Up there, not far from Greenland, north is not quite north. Rob has been reading about it. He’s learned that the Earth’s magnetic pole drifts nine kilometers a year, that it needs to be found every year by the Canadian government because it won’t stay put. Spiderlike, it roams the glacial landscape; it moves because the Earth’s magnetic field is disturbed by particles coming from the sun.
Rob likes how dense this fact seems, even though it implies a sort of leak in the world. He doesn’t want to think about the leak but he likes that we know it’s there.
He is a composer, he prefers closed systems, he prefers managing what’s perfect. He has always been this way.
Rob’s father is dead.
This is maybe still too big for him to know right now, the image too hard for him to see, but eight days ago his father Gerald was found dead in Greenland. He hasn’t talked to his father in three weeks even though his apartment is a mile away, and Rob has no idea what he’d possibly be doing in Greenland. He has no idea why anybody would go to Greenland. Ever.
Then again, now he has to go to Greenland. To look at a body.
He likes to believe that somehow, things would be clearer to him if he were thrust backward in time. Had he been in Greenland back then, he would have said to someone, “What? No, there’s no magical magnet mountain”
During his library visits, he reads about explorers who once believed in a magical magnetic mountain hidden in the ice, one that floated and moved. These men believed their compasses worked because of this magic. Really. A floating, enchanted mountain. And Rob has a typical Rob thought when he reads it: “It’s ridiculous what people in the world used to think.” Past ridiculous. He likes to believe that somehow, things would be clearer to him if he were thrust backward in time. Had he been in Greenland back then, he would have said to someone, “What? No, there’s no magical magnet mountain. And actually, what is wrong with you, person?”
Something along those lines.
Of course those explorers, whoever they had been, went looking for their magic mountain and found nothing.
This is the third day in a row Rob has come to the library to read about Greenland. What few sounds there are in this place—chair scrapes, coughs, footsteps, the zipping of backpacks, the click of the plastic bar on the water fountain when it is depressed by a drinker—penetrate his concentration. He hasn’t worked at all. Alina, his wife, hasn’t called, but then again, why would she? She would be sad about Gerald if she knew he was dead, would ask Rob if he was okay, would want to know the details, would offer to fly out. Emotion-things would be happening. Rob doesn’t know any details and can’t bear the thought of seeing her face, so instead, he’s reading about Greenland.
He’s not looking for anything in particular. He has found, simply, that he is hungry for knowing whatever he can know—it feels as though he is missing a key nutrient, and each time one of the new Greenland words or Greenland facts enters his mind, he feels satiated by the sound. He is less afraid, the more he knows. It’s all he’s been able to find.
Qaqortoq. Upernavik and Thule. Siorapaluk. Scoresbysund. Listen to those words! There is music to them. The names of the towns are impossible. He reads them over and over on the map, playing them in his mind, alien notes.
He told the man that his father was safe at home. His father didn’t go to Greenland and had never been there and knew nothing about the mafia.
Last week he got a phone call from the U.S. Embassy in Denmark. According to the “local” police, his father Gerald Stein—a lawyer, an easygoing man, really, widower but not unhappy, remarkably successful, tennis shoes, still in good health, football fan, not much of a drinker, different than Rob in nearly every imaginable way, distant, strong—was found dead in an alleyway in Nuuk, Greenland.
Hands bound. Shot once in the head.
That day, on the phone, Rob listened to the man (The “G-man,” he kept thinking to himself) and when he was through, Rob said there was a mistake. He told the man that his father was safe at home. His father didn’t go to Greenland and had never been there and knew nothing about the mafia. He was in Chicago. Down the road. He was in his apartment in Old Town. Right now.
The delegate asked when Rob had last spoken to him.
Rob thought, then said, “A while ago.”
Rob felt a little twinge of worry.
He asked the man if he could call him back and dialed his father’s number.
“I’m not here anymore,” his father said, his recorded voice so distant, so uncharacteristically sad.
After four rings, the call went to voicemail. Rob almost hung up when he heard the click of the transfer, but he decided to leave a message.
