Nowhere Man - Emily Woodworth

Nowhere Man
Emily Woodworth

You cannot find Bigfoot in a cupboard. Perhaps that should have been obvious, but at nine years old anything seems possible. Experts might say that my first expedition failed. I say that it succeeded because I’d found at least one spot where Bigfoot was not. And that’s a start.

I soon discovered that Bigfoot was not in the shower either. Or the laundry room, or living room, or the closet beneath the stairs filled with wrapping paper and bows and the large, dead spider in the front right corner whose exoskeleton haunted a similar corner of my brain. If Bigfoot ever had lodged in these locales, he wasn’t present when I looked, nor was there any sign of him. 

It wasn’t long after this that I imagined for the first time that maybe he was following me, waiting until after I’d searched these sites to hide in them again as a kind of primate joke. But after a few days of retreading the same ground to no avail, I realized that ideas like that can drive a boy mad, and I determined to give it up. Searching new places was the way to go, and so that’s the way I went.

By the time I reached adolescence my hunt had become an obsession. Soon it had the added distinction of being a secret one. As my search grew in scope, my widowed young mother noticed my fixation, and it didn’t sit well with her. Perhaps it reminded her of similar expeditions undertaken by my late father. Perhaps she just worried I’d get lost. It got so that every time I’d go out to follow a lead on Bigfoot, she’d trail me, and the three of us would wander together in the woods behind our home for silent hours without acknowledging the other’s presence at all. For whatever reason, my mother never mentioned these excursions. We’d both avoid eye contact as she entered through the front door, as if coming back from an errand, and discreetly remove her muddied shoes.

Ultimately, I convinced myself that I hadn’t made contact with Bigfoot yet because my mother was following me and transgressing all of his ancient etiquette. Her feet, shod in light blue clogs, made such unnatural sounds in the woods, her breathing was always too labored, and she tended to shove branches impolitely aside, instead of gently shifting them or twisting and bending her body to avoid them altogether. I pictured Bigfoot running so far ahead that he was able to loop behind us and creep up on my mother to inflict punishment for her affronts against his Bigfooted race. 

This thought frightened me: her brown braid in his enormous hand, his white teeth at her neck, his gleeful, red-rimmed eyes as he saw me seeing him—an image I couldn’t blink away, day or night. An image that was haunting in its realism and truthfulness. I stopped hunting for a while because of it. Long enough that my mother’s suspicions lapsed and she breathed a cautious sigh by way of chipper conversation during the hours we would have wandered the woods. But then she found another job, this one at a bank—“a good one this time,” she kept saying—and I had two hours after school all to myself.

When I reached adulthood, my list of places where Bigfoot was not had grown considerably. I had eliminated every cranny of every house or apartment we’d rented—which covered a good many buildings in our rural Oregon town. I’d combed large swathes of the forest trails near us on the pretext that I enjoyed hiking—which was a lie. I’d even worked a few ranches near town during the summer to see if the flat country was to his taste. 

Bigfoot was nowhere that I had been, but that left a whole world to see. With each passing day, this thought grew more daunting. Even a thousand lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to examine every inch of land. And it became clearer and clearer that my great disadvantage was that I could only be one place at one time. That original, insidious thought—that Bigfoot was hiding wherever I’d been—emerged from the shadows. This time, I couldn’t shake it. Every place I searched, I’d have to search again the next day. Soon it was the next hour. Wherever I walked, I found myself stealing fast glances over my shoulder. 

I was sure of only one thing: Bigfoot was not where I was. But even that truth was tenuous, because I had the peripheral suspicion—peripheral because it was too terrible to look right in the eyes—that Bigfoot lived right behind me at all times, and that everyone was too polite to say anything. Once I graduated high school, instead of going to college as my mother wished, I insisted on staying in our town. 

