Joyland

The Midwest |

Klan

by Heather Sappenfield

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

Elijah flung himself on his bed, jammed his hands behind his head, and stared at the double-winged models of WWI fighter planes hanging from his ceiling. He imagined their propellers spinning, strained to hear their engines’ whine. He imagined the little planes snapping free of their strings, buzzing down the stairs in formation, and into the kitchen. They’d drop little bombs until his parents shut up and slumped to the floor.

The doorbell rang.

Elijah grabbed his slingshot from its place on his nightstand and shoved it in his jeans’ pocket. He flew down the stairs and flung open the door. Bobby stepped in.

“Let’s get out of here.” Elijah reached in the closet, yanked his sweatshirt off its hanger, and tugged it on. His parents appeared in the hall beside his framed preschool silhouette. His dad’s plastic smile and his mom’s trembling one made his stomach lurch. Did they think he didn’t know they fought? How dumb did could they be?

“Where are you going?” his dad said. Elijah remembered that voice booming from the kitchen: Did not!

“The mountain,” Elijah said.

“I don’t know about this,” his mom said.

“He’s in fourth grade. Give him some freedom,” his dad said.

When they reached the sidewalk, Bobby said, “Fighting again?”

Elijah scowled at the canopy of autumn leaves. “My house is World War I.”

“Sorry, dude.”

Elijah shrugged. “Why couldn’t I have gotten your family? It’s not fair.”

Bobby said nothing.

“My family sucks!” Elijah knew sucks would drive his parents crazy. The way his chin jabbed down as he said it felt great. They ambled to their street’s end: a parking lot against a low, treeless mountain, crowned with cliff bands.

“Your dad builds those cool model airplanes with you.”

“Used to.” Elijah couldn’t remember the last time his family had done something fun. He picked up a dime-sized rock and shoved it in his pocket. As he started up a trail, he slapped a sign that read South Table Mountain Open Space, with rules in smaller print beneath. “Let’s go to Castle Rock.”

“Okay.” Bobby fell in behind him.

They walked swiftly but paused to fill their pockets with rocks and let pass a runner and two panting yellow labs. When they reached the tabletop expanse, Elijah inhaled its smell of yellow grass and baking dirt.

“Hey, check it out! Our houses are the same,” Bobby said.

Elijah looked from his house to Bobby’s across the street, saw their same two stories with garages angled off the ends, the rest of their block’s one story homes. How had he not noticed this?

“My mom is nervous about us being alone, too,” Bobby said.

Elijah grinned at Bobby, but a wave of jitters rocked him back on his heels. He blinked and started down the trail. Ms. Schwartz, their teacher, jogged toward them. A dark-haired man in sunglasses jogged behind her like a secret agent, and a floppy-eared, brown-and-white dog trotted alongside. Ms. Schwartz’s cheeks were rosy, and she smiled, and she was different from at school.

“Morning, boys,” she said. She and the man stepped off the trail, sending grasshoppers in clacking flight. “Are you up here by yourselves?”

Bobby nodded. “Our moms said it was okay.”

“We’re not babies,” Elijah said.

“No, you’re not.” She and the man smiled at each other. It occurred to Elijah as she began down, dark ponytail swinging, the man following two steps behind, that Ms. Schwartz had a happy life outside school. He broke into a run.

“Do you think she’s pretty?” Bobby said, catching up.

Elijah shoved away forming Ms. Schwartz in his mind that way.

“I think she’s pretty,” Bobby said. “Kinda looks like your mom.”

“Shut up!” Elijah ran faster.

Castle Rock was the largest of the outcroppings along this west side of the mountain. From town, it resembled a fortress. Breaths heavy, the boys ascended it on worn concrete stairs. Yesterday, Ms. Schwartz had taught them that in the 1910s, coming here to Golden, far then from Denver, was like taking a little vacation. A cable car hauled visitors up to Castle Rock. There had been a tea-room, a dance hall pavilion, a casino, and an observatory. Elijah had stopped listening: this place belonged to Bobby and him. The rusted rods poking out from the rock face were just guns for their games. Elijah climbed the last step and gazed across Golden, down to the Coors Brewery along Clear Creek and the grid of new houses, sprawling toward Boulder.

