Selections: “Polar Plunge"

Fiction by Justin Hermann

I’d been noticing the fish girl around Station for weeks. I’d see her in the early morning hours at the lab, dumping coolers of live fish into seawater tanks in the aquarium, or sometimes she’d be tucked away in a corner doing headstands. I had never been much into fishing, had never much understood the appeal until a few years ago when I worked up in northwestern Alaska and some of the locals took me ice fishing with them a couple times. They’d haul twenty-pound sheefish through their holes with heavy line tied to scrap wood. Women would gut and fillet the fish right on the ice before they froze. I wondered how a science operation here on the other side of the planet compared. I wondered how this girl caught her fish. I wondered if she’d let me come with her.

Mostly I’d see the fish girl at the bar, always alone.  My boss, who is known around here as Donald Duck, always both names, and who I have drinks with most days after work, noticed me noticing her too.

“Hombre,” he told me. “You’ve been away from home way too long.” I knew what he meant by that. He’s seen a picture of my girlfriend, Julie. “Who is Helen of Troy anyway?” he said when I first showed him. Big green and gold eyes like a giant cat, a full set of lips so confident and content they belong on a corpse. She is the most beautiful girl I’ll ever be with. I’d consider myself more lucky if I thought I could keep her.

Me and Donald Duck work together here at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the metropolis and gateway of the continent, a noisy, filthy place full of firefighters and electricians, cargo handlers and HR specialists, van drivers and network administrators, pilots and bakers, labor allocation specialists, all brought here to the bottom of the world so science can be conducted in a comfortable setting; we’re packed together so tightly I haven’t taken a crap by myself since I’ve been here. Donald Duck and me fit in as the night janitorial staff, a job he’s been doing for the past eight Austral summer seasons, August till February. A job he’ll be doing till global warming melts this continent clean out from under his broom. And with as much turnover as there is across the board here, he’s been able to carve out a nice little gig for himself, and by association, me. By the time we finish stripping and waxing all the floors on Station, tourists will be trolling for marlins from the back of yachts in these waters.

Early this morning, around 8:00, me and Donald Duck rinsed the volcanic filth from our extractors after a night of cleaning endless amounts of grit from the Comms Shop carpets, and headed for the bar. The fish girl was already there and we took our place a couple stools down from her. She had a bag of American Spirit tobacco open on the bar top and was making a pile of roll-your-owns between glasses of Black Velvet.

I laid a five down for a round of Coronas and tried to imagine what Julie would lower herself to order here. “She put me on hold,” I told Donald Duck. “I call, same time I do every week, from a billion miles away, in the middle of my sleep schedule for her convenience, and she clicks over to the incoming-call line.”

“My first wife,” Donald Duck said. “I don’t think I could describe her face to a sketch artist if I had to.”

The bartender who works full-time as a mechanic here at McMurdo served us our bottles with grease-stained hands and chipped nails. I drank from the beer. Then I put it down and picked up my hook and yarn.

“It’s all about tension,” Donald Duck said. “Just let your hands find their rhythm.”

I made it a goal to cut back on my drinking while I was at McMurdo, but I was doing better at my other goal, which was to learn anything that counted as an art or craft and would make me look well-rounded like Julie’s friend Chad, the fashion designer. But I’ve met Chad. Seems to me his talent consists of abusing cocaine and shopping at thrift stores.

So far I’ve only crocheted two lopsided pot holders. When Donald Duck offered to teach me to crochet, he said I’d drink less because my hands would be occupied. But most mornings we’re either at the bar, or in his room drinking the two six packs we’re allotted to buy from the station store.

“When she clicked back over,” I said, “she told me Chad had a crisis on his hands and needed her to come model. Told me to call back today if I wanted.” If I wanted. She says I must have wanted Antarctica more than I wanted her or I wouldn’t have gone. “Julie,” I told her, “I’ll call, please be waiting.”

The fish girl unzipped a fanny pack, placed her pile of cigarettes in it, and zipped it back up.  She had a head full of wiry black braids tied off at the ends with colored rubber bands. Her face was as colorful as a Christmas ornament, with a tattoo of a spider web, no joke, inside the folds of her ear, and silver rings looped through her eyebrows. There was a red patch, a rash of some sort, near her mouth. I have a beautiful girlfriend now, but I’ve kissed mouths like that.

The lines of my third potholder were already starting to go diagonal. You can’t have a hobby like fishing or rock climbing here.  Anything that might interfere with nature is reserved solely for the grantees who conduct science. The only chance we have to see more than the inside of toilet bowls is if one of the grantees takes us somewhere with them.  When I fished with the locals in Alaska, an entire four-person family would pile onto one Honda 4-wheeler with their homemade poles and nets, thermoses of coffee and bags of fry bread, and drive out onto the frozen Chukchi Sea or Noatak River for an afternoon. They’d stick a cocktail shrimp or parts of fish heads on hooks. I wondered what the fish girl used for bait as I watched her tilt the glass and drain the rest of her Black Velvet while the ice rattled off her teeth.