My idea that Bigfoot was hiding where I had been convinced me that he must dwell in our exact geographic location. To leave would be to forfeit any chance of catching a glimpse of him. I settled in for the long haul. I got a job at the gas station—Oregon is one of two states where gas is pumped for customers—so that I could be outdoors most of the time and on the lookout. My mother still worked at the bank. She was a manager now. She had bought a house, or at least gone into debt on one, and I lived there to save on rent until one night when that arrangement became less appealing. 

Mother came home a little late that day and ordered takeout Thai from the only to-go restaurant in town. While she was out picking it up, I scoured the house again. I meant to go through the whole house, but instead inspected only one closet, then closed the door and seated myself in front of it. See, I had a new idea: if I could just shut and lock every space I searched, then at least I could be sure that one place, other than the place I was, was Bigfoot-free.

I was seated before the door when my mother walked in, and to her I probably looked crazed—at least, I felt crazed on the inside. 

“Hi, baby,” she said, smiling at me. “What’s doing?” She crossed the family room, where I was, to set the food on the kitchen table. I watched her like an animal, trying to judge her response. It had been years since I’d aroused her suspicions, since our treks through the forest. Sometimes I still caught her looking at me funny, and thought maybe she’d relapsed. But then I’d play it safe for a few days and soon we’d be back to normal. 

Did I dare bring up my hunt? I watched her carefully. She seemed at ease as she took down her beloved ivy-decorated plates, which she’d saved up for last April. 

The fact was, sitting in front of that closet for the last hour, an idea had occurred to me, a new strategy that could fundamentally tip this cruel chase in my favor. I realized that if I applied the principle of search and seal to the house, I might create one whole space where I could be at ease, where I could think clearly about my next steps. But I needed someone to watch my back in the rooms with windows, to ensure that Bigfoot wasn’t looking through the glass and mocking me as I searched under the bed. I needed four eyes. My mother’s were the only other pair I trusted.

“Steven, are you going to join me or what?” she asked now, sitting herself down and dropping her napkin in her lap.

I rose lithely and almost slid to the table.

“Mother—”

She held up her hand. Her eyes were closed as she uttered a prayer over her food. Finally, they opened. 

“Yes, baby?” she asked. “Oh, here, dish up,” she said before I could answer, grabbing my plate and ushering food onto it.

“Mother, I have a favor to ask.”

“Sit down,” she said, setting my plate on the table and indicating in the way only mothers can that my food was getting cold and I’d better eat.

I acquiesced and took two bites before beginning again.

“Mother—”

“Dave Peterson took me to lunch today,” she said, putting more food on her plate and mine. 

“That’s nice,” I said, taking another bite. I thought about Bigfoot eating my leftovers and took a bigger bite the next time.

“What did I always tell you?”

“What?” I asked.

“Listen, won’t you, so I don’t have to repeat myself forty times.”

“Sorry.”

“I always told you that your mother didn’t need to look for a man. No woman needs to look for a man. Just sit still and look decent long enough and the man you’re looking for will find you.”

“What are you saying?” I asked, dropping my fork. I didn’t like the tone Mother had or the look in her brown eyes, or the fact that she was delaying my plea for aid with chitchat about Dave. I peered over each shoulder for safety, but if Bigfoot was there he was hiding just out of view.

“Well, Dave asked if we were a couple that was headed for marriage, and I said yes.” She said this as if we weren’t talking about anything, then began clearing her plate. “You done?”

“I—no, I’m not,” I said. I watched, dumbfounded as mother rinsed her dish and put it in the dishwasher, all while talking about the other goings-on at the bank, as if she hadn’t shattered my world. 

“Keep taking bites,” she said. “I want to start the washer.” Then talked about her day some more. Then she said, “You are the slowest eater I’ve ever seen,” or something like it. I’d stopped paying her mind. Every time she looked away I’d glance over my shoulders. Then I started studying the closet door again. I hadn’t been watching it the whole time. What if Bigfoot had snuck inside? What if he was going to hide in there while my mother and I searched the rest of the house? I sprang up, crossed into the living room, and jerked the door open. There was nothing inside except wrapping paper.

