"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 6: The End of the Yellow Brick Road
It made no sense to me how Daddy could rise before the sun to take someone's tonsils out, but when it came to getting an early start on our trip time simply didn't register. Since it had taken two days to get to Maryland, we wanted to hit the road first thing. We figured we might be able to get to Montreal before the sun went down. But Daddy had a hard time getting motivated. Maybe it was because he was on vacation. Maybe it was because he was hungover. (But then, he was hungover every day.) Finally, after a good part of the morning had passed, Daddy joined Gee and me in the camper.
With Matthew as his copilot, Mark pulled away from the curb in front of Bunnie Ann and Dan's apartment. I was glad to be getting on the road, but I wasn't looking forward to the return trip, when we would stop there again for a repeat performance.
We all thought it would be clear sailing. The farther north we went, the more interstate we found. The interstate had already been completed north of the Mason-Dixon Line, which made for easier driving. Looking out the window over the cab, I saw more cars and trucks than I'd ever seen before. I wondered if the twins were worried about driving in this traffic. At least we knew that if the twins needed anything they could ask for it through the passageway.
But I still worried about them. Momma always said they weren't the most defensive drivers. That's why, she said, she had let me get my license before she'd let the twins get theirs -- which pissed the shit out of them. According to Aunt Sophie I was a better driver. Mark had already been in an accident, and here he was driving. I decided to jump down to the camper floor, lie on my stomach, and sneak a peek through the passageway to make sure Matthew and Mark were okay.
Mark had a cigarette in one hand and had the other hand on the wheel looking cool -- relaxed yet focused. Matthew had put his bare feet on the dashboard above the glove box so his skinny legs were in the air and folded at the knee. He continuously went from checking his nails to picking at his bottom lip -- something Momma was always telling him to stop. Otherwise he was messing with the main wave in his hair, making sure it stayed in place. I had no idea whether he did these things out of habit, nervousness, or if he was simply vain. He was also intensely smoking, which made me wish I had a cigarette.
While Mark took leisurely drags from his Parliament, Matthew took quick, successive puffs of his Marlboro. Mark's cigarettes always got a long gray ash on them before he would try to make it to the ashtray, where he would use his thumb to flick the butt like Daddy did. Matthew's would have an elongated red-hot ash, and to put into the ashtray what little gray ash would accumulate, he'd use his index finger to tap lightly on the cigarette while holding it between his thumb and middle finger, like Momma and Gee did. The twins were filling up the ashtray with stinky butts, which neither gave a thought to emptying. Sure, Matthew would complain about it when it was overflowing, but Mark never emptied an ashtray, ever. Matthew, rarely.
It seemed like they were constantly arguing about what they were doing, thinking, not doing or not thinking. They would argue at the drop of a hat, although no one wore hats anymore.
"You're going too fast. Please slow down," Matthew observed in between picks at his lip.
"I'm only going 75, so I'm not going too fast," replied Mark.
"You've never driven a truck pulling a camper before, so slow down. You're going too damn fast."
Mark ignored Matthew's command and rolled his window down, knowing it would upset Matthew.
"What are you doing?" his twin shrieked. "The wind's blowing my hair. Let's ride with only the side vents open, please!"
"Fuck... your... hair," Mark replied.
"Fuck you!" Matthew shot back. "You know I don't like smoking with the windows down."
"Light me another cigarette," Mark demanded.
"Roll up your window and I'll think about it," said Matthew.
Leaning over, Mark pushed in the truck's lighter, then grinned over at his twin.
"Come on, you son of a bitch, roll up the damn window," said Matthew. Now he was getting mad. "And use your signal when changing lanes. How you ever got your driver's license I'll never know!" He quickly reached over and changed the radio station.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" said Mark. "I like that goddamn station!"
"But all they're doing is talking. Let's listen to some music, please!"
"But I want to listen to that station. I like the music they've been playing."
"There isn't any damn music playing."
They were quiet for about 30 seconds while Matthew searched for a station. Then the silence was broken when Mark calmly said, "I need to adjust the seat. It's too far back. Help me, will yah?"
"Even though I like it where it is, I'll help you," Matthew condescendingly replied, shifting his body forward so the entire truck seat would shift closer to the front of the cab. Then, as if they hadn't said one cross word, Matthew said, "Now, please roll up the window."
And so it would go. When the twins weren't arguing with each other, they would argue with me, so I was glad they didn't know I had been watching them. Besides, I usually wouldn't argue back, because if I did they would twist my arm behind my back, smack me on the back of my head, give me a knuckle ball to my arm, or a kneecap to my shins, or some other abusive action. We were like the Three Stooges, with Mark as Moe, Matthew as Larry and me as Curly, receiving all the abuse.
