When The Sun’s Down, They Go Down
a short story by Hannah Chen
“Where are you going, sir?”
Although the atmosphere had been pleasantly dulcet, with the officer now in close proximity, all smiles were lost. They should’ve known better than to drive around these kinds of states, neighborhoods, towns—but they hadn’t known what to expect until now.
Glancing back at his wife and son, Roy gave a small, tight-lipped expression to the police officer. “I’m a chauffeur, officer. I’m taking my employer’s maid and her son,” he nodded back at Kahlil, who was attempting to look as normal and unfrightened as possible, “to their home.”
The officer squinted his eyes, not confronting the lie. “Where’s your chauffeur hat?”
“In the back of the car, officer.” While the white man was an officer, an owner of an honorable title, Roy was handed a simple “sir.” Officer, officer, officer. The word “sir” was more dulled down, mellowed, weak. Kahlil held the black hat higher, bringing it into the view of the sheriff, who then tipped his own hat and not so subtly observed the insides of the car. It was expensive—not quite what a white officer expected (or wanted, for that matter) a Black family to own—but Roy had a stable and well-paying job at a railroad company. Their car, with its clean 1950s red sheen and lively engine, was one of their proudest assets back at home. But here, it was a threat.
The white man in the uniform finally let them go, waving them off as Roy hesitantly started up the car again, and the family drove in silence for the next several minutes before exhaling loudly with relief. “Thank goodness for that hat,” Janelle noted, chest heaving from relief. “Thank goodness for that hat.”
They knew that taking Route 66 was a risk. Black motorists were constantly targeted by the residents, who were all white. The businesses that Roy’s family drove past were named with three K’s in them, like Kozy Kottage Kamp, and many refused to serve Blacks. The constant presence of three K’s meant that the Ku Klux Klan was near—always near—and ready to use violence as a way to eradicate any unwelcome Black people.
Roy’s family was familiar with cover stories to deal with an encounter with a racist and suspicious white person. It was mostly due to The Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor H. Green, a unique traveling guide that listed all the places that were willing to serve Blacks. It was the best way to travel without harassment. If one didn’t have this information, an African American family could easily end up on the wrong side of town—with no way of receiving help.
Kahlil stared out the window, admiring the greenery and nature that was gently provided by Route 66, a common road trip route. Despite the dangers of driving here, he had pleaded with his parents because of all the beautiful things he had heard about it: romance and unconventional attractions. The mountains ahead kissed the sky, flirting with the wind, while the Cadillac Ranch (they weren’t there yet, but it was what Kahlil was most excited for) exploded with vibrant colors and were stuck nose deep into the dirt. This “Mother Road” was the hope and pathway to easier times for people who had suffered from the Great Depression. It left traces of that hardship and beauty.
Roy’s family was driving further West, which, if he was honest, frightened him. He knew that the further West they rode, the fewer services they would be provided. Roy kept his hand tight on the wheel, lips pressed together to prevent them from trembling, heading straight on the empty road ahead of him. His wife gazed at him and gave him a small smile. They were on vacation, for God’s sake. Couldn’t they just enjoy a vacation without fear?
Roy and Janelle’s equally flustered look said it all. They couldn’t, and there was nothing they could do about that. Janelle turned around to her son, who was busying himself with the pretty views of the road she couldn’t distract herself with, and asked, “Should we play some music?”
Kahlil nodded vivaciously. “Yeah!”
Roy laughed his usual belly laugh that was only ever ignited by the joy of his family. He clicked on the radio and switched the channel to Kahlil’s favorite tunes, and they kept on driving. The family sang together, humming and giggling and harmonizing, even knowing the prejudice that they would face for the rest of their lives. Instead of letting the fear rage on, Roy relaxed his fingers on the wheel and held onto his wife’s hand, squeezing it tightly. Janelle squeezed back.
“Look at those trees!” Kahlil pointed out, pressing his forehead against the car window.
“Yeah, look at that,” his parents mused. The three of them grinned, wishing that they could stop there and then climb those trees and admire them in detail as white families could, but they drowned away those desires quickly. Because they had each other, and, in times like these, it had to be good enough.