The World's Fair
a short story by Linda Mannheim
About the Author
Linda Mannheim’s stories have appeared in magazines in the US, Canada, and South Africa including 3:AM Magazine, Nimrod International Journal, The Gettysburg Review, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose Writing.
Her most recent book Above Sugar Hill (Influx Press) was long listed for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and was a #readwomen2014 pick of the year. She is also the author of a novel, Risk (Penguin, 2006).
Originally from New York City, she now lives in London.
God didn’t make Flushing; it’s all landfill, ashes that the garbage men of Brooklyn dumped on Queens. Rats used to run all over. People who lived in shanties trapped animals here. My grandmother remembers this — watching trash torch and glow at night across a field. “All of this,” she says, looking out at the garden apartments broken up by big brick buildings, “It was garbage once.”
“When did it stop being garbage?” I want to ask her.
“Before you were born,” she offers, “this neighborhood was beautiful.”
As if my being born ruined it.
She’s obsessed with this old movie theater on Northern Boulevard. “You should have seen the Keith. It was a palace. You could see the lights from Main Street. The fountain in the lobby used to run. And they had goldfish in there.”
We go up to the Keith, Tony and me, to see Star Wars. The fountain doesn’t have anything in it but a dried layer of scuzz. The lobby smells like pee. I have to hold my breath to get to my seat. Tony buys a joint off this guy, and I swear it must be treated, because by the time R2D2 comes out and starts squeaking and shit, I feel like I’m plugged into the wall.
“You feeling funny?” I ask Tony.
“Not funny enough,” he says.
“No, I mean funny bad.”
“Nuh… Aww… A little…” he finally says, so I know he’s just making this up so I’ll feel okay.
The music gets all big and scary then, and Darth Vader shows up on the screen. A bucket of popcorn goes flying, the popcorn raining down on us just like it was coming from the sky.
About five people scream at the same time, and then a bunch of guys start looking around the theater for who threw the popcorn.
“What, it’s the Rocky Horror f*cking Picture Show now?” Tony asks, tilting his head back; the ceiling droops in the dark, like it’s going to drop too.
“I don’t feel well,” I tell him.
“What?” he asks, as if I’m speaking in code. “You mean like you’re gonna throw up?”
“I don’t feel well,” I tell him again.
“You wanna go?”
The scary music is pounding. I think, maybe there is something wrong with my chair. Maybe there’s a broken wire under it, and I am getting electrocuted. Anything is possible in this place. Or maybe the guy behind us, drinking his beer and slapping his knees whenever one of the little robots gets f*cked up, is really some sicko. Maybe he’s rigged this thing up to electrocute me and Tony. If I tell Tony this, he’ll think I’m crazy. But if I don’t tell him, we both might die, and I’ll be sitting here getting electrocuted when I could have gotten away.
“I think the pot’s treated,” I tell Tony finally. “I think someone dusted it.”
“You okay?” he wants to know.
“No,” I tell him.
I can tell he doesn’t wanna go. He picks up his leather jacket like he’s a little kid who has to leave his friend’s toys and come home.
“Stay,” I whisper. “I’ll come find you afterwards.”
“Can you two shut up so the rest of us can hear the movie?” the knee-slapper behind us asks.
“You think it’s a f*cking library in here?” Tony asks, standing up. I pull him away from the guy and act like he’s gonna be really threatening.
Tony used to get beat up everyday after school until he cut his hair real short, got this leather jacket with zippers all over it, tore up his tee shirts, and started wearing Levi’s with straight legs. He even learned how to break off the sharp end of a safety pin so that it looks like it’s going through his cheek. People are scared to come too close to him, but there are some guys who drive down Northern sometimes and toss bottles at him, screaming “Punk!”
Outside, the night air is waiting all big and silent. But the electricity followed. Maybe it’s something stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I take a deep breath, and the charge weakens.
“Better?” Tony asks.
“A little,” I answer.
Cars whiz by, slap light in our faces then steal it away again as they go.
We start to walk down Main Street, past the blank show windows and boarded up stores. At night the avenue is so empty, every footstep seems to echo. Up ahead there’s the store they torched, its ruins gaping like a mouth and its smell still hanging in the air a week after the fire. I like the smoke smell even though it comes from smashed glass, water-drenched walls, someone else gone. An airplane goes over us, its belly so shiny and big I think I can reach up to it with my hand. Its boom drowns everything out.
