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When the customers arrive, Verl escorts them to the mouth of the Anatomy Tunnel. The James Earl Jones voice facsimile takes it from there, guiding them through a fiberglass reproduction of a polar bear's digestive system. The purpose is not to educate; it is to speed the customers through the colon and into the gift shop, where they will buy things for themselves and their friends back home. And then their friends will visit, and so forth. In today's meeting I suggest we put a pair of shredded Eskimo boots in the stomach room, for realism's sake.
"And in the large intestine cavern," I say, "we should scatter some penguin bones and seal pelts."
Travis and Verl don't agree. Travis says that I'm being biologically insensitive, that seals have skins, not pelts. Verl sighs and says I know perfectly well that penguins, live exclusively at the South Pole.
"And you also know that we can't afford greater carnage simulation. Especially after `the incident.'"
Verl is referring, of course, to the time we fed the polar bears live seals, before we realized they could pulverize a seal's cranium with one swat. The amount of blood contained in a creature that's mostly blubber: it was both unexpected and fascinating.
To remind us who's in charge, Verl abruptly concludes the meeting and leaves for the gift shop to show the customers to their igloos, which are really trailer homes encased in corrugated metal painted white. Travisand I get out the cleaning supplies and head to the Anatomy Tunnel. We start in the stomach room, the largest and usually most unclean chamber. It's dimly lit and lined with pink eggshell mattresses. Because the conference room looks into the stomach through a one-way mirror, Travis, Verl, and I are able to observe what takes place during each tour. Today a little kid from Ohio kept getting nosebleeds and crying for Kleenex from his wool-and-spandex-clad mom. She was too busy arguing with her husband to keep the kid from bleeding on the mattresses, and meanwhile a Larry Bird impersonator from Boston took everyone's wrappers and cups and tried to shoot them into the trash can from thirty feet away. He missed every time but never picked up a thing.
I say to Travis, "That guy from Boston deserves a slow and painful death."
Travis tells me I'm cute when I'm mad.
"But if I were locked in a room with today's group," I say, "and had only one bullet to spare, I would probably use it on the little kid. It would be a tough decision. Boston was worthless, no doubt, but a good percentage of the damage he's going to do in this life has probably been done already. Snuffing out the boy now would prevent a selfish and destructive existence almost in its entirety."
Travis tells me I'm a misanthrope, but a charming one. "Since I'm the literary sort," he explains, "I'm not put off by gruff people. You may have a crusty exterior, Howard, but on the inside you're all cream filling."
Travis has been working here for almost a month, but he strikes me as too back-slappy and socially needy to be living this far north. I tell him so and add that it must be because he's too smart to buy into the Big Lie that is America. I let him know that I feel the same way, that it's better to confront life on your own terms. Travis shakes his head and informs me that he's collecting material on the human condition. As soon as he finishes his novel, he plans on moving back to New York to give readings to and collect prizes from other writers.
"I do enjoy people too much to be here," he says. "But this place has helped me open a dialogue with my personal demons." Travis tells me that he has come to understand the pain of isolation. He puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes. "Sometimes I think I might even be falling for you, Howard."
I brush his hand away. "Save it for the publishers. And don't flatter yourself. Even if I were that way, I would nobly deny myself. As I do with the opposite sex."
Travis starts scrubbing the stains left by the kid's nosebleed. I instruct him to leave them alone because they make the stomach look more authentic. He keeps scrubbing and says, "Aren't you even a tiny bit curious?"
"If you don't stop cleaning, I'm going to prick my finger and squeeze out some of my own blood," I tell him.
"Many of the world's greatest figures have been attracted to people of the same sex, you know. Plato, Shakespeare."
"I'm serious about the finger," I say.
"Tennessee Williams, Emily Dickinson, Amerigo Vespucci."
I pick up a film canister and drop it in a trash can that, with layers of plastic wrap stretched around it, is supposed to look peritoneal.