When I rejoined Gee and Daddy, I must have looked like an alligator wiggling back out of the passageway. Standing up I asked, "Are we there yet?"
Gee shot me an All About Eve glance that said, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night." She had discovered that Daddy had already been drinking.
His morning alcohol consumption had made him docile. But now he was getting fidgety because he wanted more. I noticed that his eyes were already glassy, so I point-blank asked, "Daddy, you been drinking?"
"Oh, just a little hair of the dog; I had some with my coffee," he said. "Now that you mention it, I think I'll have another pop."
Gee and I looked at each other while Daddy went into the tiny closet and pulled out a bottle of whisky.
"Where'd that come from?" Gee asked.
"Ha, ha. Santa brought it to me."
"Did Dan give it to you?"
"No, ma'am. Guess again."
"I don't want to play any guessing game, Daddy. Please tell me where you got it."
"From Bubba. That nice garage attendant. He took me to an ABC store. Now, that's the kind of support a man can use."
Trying to decide what to do, Gee looked to me with widening eyes, asking for help. So I blurted out, "Daddy, you know we don't like it when you drink."
Gee rolled her eyes in exasperation. She didn't want to set Daddy off. She quickly said, "At least take it slow. There's no need to have another drink so soon, now is there, Daddy? Besides, we all have to take turns driving today. You won't be able to drive when it's your turn. Okay, Daddy?"
Not knowing how Daddy was going to respond, I sighed and climbed up on the mattress over the cab of the truck, into my safe place. I didn't want to watch Daddy get drunk. I'd rather look at the traffic. As I was climbing up into the bed, I heard Gee's barely audible plea. "For me, Daddy. Please."
Daddy turned to face Gee with a guilty look on his face, like a dog who had peed on the carpet. He slowly twisted the top back on the bottle. Neither of us knew what he was going to do next. A slow, sad grin crossed his lips as he turned and put the bottle in the drawer with his pistols. With his back to Gee, he said, "Ain't got a nickel, ain't got none." It was one of his many expressions. None of us knew what it meant.
Changing the subject, Daddy moved over to the banquette and asked Gee, "Did you know that when Tab Moon... you know who Tab Moon is, don't you?" Not waiting for an answer, he continued. "Well, when he threw that first touchdown pass to Zack... now, what's his last name? Zack... Zack... Zackery. Ha, ha. Oh yeah: Zack O'Mally."
Gee was looking lost, so Daddy said, "Oh, Tab Moon's the quarterback and Zack, he's the wide receiver. Well, Zack..." Looking up at me with a huge grin, Daddy interrupted himself again and said, "I should've named you Zack. That's a good name for a rascal like you. Zack Stack. Ha, ha." Then he continued, saying to both of us, "Well, he'd painted the town red, Zackery had. He was still drunk when they took to the field. Well, he sure was. Ha, ha, Zack must have had a little hair of the dog himself because he caught the first touchdown pass of the game. Not bad if you ask me."
"Are we there yet?" I asked, and Gee laughed. We all did. What else could we do while we waited for Daddy's fuse to be lit?
Just then, a yell came through the passageway. It was Matthew asking in an angry manner tinged with urgency, "Can anyone back there tell us if we have a propane tank? 'Cause if we do, it's going to blow up when we go through the tunnel."
Gee cupped her hands and tried to force her voice through the passageway. "Pull over," she shrieked. "Pull over now!" But daddy drowned out Gee's request. "Stop the goddamn truck!" he yelled. "Stop right now, goddamn it!" Daddy usually never cursed in front of Gee, but once he'd had the first drink, there was no telling what would come out of his mouth. The sparks were starting down the length of the fuse. All Matthew had asked was whether or not there was a propane tank in the camper. I was sure he was exaggerating about it blowing up.
Mark pulled over and we all got out. The three of us could hear the twins yelling at each other as we came around the back of the camper. Mark's jaw muscles were visible; he was spewing venom and standing stick still with his fists clenched down by his side. "You were too fucking worried about the goddamn bridge or tunnel collapsing, you piece of shit!" he yelled at Matthew.
"Fuck you!" Matthew responded. "You don't even know if we have a goddamn propane tank! You don't even know what we're supposed to do with it if we have one!" He struck a Bette Davis cigarette pose and asked, wide-eyed, "Can you answer me that?"
Moving towards Matthew and threatening to strike him, Mark yelled, "The fucking warning sign said to seal the goddamn thing off! That's what the fuck we're supposed to do with it!" His words sprayed out of his mouth as he hauled off to strike Matthew.
I thought Daddy was going to knock their heads together. But all he did was yell, "You stupid sons a bitches. You're never driving this truck again. Get your sorry asses in the camper." Then, to no one in particular, he added, "Look at what you've done. Just like Bunnie... your goddamn mother... you've taken us out of the way. Now we have to go back to who-knows-where. Sons a bitches!"