However, when he heard the sound of his father’s voice, he could tell, after just one word, that the message had changed. And he felt more dread then.
The message was so strange.
“I’m not here anymore,” his father said, his recorded voice so distant, so uncharacteristically sad.
There was dead space, recorded silence of the air.
Finally the message went on: “I won’t be available for some time,” his father said next, and he cleared his throat.
Then, finally, after another pause: “The people who hear this… you know who you are. I’m talking to you.”
A final cold silence.
“I love you.”
Then it beeped.
Rob, phone still up at his ear, stood still and stared at the Old Man Waxburg print hanging on his wall as his own message of silence was recorded into his father’s phone. He closed his eyes, his heart absorbing what it sensed was something new, pristine. He hung up when the time limit cut him off, found his coat, and caught a cab to his father’s building. But no one was home, because his father was in Greenland, dead.
What’s a thing you can say about Greenland? Icy.
After the library, he knows a few facts, more than he knew before. He is in the air, on his way. But really. What can you say? Mining. Nickel mining and Wild West boomtowns. 57,000 people in all, but enough space for a billion. Oil, they say, a lot, and they are ready, all of them, and others, but the glaciers still block them, they need to melt, the Earth must die slightly more before it can be scavenged. How about that?
His father, the lawyer, the strong man, the stoic—Rob went through his house before he left. Went through everything, searched drawers, went through boxes, forced open locked file cabinets, read all that he could find. Started to guess. Started to build it. Read reports of his father’s last two trips to a place called Upernavik, both within the last year. His father’s terse analysis of the legal roadblocks. His father urging The Client, only ever called The Client, to lay the proper groundwork now, today, immediately, while the markets remain virgin and untouched.
Flight, then, and the airplane touches down.
We are here with him.
It comes after avoiding the body, not wanting to see it, avoiding what he is there to do, because mystery doesn’t matter, but the end matters—after looking for more information, after almost giving up, after lying awake in the darkness, thinking of his father’s body, probably naked now, probably in some drawer.
What does this mean? I could talk about a lot of things at this moment in the telling of it: what did Rob’s wife say when she left him last year, why did she go? I might tell you she was justified in going—or how Rob has let himself go since then, how he doesn’t eat well anymore, how his blood pressure is terribly high, how his clothes are always rumpled, how he’s becoming the cliché of a man on his own. But each person carries a handful of grotesques, possible futures of what-we-will-not-becomes—I’ll tell the end right away instead.
Here is the end.
It ends with Rob, after touching down right there, after drinking burnt coffee and haggling with a man who would drive him—after coming to know the blasted town of Nuuk with two lonely days of dark and fruitless walks and questions. It comes after avoiding the body, not wanting to see it, avoiding what he is there to do, because mystery doesn’t matter, but the end matters—after looking for more information, after almost giving up, after lying awake in the darkness, thinking of his father’s body, probably naked now, probably in some drawer. It ends after dressing and stumbling down to the bar, and meeting a woman there named Marigold, a woman with ice-chip eyes whom he falls in love with during a twelve minute conversation, the two of them discussing Chopin of all things, and Marigold teasing him for being so young and pulling heavily on her Dutch cigarettes, touching his knee more and more; the two of them drinking vodka tonics. After a turn of the conversation then, after Rob realizes, gives into it, no rules, do it, fuck her, you will one day be the puttering man in rumpled clothing, paying her before they even climb the stairs, making love to her, listening to her as she makes her theatrical noises, suddenly suspecting that she’d known Gerald based on the way she asks him what he is doing here, also based on the earring that she wears, which look so much like a pair of his mother’s earrings. Rob thinks: “My father was here and he was with this woman and this woman knows who I am, and I am doing it all anyway.”
It ends after knowing all this and nevertheless following her, and after that, in a panic, after she warns him, tells him to go, that men are coming for him, pressing a small orange key into his hand, he runs from the hotel bedroom and drops out the small hallway window. And after running, he lands on the cold hard frozen ground of the alley and dresses quickly in the shadows, and runs frantically across the town, unsure of where he can go for help, thinking of his father’s body again.
