Zooey needs someone to believe in. At the time an Anthro adjunct fit the bill.
On the town floor, below the hillside duplex where Breckenridge Autry lives, an inversion holds ice fog and smoke particulate captive. It’s January in Fairbanks, the season of darkness. Forty below, or what locals just call forty, the below here implied. The smog makes Breck’s lungs hurt when he runs, so he’s stopped running; but winter here, Breck needs to run. Running should not feel like smoking cigarettes, but the world does not run on shoulds or should-nots. People, members of his own family in Texas, for example, who all think of Alaska as some nature nirvana would be shocked at the winter pollution, how it burns your eyes, infiltrates lungs, enters the bloodstream. Some days, it’s the worst air in the country. Hip hooray, says the devil, we’re number one. Everything to Breck feels broken.
Breck has never been married, but he knows what love feels like. Zooey, his girlfriend—maybe ex-girlfriend—grew up here, and now she has asthma. She’s in Tucson for who knows how long visiting her sister. Is she coming back? On the matter she was vague. Could be a week, could be never ever. This is not all the big bad polluted world’s fault, Breck knows; he’s to blame, also. In December, two weeks before Christmas, a power outage had left them shivering beneath blankets by candlelight. No electricity meant no water, because of the electric water pump. The first day was romantic, the second day, too. By the third day they stunk, and each day got worse. Even after the electricity came back, the internet did not. Their cell phones lost reception. The refrigerator leaked. One day Zooey sprained an ankle after stepping through one of the balcony steps. “What the hell am I doing here?” she had muttered. Broken. Broken, broken. Breck is not a fix-it-up guy. What he is is lonely and restless.
Jim and Mary, fellow Texans and two of Breck’s few friends, have shirked away to Cabo, where he knows they are wasting time sunning on the beach rather than kayaking among whale sharks, which would be the appropriate thing to do. He can’t see the year ahead, can’t see the love that will find him there. What he sees is a new job going nowhere, a savings account quickly dwindling, a relationship in a holding pattern.
Now, he stands at the sliding glass door and watches the noon sun just over the horizon, a dim ball behind the thin overcast sky. He is not an indoors kind of guy, at least does not want to be. Winter outdoors is why he moved to Alaska in the first place. He dreams still of long ski treks by moonlight and aurora amongst the birch trees. Zooey’s in the Arizona sun, warm even in January. He craves what is on the other side of the glass, but currently the outdoors makes his lungs hurt. Polar bears in captivity develop repetitive behavior patterns. This he has read. He’s been gorging since breakfast on corn chips and licorice sticks. He feels both hungry and full.
He is tired of grieving for all that he loves, for the future he fears.
When things get really bad, like this morning, Breck rises from beneath thick blankets and walks out on his deck in his underwear, lets the cold have its way with him for as long as he can stand. Then he pulls icicles from the eaves and throws them like spears into the dark, dark morning, a morning so dark it is still night.
It is not depression he suffers, but restlessness. In winter it’s bad. There is no equivalent Prozac. He’s trying to learn to be at peace with himself and the world and the air, trying to learn stillness. He reads Buddhist texts and listens to Bon Iver on the Spotify. Last night he found a snorkel and so lay submerged in his tub in the dark, listening to himself breathe until the hot water turned tepid. Now, he places his tongue on the glass to see if it will stick, wants to feel the mild jolt of pain, but the glass is too warm; to get the effect, he’d have to be on the other side.
He sees movement, and steps back from the glass. A figure stands in the yard, hands on hips. Breck watches as they (he? she?) drops, lies on their back. At first Breck thinks this person has fainted and his heart speeds. But then the person stands again, takes a few sideways steps.
Drunk, maybe, but no. It’s all too deliberate and precise.
