Kay McSpadden recently retired as a teacher in a rural South Carolina high school. Her fiction has appeared in Kestrel, Cobalt, and Chautauqua. In 2012 she won the Norman Mailer Center Fiction Prize, and in 2017 she was a finalist in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Festival Fiction Contest.
Fireworks Over Disney
by Kay McSpadden
“So, I heard you’re a perv. Is that right?”
Except to grip the steering wheel tighter, Waylon doesn’t react. Years of teaching high school has armored him against snarky teenagers. The one in the back seat—the one trying to get a rise out of him—causes hardly a ripple in Waylon’s blood pressure. From the corner of his eye, he sees Marianne shift in her seat, sending some signal to her teenaged son behind her. Waylon tries not to notice. He looks out at the road instead.
I-95 is the spine of the East coast, from Maine to Florida. Like most Interstate highways, it’s crowded and flavorless, plowing past scenic overlooks and dreary countryside brush with crazy indifference. In some parts of the country, it offers views of mountains and valleys. In Florida it is so flat that the horizon recedes like an optical illusion. No surprises, just miles of featureless scrub and orange groves and boggy wetlands interrupted by billboards for gas stations and souvenir stands.
Waylon hates driving on the Interstate. He particularly hates driving through Florida, and he wouldn’t be doing it if Marianne hadn’t insisted they take a trip now that Covid is on the wane. He lives in Georgia close to the Florida border, so every vacation ends up being in Florida. Why drive the distance across Georgia to go to South Carolina? What’s worth seeing there, except maybe Charleston? You can’t even gamble properly in South Carolina. Florida has more beaches and gambling. Win win, if you like those kinds of things.
The teenager in the back seat—the one Waylon didn’t know would be coming on this trip—sighs audibly. “I could really use some lunch,” he says. His voice is surprisingly deep for such a thin person. He can’t weigh more than 100, tops. Waylon glances in the rearview mirror and watches him—Deets—brush his long blonde hair out of his eyes.
Deets can’t be his real name. Maybe Waylon misunderstood Marianne when she introduced him. “You don’t mind if Deets/Pete/Keats joins us, do you? His older sister was supposed to keep him this weekend but she can’t. Is it okay?” Of course it isn’t okay. Waylon has plans. Plans. Plans with this woman he hasn’t been dating that long. Plans for late dinners and walks on the beach and showers together and sex, yes, mostly sex. Now this kid. Where is the kid going to stay? Not in their room. That won’t do at all. The miserable Interstate, the greasy road food, the heat radiating in sheets from the hood of his car, the filthy gas station bathrooms—he might as well have spared himself all that and stayed home if the kid is staying in their room.
“I said, I could really use some lunch.” Deets raises his voice over the thrum of the engine and the whoosh of the air on Marianne’s side of the car. From time to time, she lifts her cigarette to her lips and then holds it close to the two inches of open window, a useless gesture that somehow makes her seem more thoughtful than she is.
“Maybe we’ll stop at the next exit,” she says. “If Waylon says we can.”
The way she says this—casting him as a prison guard or a dictator—annoys him more than any of Deets’ snark. Waylon’s always been obliging and courtly with her. Too much so, really. Too differential when he didn’t want to be. Mr. Agreeable, letting her make most of their choices and rarely ever objecting to anything—not even to the seedy restaurants she preferred or the mindless movies she selected on Netflix.
They met at a sobriety support group at a local Methodist church. Not AA, nothing that organized. Just a bunch of former drunks trying to win back custody of their kids or reduce their court fines. And a few people, like him, who need some accountability to stay sober—even something as slight as strangers meeting twice a week in a leaky basement. It helps, somehow. So he goes. Rarely misses. Marianne the same, bonded over the subliminal pull of booze. Or not subliminal most of the time. The siren call of booze. The tickle in the back of his throat when he sees someone drinking at Golden Wok or Outback. When he sees ads for beer or whiskey on TV. When he almost turns in to the parking lot of the liquor store on the way back from dropping his daughter off after his weekends with her.
