It was tough initially, but we’re used to the igloo now. The worst part is the heat blasting 24-7. It’s necessary, but it dries out everyone’s nasal passages, even with humidifiers. The managers report that saline solution is on the way with the next supply shipment, pending executive approval.
The igloo is more like a cluster of igloos connected by ice corridors. We each get our own bedroom igloo with en suite bathroom. There’s a dining hall, and a multi-purpose room, and a coffee kiosk and a big research dome. We’re trying to get the company to build an addition for a gym with reformer Pilates equipment. The managers told us that they are in the information gathering stage with that project and that we’ll get a survey soon to assess our needs.
Our newest arrival here, Joanne, says things like, “I came all the way to Antarctica and I’m sweating my ass off!” She’s proving to be an oversharer—there have been a few like that down here. She complains constantly—in the coffee line, in a “stage whisper” during all-hands meetings—but mostly in the daily scrums with the managers, where she must think it will have the most effect. Part of the protocol down here is that as a group, we Skype with the managers every day. They need to know what we’re doing, since they aren’t here to manage us in person.
In a scrum, Joanne said that because she’s in perimenopause, the heat affects her in strange ways and then listed out her symptoms. The managers seemed sympathetic—it didn’t look like any of them rolled their eyes, but it’s hard to know because Skype always freezes up. We agreed afterwards they must have put her on mute once she mentioned anal itching. We didn’t have that luxury.
Some of us are also approaching the “change of life,” but you won’t hear us complaining. We’ve learned that it’s better to focus on the positive down here. We spearheaded a book club (we’re currently reading Ready Player One), and one colleague does Zumba in the mornings in the multi-purpose room for anyone who wants to join in. We even have Netflix! We also contacted Weight Watchers about starting a meeting down here. We should be getting some literature and a box of two-point chocolate chip muffin tops in the next few weeks. Everyone is looking forward to that.
Joanne will ask, “I’m flashing—is my face red?” We reassure her, “You’re fine, don’t worry,” but sometimes we whisper, “Bozo the clown,” when she isn’t around. We’d never say anything mean to her face—it’s just an inside joke between us friends. Everyone needs a release now and then. The one time we called Joanne, “Bozo, the red-faced bitch,” our colleague Larry laughed until tears ran down his cheeks.
Most of us are collection specialists. Our job responsibilities include digging up “items of interest” under the ice. Because of the subzero conditions, we can only dig for few hours each day. When we first got here, it was an adjustment transitioning to a job that requires a lot of physical labor, but we’re used to it now. It’s the lack of light that can still be a problem. It’s dark practically all day when it gets to be this time of year. The LED lighting in the igloo is supposed to simulate real sunlight, but it only has one setting, labeled “Daytime.” Joanne suggested in a scrum that we need light in the igloo that can aid circadian rhythms—stronger rays in the morning that lower in the afternoon, culminating in a sunset. She’d researched it and found a really great sunlamp on the Brookstone website. The managers said they’d discuss, and Joanne leaned back in her chair, a smug look on her flushed face.
We all agree that Joanne has unrealistic expectations about any kind of change she can affect here. Larry said, “Joanne is a classic narcissist. She can’t see anything beyond her own borders.”
The managers didn’t realize how important a factor the lack of light was going to be. Larry, who’s been here the longest, said at the outset, there was only one cheap sunlamp, and everyone had to take turns under it. That first winter, four people got Seasonal Affect Disorder and wandered out onto the tundra without their protective clothing. Two slow moving ones were caught quickly, but two guys from IT evaded everyone and disappeared into the darkness. Their remains were found in the spring, fused together in a frozen embrace. Larry said, “They must have been huddling together for warmth—I can’t believe there was any hanky panky involved. They weren’t ‘that type.’”
Joanne snorted. “I’m sure there’s plenty we don’t know. Plenty that goes on under the surface,” she said, pouring herself a cup of coffee.
We think Joanne’s anal itching is not due to perimenopause, but because of the all the coffee she drinks. Larry calls her “the Preparation-H queen.”