He steps back from the glass. Here in the winter, and without his glasses, everyone looks the same—some combination of masked riders and Michelin man. He wonders who it is, who would be crazy enough to be out on a day like this, 40 below and Stage 2 air alert in effect. He tries to determine the answer through logic, tries to eliminate the people he knows but the pool of crazy does not narrow easily. This could be anyone. “Cover me,” he says to the ceiling, “I’m going out.” And he dresses in layers and layers. He places a respirator mask on his face, and covers it with a tightly wrapped wool scarf.
Once out his door, he sees the tracks. The fox has been here! It comes around, a pet, no not a pet, wild, but still. He does not keep trash out anymore. He was surprised when he moved here that people routinely do, but they do, so he did too. No trouble with bears, it’s true. So he when-in-Rome’d and left his cans on the porch. One dark morning, he started down the porch steps on his way to work when he felt motion against his shin, heard the scrambling scratch of claws against wood. Zooey claims to have heard a scream, and it’s possible she did. One should not feed wild animals, and so he does not. He keeps his trash inside now. But the fox keeps returning. Breck likes having the fox around, and believes the fox likes him, too. He will not name it! Naming is the first step toward making the wild domestic, and Breck needs his fox, no, not his, the, the fox to be wild.
The person—female he has determined—is sitting hippie-style in the snow.
Breck met Zooey one night at a bar called Ivory Jack’s. They both worked at the university then. He did not ask her to dance, because they were already dancing, everyone was, the band local and popular, and they had turned to each other, both at the same time, like the most natural thing in the world. She is fantastic! Beautiful, yes, but funny most of all. She has a comediennes timing, and drinks wine straight from the bottle. She likes to camp, is expert in fire making. Her eyes are like lights that never go off. She makes him laugh; she does not deserve asthma. Or sprained ankles, or leaky refrigerators. Or, probably, thinks Breck, him.
Breck walks around to the back of the house, conscious of each inhalation. It is not so cold as he thought—the temperature has risen. He is short of breath by the time he reaches the edge of the yard, and can’t decide if it is the quality of air or tightness of the mask that causes this. Breck is a runner, and so feels unnerved by these days when his breathing feels labored. The person—female he has determined—is sitting hippie-style in the snow. The yard is not fenced, and Breck is not even sure where the property line is. Is she trespassing? Does it matter? He watches her breath clouds rise and dissipate.
“Who is it?” he hollers.
She stands, lies beside the railroad ties of a raised garden bed, where in the summer Zooey grows (grew? No grows: he will not think of her in past tense, will not!) kale and kohlrabi. She turns finally, sees him. He wonders if in this cold and particulated air, if it had taken his words that long to reach her. She sits up again. Pulls the bottom of her balaclava under her chin. He recognizes her, remembers her name from a conversation they’d had in the fall. Haley. Haley lives with her boyfriend (are they married? So young!) in the cabin just down the hill.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asks
“By minute changes in perspective,” she says, “I am seeking nuance in the world.”
Breck has a master’s degree in anthropology, and does not like to appear dumb, or even temporarily confused. So he nods, attempts a pose he hopes makes him seem sagely. It occurs to him: the last time he saw Haley she was very pregnant. Is that right? He hopes so. He does not want to ask her about this if it is not true. He thinks hard, and finally is sure.
“The baby?” he asks.
“Fit as a storm,” she says.
Breck likes to say he works in high finance now. He is a cashier at Fred Meyers.
Breck’s anthropology thesis was on the topic of ritual inversions, more specifically that among the Boruca of Costa Rica. With the help of his thesis chair, he’d managed a grant that allowed him to travel to the jungle one December to observe a ritual called the dance of the little devils. At this festival, the people re-enacted the Spanish conquest with the Boruca and other indigenous people this time triumphing, driving the Spaniards back home. Breck had watched the dances and celebrations, transfixed, careful to be inconspicuous and respectful. His thesis defense had been a success, but the paper was never published. Jobs were scarce. When he saw the position in Alaska, he applied immediately, even though it was not a tenure-track position.
