There were no clocks in the museum. Geoffrey liked to think this was metaphoric. He was inclined to this kind of thinking toward the end of a shift, when the halls and galleries were quiet, the patrons having taken their children home for naps. Time had stopped here in the room commemorating the great gold rush of 1898, with its rusty pans, pickaxes, and the rotting lingerie of the cancan girls. Next door, time swung back into prehistory in the room celebrating the ice age, the dry time when strange animals tripped over northern soils: Beringia, it was called, that place where the ice wasn’t.
The Beringia room was Geoffrey’s favourite. It held replicas of massive furred animals both familiar and strange: giant sloth, giant short-faced bear, and mammoth (the name itself was large), a hairy, elephant-like creature. “It looks kinda like Snuffleupagus with tusks,” he’d told Ida on their first date.
Ida was silent for a moment, maybe picturing that for herself. Then she spoke: “I always wished I could see the great cats wandering the slopes. Imagine tigers in the Yukon.”
“There were camels too,” Geoffrey said, wanting to impress her, hoping to hit on something she didn’t already know. Ida held many arcane bits of knowledge in her head. It was what he liked about her, he told himself, even when he didn’t.
“How did you know about it—about Beringia?” he asked her. “I had never heard of it before I got this job, and I studied anthropology.”
Ida had taken poetry classes at a community college and travelled in Asia rather than attend university. She shrugged. “It’s why I came North. I’m into ice ages. I wanted to get closer to glaciers.”
Getting close to her was similar, Geoffrey thought. They’d been dating for five months now. She was impressive at a distance, but up close she tended to freeze him out.
Geoffrey was in the First Peoples exhibit, dusting the paleo-family and wishing he had worn a watch. There was a meeting he was supposed to sit in on; he thought he might already be late. The paleo-man’s hair was made of some kind of wiry material, and it was a magnet for dust bunnies. They collected there, robbing the figure of his dignity.
The ancient man was short, even shorter hunched over a caribou with a flensing tool. His plastic hands pulled back the skin of the animal to expose an artist’s rendering of a caribou’s guts. Geoffrey wondered if Ida knew the word flensing. She might like it; he would try it on her tonight.
Geoffrey had lived in the Yukon his whole life. His last girlfriend had been a timid veterinary assistant who’d said she wanted marriage and then left him for a guy with tattoos on his neck. Before he’d met Ida, he’d been single for over a year. The women he walked up to in bars smiled politely and then ignored him. When Ida had shown up behind the counter at his usual coffee shop, then left her post at the espresso machine to turn over the book he’d been reading and inquire after the plot, he’d asked her out right away. The spout in the milk she’d left to foam had begun to squeal; Ida had shrugged and said yes.
The meeting was already in progress when Geoffrey arrived at Janice’s office. A group of local scientists had been pressuring the museum to add an interpretive display on global warming. The territorial government was pretty keen on the oil-and-gas industry; it was not supportive of the scientists’ initiative. Janice had already informed him, sighing, that the scientists had rallied some environmental types to put the pressure on and that representatives from each of these factions would be meeting with her today. “You might as well come too,” she’d told him, though he knew she wouldn’t want him to actually participate. “It’ll look like there’s more of us.”
Looking around the room, it was almost too easy to peg the participants. The scientists wore Gore-Tex; the bureaucrats, blazers; the enviros were clad in jeans. One of the environmentalists was an old man sporting a weedy beard and a Guatemalan poncho. The other, younger, had a nose ring, one of those through-the-centre ones.
“Your displays are a supposed celebration of the ice ages,” the older activist was saying. “Right now, the glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate. This is a story that must be told!”
Janice gave Geoffrey one of her distracted nods as he pulled up a chair beside her desk, then narrowed her brows toward the man who’d spoken. Janice herself wasn’t old, exactly, but she was kind of rigid—like one of their exhibits, Geoffrey always felt.
“We have the data,” one of the scientists said.
“The data is inconclusive,” one of the government men said.
“We have our own data,” someone else said.
Then there were simultaneous protestations, but Janice held up a finger, and eventually, the men quieted, like horses. “The planet may well be warming,” Janice said. “What belongs in my museum is another matter altogether.”
“Well, now,” said the official, “this is a publicly funded institution.”
