Ivy had never seen a king-sized bed before, except in the movies. It sat kitty-cornered in the room with an expanse of bedspread that matched flowered wallpaper strips running along the top of the red walls. The furniture was dark and glossy, and there were pretty lamps on pretty end tables.
"Lovely, isn't it? On the table over there we have a list of attractions and restaurants. You know, Everglades City has fabulous seafood. And right next to you is the downstairs bathroom. Isn't that convenient?” Permed curls bounced on the bed and breakfast woman’s shoulders as she twisted her wrist and fingers in a motioning gesture. Ivy turned her wheelchair and followed the woman down the hall.
"You’re quite the early bird aren’t you? Normally our guests don’t arrive until the afternoon, but luckily, your room is ready. The Edwards, who stayed in it last night, had to leave first thing to catch their flight back to England. Lovely people. And coffee, do you drink coffee? No? Anyway, there's always a pot going.” She stopped at a doorway and opened her arms wide.
“Breakfast is at eight, right in here. See, isn't this a sweet dining room? Oh, look at that. The door is too narrow for you.”
Ivy backed the footrests of her wheelchair away from where they had hit on the door jambs, chipping the paint.
“Now don't you worry, that's not a problem. We'll be glad to serve you in the living room.”
Ivy thought back to the day at her store when she had set aside the orders that needed to be placed before closing, avoided the part-timer that needed to be fired, and had forced herself to stop reliving that morning’s argument with her business partner, who was also her recently ex-lover. Ivy couldn’t remember what the argument had been about. Overstock, scheduling, bill paying – it didn’t matter. They were all about the break up. Instead, she had pulled an accounts payable sheet from the back of the ledger and used it to budget out a month away from the store. She had never stayed in a B&B before, but splurged on the reservations, imagining that it would be a treat after weeks of camping in the back of her van.
Chirpy words concerning the breakfast menu and what this house used to be and who had restored it floated through the hallway. Ivy mentally sorted her loads as she followed the woman to her office – pillows, suitcase, books, snacks – maybe this type of place helped people carry stuff. Ivy paid an amount she noted was worth two weeks at a state park and discovered that they didn’t help you with your baggage. After five trips, every item Ivy thought she might need was spread over the bed, still leaving more room for her body than she was used to. The space, along with a bedside light, air-conditioning, no bugs, and breakfast served in the morning, had a seductive appeal. Ivy shut the bedroom door.
She had decided on a short nap and was pulling off her shirt when she heard a cart rattle down the hall. A woman with a smoker’s voice complained about how many towels the suite was using, and the couple in the attic room, "who raised them, that they could filth up a room like that?" The perky lady, not in a perky voice, hissed that she should shush up, that one of the guests hadn’t left for the day yet.
Taking the hint, Ivy shrugged the shirt back down over her shoulders. She gathered all the local brochures, stuffed them in her pack, and left.
Ivy didn’t know how long she was supposed to be gone. She sat in her van, feeling like a kid sent outside to play. She collected all the trash within reach of her seat and put it in a plastic bag. She took her gas receipts out of the ashtray, tapped them on the steering wheel to line up the edges, and neatly fit them back into the ashtray. What were the other guests doing? Ivy opened a flyer with a glossy photo of a struggling swordfish. They could be on charter boats "exploring the thrills of deep sea fishing.” After "the best sports fishing in the world" a person would have to clean up before dinner, which meant it must be permissible to return by the afternoon. Ivy only had to last until after lunch.
Reaching deeper into the brochures on the passenger seat, she unfolded the description of Big Cypress National Preserve. Close by was a dotted line labeled "Janes Scenic Drive." It didn't say what the scenes were, but Ivy had hopes of a slough or an orchid.
Wondering what made a sports fish sporty, perhaps they were inedible or high jumpers or liked a good game of tennis, Ivy retraced her way through the town. After crossing the main highway, she drove onto a road surface of crushed shells from an ancient seabed.
