"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.
Warning: Contains some mild sexual content; may not be suitable for all audiences.
CHAPTER 4: Be Careful up in Yankee Land!
Our destination that first day was Bethesda, Maryland, where our crazy sister Bunnie Ann and her husband, Dan, lived. They had gotten married in Atlanta the previous July. Right before their wedding it was discovered that Bunnie Ann had left her shoes back at the hotel. Momma had saved her from having to walk down the aisle barefoot by driving alone through the scary downtown Atlanta traffic "on a wing and a prayer" to retrieve the shoes in the nick of time.
There's one wedding photograph of Bunnie Ann and Dan that always makes me laugh. They're coming through the church doors after the service and people are flinging rice at them. I'm visible on the left side of the picture with my hand way back ready to throw a fistful of rice. The expression on my face is one of steely concentration. I'd been told to throw rice at them. No one told me I was supposed to throw it gently. Bunnie Ann and Dan look like they're getting stung by a swarm of bees.
In order for us to get to Maryland, we had to go through Virginia. And the only way we could get there was to cut halfway across North Carolina towards the coast and then turn north. Daddy said it was about 500 miles and should take us close to eight hours. He then winked at me and looked calmly ahead, saying, "But I can make it in about six and a half." That meant we had to go at least 70 mph on the two-lane blacktops, which had speed limits of 55 mph and tons of stoplights. When we were on the Interstate, Daddy would have to go at speeds of 80 or 90 mph.
There was this one time when Daddy, his old high school friend, Will Prudence, and I were going to a Duke football game; we were late, and Daddy had hit 110 mph. He'd told me that if a police siren went off, I should lie on the backseat and moan as if I were in pain. He'd tell the cop that he was rushing me to the hospital at Duke. I'd thought it would be great fun to act sick, but there were no police on patrol that night.
Now, if Bunnie Ann's was halfway, I figured we were going to drive over 1,000 miles by the time we got to Montreal. Thank God we weren't in Daddy's Cadillac, because if the twins or I had to pee we would have had to go in a Coke bottle. That's right: Road trips with Daddy in his Cadillac meant no stopping to pee. Daddy kept a wooden crate of Cokes on the floor behind his seat, so all he had to do was reach around and take one when he was thirsty... if he wasn't drinking a beer, that is. I think he put beer in some of the Coke bottles so no one would know (probably in the ones he told us not to drink if the cap wasn't on tight).
Daddy would tell Matthew, Mark and me, "If ya'll have to void, go in one of the empties." Now, if you have ever tried to pee in a Coke bottle, you will know that the opening isn't that big, even for us little guys, so you better have a good aim. But one of us would always get some on us, and the others would point and laugh. Daddy would laugh, too. On this trip, though, there was no room for Coke bottles behind the truck's seat. Besides, there was a toilet in the camper, so nature's call could be answered while we were moving, at least for those back there (we all agreed no number two in the camper). While up front in the truck with Daddy, I would have to hold it as long as I could.
There was this one trip we took where a Coke bottle full of pee had been put back in the crate with the cap in place, looking as if it was unopened. No one could tell it wasn't full of Coke because the bottles were made from green glass. One of the twins opened it and took a sip, spitting it out on the back of the front seat. We all roared with laughter -- even Daddy, who was trying to say we had to clean it up. The twins both tell everyone it was me who drank the pee, but it was really one of them. I don't know whose pee it was, but it was probably from Daddy's buddy, Will. I don't think Will did it on purpose. He had this habit of putting the metal top back on the bottle even while he was still sipping his Coke. It was like something he would have done.
Right before we reached the Virginia state line, Daddy pulled off the road to let me drive. While we were switching places, he ducked into the camper. He evidently wanted to fix himself a drink. But there were no liquor bottles to be found. Come to find out, Gee and the twins had gone on a scavenger hunt for his liquor bottles as soon as we had left home. They'd searched every possible corner and crack of the camper, even though there weren't that many places to look. In the process, they'd come across Daddy's handguns in one of the kitchen drawers. Good ol' boys like Daddy never went anywhere without at least one of their pistols or shotguns.