The fish girl stood up from her stool and walked towards the door. I shifted a little in my stool, and then I set down my hook and yarn and walked over to her while she was putting on her parka.

“We haven’t met,” I said to her, and reached out and shook her hand and introduced myself.

“The name’s Tia,” she said. Her hand felt like it didn’t have any bones in it.

It was hard to hear her over Z.Z. Top roaring from speakers overhead, even though the bar was nearly empty during these early hours, so I shouted, “My partner and I, we wondered if you wanted to have a drink with us?”

She looked as if I’d just asked her to walk on hot coals. “I have to get back to work,” she said.  But then she added, “I can have a quick one.”

That’s a big difference between contractors like me and Donald Duck, and grantees. Us contractors will lose our jobs over everything. Donald Duck told me four hundred people apply every year to scrub toilets. We’re not hard to replace. And people here are constantly aware of the threat of being replaced. Zero alcohol on the job, zero contact ever with wildlife, unless under the clear supervision of a grantee. Earlier this year someone got fired for throwing a rock at a skua that ripped a sandwich from his hand.

I walked back to the bar and she followed with her parka still on. “Three BVs and ice,” she said to the bartender. She pointed her index finger gun-fashion at me and said, “They’ll be on this guy.”

I laid a five and three ones for the drinks and tip on the bar. I planned to make small talk with her, buy a couple more rounds, get the nerve to ask her if she ever brings anyone out fishing with her.

But she didn’t waste any time even for introductions with Donald Duck, or to cheers when the drinks were poured. She picked up her glass and drank her Black Velvet without even a nod of appreciation. Then she put her glass down and looked at our yarn and crotchet hooks and said, “If you boys are interested in a different sort of hooking, meet me in about fifteen outside Crary, Phase III.”

Donald Duck was crocheting away on another scarf he’ll sell to some other first-timer here, someone who wants to send something authenticly Antarctic to a loved one. Without looking away from the scarf, he said, “Well, sweetheart, you look just like my first wife, so I’d have to charge you double.”

I kind of liked the way Tia looked, except for that rash.

She took one of her cigarettes out. “Your offer’s been noted. If you’re not there, I’m not going to wait.” She stood up and pushed her stool against the bar, brought the cigarette to that mouth and walked out.

Donald Duck has told me he owes me. He got his name because he used to go into the sauna with a shirt but no towel or anything else covering his bottom half. The saunas are unisex and he’s been banned from using them. Sometimes during our shift I’ll put up CLOSED signs on one and stand outside it as if I am about to clean while Donald Duck sits bare-assed inside. It’s some kind of spiritual need for him or something. I don’t understand it myself.

“Hombre,” he said, “opportunities like this don’t come up much for guys like you and me. Come in tonight a few hours late if you need. Just don’t let Medusa turn you to stone.”

I walked down to the Crary lab and Tia was loading equipment or something into the back of a Pisten Bully, a boxy tracked vehicle. Having just been at the bar, I wondered if I’d be allowed to take a leak out on the ice. But then she climbed down and saw me and said, “Just me and you?” and I nodded.

I wasn’t sure where or how far we were going, but we weren’t going anywhere more than ten miles an hour. The Pisten Bully was as loud as a lawnmower. I saw Tia’s mouth move a few times, but I couldn’t make out a word over the engine, so I looked out the window. We drove through town, past the backside of the dorms, past stacks of orange USAP MILVANS, giant fuel containers, and the incinerator building that was built years ago but never used, just another storage warehouse now. We drove past the pier made out of layers of cable and ice, used for the annual vessel offload. We headed out onto the sea ice just past a wooden hut originally designed to be used in the Australian Outback that was instead used right here by Robert Falcon Scott a hundred years ago, one that still holds his leftover boxes of cocoa and biscuits. Not much leaves this place except people.

I’ve up and left women before. Sometimes I’d leave in the middle of an argument, or even just a conversation, and go drive around. Other times I’d go on a bender for days. Things have been different since I’ve been with Julie. If she says the ocean is red, I say redder than a cardinal. She’s a sensitive girl. She cries in her sleep and wakes me up constantly. Before I left, I bought her a giant stuffed penguin, but I know that is no substitute for the warmth of another body.

Out on the sea ice, there was a single orange and blue wooden building about as long as a bed. Tia pulled up near the building and cut the engine. “Fish hut zero three,” she said. We hadn’t gone far. Close enough that we could have waved to the ghosts of Scott and his crew had they been watching us from the porch of their hut. We got out and Tia unlocked the fish hut.  There were no smells out in the open air on the ice. At McMurdo, things smell like diesel, or grease, or men. Even the women smell like men.

