Saturday, January 15, 2011

Friday, April 23, 2010


1) previous 2) start at chapter one

Chapter Two (continued)

I pull the old pink woolen blanket tighter around my shoulders. Don’t think so, I say.

He slows down on the gas, grabs my shoulder and squeezes slowly with his big hand.

Happened before, he says and palms the wheel. Driving along, pick this guy up middle of nowhere, take him to town. He was so cold you nearly see right through him. A man- shaped block of ice. Fed him a few beers at The Hamilton. Booked him a room, said I’d send the doctor to check him out as soon as she’s back. She’s out at some accident a hundred kilometers away. Pulls in, gets my note, heads down to The Hamilton, guy’s gone. Man I booked into the hotel had the same name as the guy she found dead at the scene. Nobody’s seen him since.

Cigarette smoke clouds blue against the vents. The tiki doll’s hips sway to the hiss of the heating.

That happens up here, then, I ask. That’s normal, is it, I say. I hate the cold, I say. The blanket feels good against my neck, my jaw. The rough wool traps my body heat and returns it twice over. I say, Can I have one of those cigarettes?

The old man holds out the pack. The smoke stings my eyes and I, too, squint at the dusty radio. George Jones is singing about being a fool. There’s no profit in the business, apparently.

My name’s Woodlock, I say. I work for The Bloody Eagle Limited. You know, you’ve heard. Make OUR good fortune YOURS.

He frowns and says, The whiskey company?

Research and development.

Mostly vodka, he says. That’s what I like. And cucumber sandwiches. That Russian stuff, Moskovskaya, the green label. You know it?

I guess, I said. Sorry, I don’t really know.

He shakes his head. Still, he says, Wouldn’t think whisky would need to advertise. I never needed anyone to tell me to start drinking. Never found anybody who could tell me to stop, either. He leans forward and stubs out the cigarette in the dimpled aluminum ash tray. His hood is down, his face is large and harsh. Canyons of wrinkles around cool blue eyes, axe blades for cheekbones, a stern mouth and set jaw. A cowboy in a sealskin parka. His hands have to be twice as large as mine. I instantly believe no one would dream of telling this man to stop doing anything he chose to do.

We more or less encourage people to buy from us instead of the other guys, I say.

Good at that, then?

I lean against the bench seat and think back. I’m a chemist, originally. Degree at Leicester and an after degree at Christ's. The last job had been simple. Cracking open Shackleton’s scotch came under my mandate, sure, and preferably employing a syringe or two as I went. Sampling the whiskey to make sure it hadn’t spoiled, and immediately analyzing why it if it hadn’t, that was the heart and lungs of my jurisdiction. And Whyte and Mackay would be able to claim to duplicate, if not the aging process, at least the taste of the scotch itself. But directly uncorking one of the ancient bottles was swimming upstream. And downing two bottles meant one might as well swim out and drown one’s career in the current. And breaking international treaties focused on the preservation of Antarctic history wasn’t a move calculated to amuse my employer or his friends. Pissing off the politically connected head of the Antarctic Heritage Preservation Group – by which I mean that the president of the AHPG’s son signed off on every liquor license in Australia – was not a wise move. But the failure to actually analyze the scotch, well, I had a feeling that not doing that might be the proverbial straw. It very nearly might. But, then again, drowning men will grasp at straws. Might also means might not. I felt the need to explain all this to myself nearly everyday. I don’t like the idea of looking at the mirror. Trying to get somewhere else by focusing on where I’ve already been. But, I mean, am I misunderstanding this or isn’t that what psychology is for? I’m just a chemist. A man has to be everything to himself, Saint Paul notwithstanding, before he can be all things to all men, scapegoat included. I was very slowly learning to blame myself. That is, I think I am very slowly beginning to blame myself.

Screwed up, then? The old man’s tough, he won’t shut up.

More like I probably pushed things too far.

Yeah, he says, the ice only holds so much.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


1) previous, 2) back to the first chapter.

