By Natasha Wall (16), Collinstown Park Community College, Clondalkin, Dublin
Photograph: Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images
This is an excerpt from a longer story by Natasha Wall, one of the stories from the collection What’s the Stories?, written by transition year students from Collinstown Park Community College, to be published in May 2017.
My Mama and Papa moved me around a lot as a kid. Papa was Grand Dragon of an up–and-coming Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana. We mostly travelled as a way of recruitment, or we would be forced out of visiting towns by villagers who wanted to “keep the peace”, or were happy with how the town was “run”. Papa would rile up the boys to “teach ’em a lesson”, as he would say. The boys ranged from thirteen to eighteen, travelling alongside their family or simply alone. Taking to the Klan for protection, an artificial family of some sort. A boy aged thirteen to eighteen back then wasn’t seen as a man in the eyes of the court. They’d get three to four weeks, max, in a cramped prison cell in the local station. Their patchy bald heads and crude tattoos warned off any signs of trouble. They got three meals a day and a “blissful break from the cause”, the young men who stayed behind to collect them would hiss, collecting them with the iconic red van, marked with the well-known “11, 11, 11 L•S” license plate.
I remember riding in the van one day. Me and another guy, Jake, stayed behind to collect three boys who had gotten caught smashing the window of a black man’s bakery. It was my first “collection” and I wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for my father’s orders and bare bland skin, hair thick and dark, making me almost unrecognisable as a KKK member. Jake, on the other hand, had short tight blonde hair and skin that told a story. Though not happy nor joyful, it still spoke to those who dare stare long enough to read it. His arms held no colour. Swastikas and hate riddled them, small sections left bare, to later hold the words of my very own father. His chest bore a contradicting image of an “all loving” Jesus, pinned to the cross, pilgrims bowed in fear. I remember vividly, the shade of thought on Jack’s face when I asked him about the tattoo. It was late and everyone in the bunk house had fallen asleep hours beforehand. We had just finished supper and were resting for a rally the night after. His response was so slow I almost thought he’d never answer. Suddenly, breaking the awkward silence that began to fill the room he just muttered “I dunno . . .”. I would have accepted that. I heard the uncertainty in his voice and I would have let the late-night thought drift away with all the other forgotten conversations had at night spoken only by fools and lonely men, but Jack simply turned over in his bunk, facing away from my curious eyes. He hushed, “I’m no man of God, and I don’t believe in fairy tales but if I do happen to see these so-called gates of His before I head down further, maybe . . . Maybe he won’t be able to pass his own face . . . ye know?” I closed my eyes softly as my head hid itself amongst the bunk’s flat pillow case, I whispered, “Ya . . . maybe . . .” That was one of the first and only times I ever spoke to Jake. We’d just nod to one another at rallies or speeches after that. It was a simple gesture, yet I felt as if we had some sort of strange bond ever since, as if our “maybes” were disguised confirmations of our terrified thoughts of a place that only those who spread love could enter. I guess in a way we both felt as if what our Klan was spreading was unworthy of such a paradise.
We pulled up in our iconic van, two days before the expected release of our men. A two-day wait was tradition in our Klan. It gave us a chance to rebulk in food and well-needed sodas and beer for future Klan trips, it also gave the collectors a long enough chance to do so. So we stay outside the same dingy B&B that we had seen earlier in our last, briefer visit. The seal on the envelope that my father had hand-delivered to Jake was nearly opened. I only noticed this because the sheer bliss of the car ride was broken by its constant fumbling. “Right, we stay here from Friday to Sunday and collect the other dimwits on the Monday,” Jake mumbled, as he looked into the almost iconic red envelope. He fumbled amongst the supply money and pulled out a handful of dollar bills. I was silent for the whole journey here but the shock of the amount of money made my body react instinctively. “This place ain’t worth all that!” I blurted, breaking Jake’s concentration. He just stopped, looked down at me. I mimicked his relaxed, yet tense, state as if my own, almost syncing our breath. He looked to me and in a monotone voice asked, “Are you scared?”
Jake’s eyes reminded me of marbles, the kind I begged my father to buy me one early morning on our visit to a village he had organised a speech at. I remember how he laughed. He laughed with dignity and pride as he wheezed, “Marbles are for boys and wimps, collectors of glass like women, are you a woman?!” He thrust a BB gun at me, and laughed amongst his fellow men. I was eight years of age. I never knew how to play marbles. Actually, I still don’t. The aim of the game always seemed to bore me – it was more so the colour and the contrast that drew me in, the glimmer of light trapped in the glass fascinated me. But my father was not a man of similar interests, so explaining this to him would have been pointless and have just resulted in a beating. I contemplated if Jake’s eyes matched the marbles in a much more personal way.
