"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.
CHAPTER 15: A Taste of Life
Although I knew nothing about Persian rugs, I still wanted to go to the Iran Pavilion because I loved I Dream of Jeannie and always thought it would be great to have a genie in a bottle who would grant me three wishes. I used to wish for it to snow or for me to get a bicycle. But now that I was 15, I knew that I would want wealth, knowledge and health. Or world peace, food for everyone, and happiness. Or wealth, peace, and food. Or wealth, food, and health. Anyway, I'd probably end up forfeiting one of my wishes to get Daddy to stop drinking, because all that came out of his bottle was the devil. Then I'd only have two.
I used to pretend I had a magic carpet that could whisk me away to another place and time. I would imagine my bedroom being covered floor to ceiling with exotic rugs, and one of them was magical and could fly, and it would take me anywhere I wanted to go....
Once we three made it inside the Iran Pavilion, I became a Persian prince, which meant that I had my own harem. (Yes, there was that perpetual erection of mine -- thank God I never tucked my shirttail in.) If I were a Persian prince, I could have sex whenever, wherever, and with whomever I wanted. To me, the Iran Pavilion became a sex palace. I didn't notice any of the exhibits because my mind was completely engulfed in a sexual mist.
I was in love with the splendors of the Persian Empire and its wealth and decadence. I wasn't even sure if it had been wealthy or decadent, but while traipsing through the pavilion those things were in my mind. I was being served by naked boys and girls from silver and gold trays and cups. They were hand-feeding me grapes and exotic fruits, which dribbled down my chin, onto my chest and down between my legs....
Suddenly my state of euphoria was interrupted. "I've about seen enough," Gee announced. "How about you?"
"What?" The sudden shattering of all the different sensations I'd been experiencing left me speechless.
"You haven't said a word since we've been in here. Want to go?"
"Sure," I mumbled.
We went out a different door than the one we'd come in through. We couldn't see the area where we had left Daddy, so I asked Gee if I could have one of her cigarettes. After my first drag, I accepted the fact that I was not a Persian prince in any shape or form: A Persian prince wouldn't have to ask his sister for a cigarette. I wondered about Daddy and prayed he wasn't getting into trouble. At least, not bad trouble.
The Switzerland Pavilion was a short walk, and right next to the Austria Pavilion on Swan Lake. Outside, to the left of the entrance, was another one of those strange sculptures like the one outside "Man the Explorer." This sculpture was also made of metal, but it had been painted red. I didn't bother checking out its name because it probably didn't look like that, unless it was called "Pile of Red Metal."
The Switzerland Pavilion had one key item that made going in well worth the trip. They had on display an electric timepiece that was driven by an atomic clock. They claimed it kept time to a millionth of a second per day, but to me they could have claimed it kept accurate time to the quadrillionth of a second and I would have believed them since it was A-T-O-M-I-C! They also had a film which seemed to go on forever. I wanted to leave before it was over, but Gee didn't want to walk out because it would have been rude. So while we stayed for the entire movie, I went back mentally to being a Persian prince, this time on a state visit to Switzerland. Now that was fun.
As Gee and I left, each of us smoking another one of her Benson & Hedges, we noticed that the Switzerland Pavilion had a couple of restaurants. We agreed to come back later so we could tell people we had eaten real Swiss food as if we had been to Switzerland. That made both of us laugh.
Since we were still so close to the Iran Pavilion, it made sense for us to circle back and get Daddy. Of course, I knew what we would find, even though in my heart I wished otherwise. Sure enough, Daddy's eyes were glassy and he wasn't doing much except raising his glass to his lips. For all we knew, he could have been a zombie.
"Hey, Daddy," Gee greeted him as we walked up.
"Lookie here. Ya'll came back." Daddy seemed genuinely happy to see us.
"We thought we'd see if you wanted to go to some of the pavilions with us," Gee said.
"We've been to Switzerland," I added. "You know -- where they make watches. That was after we went to Iran."
"Now, where'd ya'll run off to?" Daddy asked.
"We didn't run anywhere," I answered.
"Daddy wants to know where you ran when you said 'I-ran,'" Gee translated. "Get it?" As I nodded, she said, "Come go with us, Daddy."
"'Beer on whisky, mighty risky,'" he replied.
"Nobody's going to get beer, Daddy. Come on and join us, won't you?" Gee pleaded.
"Go on, now," said Daddy. "I'll be fine. Mighty fine."
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"I said, go on, now. I'll be fine, mighty fine," Daddy repeated.
Walking away, Gee and I decided to go to the Belgium and Netherlands Pavilions, and then we thought we might be able to also see the Japan Pavilion since Daddy wasn't with us. We knew that was a lot to try and see so late in the day, but if we didn't like something we wouldn't dawdle.