Tony is pouting, just walks all hunched over, his hair making his shadow look like the shadow of a cartoon character. Once the plane passes, he starts to sing, “I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too…”
Tony’s parents wanted him to be a singer, like Frank Sinatra or something, and every now and then one of those old songs pops out. But mostly he listens to the Sex Pistols and Patti Smith and the Clash. His parents think that spending time in the Village messed him up, and they’re trying to keep us from going into the city anymore. You should hear his mother after she went there: “People wearing things you wouldn’t believe!” You’d think she lived in Kansas instead of Flushing. You’d think the village is as far away as Oz.
We get near the subway station, and I think Tony’s gonna say we should go to the Village, and I can’t right now — not with this electricity going through me still. But then I remember that neither of us has any money, that we just spent everything he had on Star Wars.
“What do you want to do?” I ask.
Tony shrugs, his hands stuffed so deep down his pockets I think they’ll come right through the front of his jeans.
I ask, “Wanna go to the World’s Fair?”
The World’s Fair ended something like fourteen years ago, of course. Tony and I were just kids then, so little that our parents had to push us around in baby carriages. My earliest memory is from the World’s Fair. There were these baby carriages that looked like rocket ships, and you could rent them for a quarter. I really really wanted to ride in one, but my parents said it was dumb to pay a quarter for a baby carriage with a rocket ship on it when we had a perfectly good baby carriage with us, so I never got to ride in one. But we went to Futurama, and it was all about how cool cities would be when Tony and I grew up. There were supposed to be moving sidewalks, and flying cars, and synthetic food. I guess the only part that really came true was the synthetic food. And there was this scale model of the city, every building sitting there in miniature, all perfect and clean.
Now, the World’s Fair doesn’t have anything left except for some old rusty rocket ships and a see-through globe. But Tony and me, when we go there at night, it’s fine. Everybody leaves us alone.
“Hey,” I tell Tony. “Let’s go to my house. I’ll get some money from my father, and we can buy some Remy Martin and take it to the World’s Fair.”
My father’s watching T.V. when we get there, an old war movie. That’s good. When he’s watching old war movies, he doesn’t see anything else. If he’s not watching a war movie, he’s talking about the war. If he’s not talking about the war, he’s talking about all of the houses he built. “Half of Flushing,” he says, his eyes turning down at the lie. Like anyone’s gonna believe he built all that. Like anyone should try to take credit for it. “How can I leave?” he asks because everyone keeps telling us to move, telling us it’s gonna get bad. “Like the Bronx. Like Bed Stuy. Like Harlem. Worse,” they say, before they pack up their houses and move out to the ‘burbs. They board up stores, and my father sits here and tells them all, “Me, how can I go? My wife died here. My Julie grew up here. And Eve,” he says, pointing to me as if I can’t hear or speak, “she still has to finish high school.”
I hate when they tell us to leave, like they’re going someplace good and clean and holy, and we’re going to burn with the neighborhood if we stay.
Down in the basement, I undo the brick. Then I take out the metal box. It’s incredible to me that my father thinks the lock on this thing means anything, that he doesn’t realize you can jam a paper clip in it and pop the lid right open. Then again, it’s amazing to me that he keeps his cash in a box in a basement, that he doesn’t think about how, in 1977, banks are a little better than they were during the Depression.
I pull up eighteen quarters. Big amounts he’ll notice, but little amounts he’ll think are just a miscount because who else knows about this?
I push open the back door. Tony’s waiting outside. We walk fast without talking, stop at a liquor store where we won’t get proofed, buy a bottle of Remy Martin. Tony puts it in his jacket’s inner pocket. He almost struts away from the store, and on the corner, we run into a new guy selling loose joints.
“C’mon,” I say, trying to pull Tony away.
“This dusted?” Tony asks, taking a look at the guy’s baggy.
“Clean as the mountain air,” says the guy, blank eyes and stringy hair. “It’s grown by elves in Vermont.” The guy doesn’t have even a hint of a smile.