I wondered if his questioning of my bravery was rhetorical or cynical. I wondered if his questioning of me was merely a mask for his own indecisive self. “Yes,” I whispered, as if questioning my own feelings, unsure of his. “Me too,” he muttered, as if his words were mere puffs of cigarette, letting them out with sudden ease. Jake paused for a moment that seemed to last a lifetime, his eyes facing down upon the wad of dollars in his hands. “Let’s go.”
Jake parked the van around back, in case anyone recognised its plates or bright colour. It also made it easier for us to stick to the story of us being “out-of-town business men”. Ha, not like Jake nor me had a brain cell to rub together but something about this money made us feel as if we mattered to the world, you know? So there we were, strolling to the front desk. Me in a short-sleeved collar button-up, Jake in a long-sleeved mac with matching black slat trousers and shiny shoes. Boy, we sure did look the part.
We arrived at an empty desk. I’m not gonna lie, the emptiness sure did calm the nerves on the back of my knees that were beginning to buckle. The thoughts of seeing someone not of my own kind made my throat close up worse than this damn collar ever did. I was only seventeen, been with the Klan since aged three, lived with a father set on his beliefs since birth. Never met one though. Papa always boomed of how they were more so dog than human. I had seen them at rallies, either running or staying to fight. There was always more of us than them. Never talked to one, though, kinda just assumed they didn’t talk. Hoped, even. Jake, on the other hand, joined the Klan later. At age sixteen he strolled up to them at a rally in Oklahoma, never mentioned if he lived there or not, never even mentioned if he hated them. Just kinda followed behind, in a way. Got tattoos and started to get noticed. “How’s my hair?” Jake turned and asked me. You could tell from afar that the likes of us were never welcome in the likes of here, me pulling at my collar like a mad man and Jake slicking back his tight hair.
You see, this town is what the Klan would call “corrupt”, black people seen as not yet one of their own, yet not far behind. The B&B smelt of gin and hookers, still too high-class for our beliefs. Nodding my head at Jake, I struggled with my top button, smelling the strong stench of hair lacquer that clung to Jake’s clothes like a drunk to a barstool. Watching as his eyes nervously shift, holding back on telling him of my theory of the smell, not wanting to add to the fire. “Ready?” Jake looks at me as if I was the one six foot tall, with shoulders as broad as calves, covered in tattoos that made any man reconsider his company. “Ehh . . . yeah.” God, I stumble and trip on my words as he reaches for the desk bell, “Wait!” Jake turns to me as if expecting a quivering lip and a cry for the keys home. “Do I, I mean, do we look alright? Convincing-like?” I remember hiding my sheepish face behind the palms of my hands, embarrassed to admit I felt my youthful features would give us away. Jake gave his hair another quick comb with his finger tips, turned and did the same to mine. “Fine,” he muttered after much inspection, ringing the bell twice.
After shopping and going to some markets for a couple of hours, a group of jewels walked by, hair pinned up to perfection and lips coloured for attention. They swooned at the sight of us. I remember smiling hastily, looking to Jake as he simply stared straight ahead, not daring to glance as they called and whistled from across the street. “Aye, why didn’t you get them girl’s names?” I asked as we sat back from a new kind of day’s work, cracking open some beers, sipping on the foam. Jake didn’t answer. Simply sipped at his ice-cold beer, not once did he break eye contact, though he sure did have a gift for making any man, or boy for this matter, feel uncomfortable, I tell you. “What would a girl like her do with the likes of me? Hmm?” He finally broke eye contact as he looked down at the empty can. “Ehh.” I look at Jack, a nineteen-year-old man who was six foot two, as big as any fine calf, and as intimidating as any man his age. He laughed. Sipping off the foam from his cheap liquor, licking his moustache masterfully. “A man like me, has no time for a woman like her, as delicate as a wild rose, crumpled in the mass of my wild paws, or something like that.” Jake burped and rubbed his stomach as he untied his shoes.
I sat on the edge of the bed, shocked that a man like Jake said something as heart-felt as that. I looked down at my hands and almost imagined paws, wondering if Jack was a reflection of my own future. God, I hoped he wasn’t. I could tell by his hell-bent attitude and straightened posture just how lonely he, Jake, really was. I used to see Jake in the bunker and around whatever sites we had settled on for the day. He never talked to the other men, never made an effort at meals or rallies. He was simply there. If he wasn’t, no one would notice or pass remark. I remember seeing him, mumbling under his breath, words no one noticed or cared to listen, I always wondered what he said. Unlike his tattoo or any other thought, still to this day, I never got to ask Jake what he’d talk about. Felt like I’d let Jake hold on to the conversation spoken to himself like a man who lost his faith to a God he was reconsidering. I let him keep them conversations; I never knew what Jake said. I liked to joke and say he was repeating everything for some sort of biography of his or maybe he was just lonely, talking about wishes and dreams to the only man offering his ear to listen. God, I hope I don’t end up like Jake.