“Exactly,” said Guatemalan poncho. “And the public has a voice—”
“And we are elected by the public—”
“And I was selected as heritage director to guide programming for this museum,” Janice interrupted. “Without interference.”
The nose-ringed man, who had been silent up to this point, spoke next. He was shaking, and his voice came out very young. “It’s my future you’re playing with!” he said. He looked at Geoffrey as he said this, perhaps feeling their shared youthful presence in the room called for solidarity.
“How so?” Janice said coldly. She also glanced at Geoffrey, raising an eyebrow. She’d hired him two years ago; the museum job paid a good wage. He would take her side of course. He gave her a tiny nod to show this.
“We have to convince people to change now, before it’s too late,” Nose-ring said, waving his pale hands around. “Or the next generation’s fucking doomed. What about your kids?”
“I don’t have any,” Janice said. Geoffrey guessed it was a sore point with her. “And I don’t think humanity—at risk or not—is necessarily the main focus of our exhibits.”
The government reps looked both relieved and confused.
“I am not denying that global warming is a fact nor that humans have contributed to it,” Janice went on, waving one hand dismissively, “However, what is the story we are trying to tell? Our exhibits are intended to illuminate minds, not bleed hearts.” She sat back, clearly pleased with her own phrasing.
The government men cleared their throats, both at once, like a phlegmy choir. “Well, I think we’ve got a good sense of the issues established here today,” one of them said.
At that point, the young man rose to his feet, pulled a flask from his pocket, and rapidly unscrewed the lid. They all watched him, rather dumbly. Geoffrey expected him to drink, maybe, but instead he shook liquid from the flask onto Janice’s desk, splattering her papers.
“Hey!” Janice said, rising.
The older enviro piped up: “Now, Wilkie—”
Before anyone could stop him, Wilkie withdrew a lighter from his other pocket and flicked it to flame. His hand descended toward the desk and then he yanked it back and yelled, “Fuck!” Geoffrey saw that the man’s sleeve was on fire and, after that, that the desk was alight in sprightly flames.
For a too-long moment they all stared at the desk on fire and the burning man, but then one of the government men picked up a glass of water and threw it toward Wilkie. It looked almost like he had tried to throw it in Wilkie’s face, but the activist’s hands were raised, and the water extinguished the flames.
Geoffrey turned to help Janice, who was slapping at her burning desk with her cardigan. He ran to the coat rack in the corner and grabbed somebody’s jacket to join her in beating at the fire. But by then she’d managed to extinguish most of the flames, and the older environmentalist, who had shoved aside his young colleague and run for a pitcher of water, soaked the rest. A thick smoke rose, choking the room.
Everyone stopped yelling then, except for Janice, who was screaming at Wilkie as he cowered in the corner, clutching his blackened sleeve to his chest. “You will pay for this!” Janice yelled.“There are artifacts here! This is not acceptable in a heritage environment!”
Then the museum’s ancient sprinkler system activated, and they were all doused.
Ida was standing at her sink, looking down at a pile of wilted lettuce, when Geoffrey arrived at her apartment. He was disappointed; it was nearly seven, and when she’d invited him over after work, he’d assumed dinner was part of the offer. He should have known better. Ida was ineffectual at sustenance.
“I thought I’d make a salad,” she said. “But this romaine is just not very perky.”
“Maybe we could go out?” Geoffrey suggested. He wished he’d hit the drive-through before coming over. He walked up behind Ida and leaned into her back. The distraction from his hunger pangs was immediate. Ida had a half-withheld sexiness that got to him. She wore lipstick that got on his clothes but somehow never smudged on her face. At the same time, she wasn’t exceedingly attractive; he felt like, by some impartial measure, he was better looking. Geoffrey kept feeling like she should be glad to have him; she clearly wasn’t.
Ida stepped back from the sink, wrinkling her nose. “You smell like a campfire.”
“No, actually an office fire,” Geoffrey said.
Ida’s face woke up for the first time since he’d entered her apartment. “What happened?”
He filled her in. Ida was fixated on the young man’s motivations. “I wonder what he hoped would happen,” she said. “I wonder if he planned it. You say his name was Wilkie?”
“That’s what the other dude called him. Janice is pissed. Like, rabid. She had the police arrest him. She’s calling it assault as well as arson.”
“He probably didn’t want to hurt anyone,” Ida said.
