'World's Fair' is the raw and witty true story of a dysfunctional Southern family's harrowing motor-home roadtrip from South Carolina to the Montreal World's Fair in 1967 (aka "The Summer of Love"). Told from the point of view of the author -- who was 15 at the time -- this intimate coming-of-age story shines a bright light on the issues of alcoholism, adolescent sexual confusion, family violence and the universal need to love those who hurt us, despite their frailties.
PROLOGUE, PART 1: Boston, 1977
It was cool during the days, with leaves already vibrant shades of lemon, strawberry, and tangerine, when I arrived in Boston during early October, 1974. It hadn't been my first choice of places to live after graduating from a liberal arts college in South Carolina, but with a BA in applied art, gas lines around the block, Gerald Ford as president, and the country headed into a recession with rising unemployment, I felt lucky. My sane sister, Genevieve*, four years older than me, had moved to Boston with her husband the year before. She had saved my life, unbeknownst to her, the night I had dropped off my laundry at Momma's house and offhandedly asked her (after she told me she was going to call Genevieve) to find out what the job market was like in Boston. When I went to pick up my clean clothes, Momma told me that Genevieve and her husband would be happy to have me come and live with them while I looked for a job.
A little more than two and a half years later, on May 17, 1977, I was peacefully preparing dinner at the end of a crisp, cool, bluebird day of the type only New England has to offer, in what was my third (and would prove to be my last) apartment in Boston. I had taken the T home from my paralegal job at Nutter, McClennen & Fish to my garden studio apartment, which I was required to enter through the alleyway between Pembroke Street (on which Genevieve lived) and West Newton Street (which the front of the townhouse whose basement I lived in faced). She could see into my apartment from her kitchen, which was on the first floor of her three-story townhouse. I was a struggling artist, more struggling than artist, living in an area called the South End, behind the Prudential Building. It was a neighborhood in transition: Young professionals, like my sister, were moving in and renovating the townhouses, causing the elderly and Hispanic to leave since they could no longer afford the rent.
While I was standing in front of my tiny range with spatula in hand, cooking a chicken-fried steak, a knock on one of the arched windows at the top of the door leading into my kitchen caused me to turn my head. The smiling face of my charming sister was staring at me through the glass. I smiled back and motioned with the spatula for her to come in. She was dressed in one of her husband's white Brooks Brothers shirts and blue jeans, with a strand of pearls around her neck. Genevieve and my brother-in-law were still in the process of renovating their townhouse, doing quite a lot of the work themselves (often with my assistance).
"Hi sweetie," she said. "What're you doing, cooking dinner?" Before I could answer, she continued, "I keep telling people how wonderful it is that we live so close."
"Hi. Yeah. I'm cooking up some meat and potatoes. You know there isn't much I can do in this kitchen." The apartment was smaller than any other place I had lived, especially with a third of it being taken up with the kitchen and bathroom.
She smiled at me and sat down at one of the two spindly, bow-back chairs next to the small Empire table she'd given me, which I now used as my "eat-in" kitchen table. I had refinished it, and she'd always harbored a wish that she had kept it after she saw how beautiful the mahogany was once the dull chocolate paint had been removed.
I was concentrating on cooking, waiting for her to say something. I turned and smiled at her. She played with the rings on her fingers, then began twisting a lock of her hair. It struck me that she was trying to remain calm for some reason. She caught me looking, smiled back at me and took to rubbing the smooth, shiny edge of the table. At last, she spoke. "So, um... how was your day?"
Usually when my sister came over she would launch into whatever was on her mind. But today she was fishing, like she was stalling for time or avoiding something. I decided not push it and turned back to my cooking. "It was fine. Nothing special. You know, another uneventful Tuesday. What about you?"
No answer. I looked at her again and asked, with my eyes, if she was all right. I knew she disliked her job and had been having problems with her husband, so I wanted to signal to her that it was okay if she wanted to share something, anything, with me. I wanted her to know that I was there for her.
"Well," she said. "I have something I need to tell you. And, um... I think you might want to sit down. I think you might want to be seated when I tell you."
My eyes started to bug out, and a shitty smile spread across my face. "What could be so bad that I would have to sit?" I asked. "Are you getting divorced? Don't tell me you're getting divorced. Did you lose your job? No, you didn't lose your job. They love you at that damn bank. Don't tell me you wrecked that asshole husband of yours' Mercedes. He can be such a shit."