“If I don’t eat soon, I’m going to fucking throw up,” Deets says over the car noise.
Marianne twists in her seat and slaps at the air. “Watch your language,” she says. “Waylon doesn’t like it.”
There she is again, setting him up as the bad guy. It’s a side of her he’s never seen before, but then he’s never seen her with Deets before. Never knew he existed. What does that say about how well he knows Marianne? Or how well she knows him?
Did she ever mention having a kid? Has he told her he has a daughter? Did he tell her why he isn’t teaching anymore? Of course not, though Deets might have heard something, probably on one of those ubiquitous social media sites. TikTok or Instagram or Snapchat. Gossip and innuendo taken as gospel truth by people too young and stupid to know the difference.
At the next intersection Waylon pulls into a gas station with a Denny’s attached. Deets slides into a booth with a torn seat and to Waylon’s surprise, Marianne slides in beside her son. So that’s how it’s going to be. Waylon feels the promise of vacation sex fading.
When the waitress tries to hand them menus, Deets waves his away.
“I already know what I want,” he says. “Pancakes and French fries and a strawberry milkshake.”
“You need some protein,” Marianne says. “You want some bacon?”
Deets makes a gagging noise.
“He thinks he’s a vegetarian,” Marianne says, though Waylon can’t tell if she’s talking to him or to the waitress. Deets, however, turns to the waitress and says, “I am a vegetarian. Meat’s gross.”
“Yeah, I get it,” the waitress says, and for the first time Waylon looks at her. A teenager, a sprinkle of acne across her cheeks, her messy ponytail held up with a purple scrunchie. Except for the Denny’s uniform, she could be a student sitting in one of his classes. Or could have been.
He holds his open menu like a curtain. Nothing on it looks palatable, as if someone took the photographs with a broken Polaroid. Deets might be on to something with pancakes and French fries and milkshake.
“I’ll have that, too,” Waylon says. Marianne snorts. Deets cuts his eyes at Waylon, the way kids do when they want you to know they are not falling for any of your friendliness shit. Waylon hands the menu back to the teenaged waitress.
Marianne orders coffee and slips out of the booth. “I need to get some more cigarettes,” she says to Waylon. “You got some change?”
She takes the twenty he hands her and heads down the aisle toward the gas station part of the building.
“You know she’s lying,” Deets says.
“What d’you mean?”
“She’s got plenty of cigarettes. They’re in her purse. She’s going to gamble.”
It’s true that the gas station has slot machines near the register. Waylon noticed them on the way in, though he paid more attention to the refrigerated cooler stocked with booze.
“That’s okay,” he says, not because it is but because Deets is smirking. “I mean, she’s a grown woman. She can gamble if she wants to.”
Deets shrugs. “It’s not my money.”
He has a point. Since leaving his teaching job, Waylon’s paid his bills working for various shopping apps—Instacart, Uber Eats, DoorDash. The pandemic was a godsend, and to his surprise he was able to actually save a little, even after paying child support and his own living expenses. This weekend with Marianne is a way to blow some money and some steam at the same time. Or it was supposed to be. Waylon narrows his eyes at Deets.
At once he’s ashamed of the intense dislike he has for this boy. Deets has done nothing any other unhappy teenager wouldn’t do if he were being dragged off with his mother and her stranger boyfriend. What kid wouldn’t be much happier left alone, at home? What was it Marianne had said, that his sister couldn’t keep him?
“How old are you?”
Deets bristles. “Why do you want to know?”
“Just curious,” Waylon says, hiding his annoyance. “Since we’re going to spend some time together, I thought I’d get to know you a little bit.”
“Who said we’re going to spend time together?”
“We’re spending time together now.”
Before Deets can respond, the waitress appears, a tray teetering on one palm. Waylon watches as she unloads it faster than seems prudent, milkshakes and pancakes and piles of fries suddenly arrayed before him.
