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Authors: Francine Prose

Bigfoot Dreams

BOOK: Bigfoot Dreams
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Bigfoot Dreams
A Novel
Francine Prose

For Howie and Bruno and Leon

Contents

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About the Author

If you are afraid of wolves do not go into the forest,
the Russian proverb says. We all live in the forest, and there is nothing to do but get used to the wolves.

Randall Jarrell

I
N THE SUBWAY GOING
to work, Vera decides to write about Bigfoot. Her story will be datelined from some backwater southern town that has been growing an acre of tobacco as a kind of vegetable sacrifice ever since Bigfoot loped into town one night and smashed up a Texaco station and made off with fifty cartons of cigarettes. Eyewitnesses describe a hairy creature, fifteen feet tall and stinking like a giant ashtray. Every fall, bathtub-sized footprints can be tracked from the woods through the clay fields to the tobacco patch where Bigfoot comes to claim his crop.

Across the aisle, a good-looking kid in white painter’s jeans with a tool box tucked under his work boots sits reading
Motorcycle World
and looking worried. From time to time he takes a cigarette from behind his ear and rubs it lovingly between his fingers. He has beautiful hands, and watching them, Vera thinks of the headline:
BIGFOOT LIGHTS UP
. Chances are he will never see Vera’s story, and yet she is writing it for him. For despite everything Vera knows, some part of her still believes that you can make someone who wants a smoke feel better by telling him how Bigfoot wants it worse.

There’s a game Vera plays called Where-Did-This-Story-Come-From? Aside from the obvious—the kid, the Li’l Abner boots, the cigarette—two answers seem clear. First: Six months without a cigarette hasn’t made Vera quit wanting one. Second: She’s worked at
This Week
too long. UFO sightings, sex-change aliens, cancer cures in the humblest garden vegetables, new evidence of life after death. Yetis, Loch Ness monsters, live dinosaurs in hidden African valleys. Five years of writing these stories have taken their toll: Vera can’t see a handsome face or boots or an unlit cigarette without thinking about Bigfoot.

It’s rush hour, but the front car’s nearly empty. Years ago Vera and her friend Louise used to ride the first car the way other girls rode horses. Knees braced, leaning into the turns, faces pressed against the front window so the tunnel came rushing straight at them, they’d pretended it was dangerous, and now it is. Often now Vera warns her daughter, Rosalie, to stick with the crowds and the transit cops in the middle. But Vera still rides the front out of loyalty to who she once was and because now more than ever it draws certain types: People who need room, who don’t care if it’s dangerous or simply don’t know. In this last group are every imaginable variety of halfway house resident, shopping-bag lady, and screamer.

Vera can’t remember so many people talking to themselves. Maybe she and Louise were just making too much of their own noise to hear. She can’t remember when she started hearing them nor when she stopped fearing they’d start screaming at her. Vera’s only half joking when she tells herself that screamers are her way of keeping in touch with her audience. They’re like
This Week:
the same subjects keep cropping up—atom bombs, the environment, the whole world buried under junk cars and poisoned and finally blown up. But their great theme, the theme that underlines and transforms every word, is the suffering of the innocent, deception and betrayal by everyone from Henry Kissinger to circuit court judges, doctors, husbands, wives, parents, best friends. Vera’s first byline—
DEMENTO DENTIST PLANTS CB RADIOS IN MALPRACTICE MOLARS
—came from something she heard on the train. On good days she likes to think of herself as a kind of screamer spokeswoman, bearing their messages to the world.

Today there’s just her and the good-looking kid. If someone were screaming, she’d be listening instead of writing Bigfoot stories in her head. As the train nears 34th Street, she stands and walks past the kid, noticing only now that his mouth is beautiful, too. The regret Vera feels is so piercing and disproportionate, she knows it must be about something else. But before she can figure out what, the train lets her out and she merges with the crowd, not walking so much as letting it float her along. Perhaps none of them are moving or being moved but gliding on some sourceless energy like pointers on a Ouija board. She imagines this scene from above, a tricky aerial shot of the tops of all those heads. The image is so vivid she wonders if this qualifies as astral projection, and if so, why leaving your body always sounds so complicated, like something you have to be gifted or occult-minded to do.

