Some people dream of being chased by Bigfoot. I found it hard to believe at first, but it’s true. I was driving back from Los Angeles in August, after a summer of waiting tables and failed casting calls, when I saw a huge wooden arrow that pointed down a dirt road, “actors wanted” painted across it in white letters. I was in Northern California and still a long way from Washington, but I followed the sign down the road and parked in front of a silver airstream trailer. It was dark inside and I felt the breeze of a fan. The fat man behind the desk said he’d never hired a woman before. And then he went on to describe exactly what happens at the Bigfoot Recreation Park. People come here to have an encounter with Bigfoot. Most of their customers have been wanting this moment for years. I would have to lumber and roar with convincing masculinity. I can do that, I said, no problem. And I proved it in my audition. After putting on the costume and staggering around the trailer for a few minutes, bellowing and shaking my arms, I stopped and removed the Bigfoot mask. The fat man was smiling. He said I would always be paid in cash.

Today I’m going after a woman from Albuquerque. She’s small and sharp-shouldered, dressed in khaki shorts and a pink sweatshirt. I’d be willing to bet no one knows she’s here. For a brief time, this woman will be living in another world, where all that matters is escaping Bigfoot. People say the park is great for realigning their priorities, for reminding them that survival is an active choice. I’m watching her from behind a dense cluster of bushes. The fat man has informed me that she wants to be ambushed. This isn’t surprising. Most people crave the shock.

My breath is warm inside the costume. The rubber has a faintly sweet smell. I like to stroke my arms and listen to the swishing sound of the fake fur. The mask has eyeholes, but blocks my peripheral vision, so I can only see straight ahead. The fat man says this is an unexpected benefit of not having more advanced masks. According to him, Bigfoot is a primitive creature, not wily like extraterrestrials or the Loch Ness Monster, and only responds to what’s directly in front of him. Two other people work at the park, Jeffrey and Mack, but our shifts never overlap. The fat man thinks it’s important for us to not see our counterparts in person, to believe we are the only Bigfoot.

I wait for the woman to relax, watching for the instant when she begins to think: maybe there won’t be a monster after all. I can always tell when this thought arrives. First their posture softens. Then their expression changes from confused to relieved to disappointed. More than anything the ambush is about waiting the customer out. I struggle to stay in character during these quiet moments; it’s tempting to consider my own life and worries, but when the time comes to attack, it will only be believable if I’ve been living with Bigfoot’s loneliness and desires for at least an hour.

The woman yawns and rubs her cheek. She bends over and scratches her knee. She stops looking around the forest. Her expectations are changing. She checks her watch. I start counting backwards from ten. When I reach zero, I pound into the clearing and release the first roar: a piercing animal sound still foreign to my ears.

 

**

 

Jimmy and I are sprawled out in his backyard, staring through the branches of a pear tree. Earlier I found him sitting on the front porch, trying to stop a nosebleed. I told him to tilt his head back, then pressed the tissue against his nostrils and watched the white bloom into crimson. It’s not love. Or at least not what I thought love would feel like. It hurts to be near him and it hurts to be away.

“What do you dream about?” I ask.

“Of a time when the world was nothing but water.”

I spread my legs and arms and imagine floating in an enormous pool. Jimmy lives across the street from the bungalow I’ve been renting since August, a long structure with low ceilings and chipped turquoise paint. When I first moved into the neighborhood, he dropped by and offered to give me a hand. I didn’t really have anything to unpack, but invited him inside anyway. He grew up in Oregon and, after high school, drifted over to California, where he took a job as a postman. He was willowy and pale, with dark hair and green eyes and long eyelashes. He didn’t look like anyone else I knew. I pulled a bottle of Jim Beam out of my suitcase and he ended up staying the night.

He rolls toward me, leaving a silhouette of flattened grass. “What about you?”

“I don’t remember my dreams,” I say. “I can’t get them to stay with me.”

A hawk with white-tipped wings crosses the sky; I wonder where the bird is headed. It’s mid-October. The weather is cool and breezy. “I wish we could keep winter from coming,” I tell him.

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s a real shame.”

Jimmy told me he was sick the morning after we met. We were sitting on the floor of my living room, drinking water to ease the hangover. I raised my glass and pointed at the grit pooled in the bottom. He shrugged and said the water has always looked that way. Then he told me about the cold that lasted for three months and the clicking sound of the X-ray machine and the spot on his lungs. When I asked if he had help, he said he’d lost touch with his friends in Oregon and hadn’t made any new ones in the postal service. His father was dead, and his mother married a carpet salesman and moved east a few years back. His mother tried to arrange a nurse once his outcome became definite, but he refused, saying he didn’t want a stranger in the house. He stopped delivering mail months ago and was collecting disability checks.