We all stood there, not knowing what to do. Daddy was overreacting. I wondered how much he had actually had to drink. He didn't say anything about the propane tank. No one had even said for sure that we had one. And who knew how far out of the way we'd gone?
Gee leaned over to the twins. "What were ya'll thinking?" she asked. "Why did ya'll go so long without asking anyone about the tank? Weren't ya'll paying attention?"
"Of course we were paying attention," said Mark. "We were coming up to the tunnel, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge... I mean tunnel. Shit, it's both. Have you ever driven a camper into a tunnel, or anything else? We tried to find out what we were supposed to do and when we..." He trailed off, looking over at Matthew, who had tears in his eyes that were about to start running down his cheeks. "Oh shit, stop crying," he said angrily, through gritted teeth.
"I'm not crying, damn you!" Matthew spat out.
Daddy heard them. "You're just a pussy," he mumbled at Matthew. Then he yelled at Mark. "Stop yelling at your brother!" To both of them, he yelled, "Now get back in the camper. Like I said, this is the last time ya'll are going to drive. Holy shit. I can't believe how much time we've wasted."
I could tell from the looks on everyone's faces that they all wanted to scream at Daddy about how much time he had wasted, but no one said a word. Personally, I had no idea why we needed to backtrack. If Daddy had known what to do with the propane tank, we could have gone through the tunnel. No one knew what to do.
Maybe Daddy drank to get to his safe place. It was as if he were clawing to get back to some place he felt secure and happy, thinking one more drink would do the trick. But he never stayed there for long before spinning out of control. I knew that eventually my brothers and sister and I would get away from Daddy. But where would Daddy go?
As for me, I shut it all out by going inward, making myself invisible. After all those years of Daddy and Momma fighting, I found I could tune them out by going to a fantasy world. I had learned how to do this from the acting classes I'd taken. I'd either go into one of the plays I'd read or seen, or else I'd go to my favorite place, one of immense happiness where I was the richest boy in the world. In this safest of places I had servants and all the luxury money could buy: Rolls Royces, yachts, mansions, and a best friend, Max, who might have been imaginary, but he was still my friend in my safest of places. I could easily go there so long as there was no potential for violence. Shouting I found I could escape, but not sticks and stones. I didn't know how to block those blows. After all, they do leave visible scars -- unlike emotional blows.
Daddy took over the driving, with Gee riding copilot. At least now we knew he wouldn't be drinking for a while. His bottle was safely tucked away in the drawer. That left the twins in the camper with me as their punching bag. In order to survive, I reached into the recesses of my mind. I was in a Eugene O'Neill tragedy, A Long Journey into Montreal, in which I couldn't escape from the back of a camper. As my acting teacher, Peggy Sullivan (who we called "Coach"), might have said, "Cue the music. Houselights down. Curtain up." We were the three furies holed up in a claustrophobic camper, attempting to coexist while a belligerently drunken father navigated a runaway truck. Da-da-da-dum.
Suddenly there was a fist connecting with my shoulder. "I'm not going to ride back here with you farting, so hold the goddamn things!" Mark struck out at me.
"Hey, leave me alone. I didn't fart, damn it!" I responded.
Matthew was trying to work things out in his head. "We're 18 years old! We're adults. We're only one year younger than Genevieve. She wouldn't have known what to do about the propane tank."
Another direct hit from Mark struck my upper arm. "I said don't go farting when we're in here. You got it? You little shit!"
Matthew continued with his own line of thought. "Here she is treating us like children, taking Daddy's side. What gives her the authority to boss us around?"
"Shut the fuck up," Mark said to Matthew.
"James didn't fart, you asshole, you did," replied Matthew. "So ya'll both shut your traps." And with that, they went after each other and left me alone.
"We won't be able to get out of this shithole of a box now because of you, you...." Mark struggled for the word. He wanted to call Matthew a fairy, but he couldn't cross that line.
"Me?! Me!? You're the one who was driving and kept going. You're the one who..." Before Matthew could finish his sentence, Mark pounced. If he couldn't win with words, he would use his physical strength.
"You fucking goddamn asshole!" he said, lashing out at Matthew with his fists. "I hate you, you piece of shit! I could kill you! You ruin everything! Everything!" I knew better than to say a word, or they would both be on me like pigs on shit.
Matthew swung his arms, trying to connect with Mark, or at least protect his own face. "Leave me alone! Get the fuck off me! I hate you. God, I hate you!"
But Mark kept pounding until he brought Matthew close to tears. Trying not to cry, Matthew got out, "If Daddy... if he didn't drink... you know... you know he's already... he's been drinking." His words softened Mark's anger so that he got off Matthew and sat down on the end of the banquette with his back to me.
