Fram, the latest novel from former contributor Steve Himmer, is the story of Oscar, a minor bureaucrat in the US government’s Bureau of Ice Prognostication, an agency created to compete with the Soviets during the heyday of the Cold War and still operating in the present without the public’s knowledge. Oscar and his partner Alexi are tasked with inventing discoveries and settlements in the Arctic, then creating the paperwork and digital records to “prove” their existence, preventing the inconvenience and expense of actual exploration. The job is the closest Oscar has come to his boyhood dream of being a polar explorer, until he and Alexi are sent on a secret mission to the actual Arctic, which brings them into a mysterious tangle of rival agencies and espionage that grows more dangerous the farther north they travel.
He stood in the living room he shared with his wife, surrounded by three yellow walls where his built-in bookshelves of National Geographic reached floor to ceiling: every issue since his birth and most of the earlier ones, though not quite all the way back to 1888. Any issue with even the briefest bit of Arctic lore was marked by a red sticker dot on the spine so he could find them when needed, though he probably could have pulled down whatever issue he wanted to find a specific passage or report from the Pole just by remembering where in the room he’d found it before. He was lucky, he knew: Julia didn’t mind his magazines or at least she didn’t complain. She’d never once asked him to get rid of them or even move his collection, perhaps because it was a big room in a big enough apartment and between the two of them there was nothing else to fill up the space, busy as they both had always been with their jobs. Apart from his magazines and her cookbooks in the kitchen — which she read but rarely cooked from — and her karate trophies (if it was karate: he had a hard time remembering which martial art she actually studied and she’d never invited Oscar to watch her compete; she just came home with a new trophy sometimes) in a display case above the TV, there wasn’t much to their home. The usual things, of course, the furniture and clothes and shoes. A few photo albums, but most of those they’d scanned and stored on hard drives and discs instead, the way they’d ripped all their CDs and cleared the shelves of jewel boxes. So they’d given themselves plenty of room for storing the things that needed storage and even for hiding what they wanted out of the way. The evidence of their lives both apart and together were nestled in one database, their choices and memories and tastes, and they only had to ask that database for what they wanted via laptops or phones or menus summoned on their TV to get back just what they were after and leave all the other, unwelcome choices tucked away out of sight, out of mind, without the guilt Oscar used to feel about listening to the same CDs and watching the same movies over and over while so many others stared him down from the shelves that once filled the fourth wall of the room. He couldn’t enjoy one direction when all the others he hadn’t chosen insisted on making themselves known.
He’d been against that consolidation at first, the stripping away of relics he’d always thought grounded their lives, but after the compromise of letting him keep his magazines — making more room to display them, in fact — he’d given in and soon admitted Julia had been right all along.
A whole extra bedroom hadn’t ever been slept in for more than a night or two at a time when some friend passed through town and Julia had done what she wanted to with that unoccupied space, making its emptiness her own. So Oscar’s century-plus of magazines had the run of the front room with only the sliding glass door to a small balcony breaking into their yellow expanse, letting in genuine light all afternoon and through the evening though at times it paled beside those bright spines.
He pulled a beer from the fridge and had to stop his other arm’s muscle memory from grabbing a second for Julia as it often did, though less consistently lately since her promotion and increase in karate nights. Then he stepped outside to that railed-in rectangle hardly large enough for their two folding lawn chairs without a lawn and a small, square table between them, where Oscar stood his bottle before sitting down.
They were a quiet couple, he and Julia. They didn’t talk much and they’d always been that way or else had slipped into their quiet so gradually neither one noticed the change, like a bath you’re sitting in cools but you don’t realize you’re shivering until you’ve turned blue or — let’s hope not — have died.
He drank his beer slowly and whenever he set it down between pulls habit made him check to avoid knocking over Julia’s absentee bottle. Below on the street one car ran into another. Neither was traveling fast, one was pulling away from the curb and the other was pulling up to it, but the crunch of plastic-on-plastic and the “oohs” of kids and adults on the sidewalk and stoops rose to the balcony like a much bigger accident had taken place. The drivers got out, exchanged papers, shook heads and eventually hands, and went on their way without waiting for the police. Across the street, on the far side of the smash up, a man in a hat and dark glasses ducked backward around the corner of the Chinese takeout that had provided Oscar his dinner. The strangeness of it, the absurdity, reminded Oscar of the man on the train, too conspicuous behind his newspaper to mean anything, and he even wondered for a thin second if those two men were in fact one but dismissed the idea: it still felt like summer and was still sunny so hats and dark glasses should be expected on an evening like this, a more likely explanation than, what, spies watching him drink a beer on a balcony without his wife?
