Although my father had been a tenured professor at Denver College and was considered reliable, if not predictable, he began, just after my twelfth birthday, to show up to his sociology seminars hours late. His excuses were always attributable to recent sightings of Bigfoot, the half-man, half-beast, which he argued demanded immediate documentation by a legitimate authority. While a few of the undergraduate sociology majors registered complaints about my father’s irresponsible behavior, the Ph.D. candidates, who had studied with him for years, found his new eccentricity a delightful variation from academia.
Sometimes, when my mother was working late, my father would take me to his classes. I would lie on a red couch, near the entryway, feet treading air, face sticking to the buttock-indentured Naugahyde. He would begin each class the same, searching the Denver sky for black helicopters, taping tinfoil to the windows, placing an aluminum bowl over his head, and confessing his Bigfoot theories in a campfire whisper.
“You don’t get it until you get it. Cause there’s no hair and that ridiculous forehead. That’s what makes it soooo tantalizing. They’re over there. But we’re chasing this…this being.” He would uncup his hands and pinch his fingers. “It’s that eetsy-weensy space in-between that is so hard for their little minds to comprehend.”
He distributed poorly copied documents and press releases from organizations with never-ending acronyms. These organizations, according to my father, made it their mission to officially deny the existence of Bigfoot. Using old tax-records and information gathered from background checks, he in turn proved that these same organizations were funded by the government. He also produced police records and classified F.B.I. briefings confirming that physical evidence of Bigfoot had been removed and taken to secure locations for reasons of National Security.
The sweat under his arms embarrassed me. The way the students listened, barely breathing, made me admire him. They were twisted by degrees and degrees of awkwardness, enraptured by the experience. I was proud to be his son, yet much of the time, I wanted nothing more than a different father.
“The problem is, you see, even with a government cover-up staring us in the goddamn face, you see, well you can’t… they don’t. The biologists and the media of course. That’s who I mean when I say ‘they don’t…’ Even, for god’s sake, this damn university. They don’t know enlightenment. They know mundanity.” He shivered. “Their cold, cold truth. That’s all they want. They don’t care about what could be out there.”
These organizations, according to my father, made it their mission to officially deny the existence of Bigfoot.
The floor was iron painted dark brown. Elbows and elbows balanced on the pine coffee table. There was not a single click of a pen.
“But really. I’ll give you my honest truth here. The mystery is not within the beast. Or the sinister undercurrents of our American government. We are just too unwilling to replace myth with truth. All of us. Me. You. And you. I don’t even vote anymore, if that proves my point.”
After class we would walk home in silence. I could hear my father’s breathing. His tread. I always tried to keep pace, but my feet and legs were uncertain with an adult stride. At each stoplight my father pressed the walk button repeatedly until the green man appeared.
One December day, just before the Christmas vacation, my father picked me up from school, two hours before the final bell. A twelve year old needs no excuse to be taken out of math and my father offered none. He simply requested, as he opened the passenger door, that I keep this excursion between the two of us.
We headed up into the Rockies, the sand on the roads splattering against the sides of our Duster. We listened to Supertramp. When we arrived at Golden Park that afternoon, my father parked in an empty nook, under a grove of aspens, the tires sliding on the packed snow before the weight of the car sunk us into place. As we got out, he handed me my wool hat, mittens, and a canvas backpack filled with equipment.
Between the clouds and the snow and the rapidly changing season, there was little chance for noise, much less sound. The pine trees creaked in the wind, our feet crunched through the top layer of frozen snow, and our breathing syncopated. We were alone, my father and I, two similar beings, although only with permission could I leave his orbit.
Since walking through the snow required more strength than usual, I had trouble keeping pace. My father often trudged far ahead, never telling me to hurry up, but also neglecting to wait for me. I became familiar with the back of his jacket, and even now I can remember how the green and lavender checkered pattern connected unevenly at the collar.
After an hour or so of hiking, my father suddenly stopped and bent low to the ground. I was glad to finally catch up to him and started to say as much when he lifted his index finger to his lips. Pointing downward, he directed my eyes to an imprint in the snow of a massive, bare foot.
“The audacity,” he whispered, in awe.
My father motioned for the backpack and I took it off. He quietly unzipped the top backpack flap and removed the measuring tape. The foot measured more than twenty inches in length, and each toe was almost twice the size of my thumb. There were other footprints in the snow, stretching down the trail, sometimes veering off into the bushes and others stopping for no discernible reason.
His hands shook as he recorded the measurements on a notepad. A few flakes were drifting out of the sky and they sailed by us silently. One flake landed on my father’s hat, where it remained, caught in tiny tentacles of wool, whole and undamaged.