“Sucks!” Elijah yelled. “Sucks! Sucks! Sucks!” He imagined his voice as an atomic wave stretching over town, shaking his two-story house until a chunk of kitchen ceiling fell on his battling parents.

Bobby scampered down the stairs to the rock’s base. He took out his slingshot and sent sailing a rock, watched it drop down the mountainside. Elijah joined him, pulled out his slingshot, did the same. A hawk soared past, its feathers navigating the wind like played piano keys.

“Awesome!” Elijah said.

“Wish I could do that,” Bobby said.

A crow winged near, and the boys lined it in their sights and shot. The crow dodged up, and their rocks collided. They laughed. They shot again, but even after seventeen tries, could only get their rocks to make Xs in the sky. Elijah ran out of rocks, so he kicked around the cliff’s base to uncover one in this space they’d scoured so often. Something emerged from the dirt, and he kicked until a stick popped out. It was twice as long as his hand, and he rubbed off the dirt on his jeans. It became light wood burned down one side. Bobby traced the stick’s black-and-tan seam with his dark but light-palmed hand.

“Ms. Schwartz told us everything burned in a fire,” Bobby said.

“No way that fire was over here.”

Bobby shrugged.

“Look how it’s a corner on this side. And this hole; bet it’s from a nail. This was part of something!”

“Uh-huh,” Bobby said. “What are you doing?”

The stick smelled like dirt. “Nothing.” Elijah scrambled to Castle Rock’s top. He pointed toward some concrete ruins they messed around in sometimes. “That must have been the dance hall and the restaurant. Where was the other stuff?” Elijah peered about. “Maybe a guy carried a piece of a burning building. Or, I know, a burning board fell on a guy, and he freaked and ran right off the cliff!”

Elijah loped to the ruin. He lifted his arms, screamed, and sprinted, hunched over, like something was stuck on his back, right to Castle Rock’s edge. He screamed across the city, watched his scream settle on his house.

Bobby stepped beside him. “Ms. Schwartz said things were abandoned.”

“What’s abandoned?”

“Weren’t you listening?”

Elijah shrugged.

“Nobody used it anymore.”

“Still. How’d this get over here?” Elijah held out the stick.

“Think that was her boyfriend?”

“Shut up.”

“Think your mom and dad will get divorced?”

“Shut up.”

“When you yell, my fingers tingle.”

They stared at the toy world.

“All that cool stuff up here. Gone. It’s not fair.” Elijah said.

After a while, Bobby said, “I’m hungry for lunch. Let’s go home.”

Elijah rubbed his thumb over the stick. “Okay,” he said. “But let’s eat at your house.”

*

At dinner, Elijah’s mom set down the meatloaf and sat at one end of the table. His dad sat at the other. There were two ladder-backed chairs on each side between them, and Elijah occupied one, head pressing against the second of three rungs. His mom passed him the meatloaf, and he took a slice. His dad passed him the mashed potatoes, and he took a scoop.

“Help yourself to green beans, Eli,” his mom said.

“I don’t like beans,” he said.

“Eat them,” his dad said.

They ate.

“Napkin, Eli,” his mom said.

“Posture, son,” his dad said.

His parents seemed in a nagging contest. He stared at his plate.

“What did you do on the mountain today?” His dad smiled, and gray in the hair at his temples made Elijah blink.

He shrugged. “Shot slingshots.”

“You didn’t kill anything, did you?” His mom’s dark hair was pulled into a bun, and Elijah thought it made her look cross.

“No. Hey!” he said. “Do you know anything about fires up there?”

“Fires?” she said. “Well―okay―there was that dance hall that burned down. In the twenties, I think.”

“Was it abandoned?” Elijah said.

“It―”

“Sort of,” his dad said, “the KKK had taken over the grounds and were having rallies and burning―”

“Jerry!” his mom whispered.

