another not so real or fictional ice tale in two parts
Norman says that you should take a valium
(or maybe something stronger)
Cause he doesn’t understand how
You get so excited watching "The Lusty Men."
The marlboro man died of cancer
And he wasn’t a rocket scientist when he was healthy.
She took one last gulp of his soft city condescension
And blasted off from his little launch pad to parts west.
Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo
After nine years, she left at eight one Sunday morning.
Carl was still in bed in the stereoscopic half sleep where dreams merge with the walls and carpet and float blue-white like cigarette smoke. He had been dreaming of the ice. He'd convinced them to land commercial jetliners on McMurdo Sound at WinFly and United Airlines had built a terminal at Cape Armitage. The counter staff wore decorative gray and white fleece vests and hats, and were generally ill-mannered and incompetent as Antarctica was where you were sent for poor performance.
All the good ones were in Hawaii. That's what he was thinking when the quiet seeped into his mind like cold. It froze his mind and confused him. Where was the sound of the television? The kids arguing? The breakfast dishes clattering in the white porcelain-coated sink?
No spouse can completely obscure infidelity's effects. Even less can one hide a new love from an old one. There had been all the warning flags. Carl had even sought the advice of a female colleague who told him to have the inevitable confrontation. Get it out in the open. There was time.
And then there wasn't. He went to sleep. And when he woke up, most of the children's effects were missing. Laura's clothes were gone from her triple dresser. Her closets were emptied. Somehow she had done all of it without him noticing.
Or had he noticed and denied the evidence?
There was a note on the pristine dinette table. He couldn't read past his name. Sorrow reached upward from the core of the planet and gripped his chest until he could not breathe. Filled his eyes with blur and a high-pitched whine blotted out the world's reality.
They hadn't been gone an hour and he missed them so badly his desire to persist in life simply ceased to exist. If he could have generated the motivation, he would have killed himself.
Instead, Dr. Carl Wylczinski fell to his kitchen floor and cried until his colleagues broke into his home and carried him to the emergency ward at Good Samaritan Hospital. And there they sedated him.
He had been on the floor for five days.
We live in the past. Always. Einstein confirmed it. No matter where you are, it takes time to get there. The now of you receives input from the world through nerve fibers that conduct ionic flow tens of times slower than electricity on wire. What you perceive of as "now", is conducted through axons to your cerebral cortex. That takes time. Your mind processes the data, somehow. Pulses and rhythms of mental flow operates on the input and modifies itself into perception. That takes time. There is no such thing as instantaneous. It doesn't exist. It all takes time.
Meanwhile, we do things.
We were strangers who met on the shuttle from the airport. Because we had nowhere else to go, and no one else to be with, we were drinking together at the outdoor bar at the Dux De Luxe in Christchurch, killing time until the van came to take us to the CDC to pick up our ice gear and make ready for our flight.
"She took the children," Carl said. He slugged down the last of his Dux De Luxe micro brewed pale ale. Got up finishing a sentence he'd started in his head, "...the girls." He took a couple bills off the table. "Anyone for another round?" Hands went up. He counted, and went inside to get more.
Juli smiled at the rest of them. "He's so cute," she said, when Carl was gone and shrugged her shoulders nearly to her ears.
"Um. He is," Chris said. She glanced at Don who with furrowed brow seemed to be trying to resolve Juli's image through thick smoke.
Don looked at his watch and then drummed the table with a cocktail stirrer. "We got about two hours."
"What's it gonna be like?" Juli asked.
Don started to answer her, but Chris cut him off. "You'll know in about ten hours."
"Yeah, but what?"
"Have you ever been to Barrow, Alaska?" Don said.
"Well, it's not like that."
Carl came back with a tray of beers, dribbling foam over the edges of frosted glasses.
He said, "What's not like what?"
"The ice," Don, said. "Juli's a FNGee."
"Oh..." Carl's voice trailed off as if he was about to reveal a surprise, then thought better of it.
Juli said, "Come on, guys. Tell me."
Carl sat down, lifted his beer and asked, "Have you ever been to a Siberian prison camp in winter?"
Juli looked alarmed.
Carl said, "Well, it's not like that. Not entirely, anyway."
There are living people upon whom the challenges of existence seem to weigh so heavily the grim prognosis for their continued survival can be perceived by animals and small children. Juli was far more than the cliché impending disaster. Juli was a tempest of bad luck and rotten timing compounded by an absolutely courageous failure to engage common sense so brilliant in its purity it attracted gawkers.
Nor did she exhibit any degree of standard operational feminine pulchritude. From the waist up she appeared to be the little brother who got lost in the mall years earlier and managed to grow up eating cast offs out of the trash at McDonald's. Her hips and legs, on the other hand, belonged to a female tennis star angling for depilatory endorsement contracts, and these, apparently, are what first attracted Carl.