He told me all this and then said he’d understand if I minded and we could just go back to being neighbors. But I told him I didn’t mind at all. My older sister, Sara, used to have seizures, though I didn’t mention that to Jimmy. As a child, I saw her collapse on tennis courts and roller-skating rinks, in the school cafeteria and on the carpeted floor of our bedroom, her chest heaving like something terrible was trying to get out. My mother made her wear a red bicycle helmet whenever she left the house. My mother, who raised us on her own, worked night shifts at a hospice center. Sometimes, out of nowhere, I remember the scent of rubbing alcohol and ointment on her hands.

“How was work?” Jimmy asks.

“Not bad.” I stretch my legs and bump against a browning pear. At the end of the summer, the branches were heavy with fruit, but halfway through September, the pears began rotting and falling to the ground. “I gave a woman from Albuquerque a good scare.”

“You can practice your roar today if you want,” he says. “Since we’re already outside.”

“I can only do it when I’m in costume.” I kick the pear and listen to it roll through the grass. “It’s impossible to get into character if I’m not wearing it.”

He moves closer and presses his face into my neck. “You would’ve made a wonderful actress,” he mumbles into my skin.

Whenever Jimmy asks about my months in Los Angeles, I tell him how difficult it was to make enough money, how alien I felt carrying trays through a chic bistro that boasted a fifteen-page wine list and thirty-dollar desserts. How I used to dream of fame, of seeing my face staring back at me in magazines and hearing the echo of my voice in dark theaters and never being lonely. When he wants to know about the acting, I tell him the casting directors said I wasn’t talented enough. I don’t tell him that they often praised my poise and personality, but in the end all said the same thing: you just aren’t what we’re looking for. I don’t tell him this felt worse than having them say I wasn’t pretty or gifted because it gave me a dangerous amount of hope.

I touch the back of Jimmy’s head. His hair feels damp. In my mind, I list the things I need to help him with over the weekend: wash the sheets, mop the floors, gather all the rotten pears. Just when I think he has gone to sleep, he looks up and asks me to stay with him tonight. I tell him that I will. He lowers his head and we both close our eyes. The late afternoon sun burns against us.

 

**

 

I wake to the boom of a loudspeaker. A truck from the water company is inching down the street. We are running tests. Do not be alarmed if your water is rusty. The water has never looked right here. People complain and the company comes out for an inspection, but it never seems to get any better.

Jimmy is still asleep, a spindly arm draped above his head. I don’t wake him before I go, even though I know he’d like me to. I want to be alone now, although as soon as I’m on my own, I’ll only want to be back with him. I leave a glass of murky water and his pills on the bedside table. He doesn’t stir when I kiss the side of his face and whisper a goodbye.

 

Across the street, I find a letter from my mother in the mailbox. As I open the envelope, a picture of my sister’s pepper plants falls to the floor. My sister is married to an architect and lives in Olympia. She hasn’t had a seizure in years. She works in a library and has a garden that produces vegetables of extraordinary size: cucumbers big as logs, eggplants that resemble misshapen heads, pepper plants like the ones in the photo, bright green and the size of bananas. In her letter, my mother reminds me that I won’t be young forever, that the longer I go without a real job, the more my employability will decrease. I slip the letter and the photograph back into the envelope and tuck it into a chest drawer, which is crowded with other letters she and my sister have sent. When I write back, I end up talking about the arid heat and the blue lupine that grows on the roadside, with only a vague line or two about having found acting work and a house to rent. They know nothing about my Bigfoot costume, about Jimmy.

I undress and take a shower. The water is a cloudy red. The color makes me queasy and I get out before rinsing away all the shampoo. My hair is light without really being blond and the dry climate has made the skin on my knees and elbows rough. I have an hour before work, although I wish I could go in early. I’m starting to realize I can’t stand to be anywhere, except stomping through the forest in my Bigfoot costume. That’s the reason I always wanted to be an actress: when I’m in character, everything real about my life blacks out.

In the living room, I turn the television to General Hospital. I scrutinize the women, golden-skinned and tall, who are playing the minor parts I once auditioned for—the nurse, the secretary, the woman lost in a crowd—then start doing lunges in preparation for my current role. It’s essential my muscles stay long and supple, so I can skulk with persuasive simianness.

The phone rings and it’s Jimmy. He wants me to come over for breakfast. I tell him I’m late for work, which is about thirty minutes away from being true, and that I have to finish rehearsing.

“I thought you just do stretching exercises.” The connection is bad and his voice pops with static.

“It’s more complicated than that,” I reply. “Any actor will tell you it pays to do your homework.”

He relents and makes me promise to come over after work. When I ask what he has planned for today, he says he’s going through the jazz records in his closet.

