The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 6, No. 1

The Golden Chariot

by Andrea Lee

A musical comedy, or traveling minstrel show, starring a middle-class American Negro family and their brand-new 1962 metallicized Rambler Classic. All of them headed on an epic summer-vacation trip across America, from Philadelphia to the Seattle World’s Fair.

August 3-24, 1962

EARL B. HARMON, Ed.D., a high-school principal
GRACE HARMON, his wife, elementary-schoolteacher
WALKER HARMON, their son, a college freshman
RICHIE HARMON, their second son, age fourteen
MAUD HARMON, their daughter, age ten

No gospel, Dixieland, bebop, do-wop, ragtime, Delta blues, rhythm and blues, Memphis sound, Philly Soul, or Motown. Just 1962 summer AM middle-of-the-dial radio. Especially three songs: “Portrait of My Love,” by Steve Lawrence; “Things (We Used to Do),” by Bobby Darin; and “Sealed with a Kiss,” by Brian Hyland. These songs play over and over again, fading in and out of the pebbly roar of static that joins cities and towns, ranchland and mountains. The static is the real music.

Scene I

Sunrise. Somewhere heading away from Philadelphia on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. DR. EARL HARMON is driving the Rambler while the rest of the family sleeps around him. The roadsides in the burgeoning light are dense with Virginia creeper, and the speeding car shines like molten gold. The peaceful hills are dotted with black-and-white Mennonite cows.

DR. HARMON: Oh, it’s the AAA that gives us the bedrock of security, the courage to take this leap. American Automobile Association. The name inspires confidence. All those A’s, like the NAACP. The opposite of the KKK. The AAA guidebook tells us that it includes only hotels, motels, inns, TraveLodges, campsites, and guesthouses where, and I quote, no discrimination is made according to race, color, or creed. And there you are, there’s the whole country open to us, like one big guesthouse. They can’t slam the door in your face if they’re in the guide.
     Avoiding humiliation, that’s been the thing. I’m roughly the color of Gandhi, but I would never go around in sandals and a diaper or flop down and let some Mississippi cracker spit on me. Oh, I went down to Birmingham because it was the right thing to do, but I kept well in the middle of the ranks as we marched along down streets lined with what looked like zoo animals to me. It was really just Southern white folks, offering their famous hospitality. They were howling for nigger blood, but it wasn’t going to be mine. I made sure I was protected by a solid wall of sharecroppers, and then later I headed up a first-aid station where we treated the minor wounds of confrontation, my smooth brown hands on my simpler brothers’ work-roughened skin. Ebony published a photo of me wearing a Red Cross armband, my brilliantined hair rippling back like Desi Arnaz’s, an old black Alabama church deacon staring at me like I was the savior of the world.
     Not everyone has to confront. I swallowed enough humiliation for a lifetime in Philadelphia when Mordecai Jackson and I were the first colored students at Central High, and they used to take fresh shit, I suppose it was their own, and put it in our lockers, in our desks, in our lunch bags, in our gym suits. Months of shit. There were some white boys with prolific intestines in that school, or maybe they bought it by the pound.
     Now I live in a suburb where I don’t have to smell shit unless they’re spreading in on a lawn, in a five-bedroom fieldstone Colonial that the slick Irish realtor who was busy changing the neighborhood gave away to me for eighteen thousand the way he gave houses away to Hobell Butler and Melvin Duran and all the other Negro dentists and judges and preachers and doctors who left the old Philadelphia row-house neighborhoods to the poor niggers from the South. We’re in a greener ghetto, and we like the walls. My oldest boy is in a good Protestant college, and the other two are on scholarship in private school, and my wife doesn’t have to work if she doesn’t want to. Education and integration are the keys to the future, as I tell the seniors at my school; and my kids have the future unlocked, with ushers handing them in.
     It’s time to give them the biggest present: the country. Not the South, where the air stinks of barbecued black flesh, but the West, the direction the covered wagons rolled. And in a gold car that’s not one of those niggerish Cadillacs or Lincolns, but a Rambler, begotten by American Motors. Discreet luxury, one of the new metallic paint jobs, and a padded dash. Praise the Lord, as my mother would say, we are rolling toward the Pacific in a sort of temple, elect, protected under the signs of American Motors and AAA. Safe, as usual. Safe.

Scene II

Route 2, along the southern edge of Lake Michigan, between Sault Sainte Marie and Ironwood, Michigan. About three in the afternoon of the third day. Beyond fields and woods come occasional glimpses of the lake in dry brilliant sunshine. MAUD HARMON, in the backseat opens her mouth in the air rushing in from the front, and lets the wind dry her tongue.