"Otto von Bismarck, Coco Chanel."
I tell Travis that he made up the last two. He answers with something about secret handshakes and meeting places and informs me 10 percent is a low figure—that it's really more like 30 percent, if not higher. He describes the sexuality spectrum and the various gradations that run along it.
I assure Travis that I am pure animus.
"But as I'm sure you already know, Howard, it's completely natural to have erotic dreams featuring other men."
I've accepted that most people are incapable of expectation-free interaction, but I haven't faced this kind of proposal since Idaho. A needier individual than myself would interpret it as a compliment. Though it goes against my principles to pull rank, I leave and tell Travis to finish cleaning the small and large intestines by himself.
I walk up the esophagus and exit out the mouth. As usual, it's dark and freezing outside. During the late fall, the sun is out for a maximum of four hours a day. I pull on the hood of my parka and wrap two scarves around my face. An arctic fox trots in the distance. Aside from foxes, seals, and, of course, polar bears, the only other residents of Ice Floe Junction are myself, Lenin, Verl, Travis, and a couple of old-timers named Jim, one of whom owns "Jim's Grocery and Liquor." Jim's store consists of two mobile homes welded together and a sign made out of cardboard and Reynolds Wrap. Because we're fifty miles inside the Arctic Circle, there are no trees to speak of. Just snow and several layers of ice. Some days the wind is so strong it strips the igloo forms from the trailers and buries the town under drifts for days. When this happens, we are forced to rely on raw instinct and canned goods.
I like it here in Ice Floe Junction.
I crawl through the front entryway of my igloo and am greeted by Lenin, my Siberian husky, and Verl's corpulent, smiling face.
"I hope you don't mind that I fixed myself a screwdriver," Verl says. "This vodka of yours isn't half-bad. What is it, Russian?"
I scratch Lenin behind the ears. "Polish. Have you put on weight since the meeting?"
Verl sets his drink on the floor and looks like he's trying to think of a sufficiently clever comeback. He frowns and, with no small amount of audible breathing, arises from my easy chair. I pour myself a tumbler of vodka and sit down. Lenin stretches at my feet.
"I'm through bickering with you, Howard. No matter how much you bait me." He sighs and positions his hands as if to exaggerate the length of something. "We've known each other, what, thirty years? And in that time we've never really gotten along. But ever since Gorbachev and the Berlin Wall thing, it's only gotten worse." He gives me a weighty stare. "The guests are afraid of you, Howard. And I don't blame them."
I admit to being impressed by Verl's honesty. Normally he waits until someone's back is turned to tell them what he thinks. Verl strokes his hoary beard and tells me that as much as I might try to deny it, we have an odd symbiosis going here. I gather that he's talking about how I'm the only one who can tow the "Guest Observation Module" behind the Zamboni, and he's the only one paying my grocery bills to do it.
"You confirm my theories about human nature," I say, "and I give you a guilty conscience."
"I want to strike a deal with you. Stop harassing the guests, and I'll give you an extra hundred bucks per week."
Verl's belief in the corrective power of money knows no limits. "I don't want anything more from your ill-gotten war chest," I tell him.
"Of course you don't. Just no more guest interaction, okay? Then you can buy Trotsky here some real dog treats. Maybe even install yourself a real bathroom for chrissakes."
I finish the rest of my vodka and command Lenin to go outside. "No more money," I say. "But I'll stop talking to those drones you call guests."
Verl flashes me a half smile, a cocky smirk he developed around the same time he landed the first investors for this place. "Unless Cuba pulls a major upset, Howard, it's over."
I could mention China, but instead start reciting Marx just so he'll leave. After Verl is gone, Lenin prances in through the dog door sporting a new clump of frozen dingleberries. I drop yesterday's leftover bait—ground seal—on his dish and scratch his belly. I fix myself a bowl of Oatios with powdered milk and read on the cereal box about how I can send away for a mostly free Velcro wallet. After finishing, I retire to my easy chair. Lenin falls asleep at my feet. I think to myself that dogs are superior creatures, that we're lucky they associate with us at all.