Deets is a delicate eater, using his thumb and forefinger to pincer his French fries one by one. When his plate is empty, he turns to the stack of pancakes, picks one up, and tears it into bite-size pieces. Waylon watches with morbid fascination.
“Is that how you always eat pancakes?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing, I guess. I just thought you’d want a fork, you know, so the syrup doesn’t get all over your hands?”
“I don’t use syrup,” Deets says. He punctuates this by putting a naked piece of pancake in his mouth.
“Isn’t that… boring? With no syrup?”
Deets stop chewing and glares. “What’s it to you?”
Where is Marianne? Waylon shifts in the booth and looks over his shoulder, but she’s still AWOL.
“She won’t be back until she blows it all,” Deets says.
Waylon takes a pull of the milkshake. It’s chalky and tastes like unpronounceable chemicals. Before he can stop himself, he gags out loud. Deets looks up and snickers.
“How do you drink that?” Waylon says. “When I was your age, milkshakes were creamy and silky and, and good. They were nectar,” he says, rolling the word on his tongue. “They made life worth living.” Waylon gags again for emphasis.
Deets laughs, and to his surprise, Waylon realizes that he’s slipped back into performing, the way teachers do when they want their students’ attention. It feels good.
“Huh,” Deets says. “So how old are you?”
“Why do you want to know?”
Deets grins and extends the joke. “Well, if we’re going to be spending time together….”
“I’m 37,” Waylon says, his face deadpan, his tone serious. Back when he was in the classroom, he would shift this way to signal to his students that the discussion had turned real, that their laughter and teasing were preludes to the learning about to unfold. Let’s get serious, people. Those were the best moments, when his small-town students lifted their eyes to the wider world—to issues of race and class and history and politics and violence and whether or not an objective truth could be winkled out of the deluge—and he rode that crest of their enthusiasm and energy like a surfer.
“I’m 15,” Deets says. “And I think this milkshake is fucking tasty.”
Waylon recognizes this for what it is, a shot across the bow. A warning to be taken seriously. Or a plea by a troubled boy.
Or maybe just unhappy the way all teenagers are unhappy, in limbo and on the brink.
So much to ignore, when you spend time with kids.
When Marianne finally reappears, she takes one sip of her cold coffee and says she’s ready to go.
“Why are you in such a mood?” Deets says when they are back on the road. Marianne is on her second cigarette before she answers.
“You wanna get in the pool, right? We have to get there before the pool closes.”
“I hate swimming,” Deets says. “I thought you said we were going to Disney.”
This is news to Waylon. Disney is Disney World, of course, and along with SeaWorld and Universal Studios it has turned sleepy Orlando into a theme park mecca. Orlando’s also the home of smaller parks and zoos and miniature golf and themed restaurants, but everyone thinks of Disney when they think of Orlando. The ticket prices are outrageous and Waylon doesn’t have enough money. More than that, he doesn’t have any interest in going. When his daughter was four, Waylon and his ex-wife spent a miserable two days waiting in two-hour lines for rides that lasted two minutes, eating expensive ice cream shaped like Mickey Mouse heads and pushing their shy daughter into one-sided interactions with costumed performers who seemed sweaty and feverish in the July humidity.
“You’d hate it,” Waylon says with a swiftness that belies any objectivity in the matter. “It’s just for little kids anyway.”
“No, it’s not,” Deets says. “They have some killer roller coasters. If we aren’t even going, why did you make me come on this fucking trip?”
Marianne throws her cigarette out the crack in the window. “The beach is nice. They probably have a roller coaster there.”
Orlando doesn’t have a beach. It’s halfway between coasts, straddling the middle of the state like a blister on a thumb. Waylon says nothing. In the rearview mirror, he watches Deets scootch down in the backseat. He wishes he could do the same—sink down, close his eyes, pretend he’s somewhere else.