MAUD: A good thing about this trip is the bottle caps. Coca-Cola is having a contest in honor of the World’s Fair and what they do is print a picture of a different city of the world in each bottle cap—you just peel the cork, and there it is: Bangkok, Paris, Amsterdam. Whenever we stop at a gas station, I dash over to the Coke machine and worm my hand down into the hole where the caps drop down after people open their Cokes. I’m lucky I have skinny hands. I have dozens of bottle caps now, my pockets rattle. I have all the countries now except Brazil and Denmark, they didn’t print any of Russia because they’re Communists. It’s for a contest, but I don’t think about that, I just like having all those cities. I like things that make you think about anything far away, whether it’s other countries or millions of years ago. Among the books I brought with me is one about Marco Polo and another about digging up fossil men in Africa. Another is Ivanhoe. Sometimes I dream that I’m flying over the heads of my mother and father and brothers, gone somewhere else. They’re sad but I’m not.
     There was a big storm last night, which was our second night away from home. We were in a town called Mackinaw, which is a name that makes me think of old fish and worn-out raincoats, in a white little house that was part of a sort of motel near Lake Huron where the floor, if the three of us kids stood in one place, caved in about five inches, and where we had to wash the plates in the kitchen part before we ate dinner. Mom fixed minute steaks and corn on the cob and sliced tomatoes and the wind howled like a ghost story and the house shook like a giant was slapping it back and forth and I was disappointed that the roof didn’t blow off.
     In the morning I went outside before anybody else and met a white boy on the shore of the lake where the waves were slamming down like ocean waves. This boy came out of the bushes and he had a long green man’s jacket that came down over his spindly legs like toothpicks, and hair cut so short it looked like a smudge on his head. He said it his name was Spencer and that his dad owned land beside the lake and then asked like a retard was I a Negro. I said no I was a Polish Chink from Bessarabia, which was a joke I got from my oldest brother, Walker, and then I told him we were going to the World’s Fair, and that’s our car I said, that new gold one. It was funny to be talking to a white boy in the summer, I’m used to them at school, but we don’t see each other after school or in vacations. This Spencer was quiet for a minute and said he’d show me something, and then he showed me that almost all the rocks on the shore had fossils in them, shells and sponges and trilobites. I picked up about fifteen fossils until my mother called me to come in and get my hair braided, and then it was time to eat breakfast and drive off in our golden chariot and leave old Spencer there waving like a little white doll in the middle of all of his million-year-old shells. See you later, alligator, I said. I felt sorry for him, stuck there while we set off to see the world.

Scene III

Bemidji, Minnesota. RICHIE HARMON stands at the foot of the giant statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. Sixth day, about eleven in the morning. In the distance, paddleboats on Lake Bemidji.

RICHIE: Well, eighth-grade history was good for something. I know the Mississippi starts here. At least I think it does. This would be a great home movie, but this cheap family doesn’t even own a movie camera. Our friends do, but not us. Our mother says it’s more educational to look than to take pictures so we’re traveling with the oldest Kodak in the U.S.A., and we get to take a few crummy slides. On the Wonderful World of Color, people in the commercials are always filming each other in front of Pikes Peak or the Golden Gate Bridge. And what are we doing? We’re not even modern. In exactly eight years, when I’m finished with high school and college, I’m going to be a famous photographer and I’ll have the best equipment there is.
     Nowadays, I buy photo magazines to check up on the new cameras, and because they’re good for nudes. Every issue you get has two or three good ones. All the girls in the photo pix are white, the way all the girls in Playboy are, the way everybody is, everywhere in the movies, on TV, in everything we watch or read. I know five or six really cute Negro girls from our neighborhood or those pathetic Jack and Jill parties, girls so fine I’m half scared to ask them to dance or to say anything to them, but somehow they don’t seem as real as the white girls in the pictures that make you touch yourself. It’s like they exist less. It’s like our family exists less than Father Knows Best or Leave It to Beaver. We’re going across the continental United States of America in this fabulous car, but it’s like no one can see us. It’s too bad that we didn’t bring a movie camera. We could make a television show of ourselves.

Scene IV

Eighth day. Devils Lake, North Dakota. Sunset in a motel parking lot with arid hills beyond. GRACE HARMON stands in front of stacked wooden boxes of empty soda bottles.