“You’re done now?” Mother asked from the kitchen, already taking my half-full plate from the table. 

“Yes.”

She paused for a moment, and I could sense her appraising me. “How was your day, baby?”

I looked over wildly, then rushed back into the kitchen and grabbed my mother by the shoulders.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” she asked. Instead of resisting my too-tight grip, she embraced me. I pushed her back so I could see her face.

“Mother, you have to help me.”

“What?”

“Help me find him!” I rushed to the closet again, took one look to ensure Bigfoot had not snuck in, then slammed it shut and stood against the door.

“Who? Who? Find who, Steven?”

“Him! Him!”I said, gesturing with open arms toward the world. 

“I don’t know what you’re saying,” she said, but I could tell that she did.

“Bigfoot.” I whispered the sacred name, the one my father had entrusted to me. Her face didn’t change like I thought. It wasn’t angry. She just sat down. Reached into her purse. Grabbed her phone.

“Who are you calling?” I shouted, not meaning to.

“Dave.”

“Dave. Dave. Don’t call Dave!”

She kept hitting buttons, but I couldn’t leave the closet. She wasn’t listening.

“Don’t call fucking Dave!” That got her attention. Her thumb paused over the send button. “Please, Mom. Help me.”

For a moment we absorbed each other. We breathed in synchrony. I could see tears glistening in her eyes, and felt the air cooling my own wet cheeks. Mutely, I mouthed please.

She looked down at her quivering thumb, then in a whisper said, “I’m trying to help you, baby. I’m trying.” Her face crumpled like a used tissue and her brimming tears overflowed. “I just don’t know how.”

“I’ll tell you,” I said, shifting onto my toes, trying to reach with my eyes across the space. “I have a plan, see, I have it all figured out. Up in my, in my head. It’s so simple!” She didn’t say anything. She just looked down at her phone, frozen. So I went on. “All I need is for someone to watch my back. We’ll start here in the living room, be systematic about it. I’ll search everything, and you’ll be my lookout, Mother. You can make sure he’s not sneaking up on me. We’ll be a team. A team.” I held a hand out to her, tentative. She looked up, her face still scrunched and ugly. “Well?’

“Steven,” she began, then stopped. Between each word, she surveyed the air in front of her, like there were thousands of options and it was taking all her concentration to discover the one she wanted. “I love you,” she said. “But, I can’t help you.” I let my head drop against the door with a bang. “Bigfoot isn’t real. He’s not. He’s a fable. A bedtime story for when you were young.” She paused. “You need help, Steven. But not from me.” She breathed deeply, and her next words discharged double-time. “Now, Dave has a friend who does this sort of thing. Maybe you could just talk to him. Just for a few minutes. You never know . . . .” 

She kept on talking, but I didn’t hear anymore. I focused on holding perfectly still. I felt in my gut that if I moved one muscle I would erupt. My brains would splatter the ceiling and my skin would coat the walls and my foe would chortle his delight in the dark beyond. I counted my breaths. I counted my fingers. I counted my internal organs, until I realized my mother was standing. She was no longer addressing me, but her phone. A man’s voice reverberated. She had called Dave.

She was talking to Dave about me and about Bigfoot. She was crying. She was talking about me to fucking Dave and it was too late for me to stop her. I stared past her and into the kitchen window as if it were the reflective surface of a magical ebony pool that would reveal life’s answers. I wondered if Bigfoot stood on our deck, just out of my weak human eyes’ range. Perhaps my mother was right to fear Bigfoot. Maybe in an accidental way she had stumbled upon the truth: this hunt was mine alone. I’d lost sight of that for a moment. In desperation, I’d nearly transgressed the statutes. I must never stray from my solitary crusade again. Steadily, I slid across the wall to the front door, turned the knob, and backed from the room. It was time I departed the distractions of other humans. I had to fix my efforts wholly on my pursuit. 