Now, if I had been in the camper, I would have looked for condoms. Daddy had a case of them on his dresser in his house in Camp Croft, right out in broad daylight where anyone could see them. I guess it was his bedroom, and I suppose he thought it was private, especially since he lived alone. But with five kids, who was he kidding? I used to "borrow" them from him and put one on when I beat off. (Of course, I never put any of them back, so I guess I wasn't really "borrowing" them.) Daddy favored the natural lambskin kind. I preferred the rubber ones, which rolled down the length of my dick and had a rubber band at the base and a nipple at the tip. Daddy's lambskins also had a rubber band thing at the base, but didn't have a nipple, and didn't roll down like the rubber ones. Once worked in place they would ride up and slip off because they were all gooey and slippery.
Anyway, Gee and the twins' scavenger hunt had turned up several bottles of Daddy's liquor, which they'd tossed when we passed Harvey Bag -- before we had even left Camp Croft. They'd had to fling them out the camper's back door since the windows that opened had screens. Less than a mile from Daddy's house, and the "fun" was already beginning.
When Daddy found out there was no liquor in the camper, he wasn't angry at first. Instead, he acted confused. He turned to Gee and the twins with squinty eyes and furrowed brow and asked, "Did ya'll see any of the whisky bottles I packed?"
Well, no one wanted to take the blame, but they knew they had to say something, so Gee said, "Daddy, we don't like it when you drink. You're always so nice and pleasant when you're not drinking. But when you drink, you're... well, we'd prefer it if you didn't."
"Well, now, tell me, did ya'll do anything with the bottles I packed?"
"We got rid of them," Matthew quickly interjected.
"Now, how'd ya'll get rid of them?"
"We threw them out the back door," Mark chimed, in pointing at the camper door.
"Now, why'd ya'll go and throw good money away like that? Why?"
"Daddy, we love you so much, but when you drink, it isn't any fun for us," Gee replied.
Daddy shook his head. "Come on, now!" he exclaimed. "Come on, now!"
"We don't like the way you act when you get that demon liquor in you," said Matthew. Only Matthew could say things like this -- and in his best Blanche DuBois accent.
It didn't faze Daddy. He didn't even respond to Matthew's comment, but kept repeating to no one in particular, "Come on, now!"
"It's not good for you, Daddy," Gee said, quickly adding, "now let's get back on the road. We're late as it is."
Daddy kept shaking his head. He could be a real sweet man -- more like a pussycat that'll rub your legs and sit in your lap -- when he was sober or only had a little to drink. Sure, he'd had a sip or two that morning, and he'd been calm because he was far from drunk. I couldn't help but wonder if Daddy was now regretting having taken Gee and the twins on this trip.
Back in the truck with me driving, Daddy kept repeating, like the telephone poles that progressively passed by one at a time, "Now, why in God's name do you think they'd throw good money away like that? It makes no sense. What were they thinking? Were they even thinking?"
Trying to supply an answer without upsetting him, I said, "I don't think they meant any harm, Daddy." My mind told me to try and change the subject, so I quickly added, "What other movies have you seen recently?" Daddy didn't respond. He just kept reiterating the same questions.
Eventually, his tone of voice shifted into something bordering on determination. "Who do they think they are?" he said. "Those little shits. Goddamn it all to hell. Goddamn ingrates! Sons of bitches!" He wasn't yelling or anything like that. It was more like he was thinking out loud.
When Daddy got like this, I kept my mouth shut. There was no dealing with him once cusswords entered his sentences. Besides, I needed to keep my mind on the road. But I sure didn't like to see Daddy this way. I knew he was trying to figure out how he was going to drink on this trip if every damn bottle he brought into the camper was going to be dumped. What kept rolling around in my head was what Momma had told us: "Your father told me he wants to spend some meaningful time with ya'll." I'm sure she had told him it was either us or his liquor.
It wasn't long before Daddy ordered, "Pull over. I'm going to take another look around back." Licking his lips, he added, "They couldn't have thrown out every Goddamn bottle."
So we switched places, with Gee and Matthew moving up front and Mark staying in the back with Daddy and me. It was nice to be able to lie down on the bed over the truck cab. It was like a safe place for me, floating above everything like I was in the clouds looking down as an observer. As if I wasn't really a part of things outside.