Outside the wind starts howling. If it blows hard enough, there will be a whiteout and tomorrow's tour will be canceled. There's nothing better than staying at home with Lenin and drinking, especially when I don't have to go to work the next day and compromise my principles. Back when it was just Verl and I running a northern-lights slide show on Route 12, there used to be several such days.
But that was before polar bears became such big attractions at American zoos. Unfortunately, Verl's greenhouse collapsed around the same time the polar-bear craze struck. Without the greenhouse, there was no marijuana, and without marijuana there was nothing to check Verl's appetite for entrepreneurship. By the time I had proposed a rebuilding effort, he had already hatched the idea for Polar Safari.
Verl and I met in college when we were next-door neighbors in a shantytown that prevented exploited workers from mowing Oregon Tech's front lawn. Along with the other residents, we drafted an amendment to the Constitution which read:
Whereas everything before this amendment is a gigantic fraud, we declare the government of the United States of America void. In its place, we propose a new government that is truly of, by, and for the people. This means that every foreign policy act must be approved by popular vote. We resolve, therefore, that America's presence in Southeast Asia is a breach of the Constitution. And marijuana is not a drug.
Though opposed to the final clause, at that time I thought small concessions were innocuous. Before the tear-gas canisters arrived, we talked about founding a new society based on nonownership. We discussed the interconnectedness of the universe and the fascist sensibilities of Leave It to Beaver. We started a campfire with a wad of dollar bills that we all agreed looked fittingly like a tumbleweed. It was then, while Verl took hits on a water-displacement bong, that we decided to go into organic farming together. Although Verl was a declared accounting major, he showed an interest in reestablishing apprenticeships as in the medieval days and in my theories about the nonbiological family. He assured me that the most important objective in his life would be not to exploit others.
Because we had no resources of our own, Verl and I had to search for a sympathetic commune. The only one that would accept us both was an improvisational puppet troupe in Idaho. I convinced them to start growing their own food, and the first crop of carcinogen-free potatoes was coming along fine until over half of the members left to attend law school. And until I discovered what some members of the commune, as recreational nudists, were using as puppets.
Verl wasn't nearly as disgusted as I was. He said that he could groove with any scene. I told him that I was moving to a place where people had to clothe themselves. Though Verl followed me to Canada, I had a feeling he would one day betray our cause.
I awake and am disappointed to find that only a few inches of snow fell during the night. It's dark outside and will be until noon. The windows of the guests' igloos are glowing with yellow light, and the main lodge is chugging out smoke for this morning's breakfast. The headlights of Verl's Humvee appear over the hill. I drink a glass of vodka and fix Lenin his breakfast (again, ground seal). Before putting on the clothes I wore yesterday, I take the lid off the ice-fishing hole in the middle of my dining room and take my morning pee. "Come and get it!" I call out to the dark water below. I put the lid back on and head to the main lodge.
Verl is making his usual breakfast rounds, opening his arms as he approaches each table, smiling avuncularly. "How are the omelettes?" he asks. "Is everyone ready to see real live polar bears?" When I approach the breakfast buffet, he gets a concerned look on his face.
I pick up a few breakfast sausages with my fingers and walk to an empty table. Verl follows and sits across from me.
"You'll let this food to go to waste otherwise," I explain.
Verl tightens the lid on a saltshaker. "In the future, I want you eating separately from the guests."
"Do you want to find yourself a new Zamboni driver at this time of year?" I ask. Verl frowns. Since this place has become more popular, I drive six days a week. I've tried to teach Travis how, but it's hopeless.
"At least I might find someone who could do a better job on the Project. Either one of the Jims would probably be an improvement."