He never had an opinion about his father’s body when he was a boy and his father was a younger man. He would see it and think nothing and feel nothing. Gerald was not tall. He had sloping shoulders and a rounded back and feet that didn’t quite come out straight. But a boy’s love for his father, that early, that young—Rob never thought about it.
The end, though.
Calm, after walking, thinking, after coming to believe that she’d been lying, that there was no one to run away from in Greenland, that he was losing his mind; it ends after walking for hours and seeing the chaos of this harsh place again, another time, seeing it scribbled across the impossibly worn faces of the people; after asking an old fisherman about the key, after being surprised that the fishermen took it, nodded, knew what it was for; after being told where to find the locker that the key would unlock; after going there, opening it, shaking, because he was crazy to be doing this, but it was also real; and after finding his father’s one suitcase then, right there, alone in the locker, upright, and upon finding it, staring at it, pulling it out, taking it to a bench outside, opening it, gazing into it when he recognized the smell of his father’s detergent, looking at the folded clothes, realizing that the man, though he’d been impossible to understand, yes, though he’d been impossible to love, did in fact know how to do laundry, and therefore took care of himself, and therefore had lived a private and lonesome life in the last decade; and after bracing himself as best he could, because this hurt him, knowing this, as it spoke to a cavern of loneliness he understood, and this again reminds him that we are all our fathers; then digging more, looking for anything, anything at all; and after his hand brushed against the phone, pulling it out and looking at it and remembering the sad words of his father on his voicemail, the recording of silence as well, and realizing that there was nothing else of him, this and a battery, a stupid phone’s battery, and his father most likely sat here, right here, on this bench, right here while he said those words Rob heard in the phone when he listened back in Chicago, knowing he was in trouble, and pulling out his own phone and looking at them together, then putting them back away, and after closing the case, getting up, going to where they’d told him the body was, and looking at it, seeing him there, so unspeakably blue.
Rob looks down and sees the real land, what he saw before on maps, sees Qaqortoq. Upernavik and Thule. Siorapaluk. Scoresbysund.
Walking out of the building, then, hiring a driver, falling apart in the back of the car, face in his hand, seeing his whole self come undone in a matter of days by being dropped into a place, a place his imagination could not make any sense of, but then again that’s just death, isn’t it? I could tell that whole thing.
Not long after the divorce, Rob’s father called and offered to take him out for a celebratory dinner.
“I know you don’t mean that,” Rob said, “like that.”
“I mean it exactly like that,” said his father.
They went to The Bristol, which was new, but they had to wait an extra thirty minutes because his father didn’t want to sit at the shared tables, and preferred that the two of them sit alone, in the window.
But on the plane going back, Rob looks down and sees the real land, what he saw before on maps, sees Qaqortoq. Upernavik and Thule. Siorapaluk. Scoresbysund. He sees the words turned into something real. Those words are just the crackling ice, he thinks, and he continues to think about this delicate idea as he travels. He is tired. And at the northeast tip there is Nord; move west to the coast and from there go—imagine you’re flying, maybe, as you drag your finger across the map—out over the Canadian arctic’s hopeless black water—the same water of the failed Northwest Passage—where perhaps, if you are watching closely, and the ice on your eyelashes isn’t bad, you can see at least the idea of snow falling on bearded men dying in wooden ships just past your fingernail. What would we have been if we had been on that boat, with those men? Rob wonders it about himself and his father.
And if you go west long enough over these waters you’ll arrive in Nunavut, at the shores of the Queen Elizabeth Islands. You’ll be in North America. You can go to Ellesmere and see the fossiled bones of Paleolithic fish.
However, by no means have you reached a familiar place—it’s still all ice and tundra and carboniferous rock, it’s still barren, you’d still die here if you spent a day strolling—but an impression of the world is lingering a little. He is gone. Maybe there is a radio tower. He is never coming back. And every few hours you hear a plane go by, high overhead, even though you can’t see it through the clouds.
Patrick Somerville’s newest book is called This Bright River. He teaches creative writing at Northwestern and Warren Wilson, and lives with his wife and son in Chicago.