AMERIKKKA

From my car I carried two stacked trays of deviled eggs toward the church when a short chubby man in a purple Ku Klux Klan outfit stepped out from inside.

"Hey, thanks for coming on short notice," he said.

I almost dropped the eggs.

Melanie, my boss, smiled. "Thanks for having us, Mr. Morgan."

The guy nodded. He wore the full uniform, holding the dunce hat with the cut-out eyeholes in his hand. I don't know why it was purple. Maybe they were trying new fashions.

"Follow me," he said, turning his back, waddling into the church that had been here forever, one of those white Gothic Revivals with a peaked roof and a brand new paint job. A couple years ago, the church had closed.

I grabbed Melanie by the arm, pulling her close. She smelled like sugar.

"What're we doing here?"

"We're catering, that's what."

"Melanie," I said. "These are, you know." I was not comfortable with this at all.

"I know," she replied. "But it's just a gig, right? Just a job."

"I guess."

"Look," she said. "I need your help. You need the money. You need this job. Now come on."

I hesitated. "Yeah, but," I said.

"You're white. What's the big deal?"

I couldn't believe she said that. "Are you serious?"

"Look," she replied, "I don't really want to be here either, but it's a job and jobs are tough to get. I got two kids to feed."

I glanced down at the floor.

"You got a kid too," she added. "You think it's going to make it any easier to get her back if you're unemployed?"

She just had to rub that in.

We stood there silently. From inside the voices of men happily greeted each other.

Melanie took me by the hand. "All you gotta do," she said, "is ignore where you are. Focus on your job. If we do well, we'll probably get more work."

Melanie had a lot of pull being the head of the Central Catering Association. Everyone in the local business community knew her and she's usually right. She walked inside and I followed.

The day had started shitty: hot and humid with me hungover and having to get up too early on a Saturday. Melanie and I had been working nonstop for the last day, trying to put together this event at the last minute. And, worse, on the drive over, my ex wouldn't let me talk to my daughter on the phone, not even to say hi.

Inside, the church had not been redone: the floors were stained and scuffed, the paint peeled from the walls and whatever sunlight made it through the dirty windows diffused as gray. We stood in a large hall where folding tables had been set up for the food. The air inside already sweltered. No air-conditioning. Not even a breeze. A small group of men in their white sheets gathered in a room to the right. At the back of the hall were a couple smaller rooms with open doors and the kitchen. Past that I could see the hallway lined with two closed doors leading to offices and to the back yard of the church. We'd been told we didn't have to service those rooms.

Melanie walked into the kitchen to start the food prep, leaving me to set up the tables with the table cloths, plates and all the other items. Around the main hall, pictures of men, women and children all in Klan outfits neatly hung on the walls, the histories going back to the 1800s of our county. I knew many of the surnames that accompanied the pictures, those names still evident in the county and our medium-sized town.

I had no idea that this existed right here in the middle of our lives.

But I did as Melanie had asked because she was right about my daughter. I focused on doing a good job, ignoring the rest of it. From our cars, I brought in the last of the food and supplies before I started helping Melanie, adhering to the typed schedule of events that the organizers handed us. Nowhere on it did it reveal who they were.

"Wanna buy a ticket?" I turned around to see a dark-haired woman sitting down behind a table at the entrance of the side room where the other men gathered. She wore a cotton red t-shirt, her long brown hair dangling over one shoulder.

"For what?"

She tapped a scrawled crooked sign on the front of her table: 1 ticket for $5 or 2 tickets for $7. "It's a raffle. To help with the upkeep of our clubhouse."

"This place?"

"Well, yeah." She smiled:  pretty.

"What do I win?"

She pointed to a white Klansman outfit hanging on the wall behind her. "A brand new glory suit."

Is that what they called those things? "Oh," I replied. That's about as much as I needed to know.

"I made it myself," she proudly said. She stood and walked to the front of the table.

Uh huh. "Gotta get back to work."

In her cut-off blue jean shorts, she bent over, her face away from me, as she attempted to straighten her sign.

Must remain focused to get through this particular gig. She sat back down in her chair and turned to me. "Only five dollars," she said in a singsong voice.

I waved to her, returning to the kitchen and setting up the sandwiches on the trays as well as laying out the cheese plates and mixing the Caesar salad.