He spotted his phone on the table and thought of the Pole cam and what it might be showing — the clean simplicity of the ice sheet, nothing superfluous as the sun set almost in sync with his own farther south, the equinox only a few days away. Soon after the swathe of sky visible between the underside of the balcony above his own and the flat roof of the more or less identical building across the street had taken on the faintest purplish tinge, and soon it was dark. Leaving his empty bottle to the flies Oscar headed inside after holding the door open for a ghost or a wife to go first.
He turned on TV without optimism and the first thing he saw on a channel left behind by his news earlier was the opening sequence of To The Moon! Oscar snarled, and he sneered, and he slapped at the remote but, predictably, worked up as he was he wasn’t precise and probably watched that infuriating show longer than he might have done had he calmed down, kept control, and carefully pressed a button to shift the channel one way or the other. A single stroke would have sufficed but instead he flailed across all the buttons at once blindly hoping for change and half the buttons he managed to push negated the other half and it took longer — a few seconds at least — until the change he so longed for could come. Which we shouldn’t belabor but isn’t it always the way?
He tried watching a show about food and a show about dogs, and he tried watching a news magazine about murders or celebrities or celebrity murders (he couldn’t quite tell because none of the celebrities or corpses or celebrity corpses were polar explorers so he couldn’t tell which ones were meant to be famous and which were just meant to be dead) but after the unfortunate episode with the remote he saw astronauts everywhere and gave up on TV. The screen going black, first at the edges then closing in toward the center, came like a breath for his eyes and his ears the way winter’s night comes to the Pole.
Instead of TV Oscar turned to his shelves and after a moment’s consideration — finger poised, scanning the red-dotted spines — he ventured forth with a surgeon’s precision and withdrew volume XVIII, number 7, July 1907 and it fell open within a page of his destination, one of his favorite passages of Arctic lore: Max Fleischman’s account of July 4, 1906 at Virgo Haven with the Wellman expedition, fireworks bursting over their half-built but American houses so far above the 49th parallel, north of another continent altogether, of course, but… no, he’d forgotten, there weren’t fireworks, no room in the hold for such extravagance. The men had fired their rifles and pistols into the sky of that bright northern night in Spitzbergen, at Major Hersey’s command, “Make a noise!” and it’s a good thing they did, too, Oscar thought, because within a few weeks their airship was grounded, its engines burnt out, and the expedition was forced to abandon. They had little enough to celebrate right there at the moment they at last thought the Arctic was theirs so it’s good they’d found time for that earlier impromptu party. It’s that kind of region, the north: wearing down men on one hand and machines on the other but always leaving enough breathing room for dreams to survive, and of course Wellman tried again the next year to no greater avail.
Oscar shook his head and laughed at himself for once again remembering that bittersweet scene with actual fireworks, a false image he couldn’t shake however often he returned to that page, as real in his memory as the Arctic’s own illusory islands always waiting on the horizon, driving sailors onward and into madness at times.
He read those pages for who knows the how many-nth time, lingering on favorite passages he knew by heart but loved to see set in the heavy black print of an earlier age, an age with more confidence than his own. He meditated and daydreamed over Fleischman’s photos, especially the left behind huts of the 1882 Austrian expedition on Isle of Jan Mayen. He wondered, he had always wondered, what state they were in by his time. It was so hard to tell from the grainy old photo and Fleischman had snapped it from such a distance. Oscar had always meant to visit the National Geographic archives across town, to see the original image up close for himself or at least to know it was there. He’d always wanted to know how the huts had held up in those twenty-four years of abandon and after. Were they still there? How long could they stand on their own, a steadfast afterthought, their obsolete purpose long since served? Maybe they’d been occupied by later travelers or even natives, as labs or houses or shelters for animals getting out of the wind. Someone, he thought, should go back and find out, should follow up for the magazine and the many readers he could only assume were left wondering as he himself was.
