Inside the rest stop, flies blackened the cloth swathed around a plate of sliced oranges. The woman behind the counter told me they were samples. I could take as many as I wanted and didn’t have to pay. I stuffed two slices into my pockets, one in my mouth, and bit down. This was my first impression of Florida: everything was sweet and free.
I joined my family on a bench overlooking a prairie of saw grass that stood well above our heads. Lorraine held Snickers tight. A malnourished tabby with one chewed ear, he was the only feral cat to survive the fire that had destroyed our home and used-car dealership. We were proud of ourselves for rescuing Snickers, but he didn’t seem to appreciate our efforts. He had spent the last twenty hours pawing at the car door, longing for his dumpster burned black to ashes, crying for all his dead friends. I offered him an orange slice.
Dad studied the road map, looking for a place we could live. The condos in Orlando didn’t appeal to him: not enough privacy. The coast was too expensive. He penciled a route toward Lake Okeechobee, the big body of water dominating the bottom of the state. An airboat bearing an American flag roared through the saw grass. It was my first time seeing one, and I felt both scared and thrilled by its military-like energy. Snickers flattened his ears. Mom fussed with the tight red bun resting atop her head like an apple waiting to be shot. “Where the hell are we?” she said, face lifted toward the sun, eyes closed.
Under the overpass, we merged onto a two-lane road pocked with puddles. On either side, short trees sprouted from black muck. Even with the T-tops on and A/C running, Lorraine and I got broiled by the sun. There wasn’t much room for us in the hatch of our brandy-brown Corvette. Not the most practical vehicle for two parents and two girls, ages seven and nine, but Dad liked cars with curves. We came up behind a station wagon that looked like it was held together with mud. Milk crates filled with strawberries and string beans were lashed to the roof. From behind the busted-out windows, faces peered. “Migrant pickers,” Dad said, and gassed it past them.
We assumed we’d see Lake Okeechobee from the car. But after driving for two hours, we realized we somehow must’ve missed it. Swampland gave way to sugarcane fields. Mom got mad at us for bickering about the radio. Dad turned it off. “Peace and quiet,” he said.
Lorraine tossed her long brown ponytail, so silky and fine that her scrunchie slipped right out. I knew what the toss meant. She knock-knocked on the cooler. I make-believe opened a door. “Hey. It’s me,” she said, heavy on the mock despair. “I got somethin’ I wanna tell you.” She brought a spark plug to her mouth like a microphone. “I think we’re alone now. There doesn’t seem to be anyone a-ro-ound.”
These were the only lines she knew, and she sang them over and over, looking out the window to the thick, scraggly woods for dramatic effect. I came in with backup: “Alone now-owww.” Snickers meowed his high-pitched meow. Then stopped and meowed again. “Snickers, you are worse than a woman,” Dad said, and he swore, the next place we saw, he didn’t give a damn if it was a prison camp, that’s where we would live.
Which is how we ended up in Loxahatchee.
A line of green plastic mailboxes wilting in the heat signaled that somebody lived somewhere. Dad hung a left. Along a narrow canal blooming with furry green algae, sapling limbs clutched at the ’Vette. High in the scruffy palm trees topped with sunshine were homemade wooden signs with a stenciled 1-800 number and the word “LOTS.” At the end of a driveway, a fat man with a pink head buzzed to the scalp jabbed a shovel into the ground. Dad rolled to a stop and leaned out the window. He spoke over the engine. “Just drove down from up north. Work in the car business. Got two kids.” He tossed a thumb back in our direction.
“This a good place to raise a family?” Mom said.
The man stepped a bare foot onto a shovelhead wet with blood, white guts, and waxy silver skin. “Depends,” he said. “Whaddaya thinka rattlers?”
The lot we picked cost thirty-five hundred dollars. It smelled of rotten eggs. No roads led to it, but the seller promised that very soon there would be. Dad paid in cash.
The day before the excavation, we tied orange ribbons around the trees we wanted to keep. Through thick vine, over the soft circle of pine needles where the wild boar bedded down, muck oozed into my green glitter-jellies.
“That one!” Dad said. Afraid of snakes, he stood on the property’s edge and pointed at trees that caught his eye. In this case: a tall silver palm. “That’ll go on the corner of the pool.”
Mom stood waist-deep in a palmetto bush. “Insurance money’s coverin’ all this?” she said. She waited for an answer.
“That one,” Dad said, nodding to the low-growth shrub with leathery leaves. “Privacy. For the hot tub.”
Dad acquired a pop-up tent trailer and we moved into the Lion Country Safari KOA: the cheapest housing option around while our home was being built. Outside our tent screen stretched taut against mosquitoes, gators snarled like chain saws. Mom didn’t believe the sounds were real. She thought they were recordings piped through speakers hidden in the bushes. I insisted we keep Snickers inside the tent at all times.
Opportunity. I had never heard the word before and suddenly Dad was pointing it out everywhere. In the developments rising out of the swamp, in the thickness of The Palm Beach Post’s classifieds. Seeing it for the first time, he let out a low whistle—just as he did when contestants on game shows won a shitload of money. Back in Adena, Ohio, job openings were found by scanning the obituaries.