But he doesn’t. He glances over at Marianne and realizes, like someone just waking up, that they never really did say where they were going. Did she ever mention Orlando? He can’t remember. Wasn’t there some discussion about Daytona? To see a race, maybe? Or Cocoa? Checking out the space stuff at the cape? Since when has he become so drifty, so ill-prepared for the future? Had he been this way before the divorce? Or when he was still in the classroom? Surely not. The kids would have eaten him alive.
“Just drive,” Marianne says, as if she can read his mind. “Something will come up.”
The view through the windshield becomes a succession of low-slung motels, fluorescent-colored souvenir stands, gas stations, and scabby palm trees. By late afternoon Deets is snoring in the back seat. Marianne’s head bobs forward until she startles herself awake and sits up, over and over. From this angle, her jawline is puffy and Waylon sees fine lines radiating from her lips and creases on her closed eyelids, details he missed before. The details she’s shared in group—her history with alcohol, her youthful flirtation with heroin—tell him almost nothing important. He has no idea who she voted for in the last election or what she thinks about when she daydreams or why she’s never mentioned having children or what she’s heard about him. He doesn’t know because he hasn’t asked. And he hasn’t asked because he’s caught in this inertia, this driftiness that surprises him—he who once gloried in complex lesson plans and drove his ex-wife nuts with a weekly chart of chores for them both, who knew what he would pack each day for his lunch and felt uneasy about the serendipity of weather.
After they pass the sign for Cape Canaveral he turns off the highway and rolls into the first motel he sees. When he cuts the engine, Marianne and Deets pop up like prairie dogs.
“I’ll see if they have rooms.” Waylon starts out of the car and is surprised when Deets is suddenly at his side. They crunch across a parking lot of oyster shells toward a two-story motel.
“This doesn’t bode well,” Waylon says, pointing to a neon sign of a smiling crocodile. He darts a glance at Deets and catches him stifling a yawn.
The interior doesn’t bode well, either. Like many older motels, the carpet is rough with invisible sand. Saltwater has corroded the exposed metal stair rails. Even the vegetation, such as it is, seems blighted by an excess of sunlight.
They get adjacent rooms with a connecting door, Waylon grasping at some dim hope for privacy and sex. The fire escape map shows a pool and patio area on the far end of the property. A diner to the left of the parking lot is open all night. Next to it, a tiny, shuttered ticket booth advertises casino cruises.
At least the beach is right across the road.
Marianne says she has a headache and needs to lie down—would Waylon please take Deets out for awhile? Waylon expects Deets to resist and is surprised when Deets follows him mutely down the corroding staircase and across the road. Waylon slips off his shoes and carries them, and after a moment of trying to walk through the sand with his oversized sneakers, Deets does, too.
The beach is a place of contrasts—sand so hot that Waylon and Deets are forced to take mincing little hops across it to water so cold they yelp in surprise. The wind makes them shiver one moment and sweat the next—chilly blasts interrupted by dead, hot air.
“See this,” Waylon says, scooping up a shell. He rolls it onto his palm and offers it to Deets, who picks it up with the same delicate care he’d shown eating French fries.
“It’s a calico scallop,” Waylon says. “See the purple striations? The purple markings? That’s what differentiates it from a regular scallop.”
Again Waylon has the uncanny sensation that he’s back in the classroom, using words he’s pretty sure Deets won’t know and then slyly defining them in context. It’s a trick he learned early in his career, teaching vocabulary pre-emptively to spare his students the embarrassment of asking. Mr. Jones talks to you like you’re a grown-up, he’d heard a student say once. He recognized it as the compliment it was.
“What’s this one?” Deets says, picking up a hinged shell as thin and small as his fingernail. He places it on Waylon’s upturned palm.
“I love these,” Waylon says. “See how these are two halves of the same animal? They’re coquinas. My daughter calls them angel shells. See how they look like a pair of wings?”
Deets nods. “How old’s your daughter?”
Waylon drops the coquinas to the sand. “Eight. She lives with her mom.”
“Yeah,” Deets says, as if this confirms something. “That’s too bad.”
