Kelle Groom ~Hurricane World

My after­noon shift is about to start, and the red-haired assis­tant man­ag­er 15 years old­er than me, with a beer gut the size of a six-month preg­nan­cy under his short-sleeved aqua scu­ba shirt, is ask­ing me, What size are your nip­ples? Nickles? Quarters? We don’t have work­place harass­ment yet, it’s just work. Being a girl among men.

His pale upper lip twists, as he thinks he’s fun­ny. But he also wants to see what I’ll say – how far he can get. I have noth­ing to say to this bald­ing man who smells like old piz­za. He could be made of piz­za – baguette arms and legs, pep­per­oni eyes, cheesy insides. I get up from the bar stool ran­dom­ly placed among box­es of stir straws in the back room. Walk out to sit in the damp cement shade of the water slide: Zoom Floom.

Lots of worlds don’t make it – Bible World, Pirates World, Shark World, Circus World, Winter Wonderlando, the Aquatarium with trained seals – razed for strip malls. Our World is a com­bo hur­ri­cane research cen­ter staffed by sci­en­tists and uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents and a theme park.

Shaped like a giant white por­poise, flukes in the turquoise riv­er, Hurricane World has a band of tiny win­dows across the mid­dle and top floors. Observation decks. On the roof, a 75-foot can­de­labra anten­na tow­er with trans­par­ent wings. A walk­a­ble bridge con­nects guests from the park­ing lot across the riv­er, direct­ly into Hurricane World where they expe­ri­ence sim­u­lat­ed storms. Once you’ve found your feet again, get your suit on and stash your belong­ings in our handy lock­ers. Take the water­slide right out the back door and then, ride the Florida Hurricane roller coaster.

As the land is rel­a­tive­ly cheap, we’re on a big tract out in the mid­dle of nowhere Kissimmee. Purple and white sky, palm trees tip­py from the winds. Big lumpy balls of green in the dis­tance like cabbage.

The main theme park com­part­ment is essen­tial­ly a wind tun­nel with drinks. After waivers are signed and kids cor­ralled on the top obser­va­tion deck to watch a hur­ri­cane video in sur­round sound, we hand out yel­low slick­ers, gog­gles, hard hats. Strap you into a plas­tic chair bolt­ed to the floor. Windows to the right. Then take you through the eye of a hurricane.

We start slow, gear­ing up to Category 1 winds, 74 to 95 miles per hour. The sprin­kler sys­tem over­head begins as a mist, driz­zle. Then a pour­ing rain. In a hur­ri­cane, some­one always wants to go out­side to feel the wind. This is just like that. The sound of the wind whip­ping up is enough to make most peo­ple cry. Being in the eye is a relief, calmer. The hair of the guests who have hair is blown back so tight­ly it flies in the face of the per­son behind. Tickling.  Never do this, the sci­ence stu­dents say, nev­er go out­side in a hur­ri­cane. The roof rat­tles for effect. Automated birds and trash cans fly by the win­dows. Normally, we’d say avoid win­dows in a hur­ri­cane, but we need more visuals.

When the wind dies down, I hand out orange hur­ri­cane cock­tails with lemon and gold fas­siono­la, rum or sobri­ety drinks for $12.95 while guests are still strapped in, reg­u­lat­ing their breath­ing. To make it real­is­tic, we cut the air con­di­tion­ing, as Floridians always lose pow­er. Everyone gets a lit­tle paper fan. The drinks are warm as the ice melt­ed, fridge is out. Watch out for downed pow­er lines, we say, unbuck­ling each sweat­ing guest. Point toward the lock­ers and chang­ing rooms, the water slide lead­ing out­side to the riv­er. We should also say watch out for the

gators, but they don’t gen­er­al­ly come to our end. And the water’s so clear, you’d see one if you were pay­ing atten­tion. Probably. We do throw a few snap pop fire­crack­ers on the side­walk between the water slide ride and the roller coast­er. They have a nice loud bang when you step on

them, and make you think twice about where you’re step­ping after a hur­ri­cane. You’ll be watch­ing the side­walk for sure.