Below me in the camper, Daddy was carrying on. He seemed to be evolving into a stalking cat, and Mark was taking the brunt of Daddy's rising anger over not being able to have a drink.
Like a caged tiger, Daddy paced the camper, continually opening and closing the few places where he could have hidden a bottle and repeatedly growling, "What the fuck were ya'll thinking? Ya'll don't think! That's what's wrong with ya'll. Ya'll don't think!"
Mark hung his head and kept saying, "I'm sorry, Dad."
When Mark's words finally registered, Daddy glared at him and spit out, "You're sorry? You're sorry?! You're Goddamn right you're sorry: a sorry-assed son of a bitch!" I thought it was a good thing Daddy wasn't really drunk on top of his blood boiling.
Abruptly, the truck swerved onto the side of the road, which rolled me halfway across the nook, lifted Mark out of his seat, and jammed Daddy into the kitchen area. A sudden change was always a reliable way to get Daddy to focus on something else.
We exited the camper and discovered that Gee and Matthew had stopped because something was wrong with the engine. With the truck hood up, Daddy and Mark peered inside, trying to figure out what the problem could be. Gee hadn't gotten the truck completely off the road, so the left tires were still on the blacktop and the right tires were in the dirt. This caused the camper to tilt like it was on the verge of tipping over. It also caused every car that passed to either slow down or swerve into the oncoming traffic lane.
Daddy couldn't figure out what was wrong with the engine, so he moseyed over conspiratorial-like to where Matthew, Gee and I were standing and said, "Ya'll know we're in Yankee Land."
We looked at each other like Daddy had lost his mind. Maybe his not having had a drink in a couple of hours was making him crazy. "Now, ya'll know no one's going to stop to help us," he said. "Yankees don't stop. I know. I've lived up north, and Yankees aren't friendly."
"Daddy, we're in Virginia," Gee said, holding her hair with her right hand so it wouldn't get windblown from the passing cars. She said it so we would all be sure and hear.
Matthew added (as if we didn't know), "Yeah, and ya'll know what? Virginia's a friendly state. It's part of the Glorious Confederacy and below the Mason-Dixon line."
But Daddy wouldn't hear any of it. "Ya'll have to watch out for the locals," he kept harping. "They'll shoot you soon as look at you. I better get my guns. Ya'll wait right here, now hear?"
Was Daddy trying to be funny, trying to scare us, or looking for an excuse to go back into the camper and look for his liquor bottles? It was clear he'd been pissed about his liquor. Maybe this was his way of trying to get even.
As Daddy turned to go into the camper, a car with Virginia plates passed and pulled onto the side of the road. Matthew ran his hand through what remained of his Beatle's haircut and leaned over towards the three of us. "This Samaritan must be a descendant of a Confederate veteran, and not one of those unspeakable Northern aggressionists," he said, loud enough for Daddy to hear. It was then I was sure Daddy had been joking with us.
Matthew, Gee and I laughed, but Mark wasn't finding anything funny about it. And in my heart I knew that if Daddy found a bottle, the joke may very well be on us. Either that, or he would calm down. How Daddy would act and who he might become would all depend on how much he had to drink and whether or not anything riled him.
Since Daddy had been so mad about his missing liquor, I was surprised that he wasn't more pissed off that his new truck had broken down on our first day out. But he was acting like a court jester. "Scotch and soda, jigger of gin, oh, what a fix we're in," he sang, coming back out of the camper. Turning to us, he asked, "Did any of you think to pack some lemons?" I wasn't sure what he meant by that. But the main thing I couldn't figure out was why one Southern gentleman would sell another Southern gentleman a defective truck. Joke all you want, but we're supposed to be good to one another.
Well, the Virginians who'd pulled over took Daddy with them to the closest garage. All we could hope was that these "good ol' Samaritan boys" wouldn't find a bar so Daddy could wet his whistle. Maybe that was why Daddy hadn't been pissed but had instead been joking around....
After Daddy had been gone for a few hours, Gee started to prepare something for us to eat. She actually seemed to enjoy it. While she was busy prepping water to boil for the hot dogs, Matthew started right off about the sleeping arrangements by saying to her, "I know you are going to want to sleep in the bed over the cab, but I think we should take turns."