Melanie came in with another tray and unwrapped more sandwiches: turkey or bologna on white bread with either mayo or mustard. "You're not going to believe it."

"What?"

"I talked to Imperial Wizard Morgan--"

"Melanie." Not in the mood for those kinds of titles.

"Sorry," she replied. "Mr. Morgan said that he was going to tip each of us $200 a piece since we did this on short notice and short staffed."

"Maybe all the caterers before us found out who the party was for."

"C'mon, John," she said, shushing me with her hand. "No attitude. Just because we're here doesn't mean we support them. We're being paid. Okay?"

She had a point. I wasn't advocating the shameful beliefs of these people. I was working a job that I desperately needed so I could get my daughter back.

"Okay," I replied.

"Good," she said. "We need to circulate some drinks." Next to the cheap white wine, she poured glasses of Pinot Noir.

"They're really going to drink this?"

"It's what they asked for," she replied.

"Sure I shouldn't put out some Pabst Blue Ribbon?"

"John."

"So what's the plan?"

"Usual. Circulate the drinks and appetizers. Then the main entrees. They want the cake and coffee for the very end. Some kind of celebration."

I could see why they wanted Melanie to cater the event. She's the best cook in the county. She made everything by hand from her appetizers to her cake. Used to have a brick and mortar but the business didn't make its rent, so she moved it to her house. She had two good kids, daughters eight and ten, who often helped out. My beautiful seven-year-old daughter, Erin, lived with her mom and didn't get to see me often. I figured my ex probably said unkind things about me. I hoped that in time Erin would appreciate me, even though halfway through my 30s, I hadn't done much with my life yet to appreciate.

The afternoon sun heated up the hall and more sheeted people came in. I circulated rounds of Pinot and Chablis. Most of the men and women wore their sheets but without the scary hoods. It was weird but I attempted to do my job as Melanie instructed. Bring around the drinks. Don’t listen. Bring around the food. Don’t look at anyone. Mind your own business. You don’t know them, they don’t know you.

“Hey, John!”

I looked up to see my high school Spanish teacher standing there, his meaty hand wrapped around one of the plastic wine glasses. He’s smiling at me from inside his hoodless Klan sheet.

“Oh, hey, Mr. Booth.” What the hell was Mr. Booth doing here? When I was in high school, he was like the most liberal guy, wearing Shepard Fairey t-shirts and talking about Banksy. He ran our Model UN Club, for Christ’s sake. Now he’s standing here wearing a Klan outfit?

“Still working with Melanie?”

“Yeah, some tough times, but getting better.”

“Oh crap,” he replied. He had spilled Pinot on his white sheet and was trying to blot it with a napkin. “Think this will stain?”

“Uh, I don’t know. Anyway, I better circulate. Tell Mrs. Booth I said hello.” Mrs. Booth was the best. At our cross country meets, she'd play folk songs from the 60s on an acoustic guitar while passing out home-made sandwiches and salads, basically filling in as everyone's second mom.

“Oh she’s here!" He waved to someone across the room. "Betty!"

“I should probably get going,” I said.

“Wait, just say hi.”

Mrs. Booth wore the creepy pillowcase over her head with her white sheet, but the holes for the eyes were neatly cut. She waved to me, saying my name, but I was already moving.

I reached the men's bathroom and shut the door, locking it. The inside still contained an old long community trough and one toilet for the men. I dropped my platter on one of the sinks and leaned against the white tile wall. How could these people I knew be part of this sick hatred? I didn’t get it. It was like being in a nightmare. Or The Twilight Zone. Or just some freaky ass world that suddenly was evil and bad and wrong.

Someone pulled on the door from outside. All right, I had to get my shit together.

“Almost done.” I threw a handful of cold water on my face, washed my hands, and opened the door, trying to sneak past the person without looking.

“Hey.”

I turned. Mr. Morgan, in his purple robe, held out my empty platter. The air smelled of dried sweat.

"Don't forget this. Those finger sandwiches are really good."

"Glad you like them," I muttered under my breath. Grabbing the tray, I returned to the kitchen. Melanie wasn't here so I loaded up more food.

I checked my watch. Only a couple hours to go.