“I don’t know about that. Those enviros can be nutty.” Geoffrey wished she’d ask more questions about what it had been like for him. Then again, he hadn’t really done anything; he’d just stood there watching. “It’s going to cost a lot of money to clean up the museum,” he said.
Ida looked at him as if he were pedantic—as if he were Janice. “I imagine the cost of global warming isn’t even measurable. In dollars,” she added. She was pursing her lips.
“Well, some irreplaceable artifacts will be lost too,” Geoffrey said, though he didn’t know if that were true.
Ida shrugged her small shoulders.
The museum was closed indefinitely, but Janice wanted Geoffrey to work his shifts anyway: “I’ll need you for inventory, for supervising cleanup, and for making sure the idiotic insurance adjusters don’t tamper with the artifacts.” Janice was jittery in a way that Geoffrey hadn’t seen before. All afternoon, he could hear her on the phone, barking about incompetency and interference. Janice had been at the museum for five years; once, she’d proudly told him that at forty, she’d been one of the youngest female museum directors ever hired. It didn’t sound that young, but Geoffrey hoped he’d raised his eyebrows and nodded in an acceptable homage.
Geoffrey wandered the museum. It felt strange inside without the public; no one cared if he looked interested or imminently informative. He’d spent months cultivating a perfectly engaged expression, one he could hold fixed even while he imagined himself at home, delicately tonguing Ida’s pussy.
Janice came by the Cambrian fossil collection, which he was carefully bagging and labelling for storage. The room needed repainting; Janice looked forlorn. “This whole thing is overwhelming,” she said. “They should never have put a sprinkler system in a building with artifacts. There are other systems I’ve been reading about. Flame-retardant display cases for one.”
“Right,” Geoffrey said, squatting over the fossils. “That makes a lot of sense.”
His response sounded lame to him, but Janice visibly brightened. “I’m going to have to leave at two,” she continued. “I need to get down to the police station and make sure they’re taking this seriously.” Janice ran a hand through her hair. It was strange to see it loose and dishevelled; Geoffrey could see strands of silver in the brown. Still, she looked a lot better this way; usually, her hair was pulled back in a tidy clip. And non-work clothes suited her. She had the kind of curves that looked better in jeans. In her businessy slacks, she appeared heavy and dour.
“I can hold down the fort,” Geoffrey said. “Why don’t you leave me a task list?”
“Thank God for you, Geoffrey. Really,” Janice said. She laid a hand on his shoulder.
Geoffrey met her eyes and she smiled down at him. Could she be attracted to him? It was hard to countenance. And yet.
That night, Geoffrey didn’t bother with the delicate dance of ascertaining Ida’s arousal: he went to her house, and when she answered the door, he put his body up to hers and marched her to the bedroom, tugging at his belt buckle.
Ida was funny: if he asked her what she wanted, she seemed disappointed, like he should know her feelings already. If he just did what he wanted, something in her bemused response conveyed that he was wrong but that she’d be benevolent about it anyway.
Ida let him pull her tights down. As she lay under him, pale and insubstantial, an image of Janice broke in: she would be warm, resistant. Insistent, probably. Demanding. As Geoffrey began to move on top of Ida, he thought of how Janice would disapprove of this one-sided thrusting with no answering buck. Thinking about this turned him on, and he thrust harder. “Are you going to come?” he asked.
“No,” Ida said. Her lips curled in a smile or the possibility of a smirk.
“Okay,” Geoffrey said, and he pulled out and came on her fish-pale belly.
After, he felt a little abashed. He went to the bathroom for Kleenex and dabbed at Ida’s stomach. She stretched out. White threads stuck to her skin. “So how was work?”
“Janice is still furious,” Geoffrey said. “She’s definitely pressing charges against that Wilkie guy.”
“Well she won’t get a conviction on personal injury,” Ida said. “And his name is Wilkinson.”
“How do you know that?” Geoffrey stood, holding the damp Kleenex like a fussy mother.
“I went to see him,” Ida said.
“I went to see him at the police station. They’re letting him out soon. They’ll charge him with arson or property damage or something—”
“You went to see him?” It was hard to imagine Ida talking her way into a jail.
“Yes. I was curious.”
“Arson’s not exactly a small thing.” Geoffrey found himself irritated. “He could’ve burned down the whole museum!”
“But he didn’t.”