He's got me there. A year ago, Verl put me in charge of the Hologram Project, a scheme to create holographic bears that wouldn't need feeding and could be safely approached. Once it's completed, Verl is convinced we'll move past Alien Abduction as North America's most popular alternative park. One of several things Verl doesn't remember from college is that my BS is in botany, not computer science, but I figure after squelching my creativity in the Anatomy Tunnel he deserves to be frustrated by some foot-dragging. Just for appearances, I've been studying those holograms they used to put on credit cards and magazine covers, the kind where if you move it from side to side it's supposed to look 3-D but instead changes color from blue to green to yellow.
"Is the Zamboni gassed up and ready?" he asks.
"Don't sweat it, comrade," I say.
Verl stands up and laughs at me so that others will hear. "You're captaining a sinking ship, Howard. Don't you see how pathetic that is?"
I don't bother to share my new philosophy with him. The way I figure it, we had it wrong back in college. We thought the system needed replacing, but as long as humans are behind any system, the world is doomed.
Humans are what need to be replaced.
I punctuate this thought by stuffing an entire sausage into my mouth. I glance at the other tables and catch the woman from Ohio looking me over. Her husband, who is wearing a Polar Safari baseball cap, hunches over their kid and pretends that the spoon in his hand is an airplane. In response the kid shakes his head and picks his nose. She looks at her husband then rolls her eyes at me, like we're sharing a joke. Rather than allow myself to feel flattered, I wonder how many times she has cheated on him.
I pick up my tray and join her. "Is this your first trip outside the United States?" I ask.
She stares at the rubber bands in my beard. Her husband turns around, still holding the spoon. A dollop of applesauce falls into the kid's lap.
"We just finished a two-month tour of Europe," he explains. "If we didn't feel that Patrick needed to see more of his native hemisphere, we'd probably be in Japan right now."
I study the snarling polar-bear face that decorates his cap. CHARLEMAGNE THE CONQUEROR, it reads. "Good," I say. "Then you're sufficiently acquainted with the insidious workings of the capitalist machine."
"The what?" asks his wife.
I reach into my pocket and pull out some literature. "Why don't you read these over. If you have any questions, we can talk after the tour."
If the "Grandpa Joe Stalin and You" brochure doesn't keep them from making a return visit, it'll surely scare off their neighbors.
Before I'm out of earshot, I hear her say: "I smiled at him because I was nervous. He was giving me this real psychotic look."
I've changed my mind about the single-bullet question. I'd shoot the mother first, but at a close enough range that it could pass through her and discontinue her kid, too.
I go outside to check the Zamboni's oil and make sure that the observation module is hitched to the back. It's really a cage with black bars welded atop four reinforced steel skis, but Verl calls it a module anyway. Verl also tells the customers that he's a zoologist and that the Zamboni used to clean the ice for the New York Rangers.
The sun rises and stops so it's sitting on the horizon. It'll move sideways for the next few hours then disappear. The customers file out in their snowsuits and moon boots, exhaling fog. Verl dances around them in his counterfeit Russian sable hat and L.L. Bean down coat saying, "Watch your step!" He lives in constant fear of being sued. There are five customers in all, which at five grand apiece is only making Verl wealthier and more overfed. Aside from the customers I've mentioned, there's also a seventh-grade science teacher from Toronto. I overhear her telling the guy from Boston that the only way she could afford this trip was to convince her government that it would help triple their lead over the Americans in science education. Boston reminds her that his country could destroy her country at will. Toronto reminds Boston that his country is full of obese lazy fucks.
In a brief seizure of nationalism, I am proud to have switched my citizenship to Canada. Socialized medicine is at least a beginning.
I climb into the Zamboni's cockpit and start the engine. Travis shows up at the last minute carrying the video equipment, release forms, and two buckets of bait. He follows Verl into the cage. Verl begins his video-rental pitch. "For only two hundred dollars," he says. Boston says that he has brought his own video camera. Verl sighs and says, "Yes, but mine are much better."