Chapter Two

The reason I was singing was because I was drunk and the reason I was drunk was because I was driving. No, it's different, it's different, I was trying to ignore the danger in driving. Does that logic sound stupid? Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself, I contain multitudes. Walt has my back. So I sang along with the static bleeding from the speakers, I sang, But God doesn't always have the best goddamn plan, does He? And I sang, I ain’t quite the beauty. But I got that part wrong, because what I should have been singing was, I can’t believe in the guns, I can’t believe in the view. So, instead, confused, I drove the old diesel clear off the scraped-ice excuse for a road and whaled into a small black spruce and then into several other black spruce beyond that first tree. These home-made roads they cut on top of the rivers up here in northern Alberta are a joke, and the joke takes me down every time. I’ve driven these frozen rivers before, four years ago when Dermick was convinced that Skarsgard had found something new in the Franklin business. Skarsgard’s little pet theory. Up past Back's Great Fish River, bitter cold weather and then mud and mosquitoes in the thaw. Franklin died around a hundred and eighty years ago, he was an explorer and an idiot, reducing himself and others with him to eating their own shoes, the backbones of deer, and leather. He reminded me of other explorers like Scott, proud, dumb, British. Say those three words aloud, they even sound the same. I didn’t go off of the cut because of the British, though, or because I was drunk, and I didn’t drive into the trees because I started to sing wrong-place lyrics to one of my favourite songs. For quite a few minutes after the truck stopped angeling, throwing the snow, I just propped my chest against the steering wheel, not thinking about anything in particular, least of all those eyes and that broken face for which I had ditched the road and rushed at the little black trees. But it got cold and then it got dark and then it got colder. A small white owl shuffled up the bumper and perched on the hood of the truck. I blinked hello and a fox barked. The door was stuck. I tried the passenger side and fell into deep dry snow. I don’t know how long I lay there.

Well, sweet mother of reason, what happened to you, said a slow dry voice.

Hello, I said. But my mouth didn’t move, the words couldn’t be heard.

You all right?

I thought, Do I look alright?

Stupid question, said the voice. Course you’re not alright. The voice turned critical. Let’s look, then.

A large pair of old blue eyes and a wolverine-furred hood blurred out the morning sky. Must be a tourist, I thought. Tourists always bought into that crap, believed whatever the Inuit told them, garbage even ghosts wouldn’t eat. Like the wolverine’s fur never freezing. There’s one thing everybody learns at the opposite ends of the earth. Everything freezes.

No frostbite, says the old man. Nothing I can see.

I try to speak.

Let’s get you somewhere warm, he says. Anything broken? He looks into my eyes, his eyes are concerned. You can hear me, right? I’m going to try and lift you. He runs his beadwork mittens down my arms, pushes gently at my chest. He says, Your neck feel okay? Blink if your neck is okay.

The rusted cogs above my eyelids move sluggishly in the cold, teeth bite into oxidized teeth, gears lower chains. I blink. Once. Not fast.

I say, Okay.

He smiles, his teeth are yellower than a whale’s and nearly as large. You’re going to be alright, he says. You know that now.

The inside of his truck smells like dogs and cigarettes and Old Spice and the sour blue-cheese bite of whale fat. Dusty burgundy upholstery, a bench seat, and the springs are shot. A grass-skirted Hawaiian dancer shakes her hips in the bright sunlight on the dust-covered dash.

Keeps me warm, he grins. One hundred days, he says. Then it’s white sand, breaded shrimp, and bikinis. You can come with, if you want. Clean you up, first, though.

I fumble the sun visor down, there’s a little rectangular mirror there. Left eye is swollen shut, looks like a dark paw, a greasy animal trying to climb out of my skin. Hairline dark with blood, right cheek split open and old blood like mud down a gutter has dried behind my jaw.

I see what you mean, I say, and collapse into sleep again.

The horizon is different when I wake up. Cleaner, maybe. Larger. More of it. There are no trees watching the dim line between white land and white sky. I realize we are a lot farther north than when I fell asleep. And that we are driving on a river.

Where are we, I ask.

The old man gears up to second. We fishtail and, for a second, I think I am back in the bank. The sun fierce and friendly through the windshield, I am nearly blinded, I look away. My stomach growls. If I don’t have something to eat in a couple of hours I am going to pass out again.

A far-away thing in a field of snow is watching us. A dull figure, there, witless, arms hanging like weights. Snowpants, muddy white dress shirt, rolled up sleeves, dark hair across the forehead and a dark beard. I can’t see the eyes.

Who’s that, I say.


There, I point. Over there. But there’s nobody there, a white field, nothing else, not even trees. I twist on the seat and look behind. The empty road, looking like the fields of snow except for the banks piled on each side, and patches of marble-grey ice. Listen, I say, There was a man right there, I promise.

Alright, says the old man. He fishes a pack of cigarettes out of a pocket. Benson & Hedges, silver, which, in my opinion, is a cigarette mostly smoked by women.

