"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.
CHAPTER 5: Give a Little, Take a Little
While we had been sleeping, Daddy had come back with a tow truck, which was flashing red and white lights as it lifted the truck and camper so it could tow us to the garage. Daddy must have known we were inside asleep, but perhaps he hadn't wanted to wake us. But awakened we were -- with a fright -- when the camper jerked to a start. So much for my safe place.
The worst part of all this was, when Matthew grabbed me I got an overpowering whiff from his underarms. He reeked to high heaven. Gagging from the pungent odor, I pushed him away. I had experienced the fear of aliens and the smell of death at the same time. I decided then and there that that was the last night I would sleep in the same bed with Matthew as long as I lived.
The next morning, we woke up in a deserted cracked-concrete parking lot next to an old gas station that had pumps that looked like the alien from The Day the Earth Stood Still. But at least it had a garage. It didn't take long for the attendant to figure out that the fan belts on the truck weren't strong enough to pull a camper. Yes, the salesman in Spartanburg, knowing that the truck he was selling to Daddy was going to pull a camper, had done our Daddy a wrong. One Southern gentleman wasn't supposed to do that to another Southern gentleman, according to The Code.
At least Daddy appeared to have been treated well by the Virginian service station attendant. "Bubba" was what Daddy called him. He was the same man who had stopped to help last night, and he had taken Daddy somewhere so they could drink. By the way Daddy was acting, they had had a grand old time.
I went outside and watched "Bubba" change the fan belts. "Yeah, your poppa sure can put hooch away," he mumbled while his head was still under the hood. "Hee hee. Yes sir, he can."
And then Daddy appeared out of nowhere. "We need some fresh milk," he said. "That stuff in the refrigerator's rancid." He turned toward Bubba. "Know where I can get a glass a milk? Anything close by?"
Daddy always wanted milk in the mornings to coat his stomach after a night of heavy drinking. Momma said he had ulcers from all the alcohol. I wondered if he put liquor in with the milk when he drank it, because I knew it wouldn't be long before he wanted more "hooch."
While Bubba was telling Daddy where to find milk, Mark came out of the camper. He was dressed in the same khaki pants and white shirt he'd worn the day before. Neither of us had showered, and his hair was all over the place. As for Matthew, he came out wearing the same madras shorts and short-sleeved Gant shirt he'd had on the prior day. He hadn't showered, either. His hair was starting to look like a greaser's, all slicked down from where he had combed it. With Matthew already smelling like decaying fish, I didn't want to get too close to Mark to find out about him. The very thought of showering in that tiny plastic coffin inside the camper made me think of the murder scene in Psycho -- it terrified me. If we hadn't planned on arriving at Bunnie Ann's some time that day, we all would have turned into a pack of wild men within the first two days of our trip.
Gee had at least freshened up; she was always radiant and perky in her flowery summer dresses and wore her blonde hair in a shoulder-length flip. There was a piece of luggage that was entirely devoted to her hair and face stuff, like makeup and curlers and bobby pins and hairspray and combs and all the other things girls used.
When we finally got back on the road, I got to ride up front with Gee. The radio station she tuned in said this summer was being called "The Summer of Love." I asked Gee what the DJ meant. "I'm not sure," she said, "but I think he's talking about some of the boys and girls out in California. They don't dress well or cut their hair, and I think they're... well, let's listen and see if they tell us." She seemed to be avoiding the question.
The radio never did explain what was meant by "The Summer of Love," but I knew it had to do with drugs and what the magazines were calling "be-ins" and "love-ins" out in California. I wasn't sure what a "be-in" was all about. Maybe that's where the drugs were used. But a "love-in" sounded like fun to me.
These were things Gee would never have done. If ever there was a poster person for the Young Republicans, it was Gee. She dressed and acted the part. Her dresses were a perfectly respectable two inches above the knee. She campaigned for Goldwater against President Johnson, and was working to elect Nixon our next president -- as we all were. Our whole family was Republican, Momma said, because we didn't want socialized medicine.