The job lasted three years. He wanted to continue his research, perhaps with the Inupiat, but mostly what he did was teach introductory courses. The grading alone left him exhausted.
His thesis was subtitled “ritual inversion as a response to hierarchical structures,” but when the department chair informed him two days before the fall semester that his position had been cut, he could think of no adequate response at all, inverse or otherwise.
Breck likes to say he works in high finance now. He is a cashier at Fred Meyers.
He stands now in the snow. Breathes with closed lips. A branch falls from a nearby birch, and the sound of it falling is amplified in the stillness. He looks at Haley. How old is she?
Eighteen? Nineteen? And already a parent. Breck is 33, and he wonders if his education has been squandered. A baby, Breck thinks, might be the best ritual response of all. He and Zooey once discussed having one of their own. Not yet, not yet they had mutually decided. He wonders what they’ve been waiting for.
“How old is the baby now?” he asks Haley.
“Abigail,” says Haley, answering the question he should have asked. She looks back at her cabin. “Three months.”
Breck looks at the small cabin, a thin stream of smoke rising from the chimney. “The search for nuance is an escape, perhaps?” he offers.
Haley smiles. “Sometimes I just need a little air. Jake’s good about that. But the nuance search, that’s for real.”
Jake, Breck remembers. He was a student in Breck’s fall class the previous year. Always wore a silk vest with brightly colored shirts. Sat in the front row leaning forward, disturbingly alert for an 8 a.m. class. Morning people generally make him wary, but Breck liked Jake.
Haley stands up, all the while maintaining her gaze at the sky. Breck follows her eyes, wanting to be the kind of anthropologist who can impress with his own visions of nuance, but all the sky is gray, everywhere he looks, gray gray gray. It is just past two, and already the sky is darkening.
“Would you want to meet her?” she asks at last, and first he doesn’t know whom she means, but of course she means the baby Abigail.
“Yes,” he says. “I would.”
Breck had already stolen Angelo’s girlfriend, and then falsely imbued him with murderous intent. He would not take the man’s money.
That night at Ivory Jack’s, the night they met, Zooey introduced Breck to Angelo, her ex. This was seven years ago. Breck and Angelo are still friends. Angelo is a gold miner. He has a plan for striking it rich. He once invited Breck to join him in this grand search for wealth. Breck went with him a couple of times; the process was a lot of work, for what seemed to him little gain. But Breck believes Angelo, believes he will strike it rich one day. Zooey does not, never has, which is certainly part of the reason they are no longer together. Zooey needs someone to believe in. At the time an Anthro adjunct fit the bill. Breck wonders what she believes in now.
“Zooey was the best girlfriend I ever had,” Angelo told Breck once. Said it sadly. They were standing by a stream after a long and bumpy ride on Angelo’s four-wheeler. Breck wondered for a moment if Angelo had driven him out there to kill him. Or, to strand him alone in the wilderness to survive. Zooey had already moved in with Breck by then. But Angelo had let out a whoop by the stream, and showed Breck a medium-sized nugget, had offered to split the value. Breck had refused. He had already stolen Angelo’s girlfriend, and then falsely imbued him with murderous intent. He would not take the man’s money.
Sometimes, when the three of them are together, Breck sees glimmers of pain in Angelo’s eyes. Every time Breck feels guilty, he tries to not and every time he doesn’t he feels guilty for that.
Sometimes Breck sees the fox standing on the patio, looking in the sliding glass door. Breck can just make out his thin omnivore face on the other side. Once, Zooey walked into the room and saw it, too. Breck thought the movement would cause the fox to run. Zooey, who as a child had taken ballet, stood prim before the fox and turned a pirouette.
“Interested, but unimpressed,” she announced. Breck wanted to say something, to be witty like her, but could not think of a thing.
After she’d left the room, Breck walked to the glass and placed his hand to it. The fox cocked its head. Their eyes locked. The fox stayed and watched Breck for several moments, before turning and disappearing into the night.
