This is an excerpt from the novel Naked Came the Florida Man by Tim Dorsey.
The gold Plymouth picked up two-lane State Road 710, also known as the Bee Line Highway: an odd, almost perfectly diagonal shot northwest up through the unpopulated part of Palm Beach County, along the railroad tracks, through the Loxahatchee Slough, up past the old Pratt & Whitney aircraft-engine plant that brought thousands of transplants to the county in the early sixties. They reached Indiantown, and turned decidedly west on Route 76, into more and more nothingness.
Coleman petted the pouch on his chest and looked out the window at scraggly woods. “Are we actually heading anywhere?”
“Lake Okeechobee,” said Serge. “Another of our crown jewels, so huge it dominates photos taken from the space shuttle. And to hell with it: I’m going on the record right now, and will take on all comers. At seven hundred and thirty square miles, Okeechobee is the largest freshwater lake in the country. Oh, sure, everyone else says it’s the second biggest, behind Lake Michigan. But that one’s open at the top, mixing with Canadian water. How is that the record? Where were the referees on that one?”
“It’s just not fair.”
“Canada, Christ.” Serge shook his head. “Our lake is a damn force of nature. I like to think of it as Florida’s moon.”
“How is it a moon?”
“Give me some latitude on this, Judge Coleman, and I will show the relevance,” said Serge. “The earth’s moon is a oddity our solar system, far closer and proportionately larger than any of the other planets’ moons. So much so that it creates our planet’s tides, affects the seasons and even stabilizes earth’s rotation, doing nothing less than making life possible at all. On a smaller scale, same thing with our freakishly large lake. Most Floridians have never seen it, and even fewer realize the overwhelming effect it has on the rest of the state. First, it collects much of the watershed in Central Florida, from the Kissimmee River and other sources. Then below it, the lake feeds the Everglades. And the extensive matrix of canals that were dug to channel its runoff created entire agricultural industries and – even more mind-blowing -- the very dry land that allows much of south Florida, from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, to even exist. Otherwise, all the residents would be tits deep in lily pads and gators instead of blissfully working skimming nets to scoop leaves from their swimming pools.”
“I had no idea.” Coleman held his beer away from the pouch and looked down at his chest. “You’re not old enough.”
“But here’s the kicker, and it’s a beauty ...” Serge slowed and tracked their position on a GPS. “The Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 is still whipping up changes in the way we live even to this day!”
“How can a storm that old still be messing with us?”
“I’ll tell you!” The Plymouth slowed even further. “The three-thousand souls that were lost made it the second-worst natural disaster in the nation’s history, behind only the Galveston storm in 1900. Nobody saw it coming. Everyone was always preparing for storm surges from the ocean, but then that monster storm made a direct hit on the lake. And if you ever doubt how big that body of water is, imagine a tidal wave covering hundreds of square miles, much higher than virtually every house. First the storm’s rotation flooded all the communities along the southern shore. Then the back side of the hurricane hit, pushing water north through the city of Okeechobee. After all the burials, the federal government stepped in to prevent such a future tragedy. They built the enormous Herbert Hoover dike, a thirty-foot-high, 143-mile-long earthen berm surrounding the lake. That’s why so many people crisscrossing the state above and below the immense body of water never see it; they just dismiss it as a long grassy hill and have such screwed-up priorities that they aren’t curious to take one of the access ramps to the top and marvel. That’s why I’ve decided to carve out time and make the lake the culmination of our tour. Zora led us here.”
“So we’re almost at the end?” asked Coleman.
“Actually just beginning, but time folds in on itself.” The gold Satellite pulled over on the side of an empty road without sign of life. “I intend to drop anchor, exploring the lake in every detail and get a bone-deep understanding of her people. It’s an amazingly disparate culture: the old cracker cattle ranchers up north with their rodeos, western-wear shops and steak houses; the impoverished farm workers to the south; and all around, the visiting bass fishermen hoping to land that prized lunker.”
Serge got out with another large sheet of paper. He approached a green metal historic marker and began rubbing.
Coleman arrived with a ferret peeking around. “Where are we?”
Rub, rub. “Can’t you read?”
“My eyes are having that focus problem again.”
“We’re at Port Mayaca, a ghost town with ghosts.” Rub, rub. “Out in that field somewhere lay the remains of sixteen-hundred victims of the storm. As usual, people finally realized they needed to erect this sign decades later.”
“Sixteen-hundred?” Coleman blinked a few times.
“Right under our feet.” Rub, rub. “It’s important to remember.”
“I know the storm was a heartbreak–”
“No, not that!” Coleman pointed.
“How’d you let Mr. Zippy get away?”
“He was too fast.”
They began running around the field.
“Hold on,” said Coleman. “I think I have some Doritos in my pocket.”
“In your pocket?”
“Just in case.” Coleman tossed one forward. “I think he’s going for it.”
“Here, let me have one.” Serge crouched down and extended a hand. “It’s working.” The ferret stopped to nibble, and was gently picked up. “Give me that pouch!”
“No!” Coleman turned sideways and clutched it. “I want to carry him.”
“You’re obviously a bad influence,” said Serge.
“I can change.”
“Are we going to have a custody battle. The courts won’t look fondly on your substance intake.”
“What about you waxing dudes?”
Serge walked the legal proceedings through his head and saw it inevitably leading to foster care. “Okay, for now. Just keep on top of him.”
The Plymouth drove a short distance farther west, over the train tracks, reaching Highway 98 and more emptiness. “Port Mayaca is another Florida settlement abandoned by time. Besides the cemetery, about the only other thing left, like a sore thumb out here, is that big white plantation-style house coming up on our left: the historic Cypress Inn, currently a private residence and on the national register. Hard to imagine now that there was ever enough business to support the hotel, but once upon a time the constant, northbound winter railroad traffic of fresh vegetables made this a bustling corridor.”
The Plymouth turned off the highway and drove up the incline of an access road. Serge got out with his camera, hitching a camping product to his belt.
Coleman petted Mr. Zippy. “What’s that thing you put on your waist?”
“Canteen for my coffee.” He uncapped it for a big chug, then recapped it. “I just completed a blue-ribbon time-motion study on myself, and someone needs to get fired. The canteen was the number one recommendation in the report, because I’m so often reaching out a hand for coffee and coming up with a fistful of empty.”
Coleman pointed another direction. “Did we drive all the way to the ocean?”
“No.” Click, click, click. “We’re on top of the dike. That’s the lake.”
“That’s the lake?” said Coleman. “I can’t even see the other side. And we’re way up honkin’ high!”
“That’s how it got its name.” Click, click, click. “The Seminole word for big water.”
Excerpt from NAKED CAME THE FLORIDA MAN by Tim Dorsey. © 2020 by Tim Dorsey. Used with permission by William Morrow/HarperCollins. All right reserved.