After two then three yawns crept up on him, Oscar slipped the magazine back into its space, leading with a fingertip to separate the neighboring spines so he wouldn’t bend any edges. How could anyone not be amazed at the Arctic and what men had done there? The winters and frostbite endured and the ingenuous inventions survival required. Work they could do on their own, on the ground, not the adjustments of scientists in their shirtsleeves thousands of miles away, safe at home. Even Julia, who had been always been willing to listen even if she gave him a pitying look that was, frankly, a little bit sexy and had often worked out that way, seemed to lose interest these days when he pointed out passages in his magazines, when he gave her the most amazing details about expeditions and icepacks and the illusions of land that appeared over vast Arctic seas to make sailors think they’d arrived when they were still as adrift as they’d been all along.
And she laughed when To The Moon! drove Oscar out of the room.
“But it’s so stupid!” he’d said the night before as she watched reruns intended to warm up the audience for a new season.
“Of course it’s stupid!” she countered. “It’s a story! If it was complicated, it wouldn’t be a way to relax. If they were really in danger, what fun would that be to watch? If it was all life and death we’d have to worry instead of enjoy it and I get enough of that at work, thanks.”
He almost asked what was so life and death about registering tire tread patterns, but wasn’t optimistic about the way that might go.
“But you used to hate this sort of thing,” Oscar said. “We never watched shows like this.”
“I didn’t hate them. I just didn’t want to listen to you complain about them and ruin the show. Oscar, I’m tired. I had a long day. I just want to watch something dumb. It doesn’t make me a bad person. Just because you’re obsessed with one thing doesn’t mean you can’t take an interest in others.”
“But it’s always the same. It’s practically scripted. Where’s the surprise?”
“Where’s the surprise in reading the same magazines over and over? Or in watching another PBS show about the North Pole? You’ve seen them all. They aren’t going to change.”
That one left him speechless so she went on. “And besides, everyone watches this show. It’s fun to have that in common, to laugh about it together. And to know you have it common. You can take it for granted, like if you just mention the show people know what you’re talking about and it calls up a whole bunch of other things to talk about even if you don’t know the person you’re talking to all that well. I mean, sure, you could do that with politics or something instead but that’s so exhausting. And who wants to fight with a stranger just because they ran out of things to talk about? That’s why they call it popular culture, you know — everyone likes it.” She turned back to the TV and said, “Everyone except you, I suppose,” before turning it up.
He’d tried many times to explain that the Arctic was popular, that Nanook of the North was the first great blockbuster and spontaneous parades erupted in the streets of great cities when explorers came home, but… well, saying so felt a bit too much like one more party where no one else in the room had read Farthest North. He’d been to enough of those for one lifetime already and he suspected Julia had, too, which was why most of the time he didn’t mind when she went out alone and why she seldom asked if he wanted to come.
Oscar didn’t like to think of himself as out of touch. He preferred thinking he’d stayed in touch longer, his attention a long polar day instead of the brief flash of sun a TV show or movie or space flight might earn. He wasn’t so willing as most people to talk about nothing, to spend his time keeping up on things that might not in time matter, when there were already much better things to be learning and talking and knowing about. When there were already centuries of Arctic lore to discuss. But it was hard to get into all that without telling the truth about BIP, which wouldn’t much help his case, anyway.
He stood with a hand splayed on his magazines wondering where Julia was and what she was doing with her karate friends; he pictured them out fighting crime, all those mild-mannered bureaucrats by day bringing the District to justice at night, and he smiled. Then he brushed his teeth, had a pee, and went off to bed after a quick check-in at the Pole, which had already faded to black as had the sky outside his own apartment, only a narrow spotlight from above the camera lit a swathe of snow as the streetlights did for the sidewalk below.
Hours later Oscar was awoken by his wife climbing into their bed and opened his eyes to her back curved before him, covered only by the ribbed white tanktop she preferred on hot nights and her hair pulled into a high ponytail off her neck. In the half-light, shadows that might have been bruises lay on her shoulder and upper arm, and a dark quarter-sized smear on the back of her shirt looked like blood. Oscar wondered again what her karate class had gotten up to or if it was all a trick of the light.
He set out to stroke her, to lay his hand on her side or run fingers down her spine, wrap a hand around her shoulder, perhaps, but the white tundra of bedsheet between them, the fabric mounded into a scale model mountain range, proved daunting. He remembered the night before and so many nights before that when he’d touched her, stroked an arm or a thigh or reached around Julia’s back and under the edge of her shirt, wanting to touch her and know she was there, hoping something might come of it, only for her to roll further over or scrunch herself into a shape that left so little skin exposed for him to touch. They’d go months sometimes without sex or anything like it, months without touching each other in bed, her body closed off to him however warm she’d been over dinner, over drinks on the porch, even on the couch a few minutes before. Some nights the result was an argument after dark, more or less the same one every time.
