Underground again and out of the heat so more comfortable for it, on the platform and shoulder to shoulder with other government employees at his own grade and above or below, Oscar awaited a train. Across the tracks on a wall hung a huge poster advertising the TV show Alexi had mentioned, To The Moon!, with its big silver slogan, “Who will conquer the greatest frontier?”
He shook his head, sighed to his scuffed shoes, and wondered how anyone could get so excited about something that’s all automated, the work done by computers, while women and men who could be anyone or even no one sit in a box and wait to arrive so they can turn around and go home. There’s the science, of course, he wouldn’t disparage that, the behind-the-scenes unsung work of professionals like himself, but why pretend there’s more to it? Why pretend it’s real exploration when it’s mostly a video game? The astronauts mere avatars for self-directed machines.
But the show was a hit. It had turned out to be the solution NASA needed for its falling budget, a way of reinstating itself in the public eye to a degree his own agency, the Bureau of Ice Prognostication, could never withstand—if taxpayers knew what they were paying for… if taxpayers knew BIP existed at all. Sure, NASA had sold the country on space all over again with their reality show, but it wasn’t the work of explorers, just moderately attractive showboats who made good television. Oscar would have liked to see any of them try to steer a dog sled or hack ice from the hull of a ship with only an ax to avoid being crushed. There’s no autopilot to bring a lost sledge back to camp and no computerized temperature control in a parka or boot accidentally plunged into a subzero sea.
He’d said all that to Julia the evening before, when she mentioned being excited about the new season of To The Moon! while watching a recap of the last, and the night ended with the two of them in separate rooms. It hadn’t come up in the morning but later, on the subway to work, he’d texted, “Sorry.” She hadn’t replied, not directly, but she hadn’t not replied either—she’d told him she’d be out that night, after all, so she seemed to still be speaking to him, more or less—and it wasn’t the first time one or the other of them had been wrong about something at night, had been stubborn or stupid or angry and taken it out on each other, then gone on the next day as if nothing had happened. They’d been married long enough for that to work.
Still, Oscar had expected her to text back with “PF,” their own private code for when he’d gone too far and forgotten not everyone shared his own polar fever. Julia had picked up the habit in college, shortly after they began dating, of letting him know he’d become awkward and was alienating the people around him by dramatically announcing, “Pee-EEEH-eff.” They’d laugh, no one else knowing why, and he’d make an effort to talk about something else. Later, at dinner parties and work events she brought him to, she might pass a slip of paper marked “PF” across the table or flash the sign language for those two letters (the only sign language they knew). One Christmas he had the two letters embossed in gold on a durable card as a stocking stuffer, so she could hold it up in his direction whenever necessary without drawing too much attention. But more than once her subtle gesture across a table or amidst a group conversation had backfired into the two of them laughing together and making things more rather than less awkward for everyone else before they slipped away for some time to themselves, to act on the energy of that inside joke.
Lately, more likely than not it wasn’t a card or a note but Julia saying, “P fucking F, Oscar,” and leaving a room as she had the previous night. And Oscar not knowing if he should follow her to say he was sorry or stay where he was, unsure which she would want, if either, and which choice would just make things worse.
The train arrived in a blast of hot air and hissing, jerking to a stop between his eyes and that awful poster. He stepped into the tube of the car and was lucky enough to find a seat. The doors snapped closed, the next stop was announced, and he waited along with everyone else.
Space travel might as well be the subway.
Diagonally across from him, in the sideways seats by the door, a newspaper fluttered and over one folded corner he caught a pair of dark glasses, a dark gray fedora, a trio of curled fingers pulling back the page but as soon as he looked in their direction the fingers released and the paper wall was rebuilt. A moment later he looked again and the page had been pulled back down and the lenses were again looking, only to vanish once more.
Someone’s seen too many movies, he thought, and looked instead to the heating and cooling vents near the floor of the train, dented, scarred steel cut with square patterns of alternating horizontal and vertical lines. If he looked back and forth between them quickly, flitting his eyes, latitude aligned with longitude and both vanished as the lines become a hole for a second. It was a game he’d been playing all his years on the Metro and even in other cities when he’d had occasion to visit and their own subways used the same models of car. He passed time by trying out different ways he might combine sets of absence or presence, different ways to group data, until his eyes couldn’t tell them apart. It gave him the same down-the-rabbit-hole feeling as when he got sidetracked in the BIP database or reading about the Arctic in his magazines and books or online. He’d follow some reference or footnote or hyperlink then follow another until he was far from what he’d intended to read, his original direction abandoned so many sidetracks ago he could never return, but all those sidetracks and diversions along with his initial intent adding up to something whole in his head.
He thought about Director Lenz and the mission, wishing he’d heard more about it by the end of the day as the director had promised. It might be anything or nothing at all; he had so little to go on, so little to speculate with, Oscar couldn’t imagine what the mission might be—he needed something to work with the way he worked with a blank map but not a blank wall to get the day started. It was hard to get nervous about the assignment when he couldn’t be sure it was true, but he daydreamed and saw himself and Alexi in fur hoods and mukluks, skiing across the ice sheet and waving to the Pole cam as they passed. Then daydream Alexi stopped skiing and pulled a sandwich from under his furs, pulled off his mittens and started to eat while Oscar stood waiting with his skis sinking into the powder. Undefined animal shapes appeared in the distance and crept slowly closer on the scent trail of his partner’s lunch, and that brought him back to the train. He checked the web cam again and he wasn’t there and neither were Alexi and his sandwich, so that was something at least.
