- The Club
Bert and Jo are in the Explorers Club, arguing over a choice Bert made once, long ago, to leave a man behind on the ice, and while they are arguing about that choice, they get to arguing about all the others: the choice to get married, the choice to spend seventeen years of that marriage apart, the choice to chronicle Bert's misadventures in a book.
Once they get on the subject of the book, they argue over how to start it and how to finish it and what or what not to include. Bert wants to exaggerate his successes at the North Pole. Jo wants Bert to tell the truth. Adam, the young stenographer the Club has hired to transcribe Bert's expeditions, couldn't care less what the couple decides. He's at the Club to make connections, to be hired on a voyage north or south or east. An added bonus is his view of the exposed flesh on Jo's calf.
"We could start with our first night on the ice," Jo says. "When the men slept on the boat and left us alone. All night I could hear something outside the tent. A bear, maybe, but when I went to look—"
"It was whales," Bert says.
Jo wants to describe the whales, how when she thrust her head out the tent flap she expected to see a beast charging and instead saw ice and snow and water, the moonlight streaking the whales with silver. But Bert needs funding from the Explorers Club and The New York Times and President Roosevelt, and to convince them he needs Adam to transcribe a story that will make the public care about him. And the public doesn't care about moonlight. They care about how many toes Bert lost to frostbite in 1894 and what happened to the man he abandoned on the ice.
"Can you tell me about the accident?" Adam asks.
Adam is referring to Bert's 1897 trip north, when Bert's ship was trapped in pack ice through winter and Bert was one of only ten men to return. Such is the stuff of adventure, or so Adam thinks. He read about that expedition when he was fifteen, yearning to embark on similar trips himself, but he is uncoordinated and short, too misshapen for Arctic work. When he is older, he will understand that as [End Page 66] a youth he was generally lacking. But people who are lacking rarely know that they are. For now, Adam is twenty-three, too young to notice how much Jo needs to reminisce about her involvement in Bert's adventures, and how much Bert needs to pretend he has done them alone.
Soon, Adam will be hired as a deckhand on a journey to find the fabled city of Atlantis. When his ship reaches Honduras, the captain will confess that he brought Adam along to fake an expedition diary. Neither Adam nor the captain will look for the lost city. Instead they will remain onboard, writing make-believe anthropological observations as the rest of the crew row dugout canoes upriver to pan for gold.
"Do you want to know about the whales?" Jo repeats. It's the first time she's spoken to Adam directly and he flits his eyes up from the apex of her calves. She has dark sleek hair and heavy brows, rather like a seal. Her lips are chapped. "There was a pod of them, right at the edge of the ice."
Jo wants to stress the beauty of that moment, to tell Adam how much she and Bert loved each other then, how they were partners, because now they are not. Now, Bert lies with his head, cloaked in a walrus-skin cap, in her lap, while Jo does the talking and cares for their seven-year-old son, William, and fund-raises for whatever ill-fated expedition comes next.
"Adam was asking about the accident," Bert says.
"But you don't remember it," Jo says.
Bert reaches up to pat Jo, to reassure her that he remembers the accident and cares about their night on...