FEARLESS MEMOIR: 'World's Fair' (Chapter 23)

I kept thinking about what had happened. Daddy had tried to kill Matthew and Mark, and we had kicked him out of the camper and left him in Canada. I'd been left behind once and had had to walk home. What if Daddy had to walk all the way to South Carolina?
10/07/2012 12:08 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2012

"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 and mild sexual content and drug use; may not be suitable for all audiences.

CHAPTER 23: Topsy-Turvy

My worries evaporated as The Supremes came on the radio. Taking it from the top with imaginary microphones in hand, Gee and I sang:

"Set me free why don't you babe? / Get out my life why don't you babe? / 'Cause you don't really love me / You just keep me hangin' on...."

During the chorus, we would go full throttle, singing in unison:

"And there ain't nothing I can do about it..."

Whoa ooh yeah.... We were having a blast! I couldn't wait to be 16 so I could drive at night without an adult and do this again. Oh, I felt a fart and started to giggle and it flew out as loud as you please. Gee focused on the road ahead, and without turning toward me said, "Passing gas in front of people is one of the rudest things you can do."

Well, I had to laugh when she called it "passing gas" like Daddy did. Stifling her own laugher, she said, "It isn't funny. Girls don't like boys who are crude and rude." Then she couldn't suppress it any longer, and she laughed too. With a smile still on her face, she continued. "Girls will never like you unless you are a gentleman."

Right about this time, my mouth was starting to taste like an ashtray full of ashes and cigarette butts. Gross. I needed another Coke and to pee again.

Through all this, the twins were back in the camper, the motion of the truck rocking them to sleep. Gee and I hadn't once talked about Daddy, until I said, "Do you think Daddy would have killed the twins?"

"Daddy wasn't going to kill anyone," said Gee. "Momma told me Daddy's pistols are loaded with blanks. Even if he'd pulled the trigger, nothing would've happened."

"When did Momma tell you this?"

"When I spoke to her on the pay phone."

"One day I'm going to have my name in lights on Broadway."

"What are you talking about? Who said anything about Broadway?"

"We're in New York, and that's where Broadway is, and that's where I'll be one day. Rodgers and Hammerstein will write a musical just for me."

"We're in New Jersey, and I think you'd better get their name right, first." When I looked at her like she wasn't making any sense, she added, "It's 'Rodger.' There's no 'S' at the end."

"Okay, 'Rodger and Hammerstein.' And Arthur Miller will write me a play. And Tennessee Williams, too. And they'll find out about me in Hollywood and put me in movies."

"Well, I think you'll have to finish college first. You'll need a deferment from the war."

"Oh, no. I'm not going to college. I'm going straight to Broadway when I graduate."

"Does Momma know about this?"

"No. But she will."

At that moment The Troggs' "Wild Thing" came on the radio. I loved that song!

"Wild thing, you make my heart sing / You make everything groovy."

And then the part with, "You move me." I was about to jump out of my seat. Gee was laughing and my jaws ached from smiling.

It was time for another cig, so I lit two. I didn't even have to ask Gee if she wanted one. I was also in need of another Coke, but then Aretha Franklin started singing "Respect," and Gee and I looked at each other with wide-open eyes and started singing along:

"What you want / Baby I got it / What you need / You know I got it...."

And we started to build, as if we were colored girls on parade:

"Ooh, your kisses, sweeter than honey / But guess what, so is my money / La, la, la ... / R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me / R-E-S-P-E-C-T / La, la, la...."

Sock-it-to-me, sock-it-to-me, oh yeah. I had to pee. I needed to pee. I was going to pee in my pants if Gee didn't stop.

The next gas station was closed, so I went behind the building. I'd seen shrunken heads from Africa, and that is what my dick reminded me of, it was so tiny. Where was Daddy when I needed him? A few years back, I'd had these bumps on my nuts. I was scared I was getting some kind of disease and my nuts would fall off or I'd have to be castrated, so I showed them to Daddy -- and thank God I did, because he told me it was hair follicles. All the boys in my class already had hair around their dicks except me. You know: pubic hair -- the hair Bunnie Ann had dedicated to the one she loved....

As the night went on, my voice was getting hoarse from so much singing. "96 Tears." "Summer in the City." "California Dreamin'." "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" -- which had to be one of the hottest songs, because of those white boots Nancy Sinatra wore. "Cool Jerk." (I danced the jerk in the car while Gee laughed.) "Windy." "Light My Fire." (Gee didn't like that one that much.) "Groovin'." "The Happening." "I'm a Believer." And so many more.

When the sky started getting lighter it was kind of eerie, like a reverse sunset. I had no concept of time. "I can't believe it's already morning and I haven't been tired at all," I said.

Smiling, Gee said, "That's because of the pill I gave you. And you've talked all night without stopping. I was wondering when you were even breathing."

"You were talking, too. Besides, I couldn't talk and sing at the same time."

I was wide awake even though we'd been up all night, but I wasn't as energetic as I had been. I didn't know what had happened. All I wanted to do was kind of sit there and stare out the window. My body was tired, but my mind was still going a mile a minute.

And the light from the sun was so damn bright. I thought it was going to blind me. There was something on the radio about race riots in Newark, New Jersey, and Gee said that we were passing near Newark at that moment -- or had earlier, I wasn't sure any longer. And I'd missed the skyline of New York City: Gee said we'd passed it. As for the race riots, I had kind of understood the whole civil rights thing back in 1964, but not what was going on now. After all, Daddy had stopped using his separate waiting room.

