In the purple November twilight, the abomination rising on the east side of Interstate 95 looked to Jim Larman more like the familiar silhouette of his youth: a great sombrero atop the 200-foot tower of the roadside attraction formerly known as Nico’s Natural Wonderland.
But then, inevitably, the rosy pink neon and spotlights switched on, laying bare the truth of the monument’s evolution.
Now, the cone of the sombrero was a freakishly pointy metal breast – one that would’ve felt right at home in Madonna’s bra in that old “Express Yourself” video, he mused. Atop the dark nipple, a crimson aircraft hazard light blinked its soft warning for planes that might be coming from or going to Cypress Knee Municipal Airport or the Wings Over Florida retirement community north of town.
The brim of the sombrero had become a glazed brown doughnut with candy-colored sprinkles and swirls of white frosting.
A billboard beckoning motorists off the highway at Exit 325 proclaimed: NAUGHTY NICO’S WILD WORLD.
In 1967, when Jim was just 16 years old, Louis Silloway personally hired him to work as part of the original crew in what would become one of the Sunshine State’s most popular tourist attractions.
At least for a few years. The rodent in the suspenders would wreck business for lots of quirky roadside attractions starting in 1971.
But in those last years of the 1960s, it turned Cypress Knee into a boomtown.
Silloway named the park after the infant son of Gloriana Cupertino, a thirty-something immigrant housekeeper who cleaned his family’s mansion in ritzy Cypress Hills. Years later, rumors persisted that Silloway had fathered the child through an affair with Gloriana.
None of that mattered to Jim – or Jimmy or Jimbo, as other kids called him back then. All he wanted was a job for gas money to keep the tank filled in the old Chevrolet truck his folks got for him.
“You got a driver’s license, son?” Silloway had asked Jim with a feral-looking grin.
“My learner’s permit,” Jim had said.
“Well, that’s just fine,” Silloway replied, clapping him on the shoulder. “How about we let you drive the kiddie train?”
It was Jim’s first job – part time, weekends and all week during summer months – and it paid $1.15 an hour.
Silloway, whose prior claim to fame had been as the owner of Cypress Knee’s first Buick dealership and developer of Cypress Green Golf and Country Club, built Nico’s Natural Wonderland over Griff’s Pond.
That pond, buried under an expanse of striped gray asphalt for parking cars, had been where Jim skinny-dipped with Mary Lynn Rogers, where he’d caught his first bass with his Uncle Mike, where he’d first seen an osprey swoop down from its perch to snare an unsuspecting fish.
The petting zoo sprawled over ground that had once been a den for a family of Florida panthers.
Nico’s Nighty Night Motel took the place of an old Southern Baptist church, which Silloway had demolished. Had it been a Lutheran church, Jim suspected, Silloway might have shown more respect.
Jim, a lapsed Episcopalian, didn’t really have a dog in that fight, especially now that churches seemed to crop up everywhere they could, from rented school cafeterias to strip malls to Google hangouts. But it never quite sat right with him, tearing down an honest-to-God church building and replacing it with what had turned into a no-tell motel for the horndogs at Naughty Nico’s to roll in the sheets with hookers and mistresses.
He took some comfort in the fact that Silloway hadn’t touched the church graveyard on the north side of State Road 38.
The shiny orange sombrero and the gap-toothed (and hideously offensive by modern standards) mascot in those heady days had drawn hundreds of tourists a day during the busiest weeks – many of them heading south to Miami or the Keys – to wolf down hot dogs, chew fresh-made taffy, stock up on pecan logs, endure the dodgy carnival rides, check out the petting zoo, ride the rickety elevator to the sombrero’s observation deck and, most importantly, buy tacky overpriced souvenirs.
He would never forget the summer of 1969, perhaps the pinnacle of Nico’s Natural Wonderland, as travelers hauled their families south to see the launch of Apollo 11 at Cape Kennedy. A year out of high school, now working full-time for Silloway as assistant amusements manager, he had climbed aboard the elevator on the morning of July 16 with a bunch of tourists and imagined he was an astronaut riding to the top of the gantry and the waiting rocket.
He gazed south over the brim of the obnoxious hat at 9:32 when Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins rumbled atop a column of fire and roiling smoke through the azure sky.
That sight had inspired him to ditch the middle-management gig in an – albeit popular – tourist trap. He pursued an engineering degree at the University of Florida.
A handful of years later, Silloway’s little empire was crumbling under the big yellow foot of Mickey Mouse, while Jim worked at Kennedy Space Center as part of the team coordinating the Apollo-Soyuz project for NASA. He would go on to help with the shuttle program. He stayed with it until after the Challenger disaster, which had absolutely devastated him, hollowing out the tremendous amount of joy that his dream job had once brought him.
He went into education, first as a math teacher at Heck High School in his hometown of Cypress Knee and then as an engineering professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Silloway died of a heart attack in 1989. His family tried desperately to sell the land and came quite close in 1992, when a multifamily housing developer considered it for a timeshare condominium site. They were scared off, however, when the once-stable sinkhole that had been Griff’s Pond collapsed and swallowed the parking lot, along with nine cars, one elderly tourist and her yipping poodle.
