“Hey, there!” The conductor came around behind him, his coin changer jangling. “What you think you’re doing? Get down off there!”
“You see what I’m doing. Keep your shirt on.”
And Willie began the stenciling in yellow paint. He dabbed on anF and anO and anR with terrible pride in his work. And when he finished it the conductor squinted up and read the fresh glinting yellow words: FOR WHITES: REAR SECTION. He read it again. FOR WHITES. He blinked. REAR SECTION. The conductor looked at Willie and began to smile.
“Does that suit you?” asked Willie, stepping down.
Said the conductor, “That suits me just fine, sir.”
Hattie was looking at the sign from outside, and holding her hands over her breasts.
Willie returned to the crowd, which was growing now, taking size from every auto that groaned to a halt, and every new trolley car which squealed around the bend from the nearby town.
Willie climbed up on a packing box. “Let’s have a delegation to paint every streetcar in the next hour. Volunteers?”
Hands leapt up.
“Let’s have a delegation to fix theater seats, roped off, the last two rows for whites.”
They ran off.
Willie peered around, bubbled with perspiration, panting with exertion, proud of his energy, his hand on his wife’s shoulder who stood under him looking at the ground with her downcast eyes. “Let’s see now,” he declared. “Oh yes. We got to pass a law this afternoon; no intermarriages!”
“That’s right,” said a lot of people.
“All shoeshine boys quit their jobs today.”
“Quittin’ right now!” Some men threw down the rags they carried, in their excitement, all across town.
“Got to pass a minimum wage law, don’t we?”
“Pay them white folks at least ten cents an hour.”
The mayor of the town hurried up. “Now look here, Willie Johnson. Get down off that box!”
“Mayor, I can’t be made to do nothing like that.”
“You’re making a mob, Willie Johnson.”
“That’s the idea.”
“The same thing you always hated when you were a kid. You’re no better than some of those white men you yell about!”
“This is the other shoe, Mayor, and the otherfoot,” said Willie, not even looking at the mayor, looking at the faces beneath him, some of them smiling, some of them doubtful, others bewildered, some of them reluctant and drawing away, fearful.
“You’ll be sorry,” said the mayor.
“We’ll have an election and get a new mayor,” said Willie. And he glanced off at the town where up and down the streets signs were being hung, fresh-painted: LIMITED CLIENTELE:Right to serve customer revokable at any time. He grinned and slapped his hands. Lord! And streetcars were being halted and sections being painted white in back, to suggest their future inhabitants. And theaters were being invaded and roped off by chuckling men, while their wives stood wondering on the curbs and children were spanked into houses to be hid away from this awful time.
“Are we all ready?” called Willie Johnson, the rope in his hands with the noose tied and neat.
“Ready!” shouted half the crowd. The other half murmured and moved like figures in a nightmare in which they wished no participation.
“Here it comes!” called a small boy.
Like marionette heads on a single string, the heads of the crowd turned upward.
Across the sky, very high and beautiful, a rocket burned on a sweep of orange fire. It circled and came down, causing all to gasp. It landed, setting the meadow afire here and there; the fire burned out, the rocket lay a moment in quiet, and then, as the silent crowd watched, a great door in the side of the vessel whispered out a breath of oxygen, the door slid back and an old man stepped out.
“A white man, a white man, a white man . . .” The words traveled back in the expectant crowd, the children speaking in each other’s ears, whispering, butting each other, the words moving in ripples to where the crowd stopped and the streetcars stood in the windy sunlight, the smell of paint coming out their opened windows. The whispering wore itself away and it was gone.