GRACE: These wide spaces scare me. The light is too strong. I feel unwelcome, caught like a cockroach out in the open. I like small places inside, places like my shiny kitchen when I have pots on all the burners and everything under control, the smell of greens cooking with ham bones, of chicken roasting, of yeast rolls and tapioca pudding. Or church, when the service has just finished, and we ladies are all standing in our gloves and hats à la Jackie Kennedy, and greeting each other and chatting so close that you can smell everyone’s Arpège perfume and Alberto VO5 hair cream. There is a sense of salvation, and relief, because the Holy Word is still floating around us in the air, and yet we’re all going home to eat soon.
     Once when I was still a student at Philadelphia Normal School, I sat next to Eleanor Roosevelt at a tea to benefit the work camps, and she said to me that I must try to see as much as I could of this great country of ours. She was kind, but like an elephant in pearls, and it made me angry that she didn’t stop to think that most of our great country didn’t want to see me.
     And I had traveled. The year before that I went with my cousin Minerva down to Palm Beach to work the winter season as a butter-water girl at the Fontainebleau Hotel. That was an experience: the dining room long as a football field, with all those dried-out white faces bent over their food, with Minerva and I and all the other pretty colored girls in our ruffled caps, skimming round tables where never in our lives could we have sat down. The manager’s son, who was our age, used to walk around in jodhpurs and riding boots, not saying anything, just looking us over with hard blue eyes. We felt naked, That’s the way I feel now, standing here under this big sky.

Scene V

Glacier National Park, looking over the Canadian border toward Waterton Lakes National Park and Calgary. A curving highway through a swarm of snowcapped peaks, resonance of early afternoon light over heights and distant forests. WALKER HARMON is behind the wheel, smoking a cigarette.

WALKER: One Winston and they’re on my ass. They haven’t been uncool enough to say anything yet, but Mom is muttering to herself and staring out at the Rockies as if she’d like to bite them off, and Pop looks like I just punched him in the stomach. Well, it had to be done, it’s ridiculous that I’m eighteen and in college and doing half the driving and can’t act like the hell I want. I was a fool to come on this trip. The whole thing is a mistake. It shows what’s wrong with this pitiful family. The fight for civil rights is in the South, so we go west on a sightseeing expedition. My roommates at Oberlin, Joel Kagan and Marty Hubbard, are both down in Greenville, Mississippi, registering voters. Joel’s sister from Bryn Mawr is with them, she wears dancers’ leotards and skirts from Mexico, and twists her hair up in a style called the Marienbad. White students are lining up to risk their lives, and what did I do? I came home from college in June like a good son, worked a summer job in the mail room at the Philadelphia Bulletin, and dated Ramona Jenkins, who has tits like dirigibles and allows a lot of heavy action with bra and panties firmly in place and is already talking about how she wants to marry a doctor. Instead of acting like a man and volunteering for SNCC, I came on this trip, with Pop sweating over his AAA guide, and practically shitting in his pants every night when he has to go to ask for a room in on of these little cow-town motels. Terrified that he’s going to hear that word ‘nigger’ that would sweep us right off the map of the U.S.A. Sweep his precious family right off to Oz, like a black tornado.

Scene VI

Seattle World’s Fair. High noon. The whole HARMON FAMILY stands together in the crowd.

THE FAMILY: We are standing at the foot of the Space Needle, which was our goal. It’s as tall as the Eiffel Tower, and there’s a rotating restaurant up at the top. We won’t go up because there’s a long line, and it costs four dollars a person, and because we’re not the kind of family that does things all the way to the end. This is enough for us. The Space Needle points to the Sputniks, to the stars. It’s like part of a cartoon about the future, something we think we have wanted for a long time. A prize the President might have promised us as an inalienable right. A giant ultramodern suburban kitchen appliance out of a dream.

Scene VII

Heading back home. The FAMILY MEMBERS speak in turns.

MAUD: On the Oregon Coast the Pacific was tall gray waves that turned my feet numb when I waded. There were dead trees like goblin trees scattered on sand that came from volcanoes. My father and brothers peed against one of the trees, and my mother said: “Don’t look.” It was the end of the country, and I wanted to stay there forever. I kept some sand in a bottle. I’d never seen black sand before.

DR. HARMON: White fellow who ran the lodge where we stayed in the Bighorn Mountains, a Pacific Theater vet, kept going on and on about the Indians when I went to pay the bill, about how they were shiftless and drank and so on. I think the son of a bitch thought I was going to laugh and chime in. Out here, Indians are niggers. Once my brother Ray, the minister who’s the straightest-haired one in the family, was traveling across Oklahoma with some kind of fool Baptist tour group, and in a little two-bit café, they refused to serve him. But then the owner kind of slid up to him and asked if it was true that he was an American Indian. “No,” says Ray, figuring he’s not going to eat anyway. “I’m an American Negro.” Damn if the cracker didn’t shut up, smile, and bring him his apple pie.