Marianne is dressed in a short black cocktail dress when they return.
“You were gone forever,” she says. “I’m ready for dinner. Hurry up and let’s beat the crowd.”
Dinner is as boring as lunch, except this time they are seated in a red leather booth in an upscale seafood restaurant in one of the local casinos. Shortly after ordering, Marianne excuses herself.
“You know where she’s going.”
“I can guess,” Waylon says. He’s not as annoyed as he has every right to be.
This time Marianne returns as Deets and Waylon are eating dessert. Deets is busy explaining skateboard tricks and Waylon is feigning interest. Neither pauses when Marianne sits and picks at her shrimp cocktail. A waiter—not theirs—passes and she snags him to order a vodka martini.
“What?” she says to answer the question Waylon doesn’t ask. “It’s vacation. I’m only going to have one.”
But she has two in quick succession.
Back at the motel, she falls asleep with her dress still on. Waylon watches a rerun of Gilligan’s Island with Deets until Marianne rouses and Waylon retreats to their room.
It’s not the vacation he imagined for himself, but then, he has to admit he didn’t really imagine much past getting in the car. It’s shameful to be so lost, without a map. Maybe tomorrow he can pull himself together enough to line up something fun for them all. An arcade, or a carnival. He thinks he saw a skatepark on the way in. If Marianne is up for it, they could drive out to the space museum. Deets would probably like that.
Marianne’s turned on her side, and as he slides under the coverlet and slips his hand to cup one breast, he hears a long shuddering snore.
He rolls back over and wonders if Deets would want to climb to the top of the lighthouse on the Cape.
Marianne sleeps so late the next morning that by the time they stumble into the diner next door, breakfast is over. No to pancakes, no to eggs, no to anything other than hamburgers and chicken fingers. Marianne picks at her food but Deets and Waylon finish two milkshakes each.
“This is what a milkshake should taste like,” Waylon says with triumph. Deets shrugs and nods reluctant agreement.
“That was an exemplary meal!” Waylon tells the waitress, startling her. Marianne settles back and lights a cigarette.
“How about we get our ducks in a row?” Waylon says. “You know, plan the rest of the day?”
“My day’s already planned,” Marianne says. “I told you, I’m doing the casino cruise.”
Deets’ face is flushed, his voice brittle. “No, you didn’t.”
“When did you decide that?” Waylon says. He tries not to sound as angry as Deets but Marianne isn’t fooled. She stubs out her cigarette and stands up.
“I told you both last night. You can go if you want. I haven’t bought my ticket yet.”
“You said we were going to Disney,” Deets says. “That’s the only thing I want to do. You never said nothing about some fucking cruise!” He slams the table with his hand. “Screw you!”
Marianne lifts one eyebrow and walks out.
Waylon sees the other customers take note. “You really shouldn’t talk to your mother that way.”
Deets slides down in the booth and crosses his arms. “She’s not my mother. She’s my grandmother.”
Waylon has no time to digest this before Deets adds, “And she’s a fucking liar.”
Waylon stops himself. Nothing he finds out about Marianne would surprise him. He hardly knows her, after all. Doesn’t know her at all, apparently. His mouth waters with the tang of something metallic and sour, something a beer or a whiskey would take away.
“Come on,” he says to Deets. “Let’s go to Disney.”
“We’re not that far. An hour away, maybe.”
Deets is transformed from sulky teenager to anxious child in an instant. “We’re really going to go? You aren’t just saying that to shut me up?”
“We’re really going to go,” Waylon says, heading across the sea of oyster shells to the car. “Unless—”
“Unless what?” Deets is as wary as a cat.
“Unless you would rather go on a casino cruise. With Marianne. With… your grandmother.”
It’s more than an hour to Orlando. The traffic is slowed by road construction for part of the way and by a three-car wreck on the last leg. Still, Deets hums and buzzes with palpable excitement. He keeps up a running tally of what he knows about Disney World—Space Mountain and Splash Mountain and the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
“That’s a bunch of mountains,” Waylon says, but Deets ignores him.