It was a shame he’d go to the Arctic with his new partner instead of the old. Slotkin’s polar fever had perhaps rivaled even his own and the older man could talk for hours about the details of any expedition Oscar brought up, recounting the progress of Peary’s first attempt on the Pole with precise latitudes for each day’s events, or reciting long lists of supplies included in some explorer’s memoirs. If anyone at BIP deserved a trip to the Arctic, it had been Slotkin. It wasn’t that he didn’t care for Alexi, or didn’t like working with him, more that he hadn’t had enough time yet to decide. From what he’d seen in those first couple weeks Alexi didn’t care one way or the other about the north. Working for one agency was as good as another to him as long as he got paid and built up his pension, but Oscar wanted to give him a chance. Even the most unlikely members of an expedition prove crucial when the moment is right, when their unique skills and experience are what a tense situation demands.
Avoiding another glance at the creep with the newspaper and glasses, he looked down the length of the car. Two benches away a redheaded woman sat wrapped in a brown trench coat despite a heat in which everyone else had taken off jackets and loosened ties and unbuttoned collars. Plaid lining showed where it flapped open at her crossed thighs; Oscar knew the brand’s pattern from buying Julia a scarf for her birthday one year. Each leg ended in a glossy red shoe and atop a slender, unadorned neck she, too, wore dark glasses. From behind he could see in at the side of her face to the flame of her hair caught in the lens, and he was probably staring but had never seen such vividly reflective sunglasses before—not reflective on the inside, that is. He wondered how she could see anything but her own eyes.
She caught Oscar’s reflected gaze and turned to face him, and before he could react or turn away she’d raised a tan wrist and laid a finger tipped with the same shade as her shoes across her lips. He could have sworn she nodded her head the slightest bit in the direction of the creep behind the newspaper who was looking again, then wasn’t, again. Oscar felt certain she couldn’t be telling him to be quiet because he already was being quiet, and even if he had been speaking she’d never have heard him from two rows away over the noise of the train and other passengers talking and playing their chirping and beeping and buzzing games, over so much music too loud in headphones designed to share sound with the world whether the world wanted it shared or not. Still he felt scolded, as if she’d shushed not his voice but thoughts he hadn’t had about her—he might have, in time, if he’d kept looking for a few stops, though whatever women crept into his passing public transportation fantasies more often than not morphed into his wife as the scenario developed, into a body he actually knew well enough to imagine though he’d done more imagining than knowing the last couple years—and Oscar turned back to the vents near the floor a bit shamed.
He’d seen her before or at least thought he had but he couldn’t place where. Did she work in his building? Was she a train regular? Many of the riders were familiar by then and he’d ridden with some of them for the better part of the years he’d made that commute. He noticed when they were gone for a while; in summer, he hoped they were enjoying a vacation and in winter he worried they might be sick. And when someone vanished—when Oscar realized, for instance, he hadn’t seen for some time the woman with the big bag of knitting or the man who carried two insulated lunch bags each day—he hoped they’d retired or moved and not died. For a few years he and Julia had commuted together, before she transferred across town to Tires and Treads, and they’d often talked about who had or hadn’t been on the train the way other couples might talk about old friends they’d run into or family members who called. He’d felt the loss of their riding together as keenly as the disappearance of any other long-time regular; it always took a few weeks or months to get back to normal when someone was gone.
Theirs was a silent communion, a twice-daily band of brothers and sisters. More like Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s team of professionals in it together to get the job done but not to make friends, a far cry from the phonographs and light opera and group entertainments of Franklin’s expeditions or, for that matter, Peary’s. Shared purpose but still aloof, cohesion without camaraderie. They watched out for each other, the regulars, but kept themselves to themselves; they weren’t about to publish the subway car’s own North Georgia Gazette or toast one another’s birthdays.
But the redheaded woman: Oscar didn’t think he knew her from the train or from work, so maybe he recognized her from someplace else—where else did he go?—or maybe she just had a look the way some people do. Whichever it was, however he knew her or not, his station was next so he stood up and moved toward the door in plenty of time, maximizing the efficiency of entry and exit, his own and everyone else’s.
He flowed with his fellow riders up through the station, between the turnstiles and onto the street, where he refreshed the web cam on his phone. The ice was still empty as he walked two blocks toward his apartment, past a trio of boys on a corner fighting over who got to wear the toy space helmet next, who got to be the astronaut and who had to settle for mission control in their game
STEVE HIMMER (http://www.stevehimmer.com) is author of the novels Fram, The Bee-Loud Glade, and Scratch (forthcoming 2016), and editor of the web journal Necessary Fiction. He lives near Boston, where he teaches at Emerson College.
Adapted from Fram, by Steve Himmer, Copyright © 2015 by Steve Himmer. With the permission of the publisher, Ig Publishing.