As I made my rounds, I noticed that each room of the church seemed to hold historical objects and that this place was more like a museum than anything else. One room had newspaper clippings, from as far back as the 1800s, spread across the walls. Another room was full of homemade outfits. A room in the back contained pictures of weddings. Actual weddings of the bride and groom wearing Klan outfits. 

Photo after photo, couple after couple. Children too in those outfits too. Holding lollipops and snow cones. Wearing baseball mitts and football helmets. Team pictures from Little League and Pop Warner. It made me dizzy to look at them.

Once my tray was empty, I returned to the kitchen. Melanie stood at the prep table, cutting tomatoes.

"What's wrong?"

I shook my head.

She sighed. "I know this is a terrible organization." She laid out slices of white bread and started spreading mayonnaise across them.

"It's a hate group!"

"Yes," she said, "but if you talk to them, many of them are really nice. You'd never know they were prejudiced."

"Melanie."

"Did you know they joined the Adopt-a-Highway Program?"

Again, loss for words. I shook my head and started to go.

"John, there are some important people here. People who could help you. Could help me. I don't think you should overlook that."

Before I said something unkind, I left the kitchen area and crossed out to the busy main hall. Packed with those white uniforms. Loud from laughter and talk. The air so hot, the sheets looked damp. I kept my head down, passing around my serving platter, not making eye contact, just pushing time to go faster.

"John?"

I knew that voice.

"John, is that you?"

{ looked up. It was my dad.

"Hey," he said happily, sliding over to give me his one-armed hug. "You're making some cash."

Still stunned, I barely nodded.

He grabbed a fried bologna sandwich off the plate. "These are really good." He bit into it and chewed. "I wish I could get Carla to make these."

My father and I lived at opposite ends of this county. He and my mom divorced when I was young, so we didn't really see each other that much. Usually around the Christmas holiday for a few hours. We're not close and he had recently married Carla, whom I'd only met twice.

"What're you doing here?" I whispered.

"Why're you whispering?" he asked.

"For fuck's sake," I said, pulling him over to the wall, away from the others. "Why're you here!?"

"Why're you here?"

"I'm working," I replied.

"I'm working too. Many of the folks here have insurance policies with me."

"So?"

"So I have to hobnob with them."

"Stop trying to justify it, they're --"

He held up a hand, cutting me off. "It's business."

"Is Carla here too?"

"She wanted to come but she had errands to run."

"Why are you wearing that thing?"

"This?" he said, lifting up his sheet. "I'm trying to fit in."

"Why the fuck would you want to fit in?" I tried not to raise my voice but it was tough.

He bent into me, close to my ear. "There are important people here. People who make our town run. People who have money. Many of them are my clients. Understand?"

"Do you really want these kind of people as clients?"

"It's just business. Hey, are you getting a tip for this thing?"

"Yeah, Dad, at the end of it."

"See. They're good people."

I lifted my platter. "I better get back."

"Great idea," he replied. "Mingle. You might meet someone who can offer you a better job."

He was poking at me. A few years ago, he'd offered to start me in the insurance game, but I told him I'd rather be a caterer. He said I was wasting my life.

The room grew hotter, humidity hanging like clouds in the still air. I walked by patches of conversation, on one side of me, on the other, pushing my platter into their groups, into their conversations, as if to say, eat, drink, stuff yourselves until sleep overcomes you, forcing you to yawn and stop your ill words and feelings and go home, all of you go home, let me go, just let me go. I made one round after another after another as if to speed up time and surrender me.

“Can I get a drink?”

I turned to see the pretty woman who had been running the raffle. Without thinking, I checked her ring finger to see if she was married and then felt ashamed. No wedding band. I extended the platter to her so she could choose from either red or white wine. She chose white.

"Fiona," she said, pointing at herself.

"John," I replied.

She downed the wine and switched her empty glass for a full one. “Bet you didn’t imagine you’d be here today.”

Her question caught me off guard. “No,” I said, shaking my head.

“What a bunch of fucking rednecks, huh?” She widened her eyes and half-smiled, making me laugh. I wasn’t expecting that. Nor did I know if she was fucking with me or sincerely meant that.

“What’s your story, John?”

“I should probably keep rotating.”