Hurricane World is not as pop­u­lar with vaca­tion­ers as you’d think. We stress the research ele­ment, how we are help­ing to save future lives with the wheely-gig on the roof. After the slide and roller coast­er, esca­la­tor back up to the chang­ing rooms, on their way out we hand each guest a Hurricane World research pam­phlet, with oppor­tu­ni­ties to donate.

My nephew is mak­ing $200 in tips doing the lunch shift at MVP on Siesta Key. It’s no good when the weather’s bad, as tourists have to take a bridge to get to the beach. But the weather’s been good. I make $5 an hour at Hurricane World, but feel I’m con­tribut­ing to sci­ence. Wiping the seats down with a bleachy rag. Usually Pizza Guy saves his bull­shit for the back­room, but as this group clears out down the walk­way to park­ing, he yells, How big ARE your nip­ples? A dad with his wife and two lit­tle kids turn and stare at me. Floozy, the dad says, head down, to the kids.

I nev­er con­front him. He’s my boss. Consider strap­ping him into a chair. Turning up the Categories on him. Wonder how high I could go before he couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t ask me a ques­tion. Even in 30 mph winds, a man has trou­ble walk­ing. Airborne glass is the most com­mon cause of non-fatal trau­mat­ic injury. The pres­sure out­side your body decreas­es; ten­dons, mus­cles, bones expand and con­tract. Positive ions take over, dis­ori­ent­ing peo­ple – they can’t dri­ve. In Category 1 winds, you are tied to a speed­ing car just try­ing to hang on. None of the oth­er employ­ees con­front Pizza Guy either. Some of the male stu­dents do think he’s fun­ny. Is this just Florida men? But Florida men come here from every­where. Is this just men?

I can nev­er get mar­ried. Can bare­ly stay with a boyfriend. I’ve seen how love wears off. When love even exists. Mostly all I’ve felt is affec­tion. Some guy in the house. And my role is basi­cal­ly enter­tain­ment. It’s not fun if you’re not there. Which means I always have to be there. For the porn, and the mud wrestling at the Cabbage Patch, and the guy piss­ing on the audi­ence from the stage.

The right side of the hur­ri­cane is the most dan­ger­ous – winds high­er. The dead­liest part is the storm surge after­wards, 20-foot waves. But I’ve been in an inte­ri­or hall­way on the sec­ond floor of a pink apart­ment build­ing, all the doors around me shut – bed, bath, liv­ing room. The roof sound­ed as if it might come off. Not piece by piece. But a hand just tak­ing the roof off. And what would I have done? Floated up into the whirling of branch­es and patio fur­ni­ture? The roof stayed on. But the mas­sive tree out­side my din­ing room win­dow was uproot­ed. Fell side­ways, par­al­lel to my apart­ment, instead of direct­ly in, smash­ing the glass. Bringing the wind inside. I used to sit at my wick­er table, and watch the birds in the tree. I could sit right beside them, and the birds didn’t mind.

The United States only named storms for women from 1953 to 1978. At some point, things have to change. I moved on to Little England. An authen­tic coun­try vil­lage, built entire­ly from British mate­ri­als. Old English build­ings were import­ed – tapes­tries and tile, wood not made for Florida’s humid­i­ty. It’s all rot­ting in the swel­ter­ing air, insect eat­en. Created by a gro­cery store magnate.

I’m at the Friar Tuck now. A British eatery in Clermont, far from Orlando, out in the coun­try­side. Hostessing. I met a British man who plays old British TV shows for me that I can’t fol­low. It’s like they take place in a vac­u­um — in the future and the past at the same time. I’m not in love again. He’s a decade old­er, with a long­time girl­friend back home. His accent makes me feel I’m back in Little England. Being with him is a vaca­tion from who I am. I can almost pre­tend I’m in anoth­er coun­try, liv­ing in anoth­er world.


Kelle Groom is the author of How to Live: A Memoir in Essays (Tupelo Press, 2023), I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster), a Barnes & Noble Discover selec­tion and New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and four poet­ry col­lec­tions, most recent­ly Spill (Anhinga Press). An NEA Fellow in Prose and Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellow in Nonfiction, Groom’s work has pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in New World Writing, AGNI, American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, New England Review, The New Yorker, New York Times, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Southeast Review as a final­ist in the World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest. “Hurricane World” is from her fic­tion man­u­script-in-progress, News from Florida.