Ida was continuing. “Also, in some ways, it’s already dust, isn’t it?” she said. “Everything in there’s dead anyway.” She paused. “He was acting for the living.”
Geoffrey couldn’t think of anything to say for a moment. “I was in there!” he finally said.
At home the next day, Geoffrey opened his computer and typed in Wilkinson, fire. Sure enough, there was a small story in the local paper: “Man Sets Fire at Museum.” Then he searched the directory. William Wilkinson. There was a W. Wilkinson at an address downtown. He stood and grabbed his car keys.
It was one of the former squatter shacks near the river, most of which had been torn down and replaced by pastel monstrosities as the city slowly gentrified. Ida’s unlocked bicycle was parked out front. It was the third bike she’d had to buy since moving to town.
Now that Geoffrey was here, he wasn’t sure what to do. Knock on the door and confront them? With what, exactly?
He slammed his car door and walked up to the shack with strong strides but at the last moment veered from the front entrance and went down a path toward the side of the house. A mountain ash was planted near a low window. Next to it was the house’s electrical meter, barely attached to the listing wall. Geoffrey bent and stared at the meter, pretending the numbers meant something to him. His heart was pounding. The numbers ticked slowly and the street stayed quiet, and after a minute, he shifted his feet to the left and looked sideways into the dirty window.
It took a minute to adjust his eyes. When he did, he saw Ida and Wilkie silhouetted against another, brighter, window at the back of the house. They were seated on milk crates. Their heads were bent together, with Ida’s long hair hanging forward and Wilkie’s stupid locks pulled up in a man bun. Were they kissing? Without thinking, Geoffrey started banging on the window. The two inside looked up; their faces were wide open in innocent surprise. Now Geoffrey could see a small table between them, covered in papers. Still, their intimate pose filled him with hot rage. He banged again on the window.
Ida recognized him; her eyebrows knit a little, though the man with her looked as dumb as ever. Wilkie rose, left the room, and emerged from around the back of the house. “Hey, man! What do you think you’re doing?” he yelled at Geoffrey.
Geoffrey stepped back from the window.
“Dude! Are you high?” Wilkie said. “Get out of my yard.” Clearly he didn’t recognize Geoffrey at all.
“Like you care about your property,” Geoffrey finally said. “I thought you only cared about the planet.”
The guy looked even more confused, but then Ida came around the corner. “That’s my boyfriend,” she said to Wilkie. Then: “Hi, Geoffrey.” She took Geoffrey’s arm. “We’re finished what we’re doing. Can you give me a ride home?”
She took his arm, and Geoffrey let her lead him to the car. He looked back after they were in their seats. Wilkie was still standing by the side of the house. He was casually plucking orange berries from the tree beside him. Geoffrey idled the car, watching as Wilkie held the berries up to his nose.
“That’s so weird you came to his house,” Ida said as the car started to move.
“No, it’s weird that you came to his house,” Geoffrey said. Ida didn’t bother responding to that, so he continued. “Are you interested in him? Like, romantically?” The word sounded dumb when he said it. Should he have said sexually?
“I got him a lawyer,” Ida said. She kept her gaze to the front, out the windshield. “I was just going through some paperwork with him.” Surprisingly, she didn’t seem angry with Geoffrey; it was like his reaction had been expected, if distasteful.
“You don’t have that kind of money.” Geoffrey had recently offered to lend her money for rent after she’d cut back her hours at the coffee shop.
“No, but my father does,” she said.
On the way home, Ida divulged that her family was super rich. Like, owning a newspaper rich. When Geoffrey asked why she hadn’t mentioned this before, she just shrugged and said, “It makes things complicated.”
“You called me your boyfriend back there,” Geoffrey said, as if it were a question.
“That was shorthand.”
“Shorthand for what?”
Ida shrugged. “Shorthand for ‘I’m done helping another hapless man and don’t need him getting any ideas.’ His convictions were interesting but he was not. And shorthand I guess for getting a ride home. My bike has a flat tire.”
Geoffrey dropped Ida off at her house and drove away without speaking. It wasn’t a work day, but he found himself driving to the museum. Janice was standing outside, jangling her key ring in frustration. She was wearing jeans and a DINOSAURS AGAINST CREATIONISM T-shirt. Over it was her usual cardigan. “Did you get your days mixed up?” she asked. “We can’t be in there today—the adjusters are working.”