Initially, we thought the company spent a ton of money to build the igloo complex, but we found out after we got here that they bought it pre-existing from a medical research conglomerate that had gone bankrupt. That wasn’t how it was explained to us at headquarters. The initial email read, “While providing third party payroll services is important work, we as a company have started to think more about the big picture. We are excited to be branching out in an unprecedented direction. Are you concerned about climate change? Did you ever wonder how creative sources of energy to power our planet are identified? A new, state of the art facility has been built in Antarctica for just that purpose. Be part of an amazing personal and professional journey. Push yourself beyond your limits!”
Even though we sat through a PowerPoint presentation outlining the work here, we rarely follow those processes. And we never push our limits. The managers warn us that it could be physically and mentally dangerous if we work too hard. Every morning in our scrum, we can see the worry on their faces, even when Skype freezes up. It makes sense; they’re in charge but so far away. What can they know about what goes on here, under the surface?
In the powerpoint deck, digging, analyzing and logging findings in Salesforce took up approximately fifty percent of our work. The other fifty percent was supposed to be spent going out on field adventures. We were supposed to observe glaciers melting, emperor penguins hatching chicks and polar bears mating, etc. But due to concerns about the fragile ecosystem, those trips were cancelled indefinitely. The company couldn’t afford to be liable if we all got stuck on an ice floe while watching orcas hunt sea lions. Now, the van shows up only to deliver supplies or to take people to the airstrip to be on the next flight back to headquarters. Larry says, “I demand the managers update the PowerPoint! People need to know what they are getting into.”
According to Larry, the company almost shut down the facility after the incident with the IT guys. Ultimately, management made some tweaks to security, adding an extra hour to the mandatory “Employee Safety in the Sub-Arctic Workplace” seminar that each of us had to attend before we were cleared to work here. It was a pretty interesting talk, with pertinent information about symptoms of frostbite and cabin fever. And the managers brought in burritos from Chipotle for lunch and the soft serve ice cream truck showed up for our afternoon break. The managers scolded anyone who wasn’t part of the Antarctica team who tried to sneak a cone.
Also, it’s now mandatory that our managers see and speak with us daily during the workweek, and that we complete an online mental health assessment each month. The questions are always the same—“Rate your feelings of depression, ten being not depressed at all and one being extremely depressed. Rate your satisfaction with your managers, ten being highly satisfied and one being not satisfied at all.” It seems to be working because so far, because no one else has gone AWOL. And the most depressed we ever felt was an eight.
Larry came up with another nickname for Joanne—“the slow pourer.” It takes Joanne forever to get her coffee together. She’ll start pouring and then pause in mid-stream to put down the carafe for no reason. Then she has to choose the sweetener (usually the pink, although sometimes the blue), and then she stirs in three heaping tablespoons of Coffeemate. Larry says Joanne’s use of Coffeemate borders on the pathological. We can only imagine how much she went through at headquarters. But since she’s new here, we’re trying to give her a chance. Larry says, “She should enjoy it while she can because that won’t last forever.”
Larry’s a straight talker. That’s one of the things we like best about him.
We’re not supposed to stray far from the standard work zone while we’re sifting through the permafrost. But there is an impulse to go further, to make an amazing discovery that we never would, digging up the same ground day after day. Sometimes we’ll find something that looks promising, like a fossil or a seed that could jump start agriculture in the event of a nuclear disaster. But it always turns out to be dirt or a little scrap of walrus feces. We flag all types of feces as “opportunities” in Salesforce.
According to Larry, the managers have been sticking to a very positive script in the scrums and that it never used to be that way. He said he was constantly browbeaten about how little he was finding under the permafrost, and was reprimanded when his Salesforce cases were marked “In-Progress” and not “Resolved.” They told him his lack of “Opportunities” was messing up the metrics they had to present to the executives. But it’s different now. The managers are grateful and stress how important the work we are doing is to the company. They try to keep the mood light, filling us in on what happened at the last town hall meeting back at headquarters or they’ll share photos of the quarterly potlucks. Joanne is the first one to suck up to them, saying, “Thank you so much for always keeping us in the loop—I love this company’s family culture!” Larry says it’s all bullshit; that the executives will force the managers to come down here to supervise if we don’t them good ratings on the surveys, and that’s why they’re being nice. Most of them got out of a stint on the tundra. That’s why they’re the managers.
Larry claims that over time, the cases he created in Salesforce were somehow resolved. He never bothers to even login to Salesforce now, even though we’re supposed to be recording our work in detail. And he always rates his satisfaction level with the managers at a one, the lowest rating. We wonder how he gets away with it, but he has been here the longest. Maybe seniority counts for something.