Which made me start thinking about Daddy. I hoped he was okay, and had found a place to sleep. He and I had always had so much fun together. I didn't really like to go fishing, what with worms and getting pricked by the damn hook. And I hated fish bones, afraid they'd get stuck in my throat. I wasn't a good hunter, either. I was so skinny, I didn't have any weight to carry the pull of the gun when it fired. But I liked being with Daddy. I hoped he was safe.

"Light me another cigarette, would you, sweetie?" Gee asked, breaking into my thoughts.

"Sure," I answered. Then: "We're almost out."

"Yeah, I know. You smoked almost all of them. We'll soon have to buy more."

"I can wait," I said. "I don't need one right now." I felt bad that I'd smoked most of her cigarettes, even after my mouth had started tasting yucky.

"If you're hungry, we can stop at a restaurant," she said.

"That's okay. I'm not hungry."

Gee nodded her agreement and checked the rearview mirrors on both sides of the truck. She was such a good driver. If the twins were hungry they didn't tell us, which they could've done through the passageway. So we kept going.

I could no more tell you when we pulled in front of Bunnie Ann's apartment than I could tell you who was going to be the first man on the moon. Bunnie Ann came running out of her house, followed by Dan. "Oh my goodness, you poor, poor babies," she said. "I feel so badly for ya'll. What a terrible thing to have happen. Oh, my goodness, ya'll. Are ya'll all right? Is anyone hurt? Did he shoot the gun off?" None of us spoke as she carried on. "This is just awful. I was so worried about ya'll when you first came through. And look what goes and happens. Daddy tries to kill the twins. Oh my goodness. And to think that he could have killed any one of ya'll. Come here my little baby. Are you okay? Did you get hurt? Momma said there was a fight. Did Daddy hit you? Tell me you are okay."

"I'm fine," I answered, trying to pull away.

"I told Momma this trip was a mistake, but she wouldn't listen to me. Oh, no." Moving over to the twins, she said, "Ya'll must feel awful that Daddy tried to do that to you. Oh my goodness. Oh lord, I know I would. Are either of ya'll hurt? Let me see. To imagine he tried to kill you. If you don't have any physical wounds, I know ya'll'll have emotional ones the rest of your lives."

"Why, thanks, Bunnie Ann," Matthew said.

"Ya'll come on inside, now hear? Anyone want some coffee?" Dan was thoughtful enough to ask after having stood there with a pathetic expression on his face while Bunnie Ann had carried on. I couldn't tell if he felt sorry for us or sorry for himself that we'd had to stop by their home and inconvenience them. I couldn't figure anything out by this time.

At some point, Bunnie Ann told Gee to shower and to try to get some sleep. I showered after Gee, knowing I'd have to sleep in the camper. I vaguely remember the water streaming out of the shower head like lead pellets pounding on my skin. When I got out of the shower and looked at myself in the mirror, I looked so old. My eyes and cheeks were shrunken in like a skeleton's. Things seemed so weird to me. It was like I was hypersensitive to everything. I didn't care any longer that my dick was nonexistent. I didn't even want to play with it. I didn't say anything to anyone in the apartment. I simply left and went to the camper.

But I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking about what had happened. Daddy had tried to kill Matthew and Mark, and we had kicked him out of the camper and left him in Canada. I'd been left behind once and had had to walk home. What if Daddy had to walk all the way to South Carolina? What a terrible person I was for leaving him. He'll never love me again. I know he'll hate me. I know it.

I started calling out, "Daddy, please don't hate me. Daddy, I love you. Please, Daddy. I want my Daddy. Daddy, please come back. Daddy. Daddy. Daddy, oh Daddy."

By now, I was crying and rolling around on the bed over the truck cab. I couldn't stop myself from hysterically yelling out one minute, hugging myself the next, and then beating on myself.

Then suddenly I stopped crying. "What an idiot," I told myself out loud. "Daddy tried to kill the twins, for God's sake. Of course we had to do what we did. He deserved to be kicked out of the camper. He might have killed all of us. What the fuck's the matter with me?"

And just as suddenly I was wildly crying again, screaming out for Daddy. "What have we done? What have I done? I hate them, all of them. They did this to you, Daddy. They made me. Daddy! Daddy, forgive me. I love you Daddy. Please Daddy, don't hate me. Don't hate me!"

Back and forth I went, one minute rationalizing what we had done and the next hating myself and the entire world. I was on a roller coaster and there was no middle ground: I was either speeding up to the tallest peak or falling into the deepest pit.

And then I sat up: The gun had had blanks -- Daddy couldn't have killed anyone. Daddy was showing off; we'd overreacted. That's right: We had jumped to the conclusion that he really was going to kill the twins. We'd fought him off and thrown him out and left him in Canada.

"Goddamn them," I cried. "It's their fault. Oh, Daddy. Will you ever be able to forgive me? Daddy, Daddy. Forgive me. Please, Daddy, I didn't mean to. Daaaadddyyyyyyy."

It was the last word I yelled as I felt myself falling deeper and deeper into a black hole.

COMING UP IN CHAPTER 24: An albatross... Gee's theory... love in a bottle.

Want to read "World's Fair" from the beginning? Click here and start with "Prologue, Part 1."

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