Gee was an excellent driver and the time passed quickly. In no time, we were in Maryland and pulling up in front of the duplex apartment where Bunnie Ann and Dan lived. They appeared at the front door before we had set foot outside the truck. Bunnie Ann was in her smart little Happy Homemaker outfit: a white cotton blouse with a navy blue butterfly collar buttoned to her chin, an A-line navy blue cotton skirt with white piping, and straw espadrilles. She stood a little shorter than Dan, whose eyes reminded me of a praying mantis. Dan stood stiff as a board and had a military haircut. He was in his best country club-looking clothes: yellow cotton slacks, a navy blue polo shirt, and cordovan loafers with navy blue socks to match his shirt. We all knew they weren't rich enough to belong to a country club, but Bunnie Ann always pictured herself as a Southern belle and Dan was her knight in shining armor, even though he didn't own a suit of arms. Bunnie Ann had to make do since Dan was still in the Army. But they did look smart and appeared happy to see us.
Bunnie Ann started in talking like a speeding-out-of-control train, each word about to jump the track. "Oh my goodness, look at ya'll. Ha, ha. It's so good to see ya'll. Now, ya'll just look fine. Why, nobody's hurt from the accident. Ha, ha, but it wasn't an accident now was it. You just broke down, ha, ha -- I mean the truck did, ya'll didn't. Ha, ha. Well it looks like you made it in one piece. Just look at how skinny ya'll are. We need to put some meat on those bones. Ha, ha. But it sure is good to see ya'll. Now what are we doing standing out here in the yard? Ya'll come on in. Come on, now. We don't need to be standing out here in the yard. We can catch up on everything inside just as well as we can out here. I just can't believe how good it is to see ya'll. Ya'll look so good. Ha, ha. You boys sure are growing into fine-looking men. We're going to put some meat on those bones. Yes, sir. God, ya'll look so good. As they say, 'A sight for sore eyes.' Yes sirree."
I thought Bunnie Ann appeared a little too excited and wondered if something might be wrong. But, no, that was Bunnie Ann -- no middle ground. I knew my brothers and I were skinny, but it didn't need to be the first thing out of her mouth. And then she turned to me, came right up to my face, and said as if corn syrup were dripping from her lips, "Oh, my little brother. My little baby brother. I was always your mother. I always took care of you, all the time. My little, sweet baby brother. When Momma wasn't around, I was your mother. Look at you now. How you've grown. Oh my God, you are as tall as I am. Look, Dan. Look at how tall my little, baby brother is."
Bunnie Anne couldn't seem to stop. Turning like a 45 rpm record, she said to all of us, "Ya'll come in, now hear. Ha, ha. God, ya'll look just great. I just love your hair like that, and your dress is so, well... so smart." These last few comments were directed at Gee, with whom Bunnie Ann had had a lifelong competition and, for reasons unknown except to Bunnie Ann, a dislike or envy. Gee had once told me that when Momma was pregnant with me, Gee had wanted me to be a girl so she could be the type of older sister she had wanted Bunnie Ann to be to her: a friend she could talk with, share secrets with; a baby sister Gee could help guide through life. None of which Bunnie Ann had been to Gee.
Bunnie Ann still wore her stick-thin, straight, dirty-blonde hair extra short like a boy. Actually, she looked like Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music, her favorite movie of all time. I think she secretly fantasized about marrying someone like Christopher Plummer, who played Captain Georg von Trapp in the movie. But she got a different kind of Captain -- or Lieutenant, actually. To me, she was weird looking and even stranger acting.
"It's mighty good to see you, Dr. Stack," Dan said in his heavy Kentucky accent as he extended his hand to shake Daddy's. Dan never called Daddy by his name -- Matthew -- or even by his nickname, "MD," but always referred to him as "Dr. Stack."
"Good to see you too, Dan," Daddy replied.
"We sure hope everything's all right with the truck. Now, no one's hurt or nothing, are ya'll?"
"Everyone's just fine, Dan. Thanks for asking," said Daddy.