“What?” His dad boomed.

“Eli’s not one of your college students. He’s not ready for that.”

“For what?” Elijah said.

“Sure he is,” his dad said.

“He is not,” his mom whispered.

“Sure I am!” Elijah said.

“No, you’re not.”

“He’s not a baby!”

“Think of Bobby,” she whispered. “Let Eli get through elementary school without knowing things like that.”

“Like what?” Elijah said. Bobby got everything.

“Like hate,” his dad said, and his parents glared at each other.

Elijah pushed back from their bullet gaze. He shot to his feet, and his chair clattered against the floor. “Sucks!” He tripped in his napkin, marched up the stairs, and slammed his bedroom door.

*

Elijah and Bobby trailed their class down the hall. Elijah could not hold both this school Ms. Schwartz and the rosy-cheeked one in his mind at once, so he smacked the lever of a drinking fountain, and an arc of water shot out and almost hit Bobby before it splashed on the linoleum. They sniggered.

“Bobby,” Ms. Schwartz said, “beside me, please.”

The boys exchanged a glance, and Bobby moved through the other fourth-graders to Ms. Schwartz’s side.

Elijah pulled the stick from his pocket and rubbed it. Eight days he’d been rubbing it, forming a callous on his thumb and a sheen down that seam. Each night, it lay an inch from his alarm clock, in his slingshot’s V, and he’d fall asleep, watching that stick rather than his planes. One night, he’d tasted it, and it tasted like nothing. Was that abandoned’s taste? Or maybe time’s flavor? He’d tasted his arm, and it tasted almost the same. He’d bet Bobby tasted like cookies or cake or something his mom baked.

Ms. Schwartz opened the computer lab’s door and held it as her class entered.

“What have you got there, Elijah?” she said as he walked through.

“A stick.”

“May I see it?”

Elijah hesitated and held it out.

“It’s been burned. Is it special?”

Elijah shrugged. “I found it at Castle Rock.”

Ms. Schwartz’s eyes lit. “Really? May I hold it?”

Elijah didn’t move.

“That’s okay, you don’t have to,” she said.

He handed it to her, and she held it up to the fluorescent lights. She did look like his mom, except younger, and this made him sad.

“Do you think it’s from the dance hall fire?” she said.

“It was at the bottom of Castle Rock. On the downhill part.”

“Hmmm. I suppose a dog could have carried it over there. Or someone could have thrown it. Or a demolition team could have dispersed some of the rubble―”

“Or the KKK?” Elijah said.

Ms. Schwartz gave him a piercing look and glanced at Bobby. “Do you know about them?” She handed back the stick.

“They took over the dance hall and stuff.”

“And stuff,” she said. “You’ll learn about them in middle school. Today, let’s focus on our Colorado history reports. What was your topic?”

“The gold rush at Cherry Creek.”

“That’s a good one; the start of Denver,” she gestured toward the computers and moved toward Mary Shipp’s waving hand.

Elijah took a seat at the back, beside Bobby.

“Elijah,” Ms. Schwartz said, “please move to another seat.”

The boys rolled their eyes, and Elijah moved over three seats. He balanced the stick on his thigh. He peeked around and typed KKK into the search engine.
“Holy cow!” he said at the number of sites that popped up, and he scrolled to the Wikipedia one and clicked on it, wishing his mom would listen to his dad and let him have a computer at home. A photo appeared of men in white capes and white conical hoods, standing below a huge cross that flamed against ebony sky. Elijah caught his breath and leaned forward. Many of the men held smaller, burning crosses. He read the article’s heading Ku Klux Klan, and his eyes skimmed over the blue-highlighted words in the text underneath: far-right, reactionary, white supremacy, white nationalism, terrorism, hate group. He understood only the last two. Ms. Schwartz approached, so he typed in gold rush and hit enter. She touched his shoulder and walked on.

