Michelle Huneven is the author of four novels: Round Rock, Jamesland, Blame and the newly-minted Off Course. She received an MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For many years her “day job” was reviewing restaurants. She presently teaches creative writing at UCLA and lives with her husband, dog, cat, and African Grey parrot in Altadena, CA, the town where she was born. Learn more about Michelle on her website.
Excerpted from Off Course
Sarah Crichton Books|Farrar Straus Giroux
© Michelle Huneven 2014
Cressida Hartley is 28 years old and an ABD (all-but-dissertation) doctoral candidate in economics. She has recently moved to her parents’ mountain cabin to write her dissertation. The cabin is in a small Sierran development called The Meadows. Early on, Cress’s mother suggests that Cress go eat dinner at the weekly Family Night at the Meadows lodge.
Cress put on her black cigarette pants, a velvet opera coat she’d bought in a Bakersfield thrift store on the way up, and lipstick. She walked the 1.2 miles to the lodge, filled a plate with meatloaf and mashies, and sat with her neighbors, retirees in their seventies. After dinner, she went to the bar for another beer. The owner of the lodge, Jakey Yates, slid onto the stool beside her. A big burly laugher in his late forties, Jakey had owned the place for a decade, but she’d been such an infrequent visitor during his reign, she only knew him by sight. He had thick salt and pepper hair, a full beard and blue eyes full of movement and humor. “A Hartley girl,” he said. “Would that be Sharon or Cressida?”
“B,” she said.
Her beer came, and he pushed back her money. “On me,” he told the bartender. “And give her a shot of whatever she wants.”
She ordered Dickel, and he had one too. He asked about her parents, and what was she doing these days? “Sketching a little,” she said, not wanting to describe her academic purgatory on such short acquaintance, and because she no longer said dissertation so easily. “Charcoal, pencils.”
Jakey leaned into her then—snuggled, really—and somehow got a thick forearm against her ribs. “You’ve gone and grown up,” he said. “One day, you’re a skinny kid buying Popsicles, now you’re a full grown, glamorous woman.”
She’d never bought a Popsicle from Jakey. He’d only owned the lodge for ten years, and she was 28. As for the glamour, that was the thrift store velvet and her mother’s red lipstick.
Her folks, she knew, preferred Jakey, if slightly, to the lodge’s original owner, the meadow’s drunken developer who’d sold them their property. Jakey, her mother said, had made the lodge a growing concern. Cress knew, too, that Jakey was divorced–her mother must have mentioned this as well–and that his wife had left him.
Jakey petted her velvet sleeve, nudged. “Do you have a gallery?” he asked. “Do you sell? Painting, drawing—now that’s a tough life.
“I know,” he went on. “I did my grad work in landscape design, which is not unlike painting”—nudge—“only the canvas is bigger, and the pigments less stable!” He laughed with joy at his own joke, looked her in the eye, clamped his big paw on her thigh and squeezed. She missed what he said next.
“Pardon me?” she said, perhaps too loudly. “Do I want to what?”
He glanced about with a comic cringe, as if to check who’d overheard, then he came in close again, squeezing anew. “Come on, Cressida Hartley. Let’s beat it out of here.”
Cress blinked. How quickly the air had cracked, and from the fissure come a large laughing woodsman to carry her into the wilderness!
In his old green truck, a former Forest Service vehicle scrubbed of logos, they bumped along a logging road through stands of Ponderosa and Jeffrey pines, and hundred-foot Doug firs. In a flat open space, he parked and started kissing her. His body heat and mass were memorable. She had never kissed a man so large, or so much older—nineteen years, almost to the day—and never had one ever shown such an interest in her.
“Good stars,” he said. “Shouldn’t waste ‘em.”
So they climbed out of the truck. The moon, oblong and coolly bright, lit the landscape so that every leaf and rock was distinct, as in a nighttime diorama. “What’s that?” she asked about a messy pink dust cloud.
“That? The Milky damn Way!” Jakey said and tugged her down onto a slippery bed of needles. In no time, he was at her buttons. Well, what did I expect? she thought, and went along. They made love urgently, sweetly, ending a few yards down from where they started.