The Belgium Pavilion reminded me of one of those new office buildings popping up on Pine Street back home -- glass and bricks, like the one across from Converse College. Outside of the pavilion was a space alien-looking sculpture which was made of shiny metal and looked like it had been melted, especially on top. It looked like an alien wearing a protective helmet.
As we entered, we were greeted by busts of the Belgian king and queen. But the best thing was a painting by someone named Rubens, called "The Education of the Virgin." It was my first face-to-face encounter with religious art, and as I looked at it, my mouth hung open in awe. The virgin figure was supposed to be Mary, the mother of Jesus, but she didn't have a typical halo like in my Sunday-school books. She was peering down and out, almost looking at me but not quite -- more like she was deep in thought. A man and a woman were also in the painting. The man had a God-like quality -- he had a beard -- and the woman was smiling and gazing off to the right, like she was seeing something that made her happy. They appeared to be outside on a balcony, and there were two little babies flying overhead who were about to place a crown of flowers on Mary's head. I thought that maybe the flower crown was supposed to be the halo. Then I overheard someone nearby say that Mary was marrying God -- that was what the painting was about.
Well, that confused me. Why would Mary be marrying God when she was supposed to be married to Joseph? Then I remembered that men had multiple wives in the Bible. But did women have multiple husbands? And what were they "educating" her about? Sex? If she'd already married Joseph and had children, I'd have thought she would already know about that. Still, the painting was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I did think that the people in the painting were way overdressed, sort of like Dr. Lawrence and his family. But I could see how powerful this painting must have been back when it was painted.
Next we saw something I was sure Daddy would have liked. It was a painting called "The King Drinks." Everyone in it was having a grand time; it even made me smile. If only that were what it was like when Daddy drank -- everyone having a good time. But when Daddy drank, he wasn't a king at all... except in his own mind.
As we were leaving, I noticed that they were exhibiting a cartoon called Tintin. I thought it odd how today we are so educated, but a cartoon like the ones in the Sunday paper represented the Belgian culture. Yet back when we weren't as smart or advanced, there was such beautiful art.
On our way out, we passed a restaurant which was promoting Belgium's famous beers. Both Gee and I laughed. We knew that Daddy would have loved trying them, but he had opted out of coming with us. Too bad Daddy seemed to need to drink instead of tasting life.
Right next door was the Kingdom of The Netherlands Pavilion. The building looked like a giant erector set had been used to make an enormous jungle gym. It had a restaurant, so Gee and I shared some authentic Dutch food -- stamppot and schnitzel. The stamppot tasted like someone had "stamped" all over the food while it was in the pot. It was actually mashed potatoes with vegetables and meat mixed in. I hated it when the peas on my plate touched the meat, or the meat touched the rice, so it was totally disgusting to me.
While we were eating, I asked Gee, "Why did you volunteer to look after Daddy today?"
"I'm tired of all the fighting," she said. "It seemed simpler this way."
"Part of me wants to go get him. But something is telling me not to."
"I know how you feel. But you know he loves us. He just can't seem to show it. I'm sorry. I wish there was something I could do."
"It's not your fault," I told her.
"I thought this trip could be so much fun," she said. "I knew Daddy would drink, but I thought he wouldn't drink so much around me. Around you and me."
Once we had finished eating we headed out, and after lighting up, we began to wander in no planned direction. The bulk of the day had passed, and the smoke added a calm to our meandering. Gee put her hand in the crook of my arm, making me feel like a gentleman.
And then we found ourselves walking by the Japanese pavilion. We could see into a garden as we passed. It looked perfect and pure, but not very relaxing or inviting. God forbid I should pass gas in there -- the garden looked like it would cause constipation. As we stood and gazed at it, though, it slowly dawned on me how pretty and pleasant it was. And then I got it: It was harmony in the midst of a multitude of people. Thinking this made me want to go inside -- I was twitching like I had chigger bites all over my legs -- but we'd spent too much time eating and at the other pavilions. As we walked away, I could see people inside wearing kimonos. I couldn't help but wonder what the Japanese people were really like. In the World War II movies they were bad, but how could people who made such a peaceful garden be evil?
When we rounded the corner of the Iran Pavilion, there was Daddy where we had left him. He was now in a state of nirvana -- like the Buddha we'd heard about. This wasn't the first time I'd seen Daddy drunk and not acting belligerent. It was actually a good thing that the person he had become was one we could hope was enlightened. Or else we could all laugh like in that painting of the king....
But no such luck. As Gee and I helped Daddy to his feet, there was an audible sigh from a group nearby, who started clapping once we got him on the pavement. But the people at two other tables were saying how sorry they were to see him leave. They thanked him for the drinks he'd bought them and wished him well. It would have been nicer if they'd helped us get him back to the camper.