Joanne said recently, “It’s like we’re on a frozen desert and headquarters is a mirage.” Larry had to laugh, because that’s what all the newbies say, in one form or another. And it’s true that once you’ve been here a while, you realize that there is a difference between what is real and what is real in your head.
One time when we were out collecting, we heard someone screaming out on the ice. We all jumped up and ran towards the igloo. Once everyone was accounted for inside, we made coffee and sort of laughed about it. But no one fessed up to screaming. Larry said that it wasn’t uncommon; that sometimes people just lose it out on the tundra and need to yell as a kind of release. The landscape is so vast and the snow blows so densely, people lose sight of how close their co-workers are. It’s even been rumored that some people masturbate out on the ice because they find themselves so utterly in need of it. They stop caring about how cold it is, about where they are or who hears them. The next day when Joanne came in from the tundra with her face even redder than usual, we all cracked up. When she asked, “What’s so funny?” no one could give her an answer. The visual of Joanne whacking herself off on the ice was just too much.
Wi-Fi is one thing that works regularly in the igloo. The managers made sure we wouldn’t go without it—maybe they put up a tower or a paid for a satellite. People spend off hours posting on Facebook and Twitter. Another thing that turned us off about Joanne was that a bunch of us sent her Friend requests, and she never responded. When Larry asked her about it, she said, “I see you people all the time, why do I need to friend you? I need to have a life outside of this igloo.” We all knew that was impossible. No one has a life outside of the igloo. You’d freeze to death.
When we first heard Joanne was going to join us down here, we were skeptical. Larry had known her back at headquarters. He told us she was a lifer—a mid-leveler with a comfortable share of stock options. We couldn’t understand why she would volunteer for a stint. Larry didn’t think she volunteered, he thinks she was “voluntold.” Larry said she must have pissed off someone high up in order to get sent to the igloo; that only a certain breed come down of his or her own volition and Joanne was not that of that breed. But when Joanne showed up with the supply van, she didn’t seem like someone who was forced to be here. She was practically giddy, skipping around the complex, her eyes wide in wonderment. “It’s like living inside a snow globe!” she said. The igloo may be a lot of things, but it is definitely not like the inside of a snow globe. It’s kind of like headquarters, except it’s made of ice.
We’ve thought a lot about Larry’s comment—about the breed of worker who volunteers to come down here—and we aren’t exactly sure what kind of breed we are. We can only say that back at headquarters, we knew what was expected of us, and how to deliver on those expectations. The managers seemed happy with our work. We always received small raises and bonuses, as well as a $100 Visa Gift Card for the holidays. But in the last few years, we started to notice a strange sensation. We would pass our co-workers in the corridors or see them in the cafeteria and it was as though we could see right through them, almost like they weren’t made of solid matter. And we wondered if they could see through us. We feared that our true essence was ebbing away, day after day, year after year. True, some of us are approaching the “change of life,” so these thoughts may be due in part to hormone fluctuation. Regardless, we decided it was time for a change, so we signed up for a stint. We thought it might put on us on firmer ground, and so far, we think it has.
Larry said he had figured out why Joanne was here: that she must be a narc for the managers. For example, Larry said he was digging up the permafrost one day, minding his own business, when Joanne approached him, pointed to his pickaxe and said, “Where’d you get such a high tech axe?” Larry wasn’t about to lie, so he told her the truth; that he had ordered it from Amazon. “How much did that cost? And how in god’s name did you get it delivered?” she asked. Larry said, “I don’t have to justify my workarounds to you.” Later, after work, he saw Joanne typing away furiously in the research dome. He was sure she wasn’t working; she must have been tattling on him. But the managers never said anything to him about it. Even so, Larry’s doubts persisted. He was sure Joanne had tried to get him in trouble, but that she must have been bad at it. When we said, “How hard is it to complain about a co-worker? Even a trained chimp could do a decent job,” Larry laughed so hard, he needed to blow his nose.