It changed her tire sounds to a rhythmic rasp. She passed swaths of bulldozed land, brush piled at the edges, littered with many ton chunks of concrete leaning at odd angles with lengths of pipe scattered like pick-up sticks for giants. She passed rusted trailers listing on uneven stacks of concrete blocks, top heavy with television antennas indifferently bolted to their sides. Surrounding each homestead, one to four dogs lay belly down in the sand. Sand was all there was, except for a single potted red geranium perched on a tree stump next to the water-stained front door of one of the trailers. A ten-foot chain link fence enclosed the only built-in-place house. Looming satellite dishes, one rusted, one shiny, filled the yard and pit bulls staked on chains were positioned at separate ends of the property. They lunged at the van as it went by. Paranoia? Drug dealer? Reasonable safety measures for the area?
Ivy was still wondering when, with one length of the van, the road cut through the middle of a swamp. The water on either side wasn't trapped in stagnant ditches but spread through a forest of bottom-heavy cypress trees. Attached along the branches, trunks, and old stumps, air plants hung like green grass, like twisted birds' nests, like red pine straw, like potbellies, like strips of plastic. Velvet-orange anchors, half hidden behind the rough splits in palm trunks, fastened sprays of philodendron-shaped leaves and on oak trunks, splayed roots spread away from a center of pale-green bulbs. The air plants burrowed into crevices, nuzzled and overlapped, and the still water below was their mirror. Staring out the window, Ivy kept losing the water line, losing the difference between real and reflected.
Despite the gasoline scent of the engine, the smells of water and trees entered the van. They weren't the usual thick swamp aromas with their heady mixture of decay and growth. These smells didn't have much green in them, and Ivy was reminded of well water and tree bark. The road made an almost imperceptible rise and dry ground formed on one side. Ivy slowed at a gated, padlocked path that angled deep into the trees. According to her information this was an abandoned railway spur once used for logging cypress. Ivy pulled close to the gate and turned off the van. She sat in the quiet, listening to the engine ping as it cooled.
The path, even through binoculars, looked grassy, smooth, and easy, but the posts bordering the pedestrian pass through were placed too close together for her wheelchair. Ivy laid her binoculars on her lap and accepted the situation until she saw a dark, big-butted shape hump across the trail. She threw the binoculars against her eyes and twirled the focus knob, but it was gone.
Ivy stared at the posts. She'd get on the ground, fold her chair partway, drag her body and it through, and get back in. Ivy inspected the dirt around the poles with her binoculars and the piles she'd assumed were left over from the posthole digger were anthills. She reconsidered. She stared again. If she braked her chair right alongside she could lift out and sit on top of a post, keep steady by resting her feet in the chair seat, lean forward, half-fold the chair while at the same time still using it for balance, roll it through the posts, spread it open again, and drop into it. In the middle of making a contingency plan for if she fell that included remembering to roll quickly away from the ants, her good sense reluctantly asserted itself. If you fall, it admonished her, how about when you fall. Thinking you can balance on top of that skinny pole – what family of circus performers did you grow up in? What's next, trapeze artist? Elephant trainer? Is that a snake?
Ivy watched the black snake cross the road with quick, quick curls, plop into the swamp, and disappear. Ivy started the van and idled forward as she searched for it in the water. She named things as they appeared: cypress tree, cypress knees, willow, bladderwort, strap ferns on a stump, duck weed, nose and whiskers, a herd of water bugs, baby palm trees. Nose and whiskers? Ivy put the van in reverse until she was next to the otter. It regarded her calmly as it chewed, and Ivy heard crunching.
After a final swallow it submerged, but Ivy watched the plants sway, the downed branches shift, and the swirl of bubbles until the otter popped into view ahead of her. She drove forward and, briefly, they moved parallel to each other. Then it was gone. Squinting deep into the swamp, Ivy saw light on a patch of wet fur. She kept watch until her eyes stopped seeing the individual plants and instead followed shifting patterns of dark and light.
Ivy blinked, shook her head, and looked again, this time analytically. A kayak wouldn't work, even a short one, but she needed some type of floaty thing. A disk of kayak plastic shaped like a sliding pan for snow that she could sit on in a lotus position and pull through the swamp using branches and stumps would be tippy, but handles on the side might help. Ivy charted an imaginary course through the trees and found some tight squeezes. She imagined holding on to a branch, tilting the floaty thing sideways, and using her body weight and vigorous hip hunching to angle between obstacles.