“Bigfoot as big feet?” he suddenly spoke up, violently. “It’s insulting. They’re spitting. You see. On our grave. And even if I pointed out to them…even if I stuck their faces in it. Like… like a puppy. Rub. Rub. POW! They wouldn’t understand. No. Mmmm. No. They just… you get it. They wouldn’t even understand. I mean you get it? It’s ridiculous. Big feet and nothing more.”
My father looked at me for the first time, holding my eyes with his. I neither nodded nor shook my head. He handed me an old walkie-talkie.
“Never underestimate stupidity and don’t, no matter what, get your head chopped off.” He tapped the walkie-talkie in my hand. “Contact me if anything… Hear me.”
I clipped the walkie-talkie to my pants. He held my chin. His stubble was red-tipped. His breath like parmesan.
“Are you one of those people who needs secrets, or if the whole world showed up, would you tell them?”
“I’d tell them.”
He grinned. “Jesus. Of course you would. Why wouldn’t you?”
He turned me one-eighty and pushed gently. I was relieved to have permission to distance myself. I walked away, following the gigantic footsteps.
I wandered for awhile, listening to the silence and wondering how so much snow could balance so perfectly on the narrow Aspen branches. I threw snowballs until my mittens were so crusted and inflexible that it was impossible to form a solid projectile.
One particular set of prints led into a reedy area where the snow came up to my knees. I knew from experience that when a foot penetrated a snowdrift the real bottom was usually much farther down than the anticipated bottom. These footprints were deep, but not deep enough for something the size of Bigfoot. They were exactly as deep as someone who didn’t believe in Bigfoot believed Bigfoot’s footprint should be.
I trudged into the reeds, where the footprints suddenly stopped. At the bottom of the larger footprints I could just make out, in the waning light, sneaker prints. I turned down the volume on my walkie-talkie and pushed the hollow reeds aside.
There were voices, not too far off. I pressed close to the snow and waited. The talking was infrequent but definite. I crawled along the snow until I saw, through the reeds, an opening. Three of my father’s students were hunkered in the middle of the opening, their backs to me.
I recognized all three of the students. They usually sat together at the far end of the conference table. They never took notes, but they asked questions. “Good questions,” my dad would always congratulate them before beginning his long answers.
The girl had magnificent strawberry hair that was now covered by a yellow, striped wool cap. The two boys had broken noses and never buttoned the top two buttons of their Oxfords. Today they were all shivering in overcoats and leather gloves.
I stepped closer. Directly over their shoulders, I could see my father bent over a footprint, measuring. The students studied him, their eyebrows pressing low, as if they were witnessing the unfolding of an historic event, but through a two-dimensional medium.
“They don’t care about what could be out there.”
I approached the students without hesitation, as if defending my territory. When they turned and saw me, I stopped, a shiver developing in my shoulders. We remained like that for several moments, our eyes locked, before I kicked snow at them, spun, and ran.
When I returned to my father, he was tracing one of the footprints onto a piece of paper. He asked if I had found anything of importance. I shook my head not because lying was easier.
I never looked back at the students and I don’t know if they stayed or left. I didn’t really care as long as my father never saw them.
As the afternoon became early evening, we packed the research equipment and headed back to Denver in darkness. We hit rush hour traffic just outside of Red Rocks, tail lights streaming along I-70 all the way to downtown. We sat in silence, my father thinking through the day, and I, gazing out the window at the invisible mountains.
“You don’t need to believe me to believe what I’m saying,” he said at some point. “They’re out there and they just… they just don’t care. They can’t let you be.”
A few months after my father quit his job and disappeared without so much as a note, I went grocery shopping with my mother when, as we drifted down the cereal aisle searching for generic brands, I recognized my dad’s former student, the girl who had been with the two boys on that snowy Colorado afternoon. She was standing alone, drinking from a small carton of milk, checking the prices of cake mix. Her red hair was cropped at the shoulders and dozens of thin metal bracelets tinkled when she moved her arms.
When the girl found the mix that she had been looking for, she passed by my mother and me, glanced down, and either did not recognize me or pretended not to. I was just a random boy, in any case, and our two lives, divergent and separate, would go on just as they always had, in parallel worlds, with my absent father somewhere in between.
Erik Raschke graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in creative writing. His short stories have appeared in over a dozen magazines and his first novel, The Book of Samuel, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in October.
Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff
“From Now On” by Supertramp
(The album Even in the Quietest Moments was recorded in Nederland, Colorado)
The great Patterson Gimlin Film (which is a story in itself)