I drive north and press play on the tape deck. The sound is piped to speakers hanging in the cage that can withstand temperatures as low as zero degrees Kelvin. The James Earl Jones voice facsimile says: "AN ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME." I pick up the CB that enables me to override the tape recording.
"Welcome to Polar Safari," I say without inflection, "the world's only commercial expedition into the natural domain of the polar bear. Please keep your arms and legs inside the module at all times. Do not attempt to coax the bears toward you. Do not attempt to open the module door during feeding." I continue my hapless read of Verl's provisos and finish with: "Thank you and remember: when you're `out of Africa,' you're `in' with Polar Safari." That last part always makes me cringe. I return the CB to its cradle and drive past the first landmark, a mound of ice and snow beneath which a broken-down Zamboni is buried.
The verisimilar James Earl Jones narrates: "TO YOUR RIGHT IS AN ANCIENT INUIT BURIAL GROUND. LEGEND HAS IT THAT WITHIN THIS MOUND ARE THE INTERRED REMAINS OF TWELVE GENERATIONS OF CHIEFTAINS."
I drive past a smoldering campfire. It's Travis's job to drive the company Humvee out here every morning and light it.
"WELL, THIS IS A PROMISING FIND. TO YOUR LEFT IS A RECENTLY ABANDONED INUIT ENCAMPMENT ... POSSIBLE EVIDENCE OF NEARBY URSUS MARITIMUS."
The campfire is my signal to press the button that deactivates the electrified perimeter, which is maintained by twenty transmitter poles staked in a three-acre rectangle. The transmitters send out electrical pulses strong enough to stun a polar bear and stand its fur on end for two hours. I look to my left and see the seven-hundred-pound female, Granny, staggering around the perimeter in a daze. She looks like an enormous white sea urchin.
I count to twenty and press the button that reactivates the perimeter. I proceed one hundred yards to a jagged piece of exposed granite—the rendezvous point—and turn the Zamboni to a perpendicular angle to the cage. Before I have the chance to turn off the engine, it dies. The kid sticks his arm between the bars and waves at me. Though the gesture will probably be lost on him, I give him the finger.
Verl tiptoes out and, after dumping one of the bait-buckets by the rock, does a jumping jack. "Get ready for a real treat," he says. The customers clap.
This reinforcement eggs on the attention-starved Verl. He tries to kick his heels together and instead falls on the seal chuck. Even from where I'm sitting, I can hear the wind get knocked out of him. In an effort to stand, he begins making an overweight snow angel.
The dominant male, Charlemagne, weighing in at five hundred pounds short of a ton, appears first and approaches Verl. The kid screams with laughter while the others gasp. Charlemagne stops and looks toward the cage, then at me. I think to myself that polar bears are the cutest damn things on earth.
The teacher from Toronto invokes the opiate of the masses. "Oh Lord!" she cries.
Travis pulls the cage door shut and says: "Do something, Howard."
Charlemagne pushes his snout under Verl's shoulder to get at the seal chuck. When Verl tries to wiggle away, Charlemagne puts a tremendous paw on Verl's chest.
"Howard," Verl says, his voice weak, as if squeezed from a deflated balloon.
"Come on, Howard," Travis says. "Get the gun."
I explain that our bears are overfed and underexercised, that only starving polars eat humans. Shooting Charlemagne would be unnecessary and cruel. "Either way human flesh is about as appetizing as untreated sewage to most animals. Why do we assume that we're delicacies? In terms of meat appeal, humans rank somewhere between hamsters and carp. The arrogance. Is there no end to it?"
In further refutation of Travis and Verl's alarmism, Charlemagne carefully eats around the contours of Verl's upper arm.
Travis yells, "Howard, this is hardly the time!"
The two other males, Klondike and Yukon, appear near the rendezvous point and sniff the air. Charlemagne steps back and looks over his shoulder at his comrades. The way he blinks reminds me of Lenin.