Dad applied at dealerships during the day. Circling off I-95 into downtown West Palm was like hitting the car-lot jackpot, he said. They just kept coming. One after another. Open-air dealerships ablaze in showroom shine. Walter Smith Ford, Roger Dean Chevrolet, Braman Auto. And every last one of them had neglected the used-car end of their business.
The GMs gave it to Dad straight: There were cars to be sold. But finding intelligent, hardworking people who could be trusted with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of inventory was difficult. In West Palm, there was nothing but beach bums and drug addicts. They liked what they saw in Dad: a sharp-dressed Northerner with a strong work ethic and a young family. He took a job at Al Packer Ford, working on straight commission. They offered him a three-hundred-dollar sign-on bonus.
“Five hundred and I start today,” he said.
Seven mornings a week, sunrise spilled like grapefruit juice across the sky. I patted dew from the ’Vette with a dish towel while Dad got ready for work. Sitting in the driver’s seat in his Fruit of the Looms, he shook Tylenol from the bottle and swallowed them dry. Drops of Visine, quick swipes of deodorant, a gurgle of Listerine that he spit in the dirt. He turned his cheek left, right, admiring himself in the rearview mirror. He looked good. Needed some crown work, that was about it. From the hatch, he pulled a dry-cleaned suit wrapped in plastic. He stepped into black pants with a sharp crease, buttoned his long-sleeved crisp white polo, and knotted a colorful tie. His suit jacket—black with a nipped-in waist and rolled shoulder—yanked him into a soldierly posture. He pulled on his Size 13 crocodile-skin boots, which he’d bought on the side of the road from a real Indian. Gliding a Dustbuster over himself, he removed specks of sand. A wink goodbye, and Dad backed out of the campsite.
Mom, Lorraine, and I played Uno and Memory until the afternoon heat forced us out of the tent and into the pavilion. Lizards vanished into walls. Mom chatted with fellow campers: retired couples with arthritis, workers from the sugarcane fields, surfers with construction jobs, single moms with long feather earrings, and teenagers with names like Clint and Clayton who knew all kinds of things about the Confederacy. Weekend campers came and went, leaving behind mounds of trash, which the boar threw up after eating. But we liked the long-term campers, with their calls to join them at the firepit for s’mores and Riunite. Like us, the long-term folks used the campground to regain footing after pitfalls: evictions, cancer, civil war in Guatemala. When Mom told them we lost everything in a fire, gifts appeared. Hand-me-down Barbies, books in Spanish, a badminton set.
Living in a hot tent with a cat who refused to use the litter box and two sweaty kids sharing a pillow and covered in insect bites was tough on Mom. No phone, television, car, mail, hospital. What made up for it was, for the first time in her life, she was making friends. In Adena, everyone had relatives. Here, nobody did. Every family we met was just like us: on their own and from somewhere else. The notion of friendship—of allowing people besides her sisters to give us rides to the store or the Laundromat—thrilled Mom. In a stranger’s front seat, she turned around. Wind tossed her hair, and I rested my hand on the door handle ever so lightly and just in case. To be in public with her often felt dangerous—like we’d get lost, or talked into joining a cult, and never return home again. But then Mom unfurled her enormous smile, and I felt it too, the warm breeze as we drove out of the woods and into the bright sunshine.
We visited neighboring RVs for tarot-card readings and burritos stuffed with soft-shell turtle pulled straight from the canal. Mom learned how to play Bunco and how to apply Nair properly to her bikini line. It was heaven just to wander around the KOA in the matching leopard-print bikinis Dad bought the three of us at the Lion Country Safari gift shop. Our trip of the day was to Kobosko’s roadside fruit stand. Mom sucked on a thick sugarcane stalk, compliments of Mr. Kobosko. Flatbed trucks zoomed by, and construction workers honked and whistled.
Lorraine and I spent hours perfecting our dance routines and performing them at the pool. A pregnant high-school girl taught us how to swim. The only body of water I’d ever been in was a strip pit. I would grab onto Dad’s back and he would move smoothly and slowly through the cold, terrifyingly deep water. “Breathe,” the high-school girl said, hand around my waist, and I came up for air. The smell of marijuana. Hard rock blasting on 103.5, the She.
I lived in the pool. Ate dinner in the pool. Ding Dongs in the deep end for dessert. Floating on my back, I caught every sunset. Even the moon was warm. In the bathhouse, dead animals clogged the toilets, and we washed our dishes in the shower. Naked and goose-bumped under the only spout that worked, the three of us took turns combing VO5 hot oil through one another’s hair, as matted and tangled as the nature surrounding us. Down the narrow path that led to our campsite, cushioned with flowers that bloomed only at night, Mom held our hands while Lorraine and I sang the song that Dad played repeatedly, Crystal Gayle’s “I’ll Get Over You.” I lifted my foot and took a dramatic step over an imaginary dead body. That’s what I thought “get over you” meant. Why else would Crystal make such a big deal out of it?
Excerpted from Fireworks Every Night by Beth Raymer. Copyright © 2023 by Beth Raymer. Excerpted by permission of Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.