I didn't think they were as glad to see us as they acted. After all, we were using them as a place to stay on our way up to the Expo. We were only there because Daddy didn't know where else to go with the camper. I started wondering where we were going to stay in Montreal. At least at Bunnie Ann and Dan's we could shower and sleep in beds. We all said our how-do you-do's and moved into the apartment.
Due to Bunnie Ann's hyper state and how tiny the apartment was, she showed us around in all of one minute. "This here's the dining and living rooms combined, with the bedroom upstairs," she said, pointing. "Oh, and the kitchen's over there." That was it. That was her apartment tour and welcome. Subtle groans of disappointment were uttered by Matthew and me when Bunnie Ann had said "bedroom," singular. I figured that Gee was probably going to get the couch, so that left Daddy, Matthew, Mark and me out in the camper.
I thought the apartment looked sort of like a Barbie doll house -- the one Lizbet Randell, the girl who lived down the street from us, had that I played with when I was over at her house. But Barbie had larger rooms, more of them, and better furniture. In Bunnie Ann's living/dining room, there was a wood-framed sofa with one matching armchair, a lima bean-shaped coffee table, a pine dining-room table with four chairs, and a pine side table that apparently served as the bar, since liquor bottles and glasses were on top. There was a standing lamp in the far corner behind the sofa, which had a framed picture of a mountain scene. The white walls and scanty furniture made me feel like I had been sent to the principal's office for talking in class.
Aside from it giving me the feeling of being reprimanded, you could say their apartment was a little love nest. Simple, like a robin's nest. It was Bunnie Ann's first home, so she was proud of it. After everyone had gotten situated, Matthew and I looked in the kitchen and discovered that Bunnie Ann hadn't cooked us a thing. Sure, we were supposed to have arrived yesterday, but we'd still expected her to have something for us to eat, even if it was only snacks. So much for putting fat on our bones.
Daddy was disappointed and fidgety since we were all tired and wanted to relax. But he settled down pretty quickly when Dan said, "What can I get you to drink, Dr. Stack?"
The delighted expression on Daddy's face was that of a child being granted his heart's desire in a candy store. "I'll have what you're having, Dan," he said. "Thanks for asking." Choice of alcohol didn't much matter to Daddy, as long as his drinking started shortly after we arrived.
Even though Bunnie Ann's apartment was too small to sleep all of us, we at least got to shower before going to dinner. A little privacy in a bathroom can do wonders for the complexion. It was our maid, Naomi, who had done more to raise me than Bunnie Ann ever had. Naomi was the one who told me that when a boy's complexion cleared up, it meant he was finally a man. I'd been embarrassed when Naomi let me in on this little secret, because it meant she knew I was beating off -- which I was extra busy doing in the morning and at night. If I hadn't had to go to school, I would have done it during the day, too. I had no idea when the next moment of privacy would come -- or if it would -- so I took full advantage.
Daddy drank more than he ate during dinner, but otherwise it was uneventful. After dinner, we all sat around and laughed about our first day on the road -- especially about Daddy's "Yankee land" comment and the fan belt situation. Daddy may have felt like we were making fun of him, and maybe we were. But after all, we were his children, and he was a big kidder himself. You know: Give a little, take a little.
Meanwhile, Daddy kept drinking. A dullness appeared in his eyes. Matthew referred to it as "glassy" and claimed it was what happened when Daddy drank. But there was also a distance in his eyes, as if he weren't part of the conversation, or even in the room with us. It was as if he had a grudge against being where he was and being with who he was with.
I didn't know much about Bunnie Ann. She had lived with Daddy while she was in high school, and escaped multiple times when Daddy went on shooting rampages. (Daddy would take his shotgun and run around his house shooting at ghosts. I figured it had to be ghosts, because the holes were mostly in the ceiling and at the tops of walls.) After Bunnie Ann had gone away to Agnes Scott College, I'd gotten to move into her bedroom, which had pissed the shit out of the twins. But Momma wouldn't split them up.