Jitters tickled down Elijah’s spine as he typed in KKK again. He clicked on another site, and another nighttime photo of men in white capes and hoods appeared. They looked powerful and held torches as they stood beneath a black man in overalls and a white shirt, who dangled by his neck from a tree. Elijah flushed at the intersection of the rope’s line with the loll of the man’s head. Elijah closed the site and slouched back. He studied Bobby, who hunched forward, lips moving as he read the monitor. Elijah saw Bobby in that noose, his head curving in that unnatural way. He blinked and swallowed and jitters climbed back up his throat. He cleared it.

“Elijah?” Ms. Schwartz said.

“Sorry,” Elijah leaned to the keyboard. He typed in KKK Tabel Mountin. He clicked on the most promising site and found a series of photos. The first was of a parade of those white capes and hoods, marching along a Denver street. Another was of men in white, standing over a car with a number on its side and a body and wheels like his WWI planes. Behind them towered full grandstands. The next photo was of a huge crowd, seated on folding chairs, some in white, many in suits. A cross burned before them. Elijah read, Klan gathering at Kastle Mountain, 1925. Ms. Schwartz moved to assist Bobby, so Elijah skimmed down, saw Table Mountain. He read The Klan came to power in Colorado as a response to uncertainties and perceived moral laxity after WWI. For a time, Colorado had a Klan-backed mayor, governor, senator, and chief of police. He read the words Grand Dragon, Ms. Schwartz rose, and he closed the site. He slouched back, barely grasping its meaning, but rubbed the stick and pictured his and Bobby’s houses from the mountain. He glanced at Bobby and whispered, “Awesome.”

For the rest of the period, Elijah visited gold-rush sites, but did not see them. When their class lined up to leave, Bobby stood beside him, and Ms. Schwartz pursed her lips but let him stay. Bobby grinned at Elijah, but Elijah didn’t respond. All he saw was white hoods and flames and the power he would wield over both their families.

*

Elijah climbed the linen closet’s first shelf and gripped the third. He reached for but could not see the sheets on the top shelf. He groped down the cool, folded fabric to the stack’s bottom, white one. He tugged, but the sheets above were heavy, so he leaned out to gain leverage. He pulled, and the sheet slid.

“Yes!”

The back of the shelf he stood on rocketed up, clapped against the one above, and dumped light bulb boxes in soft collisions on the carpet. His feet spun air. The shelf he hung from rocketed up, too, and blankets avalanched onto Elijah’s head. He banged onto his back as light bulbs crunched under his sneakers.

“Elijah?” His mom ran up the stairs. “Elijah! What have you done?” She pulled back the blankets and hugged him. She felt along his legs, his back, his arms as he bawled. “Where does it hurt, baby?” She stroked his hair, and he inhaled her forgotten lilac smell and burrowed against her. Her humming vibrated his cheek. His crying slowed, and she looked around.

“What on earth were you doing, Eli?”

He’d forgotten about the sheet, and he scrabbled for one good lie. “Nothing.” He saw himself from above, heard his mom say baby. He bolted up and wiped his nose and eyes, wiped the wet on his jeans.

His mom pressed her lips. Behind her lay the sheet, opened to the first fold. Elijah rolled onto his hands and knees. His back throbbed. A burning smell drifted up the stairs.

“Oh!” She spun up and hustled down. “I’ll be right back.”

Elijah grabbed the sheet and crabbed to his room. With his arm, he swiped her good sewing scissors, tape, and stapler from his dresser into the sheet and stuffed it into his underwear drawer. He lunged onto his bed as she ascended the stairs.

“You okay, baby?” She stroked his hair.

“I’m okay.”

“What were you doing?”

He shrugged and rubbed the stick.

Her eyes narrowed. “By dinner, I want an answer. Afterward, you can help me clean that up.”

He didn’t say anything, and she left.

“Mom?”

She appeared in the doorway. “Yes?”

“Could you not call me baby?”

Her smile trembled as she nodded.