“Oh.” Geoffrey shuffled his feet.
Janice’s shoulders sagged. “Believe me, I tried, but they won’t be done until tomorrow.”
“That’s okay,” Geoffrey said. “I’ve got other things I can do.”
Janice just stood there, as if she might remain in the same spot forever.
Geoffrey walked toward his car. An image kept intruding: himself, banging on Wilkie’s window like an idiot.
He turned around and called out. “Can I buy you a coffee?”
Janice’s face lifted. “Hell, if you come to my place, I’ve got gin,” she said. “I could use a drink.”
It was not at all like he’d thought. Janice was soft, acquiescent, and moany. She pulled him into her and held on tight, breathing little gasps into his ear. “Mmm, mmm, mmm,” she said. Geoffrey set a steady pace, half-detached. After a while, Janice’s moans grew more urgent, and he rolled her on top of him. They moved together, and the moans stopped. It seemed she was holding her breath, and then she exhaled in a rush and shuddered. He increased his pace and finished. Afterwards, Janice lay heavily on him, her breaths loud in his ear.
After a minute, he shifted his body and she quickly rolled off. “Sorry, am I squishing you?” she said.
“No,” he said.
They lay there. The silence wasn’t comfortable. He thought of the stuffed, extinct animals in the museum. Their bodies taut and awkward, frozen in time. Who knew what they had been thinking when the world stopped?
When geoffrey got home, he was filled with loathing. Ida was at his house. There were boxes of Chinese take-out on his kitchen table. He looked at Ida, busily pulling plates from his cupboard.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about helping that guy out. I didn’t think you would care that much,” Ida said.
“Of course I care,” Geoffrey said. “I mean, I am your boyfriend.” It came out like a joke he didn’t intend.
“Anyway, I’m in law school,” Ida said, laying the plates neatly on the table at adjacent places. “Or I will be in the fall.”
He’d walked in ready to defend himself. Now the surprise of her leaving caught him off guard. “What about me?” he asked, hating the whine in his voice.
“I didn’t exactly expect it to end so soon,” Ida said. “But I guess I expected more…nuance.”
“Well, I expected more participation!” Geoffrey said, surprising himself.
Ida’s eyes widened. “Huh,” she said. “That’s good to know.”
Geoffrey took a deep breath. He could smell Janice on his skin, but he realized it didn’t matter: Ida didn’t care enough to get that close to him.
She passed him an egg roll. “Why don’t you come and see me in Toronto?”
“Oh.” Geoffrey was having trouble processing all of this. “Alright.”
“Well, it’s not, like, urgent,” Ida said. “But eventually, you should.”
When geoffrey got to work the next day, there was a stranger in Janice’s office, a man in a suit jacket.
“I’m Fredrick Dirkson,” the man said, offering a firm hand. “I’m here on secondment from the heritage department. We’ve discussed things with Janice, and she’s agreed to take a leave.”
When Geoffrey didn’t say anything, Dirkson continued. “I can see you’re surprised. It isn’t a punitive thing.”
“Oh,” Geoffrey managed.
“More a mutual agreement that Janice needed a break.” Dirkson leaned back in his chair, lowered his voice to match his new, convivial attitude. “Unfortunately, when you get too isolated…well, she seemed to take the whole incident much too personally.” He went on to explain that most of the exhibits would be reopening that afternoon; a few would remain closed to the public while cleanup finished. “It will give us a chance to reassess the displays, actually,” Dirkson said. “I’m not sure all of them live up to current standards for heritage interpretation.”
“Uh, right,” Geoffrey said.
“I’ve been directed to consider acquisitions for a new feature display,” Dirkson said. “I’ll need you to start putting some items into storage.”
Dirkson asked Geoffrey if he’d be willing to work some extra hours during what he called “these transition times”; Geoffrey understood that if it went well, he could consider a promotion likely. Meanwhile, Dirkson would be focusing on a vision for his new display. The exhibition would be called Tools, Past and Present; it was being sponsored by an oil-and-gas exploration company. Geoffrey pictured a room filled with arrowheads and drill bits.
As he wandered the hallways of the museum, dusting cases and wiping the last of the water marks from the walls in preparation for opening, Geoffrey wondered if Janice would’ve preferred the global-warming exhibit after all. Then he realized it didn’t matter: like the ancient ice sheets, Janice was retreating.