So it was that in 1994, after turning the former parking lot into a fenced alligator pond and converting half the old carnival midway into a new parking facility, Rutledge Silloway – the oldest son – decided to cash in on the too-true premise that sex sells. He invested in new neon lights, repainted the sombrero into a doughnut impaled by some kind of mutant breast spike, and introduced the adult entertainment destination called Naughty Nico’s Wild World.
“Can you believe that shit?” Larman had asked before snorting a jagged line of white powder off the stomach of the brunette stretched on the bed of a Miami hotel room, bathed in the blue glow of the television. The local ABC station ran a feature about Naughty Nico’s, including some B-roll of the topless woman in clown make-up serving doughnuts or pole dancing. “Disturbing,” he said, wiping cocaine from his nostrils. “Love women. Hate clowns. I’d never stop screaming.”
In South Florida for an educators’ convention, he had picked the girl up in a bar called Phaedra’s – locals called it “The Fade.” He had assumed she was a hooker. He had been wrong. She was, it turned out, a 16-year-old junior at Coral Gables High School. Can you believe that shit?
Statutory rape. Contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Cocaine possession.
His career at UCF came to an abrupt end, along with his marriage of twenty-two years. His two sons never came to visit during his six years in the prison in Bushnell. After his release, Jim found his way back to Cypress Knee and discovered that Rutledge Silloway had openings for janitorial staff.
“No humping Girl Scouts in the Nighty-Night, okay, Jimmy?” Rutledge had quipped with a self-amused chortle and smirk while Larman filled out the paperwork.
He had wanted to gut punch the prick, but Jim was a senior citizen – and an ex-convict who might easily be dismissed as a creepy pedophile – looking for a paycheck in a struggling economy. No doubt, Rutledge knew he held the upper hand too. That sickened Larman. Pensions from NASA and the state university system helped, but his recent pancreatic issues threatened to break the bank. So he kept his mouth shut, finished his W-4, and asked, “When do I start?”
The slipper flapped against his left shoulder and tumbled off to the side after he picked up two Dos Equis beer bottles (one empty, while the other was jammed with spent Chesterfield cigarette butts) and a Durex condom wrapper from the mouth of the alley between the souvenir shop and the observation tower. A pair of Serengeti Driver sunglasses followed a second later, one lens cracking and the other popping loose, spinning a wide pirouette ahead of Jim before inertia won out.
At first, he suspected some drunken asshole frat boys had decided to hurl junk at him from the observation deck. Jim snapped his eyes toward the big doughnut. A naked man dangled there, legs twitching. The second slipper arced away from the man’s left foot, tumbling toward the sidewalk.
“Christ on a crutch,” Larman muttered.
The sirens in the distance hadn’t bothered Gary Buckingham much. He was too busy enjoying the work his girlfriend – a pudgy red-haired waitress from The Clock named Eula Dean – was doing on his knob as he sat in the burlap-upholstered chair next to the bed in their rented room at the Nighty-Night.
Oddly, her persistent smoker’s cough added to the sensation.
He took another sip of Coors, keeping his right hand nested in the curls of her hair, and let his head settle back against the cushion. Room Sixteen. They always got this one, at least two, sometimes three nights a week. Usually, he told his wife it was town council business. The room smelled like menthol cigarettes, cheap pizza and cloying body spray.
The sirens grew louder, working through the thrumming fog in his mind. Getting closer. She could hear it too. He felt her start to draw away, but he muttered: “Fuck that.” And urged her down again with his hand. Another sip of beer. She wasn’t working his shaft anymore, though. She just sat there, mumbling around his penis: “Subvee oh?”
“Aw, seriously, Eula?” It had been a particularly grim week for Councilman Gary Buckingham, up for re-election for a third term in just a few days. His campaign hadn’t managed much more than six or seven thousand dollars in fundraising and he had watched old allies in the Cypress Alliance, the Heck County Builders Association and even the Cypress Knee Chamber of Commerce throw their support behind a young, charismatic newcomer named Charles Chichester. “I need this.” No sense trying to milk a bull, though, he thought. He lifted his hand, freeing her.
“Sorry, baby,” she said, “but maybe we should go.”
Gary frowned. “It’s probably just Wayne and Dobber running out to the interstate for a wreck.”
“Doesn’t sound like a trooper siren,” Eula said, coughing as she got to her feet and walked to the bed to retrieve her flower-print blouse and white jeans. She was still wearing her red pumps. “Sounds like CKPD. More of a ‘whoop-whoop’ than a ‘whoooop.’ Know what I mean?”
She was almost finished dressing when the blue and red lights strobed through the curtains of the motel room.
“Well, shit,” Gary said.
“Yeah,” she said, peering through a gap in the curtains. “Chief Pendleton. Guess we better go out the bathroom window, hon.”
“Shit,” he complained again.
“Don’t forget to zip,” she said. It would be difficult, in his current condition. But then Eula quickly drew back from the window. “Oh, damn.”
“What?” Gary stood, Lynyrd Skynyrd belt buckle thunking against his beer bottle.
“He’s coming this way.”
Suddenly, zipping was much easier.