When Elijah heard her bang pots in the kitchen, he shot to the floor, pulled a model plane box from beneath his bed, and flattened it, then rolled it into a cone. He coated the seam with tape. He folded a corner of the sheet into a triangle and cut it. He estimated where his eyes would go and cut holes. He stapled the seam together. Balancing the cone on his head, he pulled the hood over it. He squinted through the sheet and saw in his dresser’s mirror that the eye holes were on his cheeks.

“Dang!” he said.

He measured with his finger and thumb the distance from the holes to his eyes. He pulled off the hood and set the cone on his dresser. On the floor, he measured and enlarged the holes. He balanced the cone on his head again and slid the hood over it.

“Ah, man!” The eyeholes stretched from his cheeks to his hairline, and the airplane from the box showed through. He yanked off the hood, and the staples sealing it caught and snagged a clump of his yellow hair. “Jerk!” He rubbed the back of his head.

He sighed and put the hood back on. He turned it to the side, pinched out the fabric over his eyes, and snipped little marks there. He took off the hood and cut out the eyes.

This time, when he put it on, he looked just like the photos, if you didn’t notice the staples running down one side, the looping holes down the other, and the ghostly airplane above. He felt powerful. No baby, he stood as erect as a superhero. He held out his hands, pretended to drop something, and said, “Boom!”

*

Bobby’s mom answered the door, and music drifted out. “Come in, Eli. Your favorite chocolate-chip cookies just came out of the oven.”

As he followed her, Eli looked around this hallway he’d seen all his life for clues that they were black people, yet their house just smelled good, like always. He avoided the framed preschool silhouette that matched the one in his hall.

Bobby didn’t look up from his seat at the table. He chewed and took a swig of milk.

“Say hello, Bobby,” his mom said.

“Hello, Bobby,” he said.

She blew out her breath. “Not in my house.”

“Hello, Eli,” Bobby said, without looking at him.

“Hey,” Elijah said.

“Milk?” Bobby’s mom said, opening the refrigerator.

“No, thanks. Can I take some cookies?” he said. “I’m going to Castle Rock.”

Bobby glanced at Elijah and his backpack.

“Sure,” Bobby’s mom said, and she swayed and hummed with the music.

Elijah studied her dark hands as they wrapped four cookies in a paper towel, sealed them in a sandwich bag, and for a terrible second, guilt almost made him barf.

Bobby just chewed.

Elijah searched inside himself, found how he felt when his parents argued, and straightened.

“Get up and go with him, Bobby,” his mom said.

“But he’s been―”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

Bobby sighed. He rose and glowered down the hall.

From the kitchen, Bobby’s mom called, “You two work out whatever’s going on!”

A crisp wind tossed leaves along the gutter. They passed the end of the neighborhood, the Table Mountain sign, and started up the trail. Bobby paused to collect rocks, but Elijah kept walking. He waited at the top and looked down on their houses.

“No ammo?” Bobby said. “What’s in your backpack?”

“A surprise.”

Bobby eyed him. “You’re weird lately, dude. I’m not going if it’s not a good surprise.”

“It’s good.”

They climbed the stairs to Castle Rock. The breeze sped up its face and whipped Elijah’s hair.

“Okay,” Bobby said. “What’s the surprise?”

“Sit there,” Elijah said, “and no peeking.”

Bobby sat, cross-legged, right at the edge. “Am I gonna like it?” he said over his shoulder. He pulled his slingshot from his back pocket and shot a rock.

Elijah yanked out the hood and robe and slid them on. He eased out a cross made from a ruler with the stick glued across and, turning his back to the wind, tried to light it. He had imagined it would burst into flame like the photos, but the ruler simply blackened where the flame licked it.

“Hey,” Bobby said, “this is taking forever.”

Elijah shoved the lighter in his pocket. He stepped to Bobby and held up the cross. His stomach somersaulted like when they’d made prank phone calls and the police station had answered. He said nothing, but Bobby sensed his nearness and turned. Bobby shot to his feet. “That’s not funny!”

Elijah grinned. He lifted the cross higher. “I am the Grand Dragon!”     

“What are you doing?”

“I am the Ku Klux Klan!”