Larry admits that he should have done more research before signing up to be part of the first team, although he’s been here long enough now to know the drill. He enjoys working on his own, so much so that he keeps signing up for more time. And we have found too that it is liberating to be out from under the managers’ grasp. The work can be painstaking, and the weather is no picnic, but given what we were doing at headquarters, it is an adventure. It’s nice to not have to fight over parking spots or grouse about the lack of meeting space and deal with complaining clients. We take what we can get, and mostly, we’re content. Sometimes we get a few bad apples working with us, but they usually end up leaving after a short time. It’s hard to tell if Joanne is a true bad apple. She’s mostly just annoying. She got really pouty after the managers advised her to limit her Coffeemate intake because she was costing the company money. “If I were at headquarters, I’d buy my own Coffeemate! And I’d splurge and buy the liquid kind—French Vanilla! And during the holidays, I’d buy the eggnog flavor! It’s not like there’s a Coffeemate store around the block down here!” Then she asked if she could order extra Coffeemate on Amazon and put it on her expense report. That made Larry nervous because of his pickaxe. But then the managers sent a mass email saying extra supplies would be forthcoming for the holidays, including saline solution and eggnog flavored Coffeemate, so that shut Joanne up.
When Joanne first arrived, she kept saying, “You can’t tell me there isn’t there any hanky panky going on here! There’s got to be!” When we told her we didn’t think so, she snorted. We do wonder about it sometimes, but what people do in their personal igloos and en suite bathrooms is their business.
Larry told us we shouldn’t trust Joanne—that she’s probably in line for a big promotion if she finds out dirt on any of us. Larry won’t speak to her anymore, even when she holds up the coffee line. Not that she would notice. She’s in her own world—pouring her coffee, then setting down the carafe and staring out into space. We talked about it at our last book club meeting, and decided it’s her loss anyway. Part of the fun of being down here is being an integral member of a group. Most of us never experienced anything like that at headquarters. Sure, we worked with colleagues on projects, but it wasn’t anything like being in the igloo. What we do down here can be a matter of life and death. Larry said Joanne must be too slow on the uptake to figure that out, and he’s not about to enlighten a newbie. “Let the managers have a talk with her,” he said. “I’m not paid to supervise. I’m paid to collect what’s under the permafrost.” We all nodded in agreement, some of us pouring a second cup of coffee. We have to admit, the liquid Coffeemate is much better than the powder, especially the eggnog flavor.
Then there was an incident with the unisex bathroom off the research dome. We were cataloguing our findings in Salesforce when Larry came tearing in, telling us we had to go into the bathroom and look. On both sides of the stall, about waist level, there was a red smear, and on the floor lay a blob of what appeared to be menstrual fluid.
Of course Larry blamed Joanne, who was away getting coffee. Larry deduced that the person who had perpetrated the smear probably tried to turn around in the narrow stall, and their uncovered nether regions may have accidently rubbed against both walls. Joanne was going through perimenopause, Larry said, which could be causing her to have an ultra-heavy flow.
We talked about it at Zumba, and most of us felt that Larry’s theory strained credulity. A few of us thought he should read up on perimenopause since he seemed misinformed. We decided ultimately that his comments were indicative of a kind of misogyny, which some of us thought lay just under the surface.
We later reminded each other of other things Larry had said. He told us once that he had been “poisoned by estrogen,” since there are more women than men down here. He said couldn’t watch “The Voice” without crying, and that our pheromones must have caused it.
At the time, we laughed it off, because Larry had been the glue that holds everything together here. But then we wondered if the only reason he was the glue was because he had been here the longest. If we really thought about it, Larry’s story of ordering the fancy pickaxe from Amazon seemed inflated. And he was turning into a real slacker with his work, coming out to the site late and taking a bunch of extra breaks. And he seemed to be losing interest in his own personal hygiene and had pretty much stopped doing his laundry on a regular basis. One time, we saw Joanne carrying an extra load full of what we thought were men’s socks and underwear to the laundry room, which seemed odd. And sometimes, Larry’s coffee cup stank of Purell. We felt bad bringing it up, because everyone has his or her own personal quirks. For example, we were informed that we chew too loudly, especially when we eat green apple slices. Apple slices have become harder to come by so it hasn’t been much of an issue lately. But smacking loudly after taking a bite of a crunchy Granny Smith apple slice doesn’t define us in the way that Larry’s quirks define him. Our quirk was just an annoyance when Larry was trying to read his magazine. And we apologized a bunch of times. Larry never apologized once.
