Fiction | ‘A Black and White Answer’ by Terry Sanville | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

Charles pulled their 2051 Toyota Icarus into a parking stall at the Minneapolis Pediatric Clinic and turned off the AC. He opened his door and a hot May wind filled the car.

‘For God’s sake, shut the door,’ Janet, his wife, ordered. ‘I’m twenty minutes early for my appointment. I don’t want to die of heat stroke before then.’

‘All right, all right. Jeez. I just thought they might be able to take you early.’

‘Are you kidding? It took us ten minutes to find a parking space. I’m sure a lot of women are here for the same reason, and I still need to put on my make-up.’

Janet pressed a button on the car’s center console and the AC came on. Another button lowered a sunshield that turned into a mirror. She applied beige concealer to her face, scarlet lipstick, and dark eyeliner around her blue-green eyes. After a quick brush of her blonde mane, she clutched her purse in her lap and drummed her fingers.

‘Relax, hon,’ Charles said. ‘The doctors told us it wouldn’t take long, wouldn’t hurt that much.’

Janet scoffed. ‘Easy for you to say. Nobody’s sticking a needle through your belly into your unborn child.’ She rubbed her swollen abdomen slowly and stared outside at the jagged Minneapolis skyline baking in the sun. 

‘Sorry, you’re right. But the clinic’s had great results. We want the best for our daughter, don’t we?’

‘Of course. The Andersons went through it five years ago. Their son is such a beautiful child.’

‘And they got Erick into Stanwood Academy. You know how hard that is?’

‘You don’t have to tell me,’ Janet said, ‘Shirley’s been bragging for weeks: “Stanwood only takes kids that are smart, healthy, and will…will fit in”.’

At ten minutes before the hour, the mechanical voice of the car’s calendar reminded the couple of their 2 PM appointment with Dr. Shultz. After donning sunglasses, gloves and hats, they left the Toyota, crossed the parking lot, and entered the concrete and steel high-rise. On the fourth floor they registered at the intake counter.  

Finding the last vacant seats in the waiting room, Janet streamed short videos on her iPhone-45. Charles studied the colorful posters on the walls, old ones about global warming, ozone depletion, and how to detect various forms of skin cancer. 

All very cut-and-dried, Charles thought. What they don’t show is the increase in skin cancer deaths among white people. My own sister…but you can’t stay inside forever.

In a few minutes, a beautiful black nursing assistant with Nubian skin called Janet’s name. Charles kissed his wife and whispered in her ear, ‘It’ll be over soon, honey.’  

She disappeared through a door as men and lesbian partners entered another, on their way to recovery and a reunion with their wives. He thought about the procedure Janet would endure. It made his stomach ache. He tried to remember what he’d read online and what Dr. Shultz had told them – something about modifying DNA strands that control the production of melanin and melanosomes by injecting a carrier virus that attached to certain cells. Charles didn’t understand the complicated chemistry. But it didn’t matter; all he cared about was the result.

In less than an hour, a nursing aide escorted Charles to the recovery room where Janet lay, looking tired but happy.

‘God, I’m glad that’s over. This place is a factory.  I barely got my dress off when the doctor stuck me with a humongous needle and injected the…the whatever the hell they call it.’

‘Ouch! Are you okay?’

‘Yes. Just get me outta here.’

Back in their car, they traveled in silence. Charles thought about the path ahead for his soon-to-be expanded family: taking on more legal work; outfitting the spare bedroom as a nursery, then as a home study site with all the latest gadgets; filling out applications to the best schools; teaching Sarah–they had already named their unborn daughter–the ways of the world, at least America’s version of them. 

‘What are you grinning about?’ Janet asked.

‘Oh, just thinking.’

‘Me too. Things are going to change. I’ll be a…a mother.’

Charles leaned over and kissed Janet’s cheek, his lips leaving an impression in the thick makeup. They held hands as the self-driving Toyota steered them toward their suburban.

