07/21/2012 11:31 am ET Updated Sep 22, 2012

FEARLESS MEMOIR: 'World's Fair' (Prologue, Part 2)

'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 2: Boston, 1977

I put the spatula down and walked, zombie-like, out of my apartment. The birds seemed to be screeching, not chirping. I could hear neighbors in their houses talking and moving about. It was surreal. I knew that all I needed to do was cross the garden area, then cross the alley, and I'd be at Genevieve's*. But it seemed like miles -- an ocean of incredibly loud sounds. Although it was still light out, I had become myopic. My future had always been foggy, but now I seemed to be looking through a telephoto lens with no end. I somehow made it through the garden, and, surprisingly, still had the presence of mind to turn back to the slat fence and secure the padlock. The click of the lock shot through me, piercing me like the arrows through Saint Sebastian.

As I turned to make my way across the alley, I thought about the last conversation I'd had with Daddy. I'd been living on Beacon Hill with two roommates. Neither was home. Although I hadn't seen Daddy before I left for Boston, I had written to him. He would send me an occasional $100 check. I always replied, thanking him for his monetary assistance, but I didn't have much else to say. I rarely called him -- and never at night, because I didn't want to speak with him when I knew he would definitely be drunk.

It had been early evening, around 7:30, when the phone rang. I knew as soon as he spoke that he was in his cups. "I want you to know what it sounds like when a man makes love to a woman," he said.

"What? Daddy, I don't understand. What did you say?"

"I want you to know, I want you to hear, yeah, Bubba, what it sounds like when a man makes love to a woman."

"Daddy, what are you talking about? Are you drunk?" No reply. "Daddy, are you still there? Are you all right?" Still no answer, so I said -- as respectfully as a good Southern son could -- "Daddy, I'm going to hang up. If you don't answer me, I'm going to end the call. Daddy, can you hear me? Are you all right?"

And then I heard them. Daddy and Norma. What the fuck?, I thought. Does he really expect me to listen to them? I could feel my blood warming as it moved from my toes to my mouth, at which point I repeated loudly, trying not to yell into the phone, "I'm going to hang up now. Daddy. I'm hanging up. Goodbye."

I put the receiver down and went to the refrigerator. I opened it on autopilot, not even sure there was anything inside I would want. Staring back at me was a six-pack of Miller Lite. Every 20 minutes, as I drank all six beers, I'd pick up the receiver and find that Daddy still had not hung up. Even though I could no longer hear anything on the other end, I could feel my temperature steadily rising. The last time I picked up the phone, I shouted, "You stupid fucking drunk! Don't ever call me again! Do you hear me? Don't ever call me again, goddamn you!" I slammed down the phone. I had yelled so loud that my throat hurt. I knew that Daddy must have heard me. I prayed that he would hang up before my roommates came home, in case they tried to use the phone. It was a weeknight in May 1975, two years before his death.

* * *

I reached Genevieve's basement door... and stopped. It dawned on me that I would never, ever be able to tell Daddy I was sorry, or that I loved him. I had let that opportunity slip through the phone lines.

I took a deep breath and walked into Genevieve's kitchen. She turned and smiled at me. "Are you okay?"

"Sure. I'm fine. You?" We spoke as if it were an ordinary day.

"Yeah, sweetie, I'm good. Have a seat and I'll call Momma. Do you want a glass of wine, or a beer? Maybe a scotch?"

"I'd love a glass of wine. I'll fix it. Can I pour you one?"

"Oh, thanks. My glass is on the counter."

I didn't see her husband anywhere, but it was like him to not be around when she needed him. He was rigid and cold steel next to Genevieve's heart of gold. As I fixed each of us a glass from the nearly full jug of Folonari in her refrigerator, she made the call. The phone cord could reach the kitchen table, so we both sat while waiting for Momma to pick up.

"Momma? Hi, it's Genevieve. James is here with me. No, he's fine. Yes, I am too. How are you? Are you sure? Well, that's good. Have you had a chance to speak with anyone in Spartanburg? No, I don't remember her. No. Oh, yes. Yes. She's always been very nice. Yes. Um hum. Um hum. Yes."

I took a sip of wine and looked out the window back at my little garden studio. My eyes glazed over, and I didn't hear anything else Genevieve said to Momma.

"Hey, Momma wants to speak to you," Genevieve said, bringing me back to the present. I took the phone.

"Hi, Momma. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, son. How are you?"

"I'm fine." (It's one of those strange Southern traits to say you're fine even if you aren't.)

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, ma'am. Really. I'm fine."

"I'm so happy that you and Genevieve are together. Ya'll will need to support one another over the next couple of days."

"We always do, Momma."

"I know you do. I wish I were there, that I was with ya'll."

"I wish you were here, too. How's Grandpa?"

"He's fine. He's like a battleship. He'll outlive us all."

Momma paused, so I asked, "Do you know anything about how Daddy died?"

She took a deep breath. It was not going to be easy for her to tell me, and Genevieve wasn't taking her eyes off me, even while she took a sip of her wine.

"Well, son, it's like this," Momma began. "Your father's neighbor kept hearing your father's dogs barking. You remember those hounds he has for when he goes hunting...."

"Yes, ma'am. He had at least four, that I remember."