When she didn't laugh or even smile, I turned serious. "Is Momma all right? How is Grandpa?" I've always had this habit of trying to say what people want to tell me as if I already know, when really I have no idea what they are going to tell me.
It was evident she was having a difficult time forming the words. Then she simply said it. Said it as if it were the time of day or the temperature.
As if I were in outer space without gravity, or a ghost floating across a room, I drifted over to the spindly chair across from Genevieve and slowly sank down. It was as if all my senses were heightened. The dust particles were clearly visible, suspended in space and time. Yet we still spoke in normal tones.
"Yes, sweetie," Genevieve said, reaching across the table to take my hand in hers.
"How did you find out?"
"Bunnie Ann called me." (Bunnie is our crazy older sister, eight years older than me.) "She got a call from someone in Spartanburg. She being the oldest, I imagine they thought it would be best to call her first."
"Does Momma know?" Our mother was in Florida taking care of her 80-year-old father, who had recently had major surgery. Even though our parents had separated in 1960 when I was eight years old -- and divorced in 1964 -- we all knew she still loved Daddy and had maintained a desire to get back together with him, if only he would quit drinking and return to the fold. But then he had gone and married his divorce lawyer's secretary in 1972, dashing all hope.
"I called Momma after I hung up with Bunnie Ann," said Genevieve.
"What about the twins?" Our two brothers, Matthew and Mark, are identical twins, born five minutes apart. They're three years older than me and 13 months younger than Genevieve.
"Bunnie Ann and I agreed that she would call them, and I told her I'd tell you."
I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer, but still I asked. "How did he die?"
"I don't know," said Genevieve. (I found out later that this was a white lie.) "I think Momma might have more details by now."
"What do you mean 'more details'? What aren't you telling me?"
"Nothing. Momma told me she would call around and try to find out what she could." Genevieve glanced over at my range. "I think you'd better turn off your dinner. You can come over, and we'll call Momma together. Later on you can eat with us."
After a short silence, Genevieve spoke again. "Are you all right?"
"Sure. Are you?"
She looked down at her hands. "I'm actually relieved." When I didn't say anything, she went on. "I was always afraid he'd end up on the street like those bums, those drunks and beggars you see. I've always been afraid, even when I lived in New York, that he might be the next one I'd come across. I didn't like thinking that, but I couldn't help it."
We hugged, and then I moved to the stove to turn off the flame. "Are you sure you're okay?" she asked again.
"I don't think it's registered with me yet."
"Would you like some time alone?" Before I could answer, she went on. "I'll go over and leave the basement door unlocked. Come over when you're ready, and we can call Momma together."
As she left, she turned to smile back at me reassuringly. I lifted the spatula, which was still in my hand, and waved goodbye with it. Then I just stood there, frozen to the spot, staring at the wall behind the range. I felt numb. My senses appeared to have suddenly shut down.
I thought of the last time I'd seen Daddy. It would have been three years ago, possibly to the day. I'd gone to his office to get my allowance the beginning of the week in mid-May, when final exams had started.
The visit was a typical one. As usual, I'd waited in his office until he finished seeing his current patient. When he came in, I'd risen to give him a kiss. He'd turned his face and puffed out his cheek so I could plant the kiss there and not on his lips. He was in his white smock, the one with pen marks coming out of his breast pocket like flower stems without the blossoms attached. On this particular visit, as on others, I'd thought he might have been drinking, but it was early afternoon, so I chose to ignore it. Ridiculously, I asked what he was doing; he answered that he was working. When I didn't say anything else, he pulled his checkbook out of his desk drawer and asked me how much I needed. I told him I wanted the usual amount. Like always, he gave me $25.
Sometimes he would sit there with the check in his hand and tell me something, but on this day -- like most -- he'd simply handed me the check. I'd thanked him and kissed him goodbye on his puffed-up cheek. I'd seen him like this every week for so many years I had lost count.
The following week, after taking my last college exam, I was with some friends on our way out of town. We stopped for gas around the corner from Daddy's office. I went over so I could get that week's allowance. But when I got to his office door, I saw that it was padlocked.
I froze. I stood there, staring at the lock, for what seemed like hours, but was probably only about 15 seconds. Then I slowly backed away, looked around to see if anyone was watching me, and went back to the car. To my friends, I acted as if nothing had happened.
NEXT TIME: Hungry dogs... a neighbor's frightening discovery... Momma takes care of everything.
For more by James Stack, click here.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.
* All names have been changed, except for the author's.