"I mean, what's the big fucking deal?" Matthew went on. "What if we hadn't stopped and asked? We'd have blown up in the tunnel. Then what?" He got up off the floor. "We should be fucking congratulated for even asking. But no, we are fucking treated like babies because... what? We didn't ask soon enough? Bullshit! Bull fucking shit!"
Mark sat there, taking in what Matthew was saying while staring off into space as if he was mentally somewhere else. I kept quiet and still.
Matthew went on. "I mean, shit, if we'd left sooner this morning, or if we had stronger fan belts, you know, things would be different." He knew he was making sense and gaining Mark's support, so he continued. "Mark, it's not our fault. Think about it. Neither Daddy nor Genevieve knew what to do. No one knew jack shit. And where are they going? Do they even know? I mean, how far did we drive out of the way? They don't even know. It could be only a mile or two. But no, we get shit for asking the right question, all because Daddy's been drinking. God, I hate him."
Mark lit a Parliament and slowly blew out the smoke. I wanted a cigarette so badly that I risked reaching over to take one from his pack while he was distracted listening to Matthew. Suddenly his fist flew back and hit me in the leg.
"Hey! Why'd you do that?" I yelled.
"Shut up, you little shit! Next time, ask!" Mark said as he slid the pack of cigarettes in my direction. Even though I hated the taste of Parliments, I lit one without saying a word. Mark was still frustrated, and I knew he would want to beat on someone. I didn't want that someone to be me. Besides, I agreed with Matthew. They really hadn't done anything wrong. They simply happened to be the ones driving. Wasn't Daddy the one who should have figured out what we were supposed to do? He was Daddy, after all.
My biggest fear, sitting silently in the corner of the banquette, was that the twins would take their anger out on me. It was kind of like a waterfall, where the water pressure gets harder and the force gets faster as the water drops, until it comes to the bottom and gouges out the pool area below. I was afraid I was going to become that bottomless pool filled with their anger and hate.
After finishing my cigarette, I climbed up over the truck cab to my safe place so I wouldn't have to hear or deal with Matthew and Mark. I don't know how much time passed before I sensed something special. When I looked out the window to the right, I could see the New York City skyline.
I had never seen anything like it. We were far away, yet we could still see all the tall buildings highlighted against the sky as if they were in a moving picture. And there she was, standing alone and proud, the tallest building in the entire world: the Empire State Building. Sure, from where we were, my little finger was bigger. But it was New York City! The place I had dreamed about. I could hear it calling me. I would go there, I knew it. It was going to be where I would escape my drunken Daddy and all the mean people in Spartanburg. Where I could be me. Where I would be a star. Where I would shine and have friends and go to parties and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and Times Square for New Year's and be the toast of the town, like people were called when they were someone special in New... York... City!
By this time Matthew had joined me, and even let me smoke one of his cigarettes. Feeling comfortable with him beside me, I made an oath. "I promise that one day soon I'm going to return," I told him. "I'll be a great star. My name will be in lights, over the entrance, above the title." To me, the end of the Yellow Brick Road was being on Broadway in New York City.
Of course the theater I envisioned looked like the Palmetto Theatre on Main Street in Spartanburg, South Carolina, because that was what I thought Broadway theaters looked like. Never having been to a Broadway theater or New York City, I didn't have anything else to compare it to. I didn't think Broadway theaters looked anything like the Spartanburg Little Theatre, because it didn't have a marquee. At least the Palmetto Theatre had a lighted marquee.
I just knew that the first play I would star in would be an original by Arthur Miller, and that my costar would be someone like Elizabeth Taylor. The play's title would be impressive, like Demise of the Southern Boy. Of course I would be the Southern Boy. Liz -- yes, I called her Liz in my mind -- would be my loving yet oversexed momma, and I would be the picture of innocence. No more Spartanburg theater crap for me. No more Sleeping Beauty or South Pacific.
And then: THWACK! For no reason, Matthew splintered my feeling of comfort with a smack to the back of my head, shattering all those yellow bricks. Just put a sign on my back and call me "Punching James," I thought (not that the twins needed a sign to make them hit me). I'm sure it made Matthew feel better, like he was a big man or something, but it hurt like hell. And damn it, I didn't bruise, so I didn't have any proof later when either of them beat the crap out of me.
We were now on day three. The confinement in the camper was stifling. I thought I could make the twins laugh by asking, "Are we there yet?" again, but they took it personally because of the propane tank and the tunnel. Mark jerked me off the bed and threw me on the floor. He then grabbed my arm, wrenched it behind my back and started twisting it while one of his knees pressed like a vice against my back. It was a wonder I had survived to age 15. It would be a miracle if I survived this trip.
COMING UP IN CHAPTER 7: North of the border... Gee receives a tip of the hat... "To be or not to be."
For more on becoming fearless, click here.