In Michelle Huneven’s new novel, Off Course, the year is 1981, Reagan is in the White House, and the country is stalled in a recession. Cressida Hartley, a gifted Ph.D. student in economics, moves into her parents’ shabby A-frame cabin in the Sierras to write her dissertation. Cress, increasingly resistant to her topic (art in the marketplace), allows herself to be drawn into the social life of the small mountain community. As Cress tells her best friend back home in Pasadena, being a single woman on the mountain amounts to a form of public service. Falling prey to her own perilous reasoning, she soon finds herself in dark new territory, subject to forces beyond her control from both within and without.
Cressida Hartley moved up to her parents’ mountain cabin to finish her dissertation. She would not become one of the aging lurkers around the Econ Department who hoped for sections of Intro to teach while the tenure track shimmered eternally on the far side of two hundred pages.
Her friend Tillie thought of the cabin. “Tell your folks you need three months free and clear and just bang it out up there.”
As it happened, Sam and Sylvia Hartley were building a new cabin behind the old A‑frame and they liked the idea of Cress being around to keep an eye on the construction; they even offered to make her student-loan payments for the duration. Her mother, with uncharacteristic restraint, didn’t mention that, historically, Cress hated the cabin and had never once gone up willingly.
Cress had never driven to the cabin on her own, either, but she’d remembered the turnoffs—north of Bakersfield onto a two-lane blacktop through the oil fields; then, just before the small agricultural city of Sparkville, a ninety-degree right turn due east toward the cloud-scarved Sierras; and finally, beyond the tiny, sad foothill town of Sawyer, a veer to the right of a huge red barn. The road began to climb then, twisting through oaks, back and forth, the blur of foliage alternating with glimpses into the ravine where the south fork of the Hapsaw River, low in August, formed green pools in biscuit-colored rock.
Being tossed around in the car for an hour was one reason Cress had hated going to the cabin. But it was better to be driving. And lovelier than she remembered, with glossy-leaved oaklimbs draped over the road, river views, and dramatic granite outcroppings. Scenery, she thought, was wasted on children, or had been on her. In no time she was in the pines, then passing the Hapsaw Lodge—halfway already! At 5,500 feet, cedars proliferated, and by 6,500 feet, the hundred-foot ponderosa and lodgepole pines prevailed, along with the odd cluster of red-trunked giant sequoias.
The Hartleys’ cabin was in the Meadows, a small private development surrounded by National Forest. Her parents had just left, and their housekeeper had come in, made the beds, and laid a fire, match-ready, in the freestanding Danish fireplace. Even in August, a fire at night was a pleasure.
But how ugly the A‑frame was—she could see that now: its party-hat pointyness and spindly deck! And inside: the cheap pressboard paneling, the battered cast-off furniture, and ill-fitting venetian blinds. The fireplace, its blue enamel now blackened and chipped around the mouth, seemed a misguided effusion of the sixties, the Scandinavian design a prop for consciousness-raising and wife-swapping sessions—not that her parents went in for either.
A sugar bowl pinned down a note on the wood-grained Formica table: Upstairs shower stall cracked, use downstairs. Rick and Julie Garsh (contractor + wife) want to have you over. Enjoy. Love, Mom. Below that, in her father’s slanted scrawl: Enter high/low temp in log 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
The sun had already slid behind Shale Mountain when she arrived, though another hour of light remained. She set up her typewriter on a card table in the living room. The air was warm and dusty, heat still shimmered off the deck. Outside, with her feet on the railing, she enjoyed a small portion of her mother’s bourbon until the mosquitoes found her.
Another reason she’d hated the cabin: no comfortable place to settle in. A wicker love seat was too hard. The built-in window seat was better—at least she could stretch out—but narrow, and also hard, its cushion degraded from years of direct sun. She grabbed the top issue from a two-foot stack of New Yorkers, then couldn’t stay awake. At eight, ignoring the thermometer and temperature log, she went to her usual room, the enclosed loft with an ultra-firm queen-sized bed that nobody else would sleep on. The day’s warmth had collected in a familiar stuffiness. She wrestled the window open along its corroded aluminum track. Wind soughed through the trees, bearing the scent of pine and mineral dust. The moon cast a blue glow. As a child, alone in this room, she’d often heard a distant chorus singing in the highest registers. She knew that the singing came from her own mind, that it was a response to silence and often the prelude to a headache.
She stretched out on the unforgiving bed and closed her eyes. There, at the very edge of hearing, far far away, a thousand voices labored, a cappella.
And so it was on familiar roads, in her family’s other home, with the blessings of those closest to her, that she veered off course, into the woods.