Over her shoulder, I saw my father talking to another couple. He looked over at me and nodded. I looked back to Fiona.

“How’d you end up with this gig?”

“When the phone company did their last round of layoffs, I bit it in that one. Melanie, my boss, was an old friend so she’s been helping me out.”

“I had some friends who got laid off. Sucks.”

“Yeah. What about you?”

“Work over at the mall. I sell clothes but I really like making them.”

“Oh yeah.”

“You single?”

Another surprise question. Fiona was forward. “Divorced,” I replied.

“Yeah me too. Kids?”

“I have a daughter.”

“Let me see.”

Taking out my phone, I punched into my pictures and showed her a recent one of Erin, who in the picture wore her favorite blue dress with the yellow flowers.

I'd bought her that dress one day when we'd gone to see an animated movie she was excited about. The dress in the shop window caught her eye. Erin got this big smile on her face and I said honey, let me buy it. But she said no. I think she said no because she knew Daddy didn't have any money. I teased her about trying it on and she was "Really, Father," which was what she called me in a fake English accent as if she's appalled. But she tried it on. It fit perfectly and I charged it. We skipped the movie because she wanted to wear her dress in the bright sun. We bought chocolate chip cookies and sat in the park. One of our best days ever.

“Aw, she’s cute.” Fiona grabbed another drink.

“Yeah,” I replied.

The conversation stalled. I didn’t want to tell Fiona it was incredibly hard to see my daughter because her mother thought I was a loser. After I had lost the job with the phone company, I couldn’t find work. My ex declared that I was a failure and didn’t want to be married to me any longer since the money was running out. She herself refused to work and started dating a big-time lawyer in town. That’s when it got hard to see my little girl. I think Erin missed me but I always worried that maybe she really didn’t. That her new stepdad bought her enough things to keep her busy. I once threatened to take them to court so I could see Erin every other weekend. The lawyer and my ex laughed me off. He said he welcomed the challenge if I could ever afford it. Last time I saw Erin, she called me a waiter, giggling, emulating her mother. It hurt but I didn’t let her know.

Fiona drank the rest of her wine and placed the empty glass on my serving tray.

“Hope I see you before you leave," she said, heading back to her table.

The room had turned dark from the dying sunlight, and one of the sheets flicked on the overhead florescent lights, adding a jarring paleness to the room. I checked my watch. Less than an hour to go.

Returning to the kitchen area, I started the coffee maker. I threw together the rest of the sandwiches because I wasn't going to be involved with this place longer than I had to be. Tossed out the remaining salad in order to shorten the amount I had to serve. I'd handle the rest of the service on my own because Melanie would be out schmoozing the crowd. That's where future jobs came from.

After this round, I could stay in the kitchen and clean up except for the coffee and cake serving, which was last. As I circulated, I knew more of the people here. Mayor Grove and some local business owners. There were even a few couples from the church we went to when I was a kid. People I'd seen around town; if you told me their names, I would know them. Except the redheaded woman across the room I once had a one-night stand with; I turned away so she didn't see me. But most of these folks had money. Most of them I knew from growing up here.

I wasn't ready for that.

A tall man in a business suit approached me. He looked out of place. Thick black hair, full of product, puffed up birdlike across his head. His suit resonated expensive:  pinstripe, with a white kerchief in the breast pocket. He wore the shiniest black shoes, so polished they almost reflected light. On his lapel, right above the white kerchief, sat a little white and red KKK pin. I didn’t know they even made pins but I wasn’t surprised.

“You John?” He had a good voice, silky, a voice that probably never had to be raised or challenged because it carried him along. Also, he was a good-looking guy and those types always had it easier in the world.

“Yes, sir. What’ll you have?”

“I’m good, thanks,” he replied. “I heard you might need my help.”

Confused, I shook my head. “You must have the wrong person.”

“No,” he said. “I talked to your dad.” He handed a business card to me. Lawyer for the biggest firm in town. “I heard you needed some help spending more time with your daughter.”

I wish my father would mind his own fucking business. “I’m okay.”

“That’s not what I heard. I can help you. You would like to see your daughter more, right?”

“Of course.”

“Call me then. We’ll set up an appointment and talk about your options.”

“Pretty sure I can’t afford you.”

“Yes, you can. It’s free.”

