"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 strong language; may not be suitable for all audiences.
EPILOGUE: Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1977
Genevieve and I had taken an early Eastern Airlines shuttle from Boston to New York's LaGuardia airport so we could meet up with Matthew, who was on Fire Island with his latest boyfriend. Genevieve's self-centered husband, Ken, had a business trip planned, so he told Gee he wouldn't be with her at Daddy's funeral -- that is, until his coworkers shamed him into changing his plans. Ken would be on a later flight.
Since Expo '67, the four of us had only been together one other time, when we had taken Matthew to Columbia so he could have his physical and join the Navy. After being discharged for fooling around with one of his shipmates, Matthew had gone to college in Florida, getting a degree in something like architectural design. I hadn't kept up with him after he'd left home. Although we were going to Daddy's funeral, Matthew seemed happy now. He was finally his own person, doing what he wanted to do, living how he wanted to live, and loving life.
Sometime after we'd returned to South Carolina in 1967, I'd heard that at the beginning of the summer, Matthew had been sent to Charleston so he would be separated from the gay men in the Spartanburg area with whom he'd started socializing. Momma had sought help from the minister at St. Matthew's. This minister had interceded on behalf of another gay man who'd been "reported" to his employer for being gay. Matthew lived with this man at the minister's recommendation; Momma had no idea the other man was gay. She must have discussed all this with Daddy -- which was, perhaps, why he'd treated Matthew so poorly during our World's Fair trip, and why he was always shouting about being a "man."
The plane taxied down the runway with me -- forever the youngest -- in the middle, Matthew by the window, and Genevieve on the aisle. I noticed that Matthew continuously picked at his bottom lip -- a habit he had never broken -- and fidgeted during the entire flight, while Genevieve was calm throughout. For me, the worst part of flying, other than the turbulence, was the landing. It made me all but catatonic.
Flying home reminded me of what I'd found out about how Daddy'd gotten home that fateful summer. It wasn't his lawyer, but his lawyer's secretary -- Norma -- who'd actually taken care of getting Daddy home... because she was in love with him. She was the same woman who'd gone to Myrtle Beach with us the summer before. I wondered if she knew what he had done. Probably. After all, she had to be a glutton for punishment for marrying him.
While we waited to get off the plane, we joked about how pathetic our hometown airport, Greenville/Spartanburg International Jetport, was, since it didn't have any covered walkways from the planes to the terminal. We put on our sunglasses and pretended we were Hollywood celebrities from the 1950's as we walked off the plane and descended the steps onto the tarmac. Going from an air-conditioned airplane to the outdoors, we were accosted by the heat and humidity as if we had walked into damp mosquito netting. The temperature was in the mid-80s, going to a high of 89, and the humidity was in the 60s.
Mark was there to meet us, wearing a sympathetic smile, happy to see us, but not happy about why we were there. He was still living in Spartanburg with Momma. He'd had a hard time completing college, but ultimately did after attending three different schools. He had also spent the year after our Expo '67 trip lounging in front of the TV and not going to school; he'd had to repeat that school year. Mark had been unable to cope with what had happened. He also had more baggage than the rest of us, having been asked years before by Momma to sign papers to have Daddy committed to the State Hospital. I'd known Daddy had been hospitalized for his drinking, but didn't find out the facts until much later. Perhaps that was why Daddy was so unloving to Mark.
On the ride home, Mark let us know that Bunnie Ann and her family were staying with Norma's mother near Reidville Road, which, thank goodness, was on the other side of town from where Momma lived, and from the cemetery. Mark told us that Bunnie Ann was crying nonstop, which made me think of those women in foreign movies who are dressed in black, wailing and moaning lamentations for the dead as they walk behind the horse-driven wagon that's carrying the coffin. It seemed odd to me that Bunnie Ann would be carrying on while we four were unusually composed. But after what we'd been through with Daddy, perhaps it wasn't so odd after all.
It didn't take long for all of us to split up. Mark dropped Genevieve off at Don and Judy Mansfield's house. Their daughter, Edith, was one of Genevieve's best friends, and Don Mansfield had toasted Genevieve at her wedding and said that he considered Genevieve one of his daughters. As such, Genevieve thought the Mansfield's were more like family than her own.
Matthew was going to stay at Momma's condo with Mark since Momma was still in Florida nursing her father back to health. I spent time with friends from college. I was a family of one -- which was how it had been for many of the years while I'd lived in Spartanburg after our parents had split up.
Later, when I got to the funeral home, Daddy's casket was closed. Seeing his coffin hadn't stirred anything within me. I felt the need to see Daddy one last time. His death didn't seem real to me yet, and I knew that if I could simply view him, then I would believe he was dead.