"Go away," Verl whimpers.
I pick up the CB. "Don't move, Verl. As long as they think you're dead, they won't hurt you."
I have no idea if this is true.
Travis opens the cage door and claps his hands. "Get!" he yells. "Pick on someone your own size!"
This, of course, is exactly what Charlemagne is doing.
"No, Travis!" Verl cries. "It's not safe! Get back inside the module!"
Travis steps tentatively toward Verl anyway, like a soldier crossing a minefield, and wraps his hands around Verl's armpits.
I look at the rifle next to me, then back at the bears. Just as Travis gets him to his feet, Verl slips and, in a loud swish of nylon, falls. Charlemagne pins back his ears and growls. It's like nothing I've heard before: a hundred soft belches passing through a megaphone.
Verl rolls onto his stomach and manages to push himself into a crawling position. And then comes the paw. One swipe and Verl spins to the ground like a chew toy. Someone in the cage, a man, screams.
I almost wish that Verl were here to observe his own demise, just so I could point to his body and say "See where corruption gets you?" It's like winning an argument, only it's more exhilarating because I know I should feel horrified, and because our argument lasted thirty-five years. I pick up the rifle and shoot its only round into the air. Charlemagne doesn't even flinch as he bites into Verl's leg.
I try to start the Zamboni. The engine shudders, then dies. The cuckhold from Ohio tells his wife and kid to huddle at the far corner of the cage. He opens the door and joins Travis in trying to distract Charlemagne.
"Shoot the damn thing!" Travis yells.
I could tell him that the rifle is empty. "Travis, don't make me choose between animals and people. You and Ohio should get back in the cage. Verl is dead." Announcing this has never made me feel so alive.
Boston runs shrieking onto the snow, first in circles, then in a straight line toward the perimeter. Klondike and Yukon lope toward the cage door he has left open.
"Don't hurt the baby!" Toronto screams, positioning herself in front of Ohio and her kid. Behind them is the second bucket of bait.
Ohio swings his video camera at Charlemagne and misses; Travis slaps the bear's hind legs. In self-defense, Charlemagne charges Ohio and swats him to the ground.
I stand on the Zamboni's gas pedal and turn the key. The engine doesn't even make a sound.
"For God's sake, kill it!" Travis screams.
I consider telling Travis that Verl got what he deserved, but at the moment I don't feel like gloating. Instead I think to myself, If you stay another second, you'll die with them. Me. I'm what matters. I'm all I care about.
I bail out of the Zamboni's cockpit and follow Boston's tracks to the perimeter. Though loud, the cries starting to come from inside the cage grow more faint.
It is eerily silent at the perimeter. The tracks veer to the right and stop where Boston is being eaten by Granny. Granny watches me as I lie on my back and start sliding under the two-foot gap in the electrical field. I hear the sound of crunching snow and look down to find her standing over my legs. She narrows her eyes and bites into my right ankle.
Pain shoots up my leg as I crawl free of the perimeter. I hop toward home thinking of Lenin, of petting his gray-and-black coat, the same pepper color as the former Verl's hair. He died as I dreamed he would: violently, his capitalist operation in shambles. The only disappointment was that his final act was to tell Travis to save himself. And I didn't expect that Travis would come to Verl's aid and stay to protect Verl's body, or that Toronto would step in front of Ohio and her son. I didn't expect Ohio to use one of Verl's video cameras as an instrument of self-defense and sacrifice.
I stop and tie my scarf around my ankle. My right foot swings uselessly from a tangle of meat. Ingots of frozen blood stick to my pant leg. I laugh to myself when I think of Boston—his cowardice and greedy self-preservation amid all that heroism. I look back toward the perimeter and hear a high-pitched squeal. As the sound grows louder I realize it's coming from Ice Floe Junction. It's Jim, approaching on his snowmobile. Behind him the lights from the main lodge are beginning to glow.
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