When the fox watches Breck through the sliding glass door, Breck wonders what it sees. He fears being generalized to his whole species.
Zooey’s father died in a motorcycle accident when she was four. One more thing she does not deserve. She wishes she had known him, she says, and Breck wishes that for her, too. He knows she tries to remember. Sometimes she swears she does—the time she rode on the back of his motorcycle, his jean sheepskin jacket, the time he held her up so she could see the elephants at the zoo. Breck suspects these are false memories. He wants Tucson to not be a good move for her, but it probably is. A new start. She’ll no doubt meet someone new, all those pretty- boy men with their tans and their sun-bleached hair.
Angelo’s father is the pastor at the church down the road. Breck went there for a while. But the lights inside are dim, and it is hard to read the hymnal. A church should be full of light, Breck thinks, especially here in the winter. Also, Angelo’s father tried to tell Breck how to vote, which would have been okay if the pastor hadn’t had so many wrongheaded ideas. “To connect me to God,” Breck told Zooey later, “you gotta be right about some things. I’ll connect directly now, and through the woods, thank you very much.” The air quality here, he thinks now, is a sin that puts all his own to shame. He drinks and chews tobacco and watches porn. That pales beside declining salmon, shrinking ice pack, increased acidity in the ocean. But he knows you can justify anything if you want. Maybe it’s all the same, one big bad bundle of wrong. When the fox watches Breck through the sliding glass door, Breck wonders what it sees. He fears being generalized to his whole species.
Inside, Jake and Haley’s cabin is lit by candles. A toyo stove standing in the corner heats the room.
“Look what I found,” said Haley as they enter.
“A live one,” says Jake. Breck guesses he means him. “How’s the university?” he asks.
“I don’t do that anymore,” Breck says, and tells him about the new job.
“That sucks,” says Jake. “You were a good teacher.” He is holding Abigail, and hands her to Haley. Abigail beams. The cabin is warm and smells of coffee and pine. The difference between inside and out is roughly 115 degrees. The cabin is just one room, with a couch against the north wall, and a small table in the middle. Their bed is a mattress on the floor behind a pair of hanging blankets.
They drink hot cocoa, and it all feels young and bohemian. Breck wishes Zooey was there to share it.
“Did you get out for the holiday?” Jake asks.
“No,” says Breck. “We wanted to go see my parents in Denver, but had to work instead,” he says. “I might go to Tucson, “ he says. And it’s true, he might. He doesn’t tell them Zooey is already there.
Maybe she’ll be back, he thinks. Or, maybe he’ll work a couple more weeks, save the money, take some time off and fly down. Could he be a good husband, father? He likes to think so, likes to think he’ll be the kind that watches over the baby to give Zooey the space she needs to seek her own nuances, whatever that might mean. I could learn to fix some things, he thinks. There’s a whole internet, he bets there’s even a YouTube lesson on how to fix a balcony step.
In the corner is a guitar. Jake catches Breck eyeing it. “Do you play?” he asks.
Breck nods. “Feel free,” Jake says. Breck picks it up and strums some chords. “Hang on,” Jake says and slips past the hanging blankets, returns with a mandolin.
He joins Breck and soon they find a rhythm, just playing, making it up as they go. Haley holds Abigail, starts to sing. Here where the cold air blows / I have you baby that’s all I know.
Breck makes an attempt at harmony, and Jake plays some solo notes. They play for an hour or more, play several songs. It’s all off key and out of rhythm, and it’s beautiful. Abigail squeals with delight when Haley sings to her. It’s still dark at 10 a.m. / everyone’s depressed / I may not even brush my teeth today / don’t even wanna get dressed. What it would be to be born in a cabin like this! Breck thinks.
They look like a Renaissance painting, the joy in their smiles, two foolish kids full of a wisdom Breck understands that he lacks.