Him saying she’d changed and her saying of course she had, they were older, their lives busier, insisting the question to ask wasn’t why she had changed but why he had not.
And Oscar insisting sex wasn’t the point but the effort was, her being willing to rise above being tired, to muster some last reserve at the end of the day for his sake. To show him he mattered that much. Once he made the mistake of insisting that Peary’s last push at the Pole, when his team finally reached it, wasn’t only about wanting to but about honor and debt and what partners owe to each other, and she’d stormed from the room to sleep on the couch, mutters of “P goddamn F,” trailing behind her and Oscar left alone in the bed, wide awake, knowing he’d gone too far but with no route of return that didn’t lead through the living room where his wife steamed.
Another time he’d raised the specter of Peary’s wife Josephine and how game she always was for adventure in the dark of their bedroom, and Julia said, “For fuck’s sake, Oscar. There’s no North Pole in our lives. Stop trying to turn everyday life into big, dramatic moments and important moral dilemmas. It’s not like that. No one’s life is. That’s what we watch TV for. I’m just tired, okay? That’s all there is to it. Some days you’re just tired and it doesn’t have to mean anything. Now shut up and let me sleep.”
More often the argument ended with Julia yawning, clamping down on her anger and telling Oscar not to get so insulted, not to take it so personally, that the last thing she wanted at the end of a long day was more expectation — she came home to get away from demands for a few hours and to put her body aside.
“Your body sits at a desk all day, same as mine,” Oscar said, or some variation on that. “How can it be so much more tired?” And she would ignore him or tell him to sleep and roll herself farther away toward the edge of the bed. Or they would fight until neither of them got a night’s sleep at all.
But after going through all of that too many times, enough times to realize nothing would change and this particular latitude couldn’t be reached, after too many hours spent angry and ashamed on his side of the bed knowing Julia was angry on hers, each of them pretending to be asleep or to think the other one was, after playing and replaying too many worst case scenarios in his head — separation, divorce, disruption of his entire life for the sake of what, of sex, of demanding something his wife didn’t want, of feeling cruel and ashamed and weak for it — Oscar had taken to leaving the bed to let Julia sleep and to burn his desire off elsewhere without even trying, without risking a touch before removing himself.
The twin beds of old movies began to make sense, that deep empty distance made literal instead of his imagined icefield of unoccupied sheets stretching toward the lonely north of a long marriage and a lost expedition.
He spent many nights, half the dark hours of each week, up late among his magazines. Returning to favorite moments at the Pole or at home — often quite close to his home, in fact, nearby in DC, at the magazine’s own offices or the Smithsonian — in accounts of explorers making preparations for expeditions or captains of government and industry praising expeditions returned, praising the steadfastness and stoicism that brought men to the Arctic or, perhaps, to the couch.
He read about hardships, of months and years spent in the company of only men — whatever rumors of half-Inuit offspring may have followed Flaherty and Henson and even Peary home from the ice — and of sacrifices made for the team: frostbite endured, new depths of energy plumbed, new reserves of strength and willpower summoned to drag oneself and one’s partners the long way to the Pole, and he soothed himself to think he had some kinship with them on those frustrated nights. And when he awoke in his chair the next mornings and Julia emerged from their bedroom a little while later as if he’d simply left their bed a short time before her, they said good morning and nothing else larger than small talk. They carried on as if the night before had been washed away or had been long enough to forget how it started as nights could be so often up north.
So despite thinking his wife might be awake after just coming to bed he stayed poised with a hand held mid-reach between his own body and hers, halfway to the graceful white slope of her shoulder and back and the crescent of her breast glimpsed in the armhole of her shirt. The distance proved greater than Oscar could will himself across on that night’s expedition. Or morning’s, as it turned out, because who knows how long Julia had been home and how long she had been beside him in bed or if she really had woken him coming to bed a few minutes before because it was only an hour until his rising time and alarm, by the nightstand replica of Nansen’s ship’s clock she’d somehow found for his birthday one year. So Oscar rolled over and swung his legs out of bed, ready to equip himself for the next charge, leaving Julia to her dreams on the far side of the mattress.
He padded toward the bathroom but paused on the way to take in the last moonlight blending with the first rays of dawn on his magazine’s spines, a luminous glow in his living room, something he’d noticed before many times but never tired of just as no one — not even the most hardened explorer — could fail to be awed by the Northern Lights overhead.