Morning brought still more reminders of why she’d hated the cabin: a panging headache, a weird gluey lethargy, small wheeling prisms in her vision. Her mother had attributed these symptoms to Cress’s attitude, admittedly rotten. But Sylvia Hartley was off by a letter, as Cress had discovered camping in the Tetons and skiing in Utah. Anywhere above 6,000 feet, she was a poor adapter.
She phoned Tillie in Pasadena at 7:40 a.m. “My head’s like an old hangover cartoon,” she said. “With little devils pitchforking my eyeballs.”
“Why are you calling so early?” said Tillie.
“The rates go up at eight.”
They got off the phone a minute before. Cress squinted at the clock. The thermometer hung on the porch sight unseen.
She took three aspirin, then chopped carrots, onions, and celery, and made enough lentil soup for a week, possibly a lifetime. She stuffed a man’s large red mitten with ice and, stretching out on the window seat, placed it over her eyes.
The aroma of the soup must have carried outside. The porch creaked and Cress lifted the mitten. A very large dog nosed the sliding glass door as if waiting to be let in. She stood—too fast, setting the prisms into a frenzied whirl—and the creature too rose up on his hind legs. A bear.
He stood like a man, his arms hanging, his head cocked so that his long, whitened snout slanted upward against the glass. One eye—displeasingly small, yellowish, not intelligent—squinted in at her. The visible ear, round at the top and pinched at the stem, lent him a comical stuffed-toy look. He was definitely a he—in the sparser fur of the low belly was a hairier, vertical thicket, with something stuck on it—a dry leaf? A bit of bark? His own crustiness?
Perhaps overconfident of the Thermopane, Cress moved closer. Her heart, which recognized danger, began to race. But when had she ever been so close? She knew from childhood admonitions, Mustn’t meet his eye.
He was not a handsome or hygienic bear, no, his coat dirty, clumped, its dull brown bleached unevenly on the ends.
His black nostrils quivered, steamed the glass, and slid against it in dark, shiny adhesions, leaving smears. The claws, translucent black crescents, looked like plastic.
She moved closer yet, and he dropped back to all fours. Doglike again, he lumbered down the steps, shoulders rolling. The whole cabin shuddered.
She noticed then other smears, at the same heights, high and low, all along the sliding glass doors, the front set and the side ones.
Her hands shook as she phoned her nearest neighbors, the retired couple a quarter mile up the hill. “I just had a bear on my porch,” she told Florence Orliss. “Big old shaggy brown one.”
“Him, yes. He’s by here almost every day. Neville squirts him with a hose or bangs pans at him. You want to discourage familiarity.”
“It’s Thursday, you should go to Family Night at the lodge.” Her mother was calling for the third time in as many days. “Jakey puts out a decent buffet. Charge your dinner to our tab. You can buy your own drinks. How’s the writing?”
“Marvelous.” Cress eyed the sealed box of research notes. “I’m on fire.”
“Have you met the Garshes yet?”
“No, Mom, not yet.”
“They’ll be there. Be sure and introduce yourself.”
Cress put on black cigarette pants, a velvet opera coat she’d bought in a Bakersfield thrift store on the way up, and lipstick. She brushed her straight fine hair, but by the time she’d walked the 1.2 miles to the Meadows Lodge, it had separated into strings again. She entered the log building through the bar, and the three dirt-blackened workmen hunched over beers turned as one. “Hey hey! Look at you! Can we buy you a drink, darling?”
“That’s okay,” she whispered, regretting the velvet, the lipstick. “No thanks, no. Thanks, though.”
A few steps more and she was in the large, open room. The usual Meadows retirees were out in force, and older; she hadn’t seen most of them since she’d been a regular visitor in high school, ten, twelve years ago. The Orlisses. Jim and Sandy Green. Abe and Belinda Johnson. That was Jakey Yates, the lodge owner, hauling a steel tub of broccoli to the steam table. Brian Crittenden waved to her from a booth—she was pretty sure it was Brian, whom she also hadn’t seen in ten years, but her mother said he was at his family’s chalet recovering from a divorce. Grateful to know anyone under seventy, Cress went over. A small, big-eyed young woman curled under Brian’s arm.
“Join us,” Brian said. “Heard you were up.” His cheerleader good looks—blue eyes, snub nose, wide mouth—had thickened, gone bleary. When Cress was eleven, he’d told her he was “SAE at U.S.C.,” and the rhyme still bounced in her brain. “This here’s Franny.” Brian jostled the slight waif, who had a delicate sharp jaw, those outsized eyes, and long mole-colored hair, shagged.
“I clean your folkses cabin.” Franny spoke with a lavish twang.
The buffet opened and they got in line for ketchup-bathed meat loaf, mashed potatoes, broccoli. Cress had never seen the lodge so bustling. Then again, when she was growing up, her family rarely patronized the place, her parents offended that the hamburgers cost what steak did down below.