“There’s a couple coolers in the back of the Bully, grab them,” she said.

They were those kind of round yellow coolers you find filled with lemonade at company picnics. The one was empty and had some kind of tube and disk cut and taped into the lid, an aerator for the fish. With the locals I fished with in Alaska, there was never a reason to keep anything alive after they caught it. The other cooler was heavy with something wushing around inside it.

It was a bright and still day. I had seen the temperature that morning, but the warmth of twenty two degrees in the Antarctic makes me realize how little I understand about the world. I felt overdressed in my layers and wished I was carrying sunglasses.

There was a window in each side of the hut, and a section of the floor was a hole through the ice big enough for a small bear to jump through. A flimsy plastic tube about the width of my head hung from the ceiling to a few inches over the hole. Wires were rigged from it to a gas generator, and warm air blew straight down from the tube, keeping the hole from freezing back up.

“Here you go, princess,” Tia said.You get Barbie. Anakin Skywalker is always mine.” She handed me a tiny pink rod that had a picture of Barbie’s face on the reel. It must have been found in a toy aisle. I pushed a button on the handle and lights on the reel started blinking. She reached into her coat pocket and then handed me a small glittery jig that matched my rod.

It was cozy enough that we set our rods down and took off our standard-issue down parkas. She had on a dirty hoodie and Carhartt coveralls. Looked like she could be going fishing at a pond in Minnesota. We tied the jigs to our lines and she took the lid off the heavy cooler and pulled out a can of Tui and handed it to me. Then she pulled out one for herself.

“Fishing and beer,” she said, “like cookies and milk.” She picked up her rod and stepped near the hole. She took a big drink of beer and dropped her line into the water.

I looked down into the hole. A few feet of turquoise ice glowed beneath the surface. I had never seen ice that looked like that, and I wanted to kneel down and taste it. But instead, I dropped my line in too.

“You want it to go about twenty-five feet,” she said. “Close to the bottom. They are slow, sluggish things. Won’t bite unless you drop it right in front of their face or they run into it.”

I was surprised by the pull of the current. Everything was so static on the surface. No wind blowing for once, not a cloud in the sky. I looked out the window across the miles of frozen ocean that connects Ross Island, where McMurdo sits, to the actual Antarctic continent, fenced in by a group of mountains called the Royal Society Range.

“Give it a jig every few seconds,” she said. “You’ll barely feel him take, but when you do, act quick. Give him a hell of a tug.” She was like a machine: right hand jig, left hand bring the beer to her mouth. She finished the beer, crumpled the can, and tossed it in a corner behind me. Then she took one of her cigarettes out of her fanny pack and smoked that.

I couldn’t think of anything good to say, so I said, “The fish. Can you eat them?”

“About as edible as Legos,” she said. “Never tried either, though.” Every time she’d take a drag of her cigarette, she turned her head so that  rash was looking right at me. So I looked back at it. But even Julie, when it comes down to it, isn’t perfect. The way she eats for one thing. Sounds like a wet-dry vac.

“So how did you get into this stuff, fish research?” I said.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m no scientist or anything. I just catch the fish. Pretty mindless work. Sometimes after sitting here all day I find myself surprised I have a cooler full of fish.”

I knew what she meant about the mindless work. It was the reason I myself have stayed being a janitor so long. Donald Duck tells me the work is art, which is why he says he does it. He’ll spend a whole ten-hour shift stripping one lab. Get down on his knees and scrape every imperfection off the floor with a straight razor. He’s told me he’s going to start his own floor-care business someday. I don’t have the heart to tell him he’d never make a dime the way he works.

“How about you?” she said. “Why did you come here?”

I swallowed the rest of my beer and set the empty can down next to hers. “I guess because I never thought I could,” I said.

Early on with Julie, she lived near a college and about a dozen bars. She had an upstairs apartment with a nice balcony. Most nights we’d stand out there, talk about the sort of things we talked about back then. Diet Pepsi, owls, the Bermuda Triangle. When the bars let out at two a.m., people would rumble by below, yelling, searching. Once in a while some guy would look up at us, his face flashing red from the glow of the neon Budweiser sign across the road, and say something like, “Julie, is that you? Long time no see. Call me sometime.” I was getting old enough to know we all had histories. Mine included saying things to women I’d be embarrassed to admit, things I’d never say to Julie, so those guys calling up to her didn’t bother me  back then. These days our apartment is four stories up and overlooks a parking lot for a daycare center, but still, what would she say back if someone yelled up to her now?