And we aren’t bringing this up just because Joanne told us stories of when she and Larry worked together at headquarters. She said that Larry went out on two medical leaves. Larry is healthier than most people—he eats everything that is put in front of him, and brags that he’s an expert sleeper. He claims to do a hundred push-ups each night before he goes to bed. We asked Joanne, why then, if he had been out on leave not once but twice, had management allowed him to come down here? On paper, he must have seemed like a liability. “Maybe he was more of a liability back at headquarters,” Joanne answered, dumping an extra teaspoon of Coffeemate into her mug.
Joanne brought her collection of company coffee mugs with her. We guess little reminders of home can help when you’re feeling lonely. But we all agreed that a mug collection is pretty pathetic.
Joanne asked us if we ever found out the details about the two guys who went AWOL. We told her that we knew what everyone else knew; that they were suffering from SAD and just lost it. “How were they able to get away?” she asked. We told her that we didn’t know, that maybe they were young and could run fast. “I could tell you things…” Joanne started, then hesitated to fan herself. “What kind of things?” we asked her. “Just things I heard about when it happened,” she said, pulling her parka hood further over her head. “Things about the state of mind of the workers down here. It’s been interesting, seeing things for myself. Well, back to the permafrost,” she said, picking up her axe and heading out the igloo’s revolving door. The revolving door was installed after the incident. It locks automatically after our last shift.
Then Larry stopped showing up for work altogether, coming out of his igloo just to attend scrums. He looked tired and disheveled. One morning, he didn’t even show up for scrum. When we told the managers we were worried, they said they knew about it already.
“Larry’s taking a leave of absence,” one of them said. We were stunned. Larry hadn’t said anything to any of us.
Joanne squinted into the monitor. She sometimes waited to put in her contacts until after the scrum.
“If he’s taking a leave of absence, why is he still here?” She asked.
The managers said because it wasn’t an emergency, that the transport van would make its regular trip to drop off supplies and then would pick up Larry.
“The man hasn’t been out of his igloo in the three days. How do you know this isn’t an emergency?” she asked.
The managers said they had been in touch with Larry, and that no one should be concerned. He just needed a break. After all, he came down here with the first wave, and it was time he went home.
“Did he tell you that he hasn’t been eating? Did he mention that he’s hoarding all the Purell so that he can drink himself to sleep? Did he tell you that he hasn’t showered in a week? Did he tell you that he’s been crying all the time? Because that’s what’s happening,” Joanne said. As we listened, we were unable to speak. How would Joanne know that Larry was drinking Purell, or any of those other things? We meant to ask her about it, but we didn’t remember until after Larry was gone and by then we decided we didn’t really want to know.
“Larry’s on leave, so pretend like he isn’t there. The van will be arriving very soon to pick him up.” Then the managers got a call that there was an emergency downtime for the servers and so they cut the scrum short.
We knocked on Larry’s door, hoping he would want to have a heart-to-heart before he left. We wanted to say how important he was to us, and how much we appreciated him—that one of the best things about being in the igloo was making him laugh. But he never answered, so we slid a card under his door. We tried to find out when the van was coming for him, but the managers wouldn’t give us an exact time, and so Larry was picked up while we were sleeping. It was strange, knowing that he wouldn’t be here anymore. Who would we share in-jokes with? Was he going back to work at headquarters? He had just disappeared without any warning.
On the bright side, the Weight Watchers chocolate chip muffin tops finally showed up. They tasted pretty good, and for only two points.
The day after Larry left the igloo, an Amazon delivery van arrived. Joanne met the driver at the door, and a few minutes later, the two of them entered the dome with a huge box from Brookstone loaded onto a hand truck. “Ah, the new sunlamp, finally!” Joanne said, tearing into the packaging. “I can’t wait to get under this thing! It’s for everyone!” She was like a little girl on Christmas. Some of the others joined in and soon a group was reading the instructions and assembling the unit. Of course, we wanted to ask Joanne how she managed to get approval from the managers for a fancy new sunlamp, but we thought it best not to bring it up. We figured we’d be hearing her stories about it soon enough.
Some new people have joined us down here, but we haven’t reached out to them. To be fair, they haven’t reached out to us either. It’s too tiring to get involved with all the personalities. We’ve decided to keep our heads down and do our work as best we can, resolving our Salesforce cases quickly and accurately. We can’t even bring ourselves to use Joanne’s sunlamp, even though we’ve read great things about it on Facebook.