A little precipitous, thought Cress. But Jakey was so affectionate and grateful. God knows when he’d last had sex.
She was a bit rusty herself in that department.
Jakey tugged her pants up, and kissed her so lovingly that she felt selfless, exalted, as if she’d answered a prayer. The deep dark sky was spattered, no, silted with stars and their cool eternal light. Slowly she became aware of pine needles pricking through her clothes.
He dropped her off at the foot of her driveway. Trembling, as if freshly anointed—he was the first adult from her parents’ world to desire her–she walked up to the A frame.
In the morning, hanging up the velvet coat, Cress saw, on the back, flattened spots of resin with bits of pine needles and grit ground in, small dirty galaxies. She never could get them off, and had to throw the coat away.
They ate and drank in bed. He brought over steaks and a stack of LPs and sang along with George Jones and Lefty Frizzell, clamping her under his hot arm. He rolled his big overheated body right on top of her, and she gasped with laughter, then for breath.
Sunday afternoon, they hiked to the fire look out on Camel Crags; he’d packed sandwiches and wine, and he gave the firewatcher twenty bucks to go for a shower and a beer at the lodge while they borrowed his bed with its three hundred degree view. They laughed and grabbed their clothes when they heard other hikers clomping up the wooden stairs.
He had been single now for two years, Jakey told her in that tiny glass hut. His wife had waited until the day their youngest graduated from high school to move out. In fact, they were driving between the graduation ceremony in Sparkville and the celebratory dinner at the Sawyer Inn when she said that she was filing for divorce and, even as they spoke, a moving company was in their mountain home, taking everything she’d tagged.
He’d noticed that morning yellow confetti dots on a lamp, the back of the rocking chair, a pillow. Vaguely, he’d blamed the grandkids and in the flurry and excitement of the day forgot about it.
“She hated it up here,” Jakey told Cress.
From where they reclined, looking out on ridge after ridge, to the far escarpments and white glaciers of the Sierra Nevada, not one squiggle of smoke drifted upwards. Jakey admitted that he’d played the field some since his wife had left. “But enough diversion,” he said. “I’m ready for some real company.”
They took long drives in his battered green truck down logging and fire roads deep into backcountry to check for grouse or deer or cougar, whatever was on his mind. They drank hard liquor and talked. They used beds in various cabins whose owners had entrusted their keys to Jakey, and sometimes on the cool bank of a stream. One night, he took her to a canvas tent by Spearmint Creek. The floor was paved in Persian carpets (fake, but still charming), and there was a real bed, on a frame, with a tufted chenille spread that left striped marks on Cress’s backside, as if she’d been tied up or caned.
Jakey wasn’t keen to have her at his place; his two youngest sons lived nearby and often stopped in without notice. A couple times, Jakey took the risk anyway, showing Cress where to park in the aspen grove, where her old Saab couldn’t be seen.
“It’s a shame I’m so damn old,” he said. But Cress didn’t miss the athletics, often tedious, of her former, younger lovers.
She liked his heft. A chest she could barely reach around. His ruddy skin, and strong legs, his readiness to be amused. He was such a large man, big arms, big laugh, big decisive personality. Men jockeyed for his attention, became heartier, gruffer in his presence. At the lodge, he’d loose a roar when someone he knew came through the door, and he knew hundreds. Besides the Meadows’ full- and part-time residents, the lodge served campers, hikers, hunters, fishermen, cross-country skiers, and snowmobilers, who returned year after year. Jakey bought drinks for friends and strangers; he plied them with Yukon Jack (his liquor salesman left two promotional cases), he spiked their hot chocolate, no charge. He nudged with knee, forearm, and shoulder, until his subject relaxed, capitulated, fell under his spell.
“Now you, Hartley–you I can talk to,” he said. “You’re a good listener.”
On his day off, he took her to the Kern River to fish and swim in the warm, low late-summer water. He stood up to his thighs, his thick chest pinkening in the sun, and hollered: “Any happier, I’d need a tail to wag.”
Back when he had his landscaping firm in the San Fernando Valley, he said, a client offered him the use of a Meadows cabin. With two days of trout fishing and alpine air fizzing his blood, he saw the For Sale sign on the Meadows Lodge and all interest in hardscape and nursery plants deserted him. Now, he grew one pot of petunias on the lodge’s deck each summer.
