David Zoby

Five-Bear Days

Dean Sadler, the way he talked, made you think he was nearly asleep. Dr. Allan Housman, puffy eyes, wrinkled clothes, sat in a swivel chair across from the dean. He remarked the recent wedding photos of Dr. Sadler’s oldest daughter. The ceremony was held at Disney World, or Disneyland. Housman wasn’t sure. The message of the meeting had been this: we’re pulling for you Housman; it’s a shame your marriage fell apart, but didn’t you see it coming? They were, after all, friends—Housman and Sadler—in the institutional sense.

“Allan you’re taking a sabbatical,” said the dean. He stood up and walked over to his fish tank where a single goldfish flitted about the artificial kelp.

“There used to be two,” mumbled Housman.

“The other one croaked,” said Sadler.

“Why don’t you get another?”

Sadler sprinkled some fish flakes on surface and waited for them to snow down. He returned to his desk and sat heavily.

“Take a trip. Go somewhere. Denver. Salt Lake. Don’t just mope around Casper. We’ll be here when you come back and you can restart the Humanities-in-the-High-Schools program,” said Sadler.

Housman looked out the window. Bare branches of ornamental trees trembled with gusts. Dutch elm, weeping cherry, flowering pear—they were never meant to exist in Wyoming. It was three weeks before Christmas and Housman had nowhere to be. His grades were in.  A student hurried across the empty courtyard. Housman wondered what Maddy was doing now that the divorce was official. With the proceeds from the sale of their house on Durbin, she was able to buy a house in Florida where her sister lived. She was three blocks from the beach. Housman was renting again for the first time in thirty years.

_

The winter raged. Housman stayed away from the outreach. He worked on a piece about Edward the Confessor. He didn’t fish, not once. The North Platte froze all the way to the dam. Housman swam laps at the Y, but that didn’t help much.

His nephew, Boatswain Mate Carl Housman, called in February and left a message on the voicemail.

“Hey, Allan, this is Carl. I’m up here in Valdez. I’m getting hitched in May and was wondering if you’d drive Anne-Beth up with a few of her things?”

Housman thought Carl and Anne-Beth called it quits years ago. He decided he’d wait until the next day and then leave a message that he couldn’t make it. He didn’t know if the roads would be open. He had never been to the North. He wanted to go back to his work on Edward the Confessor. He had notes and a few pages already. That night he lay awake in his bed and thought about Alaska, the devil’s club and other gnarled underbrush, the streams thick with rotting salmon, the muskeg and tussocks. He had a notion of what was up there, but he had never tested it. Ice-fog, oil pipelines and their corresponding roughnecks, Inupiaq who did nothing but buzz around their ramshackle towns on Sno-Gos.

And what would it be like to drive 3,000 miles with a girl who was roughly the age of the juniors in his “Rediscovering the Classic?” He had, over the years, lost touch with who they were, who he was, what they were all gaining from the experiment. Awake in bed, he Googled the directions to Valdez and saw a thick blue line, like a varicose vein, going up and up, over the curve of the earth.

_

Anne-Beth flew from Omaha to Denver. Housman came down to Denver a day early to sit in the soggy nosebleed seats and watch a baseball game, to wander LoDo with his hands in his pockets. The street drummers were unexceptional. He bought some marijuana candies and ate them in revolt against his current condition, to express solidarity with the rain showers, to rage against the status quo. The candies only made him sad.

At the airport he held a sign with her name on it. He saw her before she saw him: she had lost weight, and become something else: a green-eyed seraphim. Her dimples, the tattoos on her shoulders and wrists, the jet-black hair with Old School bangs. She was strutting, carrying a pet crate with a white cat inside and talking on her cell phone. She nearly walked past him.

They ate Indian food at a restaurant by the interstate, then drove to Casper in spits of sleet and snow. She spent an extraordinary amount of time fiddling with her phone, plugging it in for power, checking the weather, texting. Her Omaha friend, Linda, called and they talked for an hour about parties and yoga. She said to Linda, “That’s not the story I’m telling. My journey isn’t that anymore.” She hardly talked to Housman.

Housman was appalled when they arrived at his rental in Casper and she went inside to shower while he wrestled her three hulking bags of luggage up the steps. One of the bags was full of household items. He could hear blenders, coffee presses, wooden spoons, and silverware crunching together within. He didn’t see any camping equipment, no indication of foul weather gear. He poured himself a drink and sat down to flip through the Milepost while she showered, her music blasting on her cell phone. The music was hard to place, a sort of Neo-Pop Country with overtures to the Urban Experience. He couldn’t place it.

“Do you think we should go through Edmonton, or maybe cut across BC?” said Housman. She was out of the shower now, fiddling with face creams, the door half open. He had to raise his voice to overcome the music.

“Sure,” she said. She stepped out of his bathroom in veils of steam and vapor. She wrapped one of Housman’s towels around her shoulders. He saw lattices of tattoos crawling up her legs. Her body was overly muscular like that of an endurance athlete. He looked away.

By the time they made Great Falls, Housman had told her all about himself: how he went into teaching, his left-leaning politics, his divorce, his ongoing gripes with her generation. She told about how yoga had come into her life, rescued her. She told him how Carl and she got back together the summer before when he showed up at a party in Omaha. They were at a lake, but she didn’t know the name. She said they used online chatting to buil