Joanne is definitely the most popular person down here now. She’s always holding court with the newbies in the coffee line. We heard her saying, “Someone did ship home recently. But the igloo isn’t the best fit for everyone. It takes a certain breed, and we get some bad apples.” A few of them laughed nervously.
We wanted to cut the line, shake the Coffeemate out of Joanne’s hands and say, “Larry was down here longer than of any of us—how dare you say he “didn’t work out?” And as far as we’re concerned, you’re the bad apple!” But then we saw the faces of the newbies, nodding intently at Joanne, laughing a little too hard at her jokes. It reminded us of how we used to act around Larry. We wouldn’t be able to convince them. When we all sat together for scrums, they chatted quietly amongst themselves. If they did happen to throw a glance our way, it was like they didn’t see us at all.
We’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, the time we masturbated out on the ice. It was particularly cold that day, and we were crouched down on the permafrost, hammering away. When we looked up, we noticed that the wind was blowing furiously and that ice and snow were flying by in horizontal sheets. We knew that we should stand up; that we should go inside until the weather improved. But we were bored of the igloo. So we sat down on the ice, which immediately started freezing our inner thighs through our ski pants, through our thermals, even through our underwear. And so we took our glove and stuck it under our ski pants and began to rub our nether parts to keep warm. But it did more than that; it made us ache inside; an ache that started low and spread in concentric circles across our ski pants. So we kept rubbing and then we couldn’t help it, we starting thinking about Larry laughing; about how he would throw his head back and laugh until he cried. And the more we visualized it, the more Larry’s mouth because like a cavern that we could step inside. We peered down into his throat, past his huge epiglottis and his tonsils, and then there was nothing, just an empty, echoing space. By that time, we had no choice, we had to keep moving our glove until finally, we felt ourselves teetering close to the edge of Larry’s throat and then we fell screaming into it.
If you haven’t been in our shoes, then you wouldn’t understand. You wouldn’t understand how sometimes, just before the last shift ends, when everyone is tired from a long day and not paying attention to anything except getting warm and dry, we position ourselves next to the revolving door. Not too close, but close enough so that if we wanted to, we could sneak out quietly before it locked automatically. We find having this option comforting; probably in the same way Joanne is comforted by her mug collection.
We also find it liberating to smear our tampons against the narrow stalls in the unisex bathroom. Maybe one day, far in the future, someone will find our DNA traces and mark it as an “Opportunity” in Salesforce.
When we came to our senses, that day on the tundra, we heard the rustling of everyone’s ski pants as their thighs rubbed together—they were running towards the igloo. Once we were all accounted for inside, everyone laughed about the screaming and how unnerving it was. Then we made coffee.
We’ve been back at headquarters now for close to a year. At first it was hard: After we’d been on our own for all that time, it was jarring having the managers in our faces again. Of course, everyone wanted to know about what happened at the igloo. When the company closed down the operation in Antarctica, they made those of us left sign a waiver. We weren’t about to talk about the events that transpired there anyway.
When we got back to headquarters, the company offered us free grief counseling sessions. Some took advantage, but not me. I didn’t want my memories contextualized; to be put in a box and filed away. I find it invigorating to relive those last moments once in a while; the scraping thud of the ice breaking free from the glacier, and the impact of the crash, crushing the research dome and with it, a few of the unlucky newbies left in the coffee line. The only thing left standing was the sunlamp, ironically.
Afterwards, all I could hear was the wind. There was a ruined kind of beauty in the devastation. It was terrifying yet somehow wonderful. I don’t dwell on it though.
It used to be that if I ever ran into Larry in the hallway or the parking lot, I would have the impulse to talk to him. But that’s faded away completely. I’ve come to see my relationships with him and the others in the igloo as purely situational. We were work friends, which is barely a rung above strangers. Larry’s no different than the guy over there at the copier, or that woman staring into space at the coffeemaker. We’re colleagues, nothing more, nothing less, and I think that’s the way it should be.
Debbie Graber‘s fiction has appeared in Harper’s, Zyzzyva and Electric Literature, among other journals. Her story collection, Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday, was published by The Unnamed Press in 2016.
Cagibi Issue 6