I mentioned this to Genevieve while we were at the funeral home, and she agreed with me. She, too, needed to see him one last time. We both made enquiries but were given the runaround by the staff. Having been brought up in the South, and feeling that we were beginning to act like Yankees by demanding something, we next asked Genevieve's husband, Ken -- who had arrived in time to come to the funeral home -- to intervene on our behalf. As the youngest in the family, I had no say, and in the Bible Belt, women are subservient. So we decided not to cause a scene.
After Ken viewed the body, he told Genevieve, who relayed the information to me, that Daddy was still in a body bag, his body was decayed, and after the autopsy they hadn't sewn him up so that he would be presentable. Ken didn't simply recommend that we not view Daddy's body, he was adamant that we remember him the way he was when we had last seen him. This made Genevieve sigh, as the last thing she remembered was Daddy saying to her that she needed to pluck her nasal hairs. Funny, that would have been exactly like him to use a medical term.
We resigned ourselves to accepting Ken's recommendation. But I couldn't help thinking that my imagination had conjured up Daddy far worse than the actuality. No, I didn't see him as Humpty Dumpty all broken in pieces, but as a twisted and tortured, vile and rotting body shoved into a black plastic bag. At least we knew the results of the autopsy: Foul play had been ruled out.
* * * * *
Dressing in black is not ideal when the temperature is going to a high of 90 degrees. The day of Daddy's funeral was hazy, hot and humid, and it was still May. But that's the way things are in Spartanburg, South Carolina. At least there was a tent with a number of chairs for the family, which I saw as the mortuary's limousine drove into the cemetery. The driver parked some 100 feet from the gravesite. I stayed in the car, sitting alone, in the dark, wearing sunglasses. I wanted to wait until I knew that Norma and her two children had arrived. There's an old Southern expression: "I don't trust them as far as I can spit." My mouth was extra dry the day of Daddy's funeral.
Norma arrived and moved towards the tent as I slowly got out of the car, keeping a good distance between us. I noticed that Matthew and Mark, along with Genevieve and Ken, were still standing. They had also waited to see where Norma would deposit herself for the graveside ceremony. Bunnie Ann was holding court, weeping and groaning, sucking the air out of the tent. She and her family had already sat in four seats in the front row, which only left three seats for Norma and her two children, should they be brazen enough to occupy them. If she'd had any conscience, Norma would have allowed Daddy's blood children to sit in the front row. But, like the hussy she was, she and her two children made their way to those three seats.
Once Norma sat, I looked around to see if anyone besides me thought it was odd that she was there. Everyone simply looked sad and contemplative. And then I saw Naomi, our wonderful maid who had raised us. I went and hugged her, took her hand, and brought her over to sit with me. She resisted, thinking it might not be "proper" for a black person to sit while white people stood -- and here it was 1977. To me she was more family than Norma.
I noticed that Genevieve and Ken and Matthew and Mark had taken seats behind Bunnie Ann's family in the meantime, so Naomi and I moved to sit in the third row behind my siblings. As we were sitting, Jean Pierce, Toad's oldest daughter, came over to give me a hug. I asked her to join Naomi and me. Jean had worked for Daddy during the same time that Momma had worked with him. She had been instrumental in helping Momma keep Daddy on an even keel. She had been there the day shortly after our trip when Daddy had come to work drunk. He had demanded that Momma get out, and had chased her to the front of his office, where he'd physically kicked her in the butt in front of the people in the waiting room -- many of whom left the office with Momma.
Our family owed quite a lot to Jean. She and Naomi held my hands throughout the sermon, which I missed because Bunnie Ann wouldn't stop wailing and moaning. Also, I was thinking back to when I went by Daddy's office and it had been padlocked. Momma had told me, after I'd first moved to Boston, that it was because he hadn't been reporting his income properly and owed quite a lot in back taxes. And now his office had been converted into a bar. How fitting.
Daddy's casket was already lowered and several shovels of dirt had been applied when I remembered Momma's request. The mortuary had taken the flower display off his casket, so I quickly went over and took some of the red carnations and roses off it and dropped them on top of the dirt over the casket. There, sweet Momma, I thought, something from you goes with Daddy.
Stepping back, I looked at the men who were covering my daddy's coffin for eternity. These were black men doing the dirty job, and the white foreman was supervising. I was so happy to be out of the South, where black people were still being held back. One man looked over at me and tipped his head. I smiled back and mouthed, "Thank you."
As I started to leave the graveside, I noticed Genevieve and Ken over by a large oak tree. They weren't touching, and their facial expressions were bordering on anger. Ken knew little of what our life had been like in Spartanburg, and even less about Daddy. He had suggested that they accept Norma's invitation to drop by, which Gee adamantly refused. Ken didn't understand why, and as they stood there, the one thing Genevieve told him was, "As far as I'm concerned, Daddy died a long time ago."