“Uh, there's nothing free in this world."

Fatherly, he laid a manicured hand on my shoulder. “Let’s just say I owe your dad a few favors, and this is a way to pay some back.”

I wanted to say no. I really did but I was caught. To see Erin. On a regular basis. That would mean everything to me. To be part of her life again. To be her dad again.  I looked up at him. His smile was large, greasy. He had a mouth that could eat anything, that could devour the world and vomit it up without any concern. I wanted to punch this guy more than anything else. I wanted to call him what I thought he was, to express my outrage and hatred of who these people were, what they represented, at the evil that dirtied their insides and my town and my country. I wanted to tell him to fuck off.

But I didn’t say anything. I stared at his card. At the fancy address. I knew he helped these racists out of the legal trouble they ran into. I knew he could also help me. That he could get my ex to stop holding my daughter a hostage. That I deserved to see her. So I didn’t say no. And I didn’t say any of those things to him either.

“You think about it,” he said. “Call me next week.” He walked away. Didn’t even look back.

His white card in my hand.

I returned to the kitchen and threw away the remaining sandwiches, shoving them deep into a black garbage bag, along with the leftover fruit salad. The crowd started to drain out of the main room, heading down the hallway to the door that led to the back yard. I checked my watch. It was almost the time for cake and coffee while they did their last event. I grabbed two trays of mugs and crossed the hall. As I walked down the hallway, I realized there were two doors and I grabbed for the door on the right.

I thought the door led outside. It did not.

It led to another room. A small room with white-painted wood walls. A wall with a burnished sign at the top, near the ceiling, a sign that said "AmeriKKKa."

It only took a few seconds really. A few seconds of spinning around to try to figure out where I was but I got the images. I got all of them. They blasted into my head as if from a shotgun.

The things in this room were from terrible times. Parts of ropes and nooses. Awful items related to innocent African-American men hanging from trees, their clothes torn, their bodies burned, while white men stood smiling with arms around each other as if at a barbecue, white men with their wives and wide-eyed children, all smiling, some laughing. In a display case hung the worst thing, something I never thought I'd see in my life, brittle and desiccated, mostly bone with some remaining hair and skin.

I dropped to my knees and tried not to see but it was too late.

A seepage of warm bile slid into my mouth. The trays fell from my hands, spilling the coffee mugs across the floor. My hand covered my mouth, trying to force down the bile. I wanted to bash the display case, the walls, this entire room with one of the cheap black trays, knock it all down, knock down the garbage on it, and stomp whatever was left into pieces under my black work boots.

But Erin, my daughter.

Instead, I picked up the fallen coffee cups and placed them on the trays. I walked back into the hallway, keeping my head down, my eyes averted, downward, shamed.

I knew if I left, Melanie would never hire me again, no matter the circumstances.

I walked to the other door and opened it, moving outside to a back yard filled with dandelions and daisies, the grass high and wild, and a circle of orange light, flickering and alive.   

They were burning a cross.

This was their concluding coffee and dessert activity. This. The fire light hurt my eyes, so alive and orange and menacing. In the crowd of white, I witnessed friends and family. I saw my father and my teachers and others that I knew or thought I knew. People I never thought I'd see at something like this. And here I was benefiting from it as well.

Setting down my trays next to the house, I turned away. I walked to the side, heading up the driveway to the parked cars. I looked at them as I passed, gazing in the windows at the usual belongings of families, and finally finding what I needed: my old blue Ford. I opened the door, dug my key out of my pocket and started the car. I wouldn't get my tip but that wasn't important anymore. I had saved two of Melanie's chocolate chip cookies for my dinner, but I decided to go to my ex's place, see my daughter, and share a cookie with her.

I drove onto the main road, away from the church with the burning cross. I loosened my apron, flipping it from around my neck and realized I still had the lawyer's business card in my pocket. I dug it out, staring at it. The wind grabbed onto the card, threatening to take it, as I held it lightly between my fingers, trembling, a white flash disappearing into the darkness.

 

 

Ron Burch's fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including Mississippi Review, Eleven Eleven, PANK, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Bliss Inc., his debut novel, was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles.

 

Edited for Unlikely by dan raphael, Prose Editor
Last revised on Monday, July 2, 2018 - 11:34