I fled. My mother didn’t notice my absence until I started the car. I heard her call my name as I drove off, and would cherish the sound in my dreams. I slept in the car that night, parked next to the gas station, and for a few after that. I didn’t see my mother for weeks, but she was there, stalking me with casseroles and post-it notes begging me to return home. In spite of this, I remained stalwart. A friend of a friend was renting a room with one closet. I took it. I needed a chance to regroup. Every night I sat in front of the closet after searching it, just knowing that Bigfoot could not be in those two separate places. For a while that was enough. But only for a little while. 

Each day I still had to go to work and wonder where Bigfoot was watching me from. Each night I was filled with the impression that he was waiting outside my door. But when I opened it, just an empty hallway stared back. Sometimes a casserole dish. I didn’t sleep in my bed anymore, preferring the floor in front of the closet. 

I didn’t sleep. 

I knew that something had to change, that I had to come up with a new plan soon or I might die before I caught sight of my nemesis.

It wasn’t until my mother’s wedding day that I knew what I had to do. We hadn’t patched things up, per se. It was easier for me if she remained at a distance. I talked to her civilly, but never about the one thing that consumed me. And so when we did talk, there was little to discuss. But at her wedding, inspiration—inspiration that had been hiding at the back of my mind unused for weeks—finally found me. 

It was at the reception. My mother and Dave had kept the wedding very small, and so we were all seated at the same table in a private room of a nice restaurant. My mother was saying to one of her friends the very same thing she’d said to me, about no woman needing to look for a man. “Just sit still and look decent long enough and the man you’re looking for will find you.”

That was it. That was what I’d been missing all along. I couldn’t find Bigfoot because I wasn’t the one who was supposed to do the looking. I’d been moving too frantically, confusing my scent. But in that moment everything became clear. All I had to do was sit still long enough and Bigfoot would find me.

So I was decided. One of my coworkers had a hunting cabin deep in the woods. I asked to borrow it and since it wasn’t hunting season, he said sure. I implied that I would have “company,” and he assumed I meant a girl. If he’d known I expected a three hundred pound ape-man, I’m not positive he would have let me use it.

I hiked in the day before the twentieth anniversary of beginning my search at nine years old. I remembered the date of my start because it was the day after my father’s funeral. I hiked in with supplies to last for a week, but I knew I wouldn’t need them. Bigfoot would know it was twenty years to the day too. And his ancient customs, so I suspected, wouldn’t let him break our appointment. 

The cabin was musty. Sparsely decorated. Just four chairs, a table, and some frames for cots, plus myriad trophies on the walls. I was seventeen miles from the nearest lightbulb. The nearest hospital. The nearest human. It was perfect. Here, I would finally become the hunted. 

I set my gear down, but didn’t bother to unpack. Then I perched on a wooden chair and waited. I wasn’t hungry or tired, though it was eleven at night. The anniversary day would begin at midnight, and I wanted to be awake. 

Time slipped by slowly in that hour. Slower even than my long vigils before the closet. Longer than the treks in the woods. I thought about the hunt and the places I’d ruled out, and the many looks over my shoulders. I thought about my mother and Dave and their fear of the mysterious beast I sought. In the last few moments, I even began to think about something I hadn’t much in twenty years: my life before the hunt began. Before I looked in that first cupboard beneath the kitchen sink. Back when my father hunted Bigfoot, instead of me. 

But I didn’t have much time to contemplate this before midnight came and I heard the porch step creak. My muscles all tightened. Not in fear, but excitement. A harsh panting breath pushed against the door’s boards. The sound of sniffing followed. I blinked rapidly, but otherwise stayed still. The doorknob gave a metallic rattle. It was all I could do to remain seated.

Finally, after a good five minutes of tantalizing sounds, the door swung open inward toward me. And there, pasted in my memory by moonlight, stood my beast in all his glory.