He had driven Zooey home that night they met. “I would maybe invite you in, sweety, but I’ve had much to drink. I’m a big fan of sober conversation first,” she said when he dropped her off.
“Tomorrow, maybe. We could try breakfast?” Breck said.
“Good god, no,” she said. “Breakfast is like five hours from now.” She took a pen from her purse and wrote her number for him. “Call me. Call me is where many of my relationships end. Don’t be a butthead.”
He did call, the very next day.
“You are supposed to wait a couple days, so’s to not appear too eager,” she said when she answered the phone.
“I am eager,” he said.
Their first date was a late afternoon hike to Wickersham Dome, and then dinner at the Turtle Club. It was early September.
They had dated just two months before they agreed to move in together. That first night remains the happiest of his life. That was two and a half years ago. He still feels the same. He has been bad since the fall. He realizes that now. Her leaving is his own doing. Moody, cynical, angry at the world. He had stayed home for weeks after hearing his job would not be renewed, watched Court TV and Ellen from his perch alone on the love seat.
One night she came home and turned off the TV. “It sucks about the job,” she told him finally. “But it’s made you high maintenance. I don’t have the energy. It’s time to move on or get help.”
The next day he applied for the job at Fred Meyers. “It’s a start,” she said.
When he got his first check, he showed her the stub. The pay was half of what hers was. “A ritual inversion,” she called it. She’d meant to be funny, but he didn’t laugh.
“Breck,” she said, “I refuse to feel guilty about it.” Was that the moment, he wonders, that she started to think about Tucson, started a vague plan of escape that became clear the day she stepped through the porch stair?
The sweet wallow of despair had engulfed him, made him an ogre, a fool; he had goaded her to leave, dared her to love him or get out.
He puts down the guitar. “I have to go,” he says. “I work at four.”
“Come back whenever you can. We will start a band,” says Haley and laughs.
A warm glow from the stove and the candles fills the room. Just before he closes the door, he glances at the three of them, she holding the baby, Jake alongside her looking down, cooing softly. They look like a Renaissance painting, the joy in their smiles, two foolish kids full of a wisdom Breck understands that he lacks.
He shuts the door, and stands on their deck, his eyes closed, trying to hang onto that warm ancient image. The afternoon is still. He walks up the hill. He will have to hurry to get to work on time. But when he gets to his yard, he lies down in the snow, rises, lies down again a few feet away. He breathes in deeply, takes it all in, the respirator mask in his coat pocket, particulates be damned.
Zooey. “Don’t let this one get away,” his uncle had told him, the time they’d gone to visit, but that’s what he’s done. Let her get away. Deep down he knows it. He thinks of her, of that night they met, the day they moved in together. It hurts to think of it, all that hope now slipping away. Who knows, maybe he’ll never find love again, will never have children. What if he doesn’t? He has a job, an apartment with running water, an education. Everything he needs, really. Why is what we need never enough?
He imagines her there beside him, can’t help himself, imagines them side by side, illuminated by whatever lights the sky once held for them. Stars, aurora, satellites, campfire, the city lights of Tucson. But today the sky is charcoal. From Jake and Hayley’s cabin he hears Abigail’s faint cries, not a sad sound but an ancient and wild call to the darkness of winter, of life. I am here, says that cry. I am here, I am breathing.
Soon he will rise, he will go to work.
But now, he takes it all in. All that is broken remains. Somewhere near, the fox is in its burrow. A light snow starts to fall, and he feels the flakes against his cheeks, his forehead, his lips. He closes his eyes and tries to distinguish each flake so as to remember them all.
Daryl Farmer is the author of Bicycling beyond the Divide, a nonfiction narrative that chronicles a bicycle ride across the Western U.S., and Where We Land, a collection of short stories. His recent work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including Ploughshares, Talking River Review, and Natural Bridge. He is an associate professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
Header photo by Jonny Browne, courtesy Shutterstock.