Bobby was supposed to cower, or run. Instead he rolled his eyes. “Duh!”        

“You heard of  ’em?”

“Of course, idiot!”

“Idiot?” Elijah swung the cross, but Bobby dodged it. Elijah swung again. Bobby frowned so hard Elijah was reminded of the hanged man’s neck, and he froze. Bobby’s mouth drew to a line, and he clobbered Elijah, right below the eye holes. Elijah stumbled back two steps, touched his nose and found red, took a third, and felt only air. Bobby lunged and caught the hood as Elijah plummeted out of it. Elijah caught its other end and banged against the rock, pain lighting his back, as the cross split against the ground. One of the protruding rods tore his jeans and slashed his ankle. Elijah yelped. Wet dribbled down his thigh. He looked up, and Bobby disappeared but yanked on the hood.

“Climb!” Bobby yelled.

Elijah swung his feet till he got them flat against the rock. His ankle seared, and his foot felt smeary in his sneaker. Arms screaming, he climbed the hood. The model-plane box crumpled in his grip. His face cleared the cliff, and he got his palms on the top and levered up while Bobby pulled his torso, rolling him onto his back.

They collapsed, panting.

Elijah wiped his eyes and nose on the robe. The wind chilled his ankle and pant leg. His back throbbed.

“Why?” Bobby said.

Clouds scudded past. A grasshopper clacked, blown sideways, and landed near Elijah’s hand. He pictured Bobby’s mom sliding cookies into the bag, and his stomach lurched. Bobby would tell his mom and Bobby’s mom would tell his mom, just like he’d planned, and now that was the worst thing ever.

“Nothing’s fair.” The world seemed to flatten him, and he imagined he’d never move again. “How’d you know the KKK?” He whined but did not care. “My parents wouldn’t tell. I was too little. And Ms. Schwartz―”

“I’m black, dummy!”

“So!”

“So? You try it!”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Right, retard! What were you gonna do? Hang me?”

Elijah blinked and swallowed and felt even flatter and sick. “I just wanted to scare you and make everybody mad.”

“Scare me? You ruined everything!”

“Everything’s already ruined.” Elijah sat up and scowled at his house. “World War I! Sucks! Sucks! Sucks!”  

Bobby sat up. “You talking to me?”

“No.” Elijah dropped his streaked hands into his lap and studied the right’s callous. “You were my best friend.”

The hood lay between them, and the robe flapped against Elijah’s chest. Bobby shot a rock. A crow approached, and he shot, but it squawked and dodged up. “I’m never going to hit those.”

Below, Elijah’s mom strode to Bobby’s house, like she did almost every day. Elijah remembered her lilac smell, her trembling smile. “Why does stuff have to change?” The stick’s taste rose on his tongue.

Bobby shook his head. “Don’t self-destruct, just because your parents are. Besides, you could come live at my house.” He sighed. “I’m hungry. Get out those cookies.”

“My ankle.” Elijah held it up.

Bobby crawled over and examined it. “Dude, that’s bad.”

“It really hurts.”

“Good,” Bobby said. “You deserve it.”

Elijah almost blurted, “Do not!” but it sounded like a baby. “Okay,” he said.

Bobby tied the hood’s dry side around Elijah’s ankle. “You smell funny.” He glanced at Elijah’s wet leg but said nothing. He rose, casting Elijah in shadow.

Elijah smelled something metallic, realized a poke against his thigh, and pulled out the cracked lighter, lifted it on his palm.

“For lighting that stupid cross?” Bobby frowned. A hawk swooped over them and beyond the cliff. It caught an updraft and spiraled toward the clouds. “Awesome!” Bobby said, turning, and leaned into the wind, arms out, fingers moving like he played the piano.

Elijah squinted at Bobby’s silhouette. He remembered preschool, where they’d traced the outlines of each other’s faces on black construction paper, cut them out, and pasted them on bright, Mother’s Day backgrounds. They’d switched their pictures, and never told. It came to Elijah that their moms had known all along, and he grinned.