He and his wife had envisioned lodge life as a family-run business: living above the store, kids doing homework in booths, all pulling together to make it work, like the family in a TV show. Little Lodge on the Mountain.
They put in eighty, sometimes hundred hour workweeks. The bar and restaurant, grocery and gas pumps didn’t generate a living, so they added caretaking services, housecleaning, and a realty office. “I loved every minute,” Jakey told Cress, “but she isn’t such a people person. She missed her sisters in Northridge. I built her a big home down the way there, but the kids took buses down the mountain two hours each way; in winter, we never saw them in the daylight. Then they started graduating and leaving. She struggled over that.”
Even so, Jakey said, he was shocked, no, devastated when she left.
“A cannonball to the head,” he said. “Then my back went out. For three days, I crawled around on all fours like a damn baby. The lowest of the low.”
By owning the lodge, Jakey was the undisputed king of the mountain. He had the prime vantage point; he talked to the most people. He knew who was up for the weekend, who’d gone down the hill for the day, how much each lot and cabin had sold for. He was consulted about local history, the weather, hunting, fishing, property values, high altitude baking. For all his stature in the community, Jakey was beautifully unself-conscious. He wore cheap cotton-poly shirts from J.C. Penny’s and slippery checkered cook’s pants out on dates. He cut his own hair indifferently when it fell into his eyes. In a community where men were vain about the structure and beauty of their fires, Jakey tossed logs on barely crumpled newspaper, squirted everything with starter fluid, and threw on a lit match. Fahwumph!
The only book in his living room was a bible with a crocheted cover on a big, wrought iron stand.
One night, in bed, Jakey said that friends of his, a local contractor and his wife, wanted to have them over. Cress wasn’t so keen: she’d seen these people’s bumperstickers. “They voted for Reagan!” she said.
“What’s wrong with Reagan?”
“Oh my god.” She snatched at the sheets. “You?” She scooted away. “I can’t believe I’ve had sex with a Republican.”
“I’m not a Republican,” said Jakey. “I just hated Carter. So ineffectual. And at least we got the hostages back.”
“You can’t seriously believe Reagan had anything to do with that.” Cress swung her feet out of bed. “I need water.”
What have I done? She asked the pressboard walls, as she thudded downstairs. A Reagan Democrat: the worst! How had politics never come up? She drank a long cold cup of water from the tap, then grabbed the bourbon bottle.
“I’m a small businessman,” Jakey said. They were sitting now, facing forward, passing the bottle. “You can’t believe the permits and inspections I pay for. The disability, unemployment, social security. I’d probably still be married if I hadn’t had to work a thousand extra hours to keep government off my back.”
She didn’t know where to start. How could he object to such basic entitlements? “Careful, sweetie pie,” she said. “You’re in bed with a Keynsian.”
He laughed and reached for her.
“And furthermore,” she squirmed away, “a lodge at the top of the world with a seasonal clientele may not be the most viable venture. And maybe that, rather than any government policy, is the real issue.
“I’m remote, yes, but that’s not taken into consideration. Tulare County said I needed a new grease trap. Up here! That’s five, eight thousand bucks, easy, and I’m not even on a sewer line! And all you have to do is watch the Forestry Service around here to know that government shouldn’t manage these lands. They have no idea what they’re doing.”
“Oh yeah, turn the forests over to private interests. Great idea, Jakey. They’ll shave this mountain bald as a boulder. That’ll give your business a big boost!”
Jakey took a slug of whiskey, set the bottle on the night stand. “How bout you be my own personal economics advisor, and give me a full economic evaluation? Seriously. I’d pay.”
He slid down, kissed the side of her breast.
She’d already ascertained that Jakey had his own private economy.
At the register, he ignored prices; a bag of marshmallows for her (or some kid) cost a nickle; for Walt Peterson from Thousand Oaks, a buck and a quarter. God knows, his books would be pure fiction. Often, Jakey didn’t even ring things up, just opened the till and made change. If someone squawked over a price, he said, “Fine, buy it at the bodega across the street.”
The nearest competition was the Hapsaw Lodge twelve twisting miles down the hill.