I say, What’s the temperature? I think about those shirtsleeves.

The old man lights up and squints at the radio. Thinking maybe thirty, thirty-three out there, he says. Warming up but still cold enough to freeze your face off. Wind’s picking up, too. Not really sure how you made it back there. You’re not dead, are you? He turns his head and looks at me. Did you die out there? Be honest.

Monday, April 12, 2010


1) previous, 2) back to the first chapter.

Chapter One [continued]

How much shinola do you think we’re gonna be in, says Carter. He’s American, south of Atlanta, but right now his voice is rougher than the ice. Probably the scotch. Do you think Randolph’s gonna fire us?

I’m flying out in three hours, I say. And Randolph never hired me, anyway.

My flashlight crystallizes on the splinters of ice in Carter’s glass. We chiseled that ice out of the pack three kilometers north, me thinking there might not be anything but bare black volcanic around Shackleton’s hut. It’s my first visit.

I say, Listen, Scott would have insisted on drinking that with soda.

Shackleton’s the man for me, says Carter. Scott wanted to look good and that was that, he says. Scott deserved to freeze to death, he was an idiot.

He didn’t plan ahead, I say.

He didn’t bring enough whisky, says Carter.


Carter looks serious for a second, or he tries to look serious. He fails. The light bounces off the wooden wall behind him and halos the fur around his hood. His face is all black shadow. No, that would be us, he says. International, too, he says. This scotch is a thousand dollars a bottle if it’s a dime. Sotheby’s could probably reach for twice that. Not to mention the historical interest. And the treaties. Heritage is gonna have a baby.

Ari Mackenzie Carter is severely understating the case. The Antarctic Heritage Trust, together with the current holder of the Mackinlay & Co. label, is not under any possible present or future circumstance going to be pleased with us or with our drinking habits. They are in fact going to be furious. Stamp a capital F on that word. They are going to carve out and then fill a large hole at a lonely desk with the corpse of Carter’s career. And they are going to succeed. Me, I’m not going to be around to witness that funeral. Three more hours, and I’m on Cape Royds’ lone propeller out of here.

Like the dark side of the moon, this place. A flinty wedge of black stone stolidly hunches against the Antarctic Ocean. Whiskey can freeze at minus thirteen. Here the temperature often drops to minus fifty, and the wind drags it even lower, and so much lower than that, too. A few months out of every year, the fat chin-straps and the macaronis gather by quarreling thousands on the black piles and stay faithful to each other until eggs and offspring happen. Waiting for the penguins, under-water leopards twist through the icy shallows between the shore and the cold blackness. And, out to the sea of open ice, underneath the ships, if ships remain, enormous wide-mouth blackfish hang side-by-side for the leopards. Except for a lonely research team four kilometers away, and except for two asses drunk at midnight on hundred-year old bog scotch, the rest of the year is empty. If there’s one place on this planet that makes the rest of the earth look easy, makes the barren deserts look inviting, makes the stone city slums of Axum look palatial, the Antarctic is that place. Anywhere, everywhere, is better than here. Except one lone place. Better a live donkey than a dead lion, Shackleton told his wife after he abandoned his Nimrod expedition. I raise a glass to asses, mules and donkeys throughout history and decide I agree with the commander. Heritage can capital eff themselves. I’m out of this place. I’m leaving the Antarctic. Email came in a month ago today. They need me at the North Pole.

Re: No subject

Woody, I don’t know how far along you’ve gotten with Shackleton’s booze but it’s not far enough. Dermick is furious. Randolph has been giving him the business about you, really sticking it in. What are you doing, old man? We’re all a bit surprised about you here. I know you’ll just set your jaw at that, of course. Whatever. Skarsgard has been on the RAMUNDSEN expedition up north here, and he’s got some interesting business he sent to Dermick. Details I’m not allowed to write down. Not even in an email. But people are dying, Woody, or disappearing, or gone missing, anyway. Nothing sinister is suspected, just puzzling. How can anyone die of the tropics up here? We need a chemist and this is probably your last chance. You are immediately recalled from Cape Royd’s. Dermick wants you up here ASAP. Whatever you’re doing, or, God help us, drinking, you’re to drop it and file a flight to Edmonton. The company will have someone meet you at the airport and you'll be given my car. It's winter here, so there should be roads. By the way,don't be boring, that’s Edmonton, Alberta, not Greater London. I know how you think and I don’t want you drinking tiny bottles of first class armagnac back to England. Save those bottles for Canada. I’ve stuffed the car with maps in case your phone breaks down or the net isn’t working. Drive as fast as you can and come and talk to me. I’ll be holed up in the hotel with a hundred stories. Talk to you in a few days, then.