Tia and me were at it for a while. Drinking and jigging. The plastic rod felt light in my hand. Weighed less than a full beer. At one point Tia stopped jigging, reeled in her line. She took off her hoodie, tossed it in one of the corners of the hut. She had on just a thin t-shirt under her coveralls, one transparent enough that I could make out the polka-dotted pattern on her bra through it, and then she knelt down facing the wall of a different corner and balanced herself onto her forearms and extended into a headstand. We talked with her upside down like that. She told me more about the fish. About the anti-freeze in their blood. I talked about carpet cleaning for some reason. Told her about the bonnet method. Quick and easy. The aggressive brightness of the sky stayed the same out the window the whole time. And it would stay the same even when it got late.

I was thinking maybe the current was too strong for me to feel anything. Maybe I had been feeling nibbles after all and wasn’t reacting. But Tia hadn’t had any luck either. So I kept at it. There was no reason not to. It felt good being out there with the anticipation that something could bite at any moment. Or nothing might bite, but I liked knowing there was an element to it that was out of my control.

After a while Tia let her feet swing back down to the floor, one heavy rubber bunny boot, then the other. She sat down and unlaced those boots and pulled them off. She rolled the heavy, gray, government-issued wool socks off her feet, and a smell like Cool Ranch Doritos filled the fish hut. I could see greenish-blue veins through the skin of her feet. She reached down and cracked the knuckles on her toes one foot at a time. Then she stood up and walked to the ice hole. She sat down at the very edge of the hole and put her foot into the water. “Funny how it works,” she said. “How just dipping a single toe in will send a shudder through your entire body.” She drew her foot back out of the water, but stayed sitting near the edge. “With the salt content, this water is actually below freezing. About thirty degrees.”

“Just seeing you dip a toe in is enough to make me shudder,” I said.

And then I felt another one of those nibbles I wasn’t sure was a nibble, and I thought, what the hell and gave the rod a good pull. I felt a bit of a pull back and the tip of the rod bent.

“You got one. Reel it in,” she said, and stood up and stood back from the hole.

There was barely any fight in the fish. He was about five inches long. All eyes and head that tapered off into a puny body. You couldn’t scrape off enough filet for a piece of sushi.

“It’s a Bernie. Trematomus Bernacchii. Not much of one, but they’re all keepers in these waters.” She took the fish in her hand and unhooked it. I set my rod on the floor and took the lid off the cooler with the aerator while she held the fish. I got down on my stomach over the hole and plunged the cooler in and felt the bite of the water rush over my hands and lifted it out half-full. She dipped her hand into the cooler and released her grip on the Bernie.

The fish hunkered completely motionless on the bottom of the cooler. She screwed the lid back on. Turned on the aerator. Neither of us picked our poles back up, and neither of us said anything for a while. Then she said the thing about guilt and the fish’s liver getting chopped up, and unhooked the strap of her Carhartts.

As she unhooks the other strap of her coveralls, I take a drink of beer and look at the floor. There’s little pebbles and volcanic grit all over. Little bits tracked in from the bottoms of boots each day. It makes me wish I had a broom and dustpan. I take another drink of beer and say, “It’s not what I expected,” meaning Antarctica.

I don’t know what she thinks I mean by it, but then she balls up the bottom hem of her shirt into her fists and says, “I know what you mean. Let’s polar plunge.”  She pulls her shirt over her head and her armpits are so hairy it looks like she has a raccoon in a headlock. Julie goes to a salon regularly to get waxed. Not a stray hair anywhere on that girl’s body.

I finish the rest of the beer and watch her slip her coveralls off. She has a rash on her chest and the insides of her thighs are the color of the rash near her mouth. Then I start undressing too. This is crazy. We have no towels for one thing. How hard is it to climb out of an ice hole for another?

I see Tia looking at me, watching me undress. Looking at the tattoo on my ribs, one that I got matching with a girlfriend when I was nineteen, a girlfriend who wouldn’t look at me the last time I ran into her, a girlfriend I nonetheless believed when she said  she loved me. “It’s supposed to be Johnny Cash, but it looks more like Kim Jong Il,” I say.

“It’s just an in-and-out-type thing,” she says as she unhooks her bra. “Don’t go too far under.”

I take off my watch and note the time. Julie will be home from work any minute and then will wait by the phone. Over the weak gurgle of the aerator, I can hear Tia start taking deeper breaths. The Cool-Ranch-Dorito smell still hangs in the air strong enough to taste. The fishing poles, the jigs, the empty beer cans, everything gleams in the sunlight. There might be dozens of shiftless Bernies in the darkness right below our feet. My socks are two different colors, one of them is yellow with mesh vents for running. It’s from a pair Julie gave me last year for my birthday. I take that one off last while I wait for Tia to make the next move.

Justin Herrmann’s fiction has appeared in River Styx, CutBank, Green Mountains Review, and other journals. His story collection Highway 1, Antarctica will be published by MadHat Press in 2014. He currently lives in Alaska.