Ingraham Road

The storage room in the Visitor Center was musty. Like most things down here. Musty and sour, a smell Russ had never really smelled in North Dakota. Even the freshest sandwiches down here, from the best places, the eight-dollar places, didn’t matter what kind you got—subs, clubs, reubens, po’ boys, Monte Cristos, fluffernutters—all of them were infused with the salty stagnancy of the Everglades’ wetland ecosystem.

It was about as opposite of his previous post at Teddy Roosevelt as he could get, but Russ wasn’t a complainer. Teddy had been nice, maybe rough in the winters—rough in the winters, sure, but the summers, when the prairies greened after the first rain, as if a switch had been flipped, just swapped the dead for the living and the world was green one morning, the way the world was white one morning on the other side of the year, that was worth a few brisk mornings. But then the transfer, which was sudden, and explained but not really. After 15 years, 30 days to vacate the bunkhouse and report to Mary Hill at 3601 W Ingraham Road, a place that on the Florida map in Russ’s atlas didn’t really seem to be Florida or the Gulf, didn’t appear to be land or sea particularly, just a mass of green entrails, scattered ’round on a blue slab. The atlas showed zero roads; he certainly couldn’t find Ingraham Road. Anything big enough to get Rand McNally’s attention ended miles inland.

A door slammed out in the visitor center. The office. Visitor entrances were the hiss of automatic sliders. Russ set the taxidermied whip-poor-will back on the shelf, in its place between the Antillean Nighthawk and the Chuck-will’s-widow. He cast his eyes quickly around the rest of the closet. Shelved still-lifes, all in a row. Ruddy Ducks. Herring Gulls. Turkey Vultures. Two rows of Glossy Ibises on the floor taking up two shelf-spaces. He straightened one that had fallen against another. It wouldn’t stand up. Unnatural how they were arranged, Russ thought, always thought. Out in the wild, the arrangement was different. Nature didn’t care about genus or species. Those were made up, by scientists who couldn’t think like nature thought. Unnatural too how the musty smell made it seems as if they’d always been fake. Decoys, or cheap replicas produced en masse. Never alive. Living things don’t go musty. They go dead and they go bad, like eggs. Eggs were living. Or had the essentials.

And eggs smelled rotten because living things rotted. Musty could only happen if things sat, and got damp. Not wet. Wet rotted. But damp and old and still. People couldn’t go damp and still and old without dying, in which case they rotted. But these birds had flown. They’d caught worms and fish and frogs and Floridian rodents and Russ could tell you which ones caught which if you wanted. But Starla’d been clear: no more pestering visitors. They can read the signs. They look at the exhibits. That’s why they’re there. She’d used different words, different inflections. Russ wasn’t a complainer. He took her thoughts to heart. He didn’t want to pester anyone. Florida was different but not bad.

He clicked the light off before opening the door.

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