Brian knew everyone: the retirees, the pack station cowboys. Those dirty guys at the bar were loggers. The men by the fireplace were his fellow carpenters—he’d taken a job on Rick Garsh’s crew to pass the time.
“Who’s the New Age squaw?” Cress nodded toward a stout blond woman with long braids who’d piled on the fringe, beads, and feather jewelry. “With the tubercular-looking guy there—in the far booth?”
“You don’t know? That’s who’s building your parents’ new place! Rick and Julie Garsh. Come on, I’ll introduce you.” Brian started to stand.
Yipes. “No. Um. Not right now.”
Brian had been at the Meadows since June. Decompressing, he said. Banging nails for Rick. Taking a break from the stock market. Catching his breath in the big trees. “Ole Franny and I are having a grand old time.”
Rejostled, Ole Franny did not smile, but the sly, inward look that slid over her face made Cress like her.
A heavyset waitress gathered their plates with a clatter, then slammed down small dishes of peach cobbler. “Oh, now cheer up, DeeDee,” Brian said.
“Go bleep yourself,” she said.
As people ate cobbler, an old guy took to the tiny plywood stage, amped a guitar, and sang “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” then “Embraceable You.” He motioned to a young woman standing by with her guitar. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Put your hands together for the Sawyer Songbird.”
The Songbird sang “I Fall to Pieces,” deftly navigating the octaves and sometimes hiding behind, and sometimes shaking back her long brown hair. She in turn called to a banjo player in the audience. “Mason, you lazy egg sucker. Git up here and start pickin’. And I don’t mean your nose.”
The loggers hooted.
“Charming,” said Brian Crittenden.
“My sister and her’s friends,” said Franny.
Together, the old guy and the Songbird sang “Hello Stranger,” with the banjo plunking along. Franny and Brian got up to dance. Cress went to the bar for another beer. As she waited for the bartender, Jakey Yates slid onto the stool beside her. A big burly laugher in his late forties, Jakey had owned the lodge for a decade. Cress had been such an infrequent visitor during his reign, she knew him only by sight. He had thick salt-and-pepper hair, a full beard, and blue eyes full of movement and humor. “Hartley girl—right?” he said. “Would that be Sharon or Cressida?”
“B,” she said.
Her beer came, and he pushed back her dollar. “On me,” he told the bartender. “And give her a shot of whatever she wants.”
Cress ordered a Dickel and Jakey had one too. “Hear you had a bear on your deck,” he said.
“News travels fast.”
“Welcome to the Meadows. I was out tracking him this morning.””You’re not going to kill him.”
“Naw, naw. I just like to see where he goes. Learn his habits. I’m a student of animal behavior.”
He had something of the bear in his frank, sidelong glance.
“How are your folks?” he said. “Starting construction this week?”
“You tell me,” she said.
“And you?” He nudged her arm. “What’re you up to 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, pastels.”
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 twenty-eight.
As for the glamour, that was the thrift-store velvet, and some red lipstick Tillie had left in the Saab.
Her folks, Cress knew, preferred Jakey, if slightly, to the lodge’s original owner, the Meadows’ drunken developer who’d sold them their property. Jakey, her mother said, had made the lodge a growing concern. Cress also knew that Jakey was divorced—her mother must have mentioned this too—and that his wife had left him.
Jakey petted Cress’s velvet sleeve, nudged. “Do you show in a gallery?” he asked. “Do you sell? Drawing, painting—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 far less stable!” He laughed with joy at his own joke, looked her in the eye, clamped his big paw on her thigh, and squeezed, setting off a blinding, bourbon-tinted flash. Cress missed whatever 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,” he said. “Let’s beat it out of here.”
How quickly had the air cracked and from the fissure come a large laughing woodsman to carry her into the wilderness.
Brian and Franny were still rotating slowly across the dance floor. Cress caught Brian’s eye, waved.
In Jakey’s 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, Jakey parked and started kissing her.
His body heat and mass were memorable. She had never kissed a man so large, or so much older—twenty-one 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 jeans back up and kissed her so lovingly, she felt selfless, exalted, as if she’d answered a prayer. The deep dark sky, spattered, no, silted with stars, spread its faint eternal light. Slowly she grew aware of pine needles pricking through her clothes.
Jakey unlocked the lodge and they had a nightcap at the bar in the dark. And another. He dropped her off at the foot of her driveway. Trembling, as if freshly anointed—he was the first adult she’d known from her parents’ world to desire her—she walked up to the A‑frame.
The next 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.
Michelle Huneven is the author of four novels, including Off Course. Blame, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Jamesland; and Round Rock. She lives in Altadena, California, with her husband, Jim Potter.
Copyright © 2014 by Michelle Huneven