Anyway, Bunnie Ann seemed happy now. After she'd had a few drinks (not that she limited herself to a few, mind you), she started talking about how wonderful Dan was. "Oh my dear, I am a lucky girl," she said at high speed. "I have married just the best man alive. He's my 'ramblin' wreck from Georgia Tech.' Now Dan, darling, don't you go all red. You know you are. Not a wreck, mind you, but my man. 'Ramblin' wreck' is what they sing at Georgia Tech football games when the team scores, you know. It's been sung by Mitch Miller on The Ed Sullivan Show. It's been sung by many illustrious people, including Richard Nixon. That's right: the next president of the United States. But then ya'll know that, now, don't ya'll?" She stopped to take a sip from her drink, then went back to her previous train of thought. "Dan's so attentive and wonderful. Oh, and what a man he is. Ya'll'd never believe me when I tell you how he satisfies me. Yes he does. Oh, good lord, but I do get carried away!"
"Bunnie, now hush up, darling," Dan ever-so-gently commanded.
But Bunnie Ann was on a roll. "Dan, now, you know you're something else," she exclaimed. "I just can't believe I waited to get married to experience a man." Dan was grinning like the Cheshire cat -- or as Momma liked to say, the cat that ate the canary.
Daddy was already pretty tight, and if he was taking in what Bunnie Ann was saying, he didn't let on. He seemed to be slipping further and further away. I knew Gee was uncomfortable with the conversation, though, because she shifted awkwardly in her seat. But the twins -- especially Matthew -- were hanging on every word.
"Think of all the boys I turned down," Bunnie Ann continued. "What did I know? I had no idea how wonderful it was to be with a real, strong, loving man." At which point she swooned into Dan's arms.
I rolled my eyes. I didn't want to imagine Bunnie Ann having sex. She had had plenty of boyfriends and I'm sure there were many opportunities she had let slip through her legs. But sex was evidently new to her, and she couldn't get enough when her wires were on fire.
Matthew, of course, knew all about what Bunnie Ann had learned now that she was married. The knowing look on his face was very telling. Matthew loved it when people made references to penises.
I'd heard from friends whose sisters were in Bunnie Ann's class that she had been the envy of the other girls. Apparently they had wanted to be like my sister, own a Thunderbird like her, and be cool like they thought she was.
At first it had surprised me. But then it occurred to me that maybe Bunnie Ann was cool, in her own way. When she was in high school, she and her best friend, Peggy Sue Peck, and I had gone to Charleston to stay with Daddy's parents and to hit the beach. During the drive down, we'd stopped to pee, and when Bunnie Ann came back from the bathroom, she held a pubic hair -- something I'd never seen before -- between her index and middle fingers. After proudly showing it to Peggy Sue, Bunnie Ann said it was dedicated to the one she loved. She actually sang the words like The Shirelles did in their song, with that ever-so-subtle pause between words. Remembering this made me wonder if she had truly been a virgin when she married Dan.
Meanwhile, as the night dragged on, Dan kept refilling Daddy's glass. I wanted to get away, to go to the camper and into the bed, to my safe place. There was no telling what Daddy might do if he drank too much. And here Dan was, plying him and Bunnie Ann with alcohol.
I couldn't wait to get away from Bunnie Ann. Besides drinking like she was, there was something not right about her. She was happy one second and sad the next. She threw her arms around me all lovey dovey, then cried a little. And the sex talk was more than I could take. Bunnie Ann was so strange, and I felt uncomfortable around her. I had had enough. I wanted to get as far away from her as possible.
Finally, when it was clear that Daddy was going to pass out on the sofa, Gee went with us boys to the camper. As we walked out, all of us were thinking the same thing, but only Matthew put it into words. "Do ya'll think Daddy will even want to get up and go in the morning?" he asked. "I sure as shit wish they'd stop drinking. We haven't even gotten to the World's Fair, and he's ruining it for us."
Mark's was the only reply. "You got that right," he said.
None of us -- least of all the twins -- had any way of knowing what the next day would bring.
COMING UP IN CHAPTER 6: The twins and the propane tank... some hair of the dog... a promise is made.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.
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