Luckily, when we got back to the parking lot, Matthew and Mark were there. But they were upset, and we thought their accusatory looks were blaming us for Daddy's being plastered. Gee and I weren't happy, either. We'd had to nearly carry Daddy with his arms slung around our shoulders so his full weight was bearing down on us. While that wasn't easy for either of us, the worst part was how embarrassing it was, what with the people we passed laughing at us because they could tell Daddy was drunk.
The main reason the twins were upset was because they'd been locked out of the camper. "Where the hell have ya'll been?" Matthew demanded as we approached the truck. "We've been standing around in this fucking parking lot for hours."
"Fuck, fuck, fuck yourself. If ya'll aint got a nickel, ya'll ain't got none," Daddy said.
"Can ya'll help us with Daddy?" Gee asked.
"Get the fuck away from me," Daddy growled at the twins.
As we continued towards the camper, Gee explained, "We got here as quickly as we could... under the circumstances."
"We've been here for hours," Mark spat out, in defense of Matthew.
"Quit ya'll's bitching," said Daddy. "Ya'll sound like Bunnie. Like your goddamn momma. I'm getting inside the camper ya'll been walking around." He turned and winked at me. "Nice 'un now," he said. He could barely make it up the one step to get inside.
Turning to the twins, Gee said, "From now on, we'll hide a key so whoever gets back to the camper first can get inside."
"Well, this wouldn't have happened if we'd been allowed to drive," Matthew barked.
"That's not true and ya'll know it," Gee answered calmly. "We only have one key."
"No, there're two," shouted Matthew. "You have one and Daddy has one."
Hearing his name, Daddy said from inside the camper, "What's going on out there?"
"Nothing Daddy. You lie down, now," Gee called out.
"Look at how drunk he is," Matthew whispered through clenched teeth. "What'd ya'll do with him, anyway?"
"Let's decide where the goddamn key is going to be hidden first. Okay?" Mark interjected. "Then we can talk about how fucked up Daddy is."
Taking a deep breath so as to remain calm, Gee said, "Mark, please stop cussing. We've had to listen to Daddy all the way back here." When neither Mark nor Matthew challenged her, she continued, "Tomorrow we'll get Daddy's key and put it..." -- she looked around -- "...inside the gas cover. It can rest right here." She opened the flap and indicated an area above the fuel cap.
"We just have to remember to remove it so it doesn't fall out when we're driving," I added.
"We won't forget, you little shit," Matthew teased, taking his anger out on me.
"Please, leave James alone," Gee insisted.
"You leave him alone," Mark jumped in, referring to Gee's tone when she was speaking to Matthew.
"I'm getting in the truck," I said. "I don't need this."
"You don't need..." Mark started to say.
"I agree," Gee interrupted. "Let's go back to the campsite." She opened driver's door.
"But ya'll haven't told us about Daddy," Matthew interjected, doing his best not to yell.
"Can we just go? I'll tell ya'll back at the campsite," Gee pleaded.
"No. We're the ones who have to get inside the camper with him," said Matthew. "It's not going to be a joy ride. What did ya'll do with him?"
"He found out that he liked Iranian vodka," I yelled out from inside the truck.
Daddy heard me. "Ya'll got some vodka?" he asked.
"How the fuck could ya'll let him drink liquor all afternoon?" Matthew asked in disbelief.
"No, Daddy," Gee called into the camper. She turned to Matthew. "We didn't let him."
"Yes ya'll did, damn it!" Matthew screamed. "Look at him!"
"Shut the fuck up," Mark shouted at Matthew. "And get in the goddamn camper." Mark didn't like anyone screaming at Gee, but it was okay for him to yell at her.
"Fuck you!" Matthew hollered at Mark.
"Please stop cussing at one another. We didn't..." Gee tried once again to explain.
"You did. How else did he get so damn drunk?" Matthew demanded.
"Get in the goddamn camper," Mark ordered. "Go on, goddamn it, get in the camper before I beat the shit out of you."
"I'm tired of everyone telling me what to do. I'm tired of it!" Matthew howled.
"Why're we fighting?" Gee said, close to tears. "We need to stick together. Please!"
"Fuck you," Matthew said angrily.
"Get in the goddamn camper," Mark demanded again, making a move towards Matthew as if he were going to hit him.
"I'm going. I'm going, you asshole," Matthew replied.
Mark acted like he was going to kick him, so Matthew stepped lightly and moved around behind the camper to get inside. Then Mark turned and looked back at Gee. The expression on his face was more sad than mad. He knew that Gee was right in asking that we not fight. He had seen Daddy like this many times and knew no one was to blame except Daddy.
As Gee drove us back to the campsite, I stared out the truck window and wondered if we'd survive another week -- or hell, the night.
COMING UP IN CHAPTER 16: Snagglepuss and Popeye... American's #1 enemy... the second-biggest regret.
Want to read "World's Fair" from the beginning? Click here and start with "Prologue, Part 1."
For more on becoming fearless, click here.