Tony takes four quarters from my pocket, drops them in the guy’s hand, then takes the joint. Me, I still have a little bit of electricity chasing me.
The park where they put the World’s Fair didn’t have any houses on it at first because it was all mud — mud waves slapped apart anything people tried to build. Then they figured out how to drain the water into the river and made the ground solid. The park is three miles big. It is the geographic center of New York. The see-through globe, known as the unisphere, was a trademark of the fair and a symbol of hope and unity to people throughout the world. I had to memorize this shit in school.
The park is completely empty when we get there — not even water in the pool under the see-through globe. There’s this building nearby — the only building left from the World’s Fair — that looks like it was made out of giant toilet paper rolls that someone punched holes into. Then, near that, there’re a couple of old rockets. I don’t even know if these things are real or not. I mean, I think that they could be some early rockets or something that NASA gave to Flushing, or they could just be models. They’re all rusty and shit.
Tony walks over and makes his usual joke. “I don’t know, Even.” He’s the only one who calls me Even. “I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to get these things started again.”
I smile and give Tony a little punch on his shoulder. Then I take the bottle of Remy Martin from him.
He sings, “God save the Queen. She ain’t a human being.”
He tries to sound as pissed off as he can while he sings this and his lower lip curls. It’s really cute.
We walk over to the see-through globe, and I get right underneath it and put my hands against it. The lights make everything look really weird, kind of like we’re in a movie now. “If you could go anywhere in the world,” I ask Tony, “where would you go?”
Another plane flies over us, good and low from LaGuardia and threatening to drown everything with its sound. Tony grins and says something but with the plane on its way out, I can’t hear.
“What?” I mouth.
“England,” he says.
Obvious. All his obsessions leading there, except for Patti Smith of course. She’s from New Jersey, but she must spend a lot of time in England anyway.
“How about you?” Tony asks.
“Brazil,” I tell him, looking up at the globe.
Tony wants to know, “How come?”
“Because it’s way the f*ck down here and so I can reach it.” I touch South America with my fingertips.
“Seriously,” Tony says. “You’d have to learn Portuguese, and the cities there are even worse than New York.”
I stare at him for a second. He is being serious.
I climb down from the globe and go over to where Tony’s sitting, take the Remy Martin from him and have a swig.
“In England you’d already know the language,” he says. “And the city’s like a toy. Just look at those double decker buses and the way the cops dress.”
I think about this for a second, imagine shiny, red double decker buses small enough to move with my hand, a Picadilly Circus I can fit on my basement floor.
“You still getting electrocuted?” Tony asks.
“No,” I tell him, savoring the calm, “it’s stopped.”
Tony takes the joint from his pocket and lights it up.
“There are squats all over London,” he says and takes another toke.
“What do you mean?”
“We could live for free,” he continues, as he lets out a blob of smoke. “All we’d have to worry about are food and drugs. We could take care of that.”
“We’d need passports,” I remind him.
“Then we’ll get passports,” Tony says, taking another hit.
“We need to get our parents’ permission.”
“We’d need to get their signatures,” Tony says. “I can do their signatures.”
I go back over to the globe, shut my eyes and pretend its spotlights are sunlight.
“It rains all the time in England,” I say.
“I like rain.”
The song Tony was singing before comes into my head: I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too.
“Queens isn’t in it,” I say.
Tony asks, “What?”
“It goes, ‘I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too.’ There’s no Queens in it.”
I take the joint from Tony while he thinks about this.
“Well, there’s no Brooklyn either,” he says.
“Staten Island,” I laugh, taking a hit. “Who the f*ck goes to Staten Island anyway?”
Another plane flies over us. We both turn our faces to the sky.
“You wanna get the money from my father?” I ask.
I give the joint back to Tony and say, “Okay.”
Then I lie down on the cold concrete of the dry pool. I shut my eyes; I ease my back against the ground. Tony comes and lies down next to me. His body shifts the air from its place. I put my hand on his cold leather jacket to make sure he’s there.
“Even,” Tony asks, “Come with me to get our passports tomorrow?”
“Okay,” I tell him, looking straight up through the bottom of the globe, up to the sky crisscrossed with soaring planes.
“The World’s Fair” Copyright ©2003 by Linda Mannheim.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should contact the author directly.