Instead of taking offense at his accusation (and without missing a beat while getting the ketchup and mustard out of the tiny fridge), Gee replied, "I agree. That'd be only fair." She apparently realized that one bed had the potential for setting off explosive arguments during the trip, so she ended any chance of a fight as soon as it came up. We were all grateful for that, but I was a little less thankful since I figured that every time Gee slept over the cab, I, being the youngest, was the only one who would be able to sleep up there with her. So my having wished I'd often be in that bed was turning into a nightmare where I got to know the floor intimately. Another dashed dream -- like our belief that we'd get to Bunnie Ann's after leaving so late in the day. Still, I couldn't tell if Gee had agreed just because she wasn't in the mood to argue, what with our being stuck in the middle of nowhere, and Daddy still not back.
Matthew didn't waste any time. He jumped up on the bed and said, "Then I'll sleep here tonight." It took about one second for both Mark and me to yell out simultaneously, "And I'm sleeping up there with you!" This, of course, only caused Mark to grab me angrily by the shoulder. He dug his fingers into my muscles, forcing me to turn around to face him. Glaring at me, he said through clenched teeth, "Oh... no... you... don't! Not... tonight."
The thought of sleeping on the bench and tabletop or the floor wasn't comforting. I was already thinking that whoever's idea this trip had been should have been shot. So I quickly told Mark, "I said it first! I get the bed tonight."
"Get the fuck out of my way," he responded, digging his fingers deeper into my shoulder so that the pain made me bend sideways. "I'm sleeping there tonight."
"Just stop it, you two!" Gee demanded. "Let James sleep up there tonight."
"Why does he get to sleep up there?" Mark shot back.
"Just let him," she said. "Why is it such a big deal? Besides, it would be nice if you were down here with me when Daddy gets back. He's been gone a long time and may need our help."
Mark understood Gee to mean that Daddy might be shitfaced when he came back, so he gave up the fight. Smiling, he nodded his head at me and said quietly, "You'll be sorry, you spoiled-rotten little shit." But he didn't say it as quietly as he might have liked.
"I really don't want to have to listen to this arguing and cussing," said Gee. "It's going to be bad enough with Daddy. The least we can do is try to get along with one another. Is that too much to ask?" She turned to glare at all three of us. We all knew she had a point.
After eating, we all pitched in to help clean. Then we played gin rummy to pass the time. When Daddy still hadn't come back, we decided to try to get some sleep. Gee changed in the tiny bathroom while we boys stripped to our underpants. There were sheets in a drawer below the banquette bench, and Matthew and I used them to make up the bed. Mark put the tabletop down so it was level with the seats. We were staring at that hard surface when Gee came out of the bathroom in her nightgown.
Eyeing the three of us, she asked, "Do any of you know where the pad is?" We looked at her like she was speaking a foreign language. "There's supposed to be a pad-like thing that goes over the table so we won't have to sleep directly on the hard top." Gee bent over and looked in the drawers under the benches. "Momma told me about it. We were going to make sure it was here, but when she went off to get us some food, I forgot."
Hitting her shoulder on the underside of the table, Gee discovered that the tabletop had to be flipped. There was a thick padding on the underside that also brought the lowered table to the same level as the bench. Gee and Mark made the table/bench "bed" best they could. They would be sleeping with their feet in each other's faces. And with the truck leaning slightly, Gee, being on the outside, would have to be careful not to roll out of bed. It was not ideal, but much better than we had thought.
Usually I have a hard time falling asleep, but not in my safe place. Even though the bed over the cab was not a normal sized double bed, had miniscule pillows, and was tilting, I fell asleep right away. Nor did I know how long I had been asleep when I was jolted awake. I thought there was an earthquake and reached out to grab hold of Matthew (as if he could save me). Colored lights blinking. I was sure we were being abducted by aliens. I heard Gee let out a muted scream, and Mark cried out, "What the fuck?"
COMING UP IN CHAPTER 5: Matthew and the smell of death... a ramblin' wreck from Georgia Tech... the Southern code, betrayed.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.