“There’s a guy from high school I’d like to mail some of them to.”

“Don’t you want to talk to him or try to visit?” I ask. “If you’ve already gone to the trouble of getting his address.”

“No,” he says. “I really do not.”

I walk over to the window and look across the street. Jimmy is standing by his living room window, waving and holding the phone against his ear. He’s only wearing his boxers and through the glass, his figure is pale and blurred.

“I was wondering how long it was going to take you,” he says.

“Doesn’t it feel weird to see the person you’re talking to?” I ask. “The whole point of the phone is long distance communication.”

“Talking to you isn’t the same when I can’t see your face,” he says. “It’s impossible to tell what you’re thinking.”

“Do I give away that much in person?”

“More than you know.” He presses his face against the pane, so his features look even more sallow and distorted.

“Okay,” I tell him. “Now I’m really going to be late for work.”

After we hang up, we stand at our windows a little longer. His hair is disheveled and sticking up in the back like dark straw. He gives me one last wave, then disappears into the shadows of the house. I wait to see if he’ll come back, but the sun shifts and the glare blocks my view. I imagine him watching me from another part of the house, through some secret window. I return his wave to let him know I’m still here.

**

The fat man says my client wants to kill Bigfoot. The customer is a man from Wisconsin, who came equipped with his own paint ball gun. He tells me not to ambush, but let the man sneak up on me and then moan and collapse after he fires.

“I didn’t know killing Bigfoot was part of the deal,” I tell him.

The fat man is sitting behind his desk. He leans back in his chair and picks something out of his teeth with the corner of a matchbook. “It’s a recreation park,” he says. “They get to do whatever they want.”

When I first started at the park, my costume had to be specially sized, with lifts in the feet and extra padding sewn into the body. As the fat man took my measurement in the trailer, I asked how people found this place, and he told me about taking out ads in magazines for Bigfoot enthusiasts and about the sightings that had happened in this part of California. Just last fall, his cousin had seen Bigfoot in the woods behind his house, pawing through an abandoned garbage can.

I open the closet and take out my costume. My initials are written on the tag in black marker. “So this guy is going to shoot me with paint balls?”

“To be honest, you might feel a little sting,” he says. “But I’ve banned any other kind of weapon after an old Bigfoot got shot in the face with a pellet gun.”

“Ouch.”

“It was at close range too. He was covered in welts for days.” He runs a hand over his head. “If the weapon doesn’t look like a paint ball gun, then shout your safe word.”

I step into the costume. “I have a safe word?”

“I don’t like to tell people when they first start the job, in case they scare easily.”

“I don’t.” I seal myself inside the rubber skin. “What’s my safe word?”

Jesus,” he says. “It’s really more for the customers, but this is a different kind of situation.”

“How’d you come up with Jesus?”

“You’d be surprised at how religious some people are,” he says. “I always thought screaming Jesus would get their attention.”

I lower the Bigfoot mask onto my head and inhale the sweet scent of the rubber. Through the eyeholes, I can only see the fat man and his desk.

“And what if this guy doesn’t believe in God?”

“Then you’ve still got the element of surprise.”

**

 

I’ve been pretending to not see the man from Wisconsin for over an hour. He’s positioned in the branches of a cedar: back pressed against the tree trunk, nose of the paint ball gun angled toward the ground. He’s wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, so I can’t see his face or eyes. He paid for two hours and most of our time has passed. He must be saving the killing for the very end.

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to do the things Bigfoot might actually do. I ambled around, rubbed my back against a tree, ripped up some wildflowers. I sniffed the air and gave two magnificent roars. But the whole time I felt myself slipping out of character and soon I was only a person in the woods, waiting for something painful to happen. I wonder if this is how Jimmy feels when he wakes in the morning—alone and waiting to be hit.

One evening, when it was still summer, we made a picnic and drove to the lake down the road. We ate pears and ham sandwiches and had a long talk about the days when he was first diagnosed and receiving treatment in a hospital a few hours away from our houses and the Bigfoot park. He’s young—thirty, only four years older than me—and says he’s never even held a cigarette; it wasn’t until the hospital that he began to overcome the shock, to look ahead and weigh all that did and did not await him. He would sit around with the other patients and talk about what they would do if the chemotherapy and radiation and surgeries failed, if their hand was called, as he put it. Some wanted to travel to exotic places, while others wanted to find lost lovers or make amends with children they had neglected. Jimmy said he wanted to drive to the Grand Canyon and stay until he was no longer impressed with the view. He couldn’t say why he chose that destination, only that it was the first thing that came to him. But he didn’t go to the Grand Canyon and he couldn’t say why that happened either. It wouldn’t have been so hard, he told me, only a long car ride and a little money. After that night, I thought a lot about why he never went out to Arizona and finally decided it was fear—of having the experience fall short, of realizing too late that he should have made a different choice. For him, it was better to not know what the Grand Canyon looked like, to retain the splendor of his dreams.

