This morning I listened to this Studio360 episode on Florida. As someone born and raised in the Sunshine State, much of it spoke to me, and the first segment reminded me of the Florida of my childhood, the lake, the trees, the orange groves, the cow pasture, and, of course, the wildlife.
Going to sleep at night, I could hear the cows in the pasture a few feet away from my bedroom window. If I woke in the middle of the night and peered out my window into the front yard, I often saw a shadow, some small animal, dashing across the yard.
In the day, I routinely found shed spider skins. Under my bed I’d find dead tree frogs, shriveled little things. Jumping spiders often took me by surprise and dare I even talk about the roaches.
When I’d open the front door, a tree frog would sometimes land on my head. When I turned on the bathtub faucet, a tree frog would fall out. Other times, when I slid the shower door shut, I’d unwittingly slice off the legs of a tree frog, and it would pull itself into the tub, a trail of gore behind it.
I’d once found a cockroach in my glass of soda and another time a cockroach in my shoe. One night I heard a scratching sound, and investigating the kitchen I discovered a roaches trapped under the outlet switchplate, it’s long thin antenna waving out from under the switchplate’s edge. I’d been hit in the head by a roach flying across the room.
There was the snake in the pool and the snake on the carport. There were plenty of snakes in the lake, and the alligator that sometimes came up to the dock.
At three I fell into a bed of fire ants and they covered me like a blanket. I ended up in the hospital.
There were the clouds of lovebugs coating the car and the Mayflies taking over the laundry on the clothesline. I’d take down a sheet and shake it to loosen those Mayflies and avoid bringing them into the house. But some always made it inside anyway. There were all kinds of strange looking insects and crawly things that were mysteries to me.
Where we lived there were bobcats, skunks, opossums, rats, rabbits, water moccasins, alligators, and owls. In the winter, flocks of blackbirds flew to the swampy island in the middle of the lake. Hundreds of blackbirds swooped in streams in the sky.
I used to sit on the dock and watch the birds or feed the catfish, one eye on the lookout for alligators or snakes. I liked to get down on my stomach on the dock and stare out at the water. Especially on a windy day, I could trick myself into feeling as if I were moving, the dock like a raft on a rough sea.
We can see the rain across the lake, and sometimes when the storm headed our way, we watched the storm come toward us, a wall of gray, the wind whipping our hair and chopping the water. My step-sister and I used the race the rain to the house. We’d tear into the house, and if it were a proper storm, the wind would rush into the kitchen along with us and violently suck the light cover into the ceiling. I still remember the sound of the suddenly bowing and striking the fluorescent light bulbs, sometimes making them go out.
There was the heat, of course. We didn’t have air conditioning when I was a kid and the sticky heat was just a fact of life. I’m an only child and aside from the few years when I had a step-sister, most things I actually did alone. I’d lounge in the branches of oak trees and watching the insects skuttle along the branches. I climbed hay rolls and stared up at the cloudless hot blue sky. I’d sit in low branch of an orange tree and kick my foot in the dark gray sandy dirt. I’d trek down the the canal, slapping the mosquitos and gnats. I’d stand in the lake and let the minnows nip at my feet while a gator’s nose rested steadily in the water in the distance and dragonflies skimmed the water between us.
And there was always that sound of a hot Florida day, the sounds of bugs and frogs and gators and birds even on the slowest, stickiest days.
I could tell you about the bird bigger than me that almost pulled me into the lake or about the turtles we caught or the gator I almost stepped on or the snake I leapt over or the rabbits I hid in my closet or the squirrels my dad tried to scare out of the attic with rock music or the gator my dad shot with his bow and arrow or the gator my dad and a neighbor lassoed in the road or the cows that would get out of their pasture and wander into our yard or the strange area of dead fish in the middle of the cow pasture, far away from the water and arranged in a perfect triangle.
But what really scared me were people.
Long before Florida Man was an Internet sensation, and, in fact, before Internet was a common word, I knew about the madness that seems particular to Florida world.
Maybe it was the man who drove by our house on his motorcycle and shot our dog or the man the cops chased into our front yard (thereby having a shootout resulting my dad hiding me in the closet). Maybe it was the man who reached through my bedroom window while I was sleeping. Or the man who followed me to the library after school or the one who stopped me while I was walking to a friend’s house and asked me to get into his car. Maybe it was Ted Bundy making the news. I could tell stories about the babysitter who would threaten to have her boyfriend come over and rape me, or the boy at school who said he’d find out where I lived and sneak in during the night, or my mom’s boyfriend who drank and punched holes in the walls, or the teacher who gave me a bracelet and asked if he could ever stop my my house sometime.
And there was my dad’s second wife who kept a folder of news stories of rapes and murders. “See what can happen to you if you don’t come home before dark!”
I set my first novel in Florida. Of course. I have a slew of stories set in the fictional Florida town of Lake Belle, loosely (very!) based on my own hometown. Florida will never leave me. I still think it would kill me if given chance.
Thanks for reading!