***

Janet’s pregnancy continued without complications. After eight hours of labor and a natural birth, little Sarah lay yawning in Janet’s arms. Charles stared at his brand new daughter, at her scrunched-up little face, tiny fingers and toes, mottled pink and white skin, blue eyes, with just the hint of sandy-brown hair. Thank God, nothing’s out of place…she had all her fingers and toes, but… 

‘I know what you’re worried about,’ Janet said, placing the child against a breast.

‘What? Do I look worried?’ 

‘Just relax. The change takes time. In six to eight months we should know…’

‘Just what we need, more waiting.’

Charles busied himself putting the final touches to Sarah’s room. His workload doubled their finances were good. Janet took to motherhood like an artist to an exciting new painting, every day becoming a parenting adventure for both of them.

Sarah’s cries and giggles filled their home. At a little over eight months, she crawled everywhere and pulled herself up on furniture to wobble in thin air before plopping onto the carpet. Their cat, Jerkums, kept the baby company and egged her on, to reach for the stars, to learn about that strange world around her.

On another stifling May day, the entire family, minus Jerkums, visited the clinic and Dr. Shultz. The aging physician wore a quiet smile that portrayed sympathy rather than satisfaction.  

Janet nursed Sarah while Charles sat with jouncing legs, waiting for the doctor to speak.  

‘Thank you both for coming in,’ Shultz said. ‘I’ve examined Sarah and have the results of her lab tests. All things are within normal ranges. She’s a perfectly healthy baby.’

The doctor paused, as if trying to find just the right words.

‘But?’ Charles said in exasperation. 

‘But the gene alteration therapy didn’t work.’

And there it was, the answer Charles and Janet feared hearing, now after months of building up their hopes.

Janet stammered, ‘What do you…I mean…are you sure?’ 

‘I’m afraid so,’ Shultz said. ‘The tests show a low level of melanin and melanosomes in Sarah’s body. And those levels haven’t changed since birth.’

‘Could it take longer?’ Charles asked.

‘In very rare cases, it can take years before pigmentation changes become apparent. But in your daughter’s case, I doubt that will ever happen.’

Charles’s shoulders slumped. ‘What you’re telling us is that our little Sarah will…will never be dark.’

‘Yes, I’m afraid so.’

Janet’s quiet sobs filled the room. Charles stared unseeing into the doctor’s face, only half-hearing what Shultz said as he droned on.

‘You know white people are many times more susceptible to skin cancer than black people. With the ozone layer recovering so slowly and temperatures increasing due to global warming, all whites are exposed to more and more harmful UV rays, something that dark-skinned people can tolerate much better.’

Charles nodded dumbly. Janet’s sobs grew louder.

‘Look, folks. You have a beautiful daughter. She’s absolutely healthy – but you’ll have to help her avoid UV poisoning and cancer. No prolonged outdoor play. And when she is outside, make sure everything is covered, including her hands, eyes, and head. And I recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of 75 or more for areas that cannot easily be covered, such as ears and the neck…and no barefoot play on the grass. I’m so so sorry.’

They drove home in silence, Charles choosing to pilot the Toyota to give himself something to focus on other than what the future held for their permanently white daughter. As they approached an intersection, an electric tram carrying students from Stanwood Academy passed before them. A row of smiling ebony children, some with blonde or red hair, waved happily, with not a pale face among them. 

***

In the years that followed, Sarah grew more and more beautiful. She attended public schools, one of a handful of white children in her class, made fun of, bullied, pitied, excluded from most social activities. But she succeeded scholastically and as a musician. In college, she became President of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP). Sarah passed the bar exam and became an outspoken civil rights attorney in the Minneapolis area. But at thirty-eight, melanoma cut short her life during the month of May, when the eye of heaven shone too bright on such a wan spirit.


Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two plump cats (his in-house critics). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. His short stories have been accepted more than 400 times by commercial and academic journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bryant Literary Review, and Shenandoah. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes and once for inclusion in Best of the Net anthology. His stories have been listed among “The Most Popular Contemporary Fiction of 2017” by the Saturday Evening Post. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

 

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