I’m so caught up in my waiting and thinking and not being Bigfoot that the shots come as a terrible shock. Two red splats in the center of my brown chest. I fall on my back, my furry legs and arms rising and then hitting the ground with a thump. Air rushes from my lungs; I gasp underneath the mask. A rock digs into my back, and there’s a sharp pain in my forehead. I hear branches snapping, footsteps. The man is standing over me, still holding the gun. He’s shorter than he looked in the tree, with pasty skin and knobby elbows, a white smudge of sunscreen on the tip of his nose. He’s wearing a tee-shirt with a bull’s eye on the front and camouflage pants.

He nudges me with the toe of his boot and, forgetting I’m supposed to be dead, I squirm to the side. He frowns and raises the gun. I remember my safe word, but I don’t say it. I want to believe I stopped myself because I am playing this role to perfection, because I want the killing to be as good as this man hoped, because if he’s dying, I want him to walk away feeling satisfied with his life. But the truth is, my chest burns and I’m dizzy and I open my mouth to say Jesus and no sound comes out.

He shoots me once in the neck and again in the shoulder. I shriek and press my rubber paw against my arm. I hear quick footsteps, then nothing at all. When my breathing steadies and I’m able to stand, I take off the mask and touch the hard lump on my neck. The ground is speckled with red paint. The man is gone.

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LAURA VAN DEN BERG was raised in Florida and earned her MFA at Emerson College. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, the 2009 Julia Peterkin Award, and the 2009-2010 Emerging Writer Lectureship at Gettysburg College. Her fiction has appeared in One Story, Boston Review, American Short Fiction, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices 2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV: Best of the Small Presses, among others. Laura’s first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, October 2009), recently received a starred review in Booklist and has been selected by Barnes & Noble for their Discover Great New Writers Program.

12 responses to “Where We Must Be”

  1. Molly says:

    I enjoyed this very much. Thanks for sharing.
    This is my favorite part:
    In the meantime, I’ve been trying to do the things Bigfoot might actually do. I ambled around, rubbed my back against a tree, ripped up some wildflowers. I sniffed the air and gave two magnificent roars. But the whole time I felt myself slipping out of character and soon I was only a person in the woods, waiting for something painful to happen. I wonder if this is how Jimmy feels when he wakes in the morning—alone and waiting to be hit.

    • Lane Browning says:

      I love this story too but where is the rest of it?????? THOUSANDS of words are missing! She gets fired after the Wisconsin man incident. Please, where is a site with the entire story???? I’ve read it in two collections now

  2. Marybear says:

    oh ya ,that’s the stuff =)
    thank you grrrrrrl

  3. Greg says:

    Wow. Love this story.

    Bigfoot has always held a special place in my heart. Even did a college presentation on them/it/him/her.

    And it’s interesting that with all the hunting and roaring and rotten pears being kicked through the grass, this paragraph stuck with me the most:

    “After we hang up, we stand at our windows a little longer. His hair is disheveled and sticking up in the back like dark straw. He gives me one last wave, then disappears into the shadows of the house. I wait to see if he’ll come back, but the sun shifts and the glare blocks my view. I imagine him watching me from another part of the house, through some secret window. I return his wave to let him know I’m still here.”

  4. josie says:

    This is funny and tragic, kinda funagic.
    It makes me want to share my bigfoot tales but your sister is probably my neighbor and the neighbors think I’m strang enough as it is.

    If the book is like the excerpt, I’d like to read it.

  5. jmblaine says:

    “Of a time when the world was nothing but water.”

    That right there.
    Keep doing that
    & I’m hooked.
    Daft strokes
    brushed lightly
    do not be alarmed
    if your water is rusty
    Jesus Jim Beam &
    Rubber Bigfoots

    Welcome friend.

  6. […] content here. TNB, as it refers to itself, offers short stories from recent collections (like “Where We Must Be,” from Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us) as well […]

  7. […] isn’t cute; he’s handsome. It’s that time of month again for Tom Hansen. Laura van den Berg’s beautiful Bigfoot story Derrick Brown writes some bloody beautiful poetry. Paul Clayton visits a brutal writers’ boot […]

  8. […] talk he ever had with his dad. *It’s that time of month again for Tom Hansen. *Laura van den Berg’s haunting little Bigfoot story. *Meghan Hunt writes a snarky open letter to an online dating site. *Stuart Dybek shares some […]

  9. […] rather, that it’s about people facing and mastering their fears. The premise reminds me of “Where We Must Be,” a short story by Laura van den Berg about a recreational facility where people go to get attacked […]

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