"Well, they were disturbing him, the man who lived next door, so he went over to complain about them to your father. He knocked on the door, but your father didn't answer. Now, your father's car wasn't in the driveway, but his neighbor knew that he had lost his license. You knew your father had his driver's license revoked? He'd been pulled over so many times after he'd been drinking. You knew that, didn't you?"

"No, ma'am, I didn't know that."

"Well, I'm sorry to be telling you now, but he hadn't been able to drive for the last couple of years. And That Woman's child... I don't think I've ever heard his name. Do you know what it is?"

"Daddy always called him 'Bubba,' but he called a lot of people Bubba -- including me. But I wouldn't be surprised if Norma's boy had actually been christened 'Bubba.'"

"I wouldn't either. Like I was saying, the car wasn't in the driveway because That Woman had left your father at least two weeks ago, and her son, Bubba, was driving around town in your father's car. Your father had been left without any way to get around."

Genevieve took my hand in order to get my attention and whispered, "What is she talking about?"

I put my hand over the mouthpiece. "Something about Norma and Bubba, and how neither of them had been at Daddy's for something like two weeks. Evidently she had left him."

I turned my attention back to Momma, who said, "Well, this neighbor, for the life of me I can't remember his name, either.... Do you remember?"

"No, Momma."

"Anyway, when there wasn't any answer, he -- the neighbor, old what's his name -- he tried the door to see if he could find some food for the dogs inside your father's house. He figured they were starving to death. Oh, I'm sorry, son! I didn't mean to say that."

"It's okay, Momma."

"Well, he figured they were hungry, and that's why they wouldn't stop barking. The door wasn't locked, so he opened it." She took a deep breath, then went on. "When he opened the door, he could smell it. The stench." Momma paused again. When I didn't say anything, she said, "I'm told he had to use his handkerchief to cover his mouth and nose so he could breathe." Again she paused. "Are you still with me? Are you there?"

"Yes, Momma, I'm listening," I said, knowing full well by now that I was going to regret knowing the truth.

"Well, he went inside, covering his nose and mouth, and looked around. He found your father on the floor. His body had started to decay. I'm sorry, son. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but your father had been dead... it was apparent that he had been dead for some time. I'm told it was probably for two days, maybe longer."

Evidently, Daddy's second wife, Norma, and her son, Bubba, had abandoned him about two weeks earlier, leaving him without food. The neighbor had seen Bubba pull up a few times and take bottles into the house, then leave almost immediately. Bubba had helped Daddy drink himself to death.

My eyes filled with tears and my chest constricted. Trying desperately not to let my voice crack, I asked, "Momma, are you okay?"

"Yes, son, I'm fine."

Those were the words I needed to hear: the reassurance that all was well with Momma, and the world could go to hell in a handbasket.

"I'm going to order an autopsy," Momma continued. "I'm not sure they will do it at my request, so I'm going to say his children want one. You'd want me to do that, wouldn't you?"

"Yes, ma'am," I replied, knowing it was what she wanted me to say.

"I want to be sure That Woman hasn't done anything to your father."

"Do you think she poisoned him, Momma?"

As soon as Genevieve heard me ask that question, she reached out, grabbed my hand, and whispered, "I doubt it, but better to find out than always wonder."

Meanwhile, Momma was saying, "I don't know. But I think it might be best to find out. And I thought you'd agree." She paused, then: "Should anyone ask how your father died, tell them he had a heart attack."

With family honor at stake, it was understood not to be a lie.

"I know someone at the coroner's office," Momma continued. "So I'll take care of making sure when the death certificate is filed that there is no mention of how your father was found. Don't you worry: I'll take care of everything."

Momma always did.

"I love you, Momma," I said.

"I love you too, son."

"Are you going to go to the funeral?"

"I think it best that I stay here in Florida with Grandpa. I don't think it would be a good idea for me to go to the funeral, do you?"

Even though I felt deep in my heart that Momma really did want to be there, I supported her decision. "No," said. "I think it might be best if you stayed put." After all, Norma was likely to cause a scene if Momma were to show up.

"Okay, son," said Momma. "Will you do something for me?"

"Sure. Anything."

"Will you put some roses, preferably red, in the casket for me?"

"I'll be glad to, Momma."

"If it's a closed casket, will you put them on top, so they are buried with your father? You know, a little something from me to go with him."

"I can do that, Momma. Anything else?"

"No, son. I think that about does it."

"Well, I'll speak with you soon. Tell Grandpa and Pearl that I love them. Genevieve wants to say goodbye. Goodbye, Momma. I love you."

"I love you, too."

Genevieve hung up a few moments later, and we hugged. Neither of us cried. We made arrangements to fly to Spartanburg, after which I helped her with dinner. When her husband came into the kitchen, he expressed his sympathies to me. But he didn't hug Genevieve or show her any warmth.

The three of us ate dinner and polished off the jug of wine. I left soon thereafter so I could go home and pack. Genevieve walked me down to the basement door, and as I stepped outside, I asked her, "Do you ever think about the trip we took with Daddy? Back in '67?"

Her smile faded. "I try never, ever, to think about that."

I gave her a sympathetic smile. "I don't know why," I said, "but I can't seem to put it out of my mind."

COMING UP TOMORROW IN CHAPTER 1: Divorce in the Bible Belt... Al Jolson... Metrecal, the first diet drink.

Click here to read Prologue, Part 1.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.

*Names have been changed, except for the author's.