair like a St. Bernard and smiled. “I was here first.”

Lana had to admit he was right but his presence still made her uncomfortable.

“I’m kind of new to this rock and roll thing,” Lex explained. “My dad is more of an opera type and doesn’t allow rock albums in the house. So what do you recommend?”

Lana ducked behind her side of the rack. “I recommend you obey your father!”

Lex poked his head around the rack. “Now where’s the fun in that?” He slipped

around the rack and joined Lana. He picked up an Elvis album. “I’ve heard of this guy!”

“Good for you!” said Lana. “Now leave me alone!”

Mrs. Bixby coughed.

Lana looked to the front of the store. Mrs. Bixby gave her the eye as if to say, “I’m watching you two!”

“You’re going to get me in trouble,” Lana whispered.

“All I’m asking for is a simple recommendation from a knowledgeable music critic,” Lex answered. “What’s wrong with that?”

Lana sighed. “Elvis ain’t been the same since he got back from the Army. Here! Try this!”

She handed Lex a Chuck Berry album. “This is great rock and roll!”

“Chuck Berry, huh?” Lex asked as he peered at the man on the cover. “Can’t say I’ve heard of him.”

“Figures,” said Lana.

Lex smiled and pushed her shoulder playfully with his own. “And what does that supposed to mean?”

Despite herself Lana couldn’t help but smile. “Stop it!” she giggled.

“There! Finally! A smile!” said Lex.

“Shhh!!” Lana warned while grinning from ear to ear. She craned her neck toward Mrs. Bixby at the front of the store.

“I have to say it looks good on you,” said Lex. “So what are you looking for?”

“Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King,” Lana answered.

“Other side,” said Lex. “I saw it right before you came in.”

Lana rushed to the other side of the rack and found the album at the front of the bottom row of records. “Yes!” she exclaimed excitedly. “I’ve got to go!”

Lex waved. “Ok, see you around then.”

Lana took the record to the front of the store and placed it on the counter.

Mrs. Bixby eyed Lex, still standing at the racks. “I see you found what you were looking for, Ms. Lang.”

“Oh yeah!” Lana smiled. “I sure did! This record …” That’s when she noticed Mrs. Bixby’s eyes were on Lex and not her purchase. “No! You’ve got it all wrong, Mrs. Bixby. It’s not what you think!”

Mrs. Bixby slid the record sleeve into a paper bag. “It had better not be or I’ll tell your father!”

“Please,” Lana begged as she searched her purse for her wallet. “I don’t need the trouble.”

“That will be a dollar twenty-five,” said Mrs. Bixby.

“What?” Lana asked. “Since when do records cost that much?”

“Went up two weeks ago,” Mrs. Bixby answered.

“But I only have a dollar,” Lana replied as she fingered the handful of change she saved.

“Then I’m sorry, Ms. Lang you’ll have to put the record back,” said Mrs. Bixby.

Lex joined Lana at the counter. “Is there a problem?”

Lana shook her head. “No problem. I’m a little short. I’ll get it next week.”

Lex smiled. “Let me buy it for you.”

“I couldn’t do that,” said Lana.

“Of course you can,” Lex answered. “The world won’t end because I buy you a record.” He took the record from Lana’s hands and laid it on the counter with his own. “What do I owe you?” he asked Mrs. Bixby.

“Two fifty,” said Mrs. Bixby. “But I’m not sure about this. It could be bad for business if anyone found out.”

Lex reached into his wallet and pulled out a twenty. “Perhaps you would worry less if I allow you to keep the change?”

Mrs. Bixby eyed the money and then the two teenagers. She grabbed the money and rung up the sale. “Ok, you’ve got what you wanted. I don’t want to see the two of you in here together again or I will tell Ms. Lang‘s parents the next time!”

Lex smiled. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you too, Ma’am.”

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