Catenary

Action-Adventure / An igloo / A calculator / 945w

I don’t think Sexton likes me very much. He calls me “the funding kid,” because my research is, technically, the only reason why we have money at all. But he probably doesn’t see any single practical thing that I contribute to the party, and if I am quite frank with myself, there may not be one. Or at least, there wasn’t, until we found ourselves in this predicament.

I have to admit it; I want Sexton to like me. He’s the wind-burned, squinting, salt-of-the-earth type that abounded in my native Minnesota, men who retreated to hunker over steaming coffees only when the weather was so bad your eyelashes froze solid. As such, he’s perfectly at home in the Greenland arctic, having lived here for nearly thirty years, and had no trouble at all directing us in the construction of a makeshift igloo, in authentic Inuit style, just before a complete whiteout blew in.

Once inside, the storm roaring just past ten inches of snow, I exclaimed with delight how the igloo shape was a type of catenoid, and was thus perfectly engineered to resist collapse. Sexton only glared at me, while Matwijec just asked me quietly to re-check my numbers on our progress toward base. Meekly, I took my calculator and notebook from my bag.

I am here in the Arctic Circle, with my companions, to study the curvature of the earth. That is my thesis in brief, or as brief as I wish it were, but I have another year and a half of academia to survive before I walk with the class of seventy-six. My advisor and I applied for a grant to get me the calculator, the newest HP-35. It’s worth more than my hometown’s entire GDP, I imagine, and I’m sure the committee never would have thought I’d take it to the end of the world and risk it in a blizzard, but here I am.

“This is serious,” Sexton barks, interrupting my sequence of buttons. I looked at him, then at Matwijec again, and then at Simms, the other scientist on the team. The two of them look uncomfortable, but hadn’t we all been miserably uncomfortable for the better part of three weeks?

“I realize that,” I say quietly.

“Aren’t you supposed to know something about navigation?”

“I do.”

“This storm is going to change the whole landscape out there.”

“It won’t affect – “

“It’ll affect us real good if it lasts long enough for us to starve,” Sexton says.

“I think you’re catastrophizing a little.”

Simms, whose work involves oil prospecting (he’s evasive about details), suddenly says, “That’s enough. For fuck’s sake. We’re all a little on edge.”

I offer, “We should only be about twenty miles out from base.” As I say it, the cold seems to grip me tighter from all the little places it gets in: at my cuffs, my neck, my nostrils. God, I want a hot shower and a chili dog more than I want to finish my doctorate at this point. Who cares about polar warping and gravitational pull? Besides, somebody else will probably beat me to the punch, some Russian or German guy, with a better igloo and a guide who isn’t an asshole.

“Oh, only twenty miles? Easy peasy,” Sexton mutters.

I feel a flare of annoyance. “What, are we kids on a playground?” I snap.

“Fellas, come on…” says Matwijec. But I’ve had it. In my mind, I am back on the playground, with my stomped-on glasses at my feet and a bruise flowering on my cheekbone.

“Why did you want to be part of this if you were just going to complain?” I demand of Sexton.

“Why did you come to the arctic without knowing goddamn rations work?”

I flush and stutter. “I apologized. I misunderstood ­– “

“It’s bullshit like that that’ll kill us more than the storms.”

“So I’ll go hungry for a day.”

Sexton throws his arms up in disgust and turns away. I can’t look any of them in the eye. Yeah, I’d fucked up, ten days in. I realize now, only now, how much of a sin it is up here to eat more than your fair share, even accidentally.

They’re all probably embarrassed by me. I bite my lip even as the ache grows in my throat. Tears. Crybaby.

“It’s all right,” Simms says suddenly. He walks over to me on his knees, then sits cross-legged, the steam of his breath rising around his face. “It’s fine. He’s a traditional guy. He’s seen some shit and so he’s panicking. But we’ll be fine.”

I squeeze my eyes, hard. When I open them I’m looking right at Simms. He’s a placid kind of man, around my age, probably. Brown eyes like a seal pelt (because I’ve forgotten what brown looks like on other things). Beard to match, like all of us at this point. He looks sympathetic. That warmth, from a man who, let’s be honest, is virtually a stranger, relaxes me. The tension in my throat releases.

“Can you show me how that thing works?” Simms asks. He’s pointing at the calculator in my gloved hand. “I really wanna know. I mean, look at how small they make these things now.”

I heft the calculator into my other hand. “Yeah,” I say. “It’s unbelievable.” I hesitate, and then hand it to him. “The LED screen only got patented three years ago, but they keep getting better, like exponentially.”

I show him the basic functions. He’s into it. Really into it.

“You’d be surprised how much math there is in oil,” he says excitedly.

I can’t suppress a smile. “I’m not too surprised.”

Writer’s Note

This week in directionless nonsense: whatever this is. Certainly not action-adv. Starts with scary storm, ends with heartwarming bonding over the ubiquity of math. I guess I’d call it a drama (swing and a miss on the genre, whoops).

I did think it was really cool that traditional igloos are built on the principle of a catenary curve, rotated around a central axis. Funny how architects the world over have to be good at math.

I went with “catenary” for the title because it’s fun to say, isn’t an annoying pun, and is related to more than one thing in the story. A catenary curve is the shape naturally taken by a chain or cable suspended at both ends.

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

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