“I want to do the Star Wars stuff,” he says, “and the Guardians of the Galaxy rides.”
“That’s a lot,” Waylon says. “I don’t know if we have enough time.” It’s already late in the afternoon. The sun is almost at the tops of the palm trees.
Deets goes silent.
“I mean,” Waylon hastens to add, “we’ll still have fun doing what we have time for. Right?”
At that Deets brightens. “Something is better than nothing,” he says like a mantra, which Waylon thinks later it probably is.
Deets’ mood continues to rise as they get to Orlando and follow the signs to Disney World. He laughs out loud when they cross under the large welcome arch and pull into a line of cars at a tollbooth.
The young woman behind the glass is dressed in what looks like a pink tuxedo.
“That’ll be $25,” she says with the smile of someone delivering good news.
“Seriously,” Waylon says, fishing in his pocket for his wallet. “That’s for two?”
“Two?” The young woman’s smile doesn’t waver.
“Two tickets? For us?” He motions towards Deets who gives a little wave.
“Oh, no, sir, that’s just the parking fee. If you haven’t bought your tickets online, you’ll have to purchase them at the front gate.”
But Waylon isn’t listening. The pocket where he keeps his wallet is empty.
“Wait,” he tells the smiling woman. “I can’t find—”
More rustling, a frantic squirming through each pocket, beads of sweat erupting in his armpits and across his forehead, and finally he has to acknowledge defeat.
“I can’t, I mean, I think I must have lost my wallet.”
“You can turn around up ahead on the left and exit there.” The woman’s voice is as pitiless as her smile. Beside him, he feels rather than sees Deets go dark.
They pull out of the line of cars and stop at the turnaround. Waylon bends down and slides his hand under the driver’s seat.
“Look under your side,” he says, but Deets doesn’t move. “It might have fallen out—”
“She has it.”
“You know she does. She took it.”
Waylon sits up and puts his hands on the top of the steering wheel. The truth presses him into his seat and short circuits his ability to speak. Minutes pass. Waylon listens to Deets’ erratic breathing growing softer and steadier. At last he starts the car and they drive out of the park.
He’s afraid to put any words to the betrayal, but silence is worse. As wronged as he feels, he knows that the young teenager sitting beside him is shaken by the loss. Not of Disney, although that is a blow, but by what Marianne has done, or chosen, or perhaps felt compelled to do. What she couldn’t stop herself from doing.
“Hey,” he says, “you know the best part of going to Disney World, don’t you?”
Deets says nothing. His face is turned halfway to the window.
“It’s the fireworks. Every night as soon as it’s dark enough, they shoot off these massive fireworks over that dumb fake castle, and all the people ooh and ahh and then go home.”
“You might not know this,” Waylon says, “but fireworks are awesome. The Chinese invented them way back when Europeans were still living in mud huts. Figured out how to put black powder inside paper tubes and set them on fire.”
Waylon drops his patter.
“Look, this didn’t turn out like you wanted, but we can still see those fireworks. You can see them from the road. We can go grab some milkshakes and find a place to park and then watch the show. What do you think?”
What he misses most about working with teenagers is their unpredictability. Back when his life was regimented, both by his school schedule and with his own self-imposed order, the surprising things teenagers did and said were a necessary counterpoint to his stodgy world. That Deets might scream in rage is as likely as his offering Marianne forgiveness and absolution. Being with him now, quiet and steady, is what Waylon knows how to do.
“No thanks,” Deets says. “I’m okay. It’s just fireworks.”
Waylon waits a beat, then says, “But they are pretty amazing.”
He doesn’t mind sitting here in the Florida heat if this disappointed boy wants that. He doesn’t mind waiting for twilight and getting a crick in his neck scanning the sky for fireworks. He likes seeing controlled explosions in the sky. He likes knowing that people can make things beautiful with fire.
Copyright 2022 by Kay McSpadden