The second thing that attracted him was having to collect from the middle of Armaugh Street the entire contents of her suitcase, which having split, now rendered itself unusable for a violent trip to the ice. He'd chased down a couple of t-shirts that blew away, dodging auto and bicycle traffic, returning to find her checking the batteries in a bright red, plastic device that seemed at the same time a children's toy and the detonator for a thermonuclear device.
She blushed when he asked her what it was, and they were already on the plane when it hit him what it might be.
The third and final straw that busted through the thick cast iron protection of Carl's unrepairable heart was the fact that Juli acted genuinely interested in him. Irrespective of the plain fact she had trouble remembering simple things, such as the times of critical meetings or where she'd left her toothbrush, Carl began to see her as a potential equal. Someone of great promise.
"How the fuck that bitch ever passed her dissertation panel is beyond me," Don screamed into Carl's ear on the C-130 flight to McMurdo.
"She's a post doc?" Carl asked. And now his feelings for her grew brighter. She was smart. That was his criterion.
"Must have blown every one," said Don. "Even the women."
Carl shrugged as if he hadn't heard, but he had.
Don made himself hoarse shouting over the engine noise. "She's supposed to be the team leader. She's going to get someone hurt. Bad. She's a fucking nitwit." And he said, "nitwit," five times, attempting to shout the unshoutable construction of consonants until his vocal chords swelled to dysfunction. Then, barely able to get the word out on the fifth try, spitting a fine spray over Carl's right ear he said, “She’s fucking Cary Eastman."
And Carl's respect for Don diminished. This kind of disparagement was hardly becoming a young biologist with a blossoming reputation in the scientific community. It was professional jealousy. The green dragon that pervades the halls of research.
Perhaps Don was unhappy because the head of the Biology Department at Iowa State University wasn't a woman who wanted to sleep with him. Perhaps he was simply jealous of Juli's monumental success, having been given her PhD and an entire grant to execute--team, equipment, and money--all at least a year ahead of any of them.
"She show you her collection of cock rings?" Don said, his voice the timbre of rusted barn door hinges from screaming. "That's how it starts. You watch your ass."
In fact, a little ass watching was what Carl felt he needed.
The first time I realized Carl and Juli were making a habit of having sex was when my schedule shifted an hour, and I wound up at breakfast in the galley alone instead of with Carl's team as usual. Juli slid into the chair beside me, plopped down a plate of powdered eggs and toast, and sighed. She stared at the food, only then realizing she'd forgotten to bring silverware.
She picked up the fork I'd used, wiped it on a napkin, and started into her breakfast.
"I coulda got you one," I said.
"You got germs?"
When I couldn't calculate a response fast enough she said, "That's why I'm not worried," and it was then I realized her Patagonia trademarked poly-pro shirt was on inside out and backward. Her hair, characteristically awry, seemed to have been smoothed down by the action of a comb or the strokes of a broken snow machine steering rack.
"Let me ask you something," she said, "You're married, right?"
What was there to say? Everyone knew it.
"Let's say you're not, for a minute. Married. Say you're not. You would fuck me if I wanted--you would right?"
It took a couple of seconds for the question to sink in and me to process she was talking about sex, and not a form of evil one could perform on someone and have them say they'd been "fucked".
"It would depend on the circumstances."
"Oh, don't go fatherly on me. Just tell me the truth. Say you were single and we were out drinking and it got late and I invited you back to my place for a bounce. You'd come, right? And you'd be, say, interested to do stuff."
It wasn't clear where she was going, but the little man in my head who saves my life every now and then was threatening to make me pee my pants if I didn't get up and leave right then.
I said, "Stuff. Hey. What are we talking about and why are you asking me this?"
"You can't tell anybody."
"You're sleeping with Carl," I said, proud to have got to the punch line.
"Well, duh," she said, and my heart sank into the pit of paranoia. Was this her making a pass at me?
"You know," I said, in my best imitation of Jimmy Stewart as Harry Bailey, "..."
She cut me off, "The fucker fucking fucks like we're fucking married."
My mind, now thoroughly cleansed of every thought and memory I'd accumulated since birth contained but one cogent thought and I voiced it. "There are only two words in that sentence that aren't a variation of the word 'fuck'. I didn't think that could happen in English speech, and strangely enough, I actually understand you."
"So you know what I mean?" she said.
"Not at all."
"It's like, we're married, is what I'm saying. You know? He's so--just--rudimentary. Perfunctory, is the word I'm thinking of. It's like exercise to him. It's so boring and he likes it. I'm like, 'let's try this or that,' and he goes all, 'Oh no, can't do that,' on me. What's up with that? I've fucked plenty of married guys and I know what you're like. So I'm thinking, is it me? Is something wrong? They don't like me down here. I know it. What's going on? You can tell me."
"There's fifty-two questions in there. Which do you want me to answer first?" I asked, then swigged down the last of my bitter coffee and faux milk.
"They don't think I can do it. They don't, right? It's because I screwed up the manifest. It's that. I knew it," she said.