PS If you see Ari Carter down there, tell him I hate his guts for ever leaving the tribe and that his sister and I are getting engaged. He better take a leave of absence and hike himself back to Cotswold for June. Or Asya will never forgive him. Tell him she heard about his promotion and that their parents are especially proud.

PPS I saw Emily last night at The Coast, she looks great, had nothing good to say about you obviously.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


There are two kinds of Arctic problems, the imaginary and the real. Of the two, the imaginary are the most real.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 1945

Chapter 1

That country is nothing but its own bare bones. Where’s my solitary neighbour? No, not now, not here, not Cape Royds, bad as this place is, godforsaken, inhuman cold. Talking where I’m going to be. Forty days and then the wilderness. Prepositions be damned, I’ll say it again, where I’m going is bones, nothing for square thousands of miles, or nothing except death, of course, and more ice and more freezing cold and more myself, which are all the same thing, and a killer of a common denominator in there.

So not a lot of people know Shackleton buried two crates of scotch in the ice down here at the South Pole. Fifteen people, maybe, maybe up to twenty by now? Make it twenty-one, then. This is good scotch, of course, because Shackleton never pared his cheese, and its golden-shouldered stuff, stronger than a century, strong and equal to the men it was to help. Say what you want about Shackleton⎯and there’s a lot to say, isn't there, the usual hemorrhaging catalogue, what with the drinking, what with the adultery, what with the arrogance, what with the whoring for anyone who would pay him a pound, what with the failure to find any task he, our man, Shackleton, explorer, gentleman, was successful at, what with the hypocrisy, what with the petty fraud, or, in other words, what with the behaviour of someone more or less shaped along the same lines as you and I⎯listen, the man, Shackleton, gentleman, explorer, he knew quality. And, even though he wasn’t a doctor, psychologist, name your term, he understood the principles and he knew what heart-strong substances would keep a man standing week in and week out in sub-zero temperatures nine thousand kilometres from home. He knew what spirit could build up the shape of a man's heart. Wasn’t the dogs, alright? Wasn’t the stiff upper lip. The explorer bought the stuff-of-life with some of the money he had raised for the abandoned expedition of 1907. Twenty-eight shillings’ worth of Mrs. Arthur Constantine Godfrey’s husband’s California liver-pill fortune, and the rest was donated at the British National Antarctic Expedition’s Debutantes’ Escalated Charity Ball, was poured into twelve bottles of Chas Mackinlay & Co’s finest and shipped below the decks of the HMS Nimrod along with twenty-three other straw-stuffed crates of Rare Old. I’ve got a copy of Shackleton’s 1907 letter to prove the pedigree, but Carter and I, we don’t need a letter of authenticity, not with a couple of cheap champagne flutes of Shackleton’s best beloved in our hands and a staved-in crate in the far corner. This is not even to mention, of course, not to mention the half-empty bottle, half-full, whatever, and the old Scottish straw on the floor, and our current address, which is not ours and not warm. But at least we have the whiskey to keep the flesh on our bones.


Thursday, January 14, 2010


Sharon Van Etten + "Much More Than That"

Wake up on this red couch after midnight, and the lamp light glows on the hardwood floor. Was that a long day at work? Stand up, close the novel, run a bath, change my mind. Linger in the kitchen. Old paint is thick and white on the cupboards. Scramble three eggs into a glass bowl on the tiny teak table. And a long day coming, too. Two ice-cubes, then, and the chilled alcohol clouds quickly. Paprika, rosemary, cube some tomatoes, the sharp bite of grated twelve-old old cheddar. Turn the music to shuffle and sit down with an aluminum fork in my right hand. Maybe tomorrow I’ll meet the love of my life.

I don’t think I need much more than that.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Gojira + "The Heaviest Matter Of The Universe"

What God wrote, when He reviewed this single, was "This is SO FLIPPING GOOD." And as He wrote He continued the business of saving mankind's souls, He directed archangels, He buried Atlantis a little deeper, He gave Dan Brown another free ticket, and He pondered the impenetrable mystery of the existence of flaccid donuts served through a brick wall in cities and villages across Canada. And He hasn't even heard the rest of Gojira's album yet.

Business is going to blow His mind.