RICHIE: At Yellowstone, the best thing wasn’t Old Faithful, which you could hardly see because there were so many people around, or the bubbling pink sulfur mud that would probably parboil your foot if you wanted to make the experiment, it was two girls that Walker and I met at the campground canteen. They were a pair of not very pretty white girls with hair the color of grass when the green is burnt out of it at the end of the summer, one of them with pimples and one with a bow clipped on over her bangs. They started talking to Walker, who was very cool and said he was a sophomore at Oberlin and that impressed them into wild giggles and “Oh,” they said to me, “You look older than fourteen, you look at least twenty.” They went crazy over the Golden Chariot, and I showed them how the front seats flipped all the way back. We would have taken them for a ride except Mom was waiting for the hot dogs. “They were ready, little brother,” said Walker, who the whole time had had this sort of constipated look on his face, that he gets when he tries to act suave. “It’s a new age, the great and glorious West, gateway to the future. Be cool and the white chicks will flock like pigeons, they think we’ve got the Space Needle between our legs.”

GRACE: When we got to Cody, Wyoming, we stopped in a big general store that had traps and skins hanging from the ceiling and dusty old pickup trucks in the parking lot and we went in and all three of the kids bought blue jeans. No one we know wears blue jeans, except for white teenagers on television. The kids walk differently now: they amble like cowboys; they look, even little Maud, as if they all of a sudden know about distances, as if they’re about to gallop away from me into a Technicolor sunset.

THE FAMILY: In the Black Hills of South Dakota, we, the Harmon family and our new car, were present at a historic event: the first intercontinental television broadcast using the Telstar satellite. At the base of Mount Rushmore we stood in a crowd looking on as the huge indifferent sand-colored faces of the Founding Fathers traveled magically across outer space to Paris. The Harmons—latest issue of the combination of a few Mid-Atlantic coastal Indians with certain unwilling West Africans shipped abroad for profit by their own warlords, which combination lightly mixed with the largely undistinguished blood of English debtors and Irish bond servants—stood and cheered with the rest of the crowd watching itself on an outdoor screen. Though we still can’t vote or eat or pee with white men in many states, we love our country. Didn’t we learn patriotism at school? We feel enlarged by a sense of history and destiny, even though inside each of us, in the dark space at the very center, is a secret question mark.

MAUD: The U.S.A. is like a big board game, Monopoly or Clue. We’ve been following signs for days along the highway: Burma-Shave; Little Stinker; and ads for the Corn Palace, in Mitchell, South Dakota. There it is, smack in the middle of the country, a royal palace really built out of corn. Cars all around it from every state. And if you look up in the sky, clouds of crows just gobbling it up.

RICHIE: I’ve grown three inches since I turned fourteen, and I have the biggest appetite in the family. I’ve been eating my way across America, and I say that the best root beer floats on the road are at A&W and the best barbecue is the Piggly Wiggly chain. I won a bet with my sister by drinking four bottles of Coke in less than five minutes in the backseat, when we were driving through the Badlands. And, out of intellectual curiosity, I ordered shrimp in Iowa, thousands of miles from either ocean. In Chicago, we went out to a restaurant run by Jewish people, and it was the best place I ever ate in my life. Papa Stein’s. When they brought the meat, it looked like a rib out of an elephant, and they even served pickles that were made from whole tomatoes. The real Papa Stein himself, a cool old white-haired guy with a Mad Professor accent, came over to our table to say hello. Like we were celebrities or something.

WALKER: In Chicago, I didn’t go out to dinner with everybody else. I stayed in the hotel, which for once was a deluxe one, a Holiday Inn—three A’s of course. I needed to get away from them all, to breathe. I wanted to think about how I could start living my own life. After a while, I opened the curtains, and you could see the streets just lighting up in purple dusk, and I turned on the radio, and a wild tune stole out of that radio that was like the breath of the city. Jazz like I’ve never heard before. Spilling out of some mysterious black heart hidden out there under the lights. I sat and smoked a Winston, and for a few minutes, everything fell into place. The family trip didn’t bother me anymore: I knew it was the last time for me. And that I was where I needed to be.

THE FAMILY: And so we returned, dashing across the last few states to Philadelphia, overcome by a sudden desperate urge to sleep in our own beds. Back East, nothing much was changed. It was still August 1962, the cicadas still at their summer wars in the treetops. Our new car, unmarred by the dust of prairies and alkali flats, was still a sumptuous gold. Were we the same? That was a question not one of us, for a long time, would think to ask. Not until years had passed, and other, far, more sophisticated vacations had been taken—jaunts to Europe and Africa and Asia, paid for by credit cards and boosting us to a palmy level of worldliness we’d never dreamed of. Not until we Harmon children had gone our separate ways, and looked back suddenly to realize that this was the trip by which we would always judge all others. A journey that defined the ambiguous shape of our citizenship, when we moved across our country feeling as apprehensive as foreigners and at the same time knowing that every grain of dust was ours. And a private moment of glory, the kind every family has just once. When the highway belonged to us, and our car was the best on the road. “Swing low, sweet chariot,” sang Dr. Harmon for a joke, as we turned the corner of our suburban street. And the Rambler Classic carried us home.