After thanking the few people I knew for showing their sympathy, I made my way back to the limo. Norma had followed me. She told me it was good to see me, and said that Daddy had loved me. She went on to say, "It's too bad ya'll never called or wrote him. He would have loved it if ya'll had."
Since my momma and Naomi had raised me to be a gentleman, I simply smiled at her. But she still wasn't through. "He loved ya'll so much. He talked especially about you, and how he wanted you to be an actor."
And then she reached out to touch me. I pulled back quickly, as if her hand were a rattlesnake striking out to bite. I wanted to call her a bitch and tell her Daddy was dead because she had killed him. But somehow I found the courage to say, "How unfortunate the circumstances of our meeting again. Too bad you weren't there to take care of Daddy. Do take care of yourself, now, hear?"
Norma's beady eyes grew larger. She didn't know we knew she'd deserted Daddy two weeks before he died. I stared at her for a few seconds, enjoying her confusion and speechlessness. At least I could be proud of myself for not having lashed out and said something I would have regretted.
Daddy's will had been written by Norma's boss roughly a month before Daddy died. Norma's boss was also one of the authors of the state of South Carolina's probate law. That meant Daddy's last will and testament, written two weeks before Norma abandoned him, was watertight. Norma had made sure everything went to her and her two children. Daddy's personal effects were supposed to go to Matthew, Mark and me, but none of us saw anything.
I got in the car and shut the door, leaving her outside in the heat. The air-conditioning in the limo felt refreshing. But behind my sunglasses, my eyes were full of tears. These tears weren't for Daddy, but for my brothers -- Matthew and Mark. They had shut their minds to the fact that Daddy had pointed a gun at them and told them he wanted them dead. Maybe they thought that way because they had been told, as had I, that the handguns Daddy'd taken to Expo '67 were full of blanks.
* * * * *
A week after we'd gotten home from Expo, I was taking two neighborhood girls to the country club. I needed my wallet and driver's license, both of which were in my bedroom. Yes, we'd found my missing wallet in the bed of the truck when we detached the camper. It had stuck out over the top of my back pocket, and while I was crawling through the passageway and ripping my pants, it had fallen between the truck and camper.
I noticed that I was late, so I ran into the house. As I opened the screen door, the curved metal handle hooked in between my finger and the ring from Expo '67. Instead of ripping my finger off, it broke the ring. I picked up the piece that broke off and ran upstairs. Staring at the broken pieces, all I could think about or see was Daddy. Not the man who had held the gun, but the man who used to come into my room and tuck me in at night, the man who would talk to me until I fell asleep, the man who I thought would do anything for me, give me anything I wanted, help me in my times of worry and distress. My daddy who I knew would never have pulled the trigger. And if he had, it would have been a joke since the gun had blanks. A broken ring, like broken promises....
I grabbed my wallet and keys and left. I was one year older than Lizbet and three years older than Tammy, the neighborhood girls I took with me. After swimming at the club, we came back and went into the camper to smoke cigarettes and drink some of the Cokes we had stashed in the refrigerator. After getting a Coke, Tammy opened the kitchen drawer. Daddy's guns were still in there -- we'd all completely forgotten about them. I took one out and started acting like I was Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde. Of course, it was Bonnie's line that I remembered: "Hey, boy. Whatcha doin' with my momma's car?"
We were all laughing and having the time of our lives. Lizbet and Tammy sat in the corner of the banquette, watching me perform. I took the gun and aimed it in their direction. It only had blanks in it, so what harm would there be in pointing it at anyone? I knew they used blanks in movies when they shot people, and no one got hurt.
So I pulled the trigger.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph! The noise was probably the loudest thing I had ever heard. It literally hurt: My ears rang for the rest of the day. In fact, that night, when I was alone in my room trying to fall asleep, they were still ringing.
The bullet ripped a hole through the banquette and then tore a hole all the way through the metal side of the camper. There was even a hole in the ground where the bullet lodged, but we couldn't dig deep enough to retrieve it.
These were not blanks. They were real honest-to-God bullets. Momma had told Gee to tell us that the gun had blanks in it so we'd believe Daddy wouldn't have killed anyone. So we could still love him.
* * * * *
Matthew and Mark eventually made it to the limo, and joined me inside. I'd never told them about my unfortunate discovery. As I sat there looking at both of them, the tears cascaded down my cheeks. I knew that if they noticed, they would think they were for Daddy, but in reality I was crying for two lost boys who had only abused me because they wanted so much to be loved by our daddy. I'd always been jealous of their special bond, and how it had closed me out. Now I pitied them for not knowing the truth.
Want to read "World's Fair" from the beginning? Click here and start with "Prologue, Part 1."
For more on becoming fearless, click here.