"What are you--"
"It's because I forgot the sleeping bags at Happy Camper."
"You didn't bring your sleeping bag to snow survival school?"
"Look. Fucking Carl isn't bad, is it? I mean, it's good for him. He hasn't got laid since his wife left and did you know she never went down on him once. I mean, even once. They were married nine years and she never even kissed it. Can you believe that?"
A glance at the galley clock told me all I needed to know to survive the conversation. I piled her plate and my old fork on my tray. "Don't you have a team meeting today?"
"Yea. At eight," she said.
I flipped a thumb toward the big blue clock on the wall.
She said, "That one's an hour off. I figured that out yesterday."
I showed her my watch.
"It's okay. We didn't have anything to do today, anyway," she said.
"Aren't they waiting for you?"
"They won't wait longer than half an hour."
"See you later," I said, standing and gathering my tray.
As I walked away she asked me, "If a woman wanted you to pierce your nipples, would you do it?"
But there was nothing to be gained by pausing for even a second.
A couple days later we deployed to our camps in the field. Carl and his team were abandoned high on the polar plateau with only half their provisions. A sudden storm had caught them between put-in flights. The first plane carried only them, some instrumentation, and their survival kits. The storm hit while they dug trenches and reconnoitered. The second flight held their tents, snow machines, fuel, and enough supplies to last the three weeks they were supposed to stay. It never left Mac Town.
Carl's team was caught in 80 mile per hour winds at 6,000 feet. The ambient temp was -60F. The wind chill was immeasurable, but polar physiologists might suggest that net air pressure, the equivalent wind chill put conditions close to those at the surface of Mars. It would be three days before the a rescue flight could reach them.
Meanwhile, the biologists and I were basking in the Antarctic tropics. It was sunny, and the 10-degree air was still and crisp. Barry had flown me up to Lake Fryxell, about seventy miles inland from Ross Island. I'd hiked with a couple of the LTER team seven miles to Hoare camp along the Canada glacier in conditions that would make any National Geographic photographer junk his primes in jealous rage. We took the walk slowly, savoring the sights, basking in unbridled glee with the knowledge that where we tramped less than 100 people had been before us, and that quite possibly, given the route we'd taken, no living person had been where we stood. We sauntered into camp warm and happy, our bellies emptied and yearning for some of Ray's notable home cooking.
The utility area at Hoare House doubles as an infirmary when someone is ill, doubles as a movie theater on Saturday nights, and doubles as a computer room when the satellite link is up. It was. Most of us were submitting reports to our respective institutions when the call came over the VHF.
We recognized Juli's voice. Ray, the camp manager, cringed and held his hand to his forehead at her first utterance. It took her three times to remember she had to hold in the microphone button to transmit.
"God knows how long she's been sitting there talking into a dead mike," he said. In a single wrist twist, he unclipped the microphone from the radio, untangled the cord, and brought the business end to his face.
"Go ahead, F6," Ray responded, thumbing the PTT. He rubbed his eyes, looked at us and commanded an answer to, "Tell me she's smart enough not to go anywhere without Little Karen."
We nodded in abject supplication. Ray's job was to keep everyone alive in a place where continued survival was marginal on perfect days, and he was good at it. His magnificent safety record was about to be desecrated.
It took a few tries, but Juli eventually figured out the radio. "Ray, what does it mean when your nose turns white?"
Ray muttered, "Holy fucking shit," shaking his head. A couple of the scientists giggled.
Chris looked at Don and said, "Get a towel, honey. Wipe it off."
Don muttered, "All the staggering mental capacity of a walnut tree."
"Post-doc, walnut tree," Chris added.
"Juli--stop what you're doing and you get yourself inside right now," Ray said into the mike.
"Lemme talk to Karen."
Don broke the viscous silence. "I can go get them," he said, standing, but Ray sat him down with a glance and Don said, "Or not..."
Karen's voice was urgent. "Ray. It's at least first degree, maybe going to second. We're about half way to Hoare. Four miles. We'll just come in. I can give her my balaclava for a while."
"Don't you dare," Ray said. "Get your asses back to camp immediately. I'll have Don meet you at the lake edge in the ATV. Hurry. The weather's shifting north and it's going to get colder."
Don picked up Karen and Juli at the edge of the lake and drove them back to camp.
After Ray performed his first aid on Juli, he took the rest of us aside. "This can't be my responsibility alone," he said. "Each of you has to look out for her with me. She's going to get someone hurt. What the hell is wrong with her? And what the hell was Cary thinking sending her down here?"
None of us knew. But we expected to be immersed in the sublime ridiculous on the ice. It was the way things worked in Ant-fucking-arctica.
A week later we found out that while Carl was doing his best to stay alive by burying himself in ice on the polar plateau, Juli had managed to get second-degree frostbite on one of the most perfect days of the Antarctic year.
end of part 1
next:the High Wire