It’s rained overnight and the streets look fresh and washed clean, unlike the people, whose faces already have the puffed, oily shine of glazed doughnuts. Waiting for the
WALK
sign, Vera breathes in the sweet haze of sweat, a smell that comforts her, reminding her of summer evenings when her father would come home from work and hug her and she could believe that his smell of sweat and tobacco was all she would ever need, of nights when she and Lowell slept with baby Rosalie wedged between them and in the morning she could smell Lowell’s armpit on Rosie’s downy head. Sometimes she likes to think that her working for
This Week
is partly connected with her genuine love for that smell.

The lobby smells, less comfortingly, of pine disinfectant and worse. Rumor has it that bums have been sneaking in here to throw up, and it’s understandable that a drunk might mistake the lobby—done in high WPA tile and marble—for something else. Vera wonders if
This Week
readers have noticed the recent run of vomit stories, including her own contribution,
BRIDGEPORT BANDIT BLOWS LUNCH
, about a cat burglar leaving his nasty signature in the toilets of the homes he robs.

Vera’s heart skips when she spots Hazel, half hidden in her shadowy corner of the elevator. She’ll never get used to the fact that this giant office building still has a semi-automatic loft-type elevator with Hazel at the helm. Though, really, it matches the rest. The whole place is a relic, its washrooms museums of antique porcelain and chain flush tanks. Half-metal, half-wood, the elevator suggests those lifts in British seaside hotels, those French wire cages, only less Art Nouveau and elegant—more in fact like one of those hot boxes in Japanese prison camp films. Maybe that’s why Hazel has the zoned-out manner of a prisoner who’s cracked under torture. Without acknowledging Vera, Hazel shuts the door and turns the wheel.

Hazel used to treat Vera like everyone else. She remembers Hazel saying, “Cold enough for you?” and “Couldn’t get much hotter!” so she’s pretty sure they went round the seasons in this period of innocent grace. Then something awful happened. Vera wrote a story about an elevator that, through some freak wiring accident, shot up through the roof and landed on a junior high next door, obliterating a science class that had coincidentally been studying asteroids. Aside from its obvious sexual content, the plot must have come from those daily trips with Hazel in that swaying, antiquated machine. At the time, though, it had seemed primally inspired. For one of
This Week
’s unspoken rules is that its stories should address the most common hopes and fears. And what are people scared of if not elevators and sex?

On the day that issue came out, Hazel stopped talking to Vera; it couldn’t have been coincidence. What haunts Vera even now is that Hazel’s life seems cramped and drab enough without her having to worry about faulty wiring hurtling her through space like a shooting star. Probably Hazel no longer remembers why she stopped liking Vera, but Vera rides up and down with that story every day of her working life. She’s seen Hazel with other passengers, lining up with the floor so smoothly you could roll a marble across without it bouncing. But now she lets Vera watch her floor go by, then stops short a good eighteen inches later. Halfway between a step and a jump, impossible to manage with any grace, the compromise turns out to be a kind of downward stumble.

All muted browns and yellowing checked linoleum, its lighting so golden and spooky and insufficient it might as well be gas, the corridor is pure turn-of-the-century Prague. Vera used to cheer herself up by thinking about Kafka on his way to the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Company until her friend Louise told her a story about a guy in her office who asked her to go to Tanglewood for the weekend and then showed up at five
A.M.
saying he was sorry, but two days in a motel room with Louise would drive him out of his mind. Vera asked Louise if she’d been angry or hurt and Louise said no, not exactly, mostly it had made her feel sorry for Kafka’s girlfriends. Now Vera can’t think about Kafka without thinking of that. Kafka with his skinny head, his bat’s ears tuned to the strains of Josephine the singing mouse—how could any girl not love him! How fortunate Kafka never worked at
This Week
, where
MAN BECOMES GIANT COCKROACH
would be good for maybe nine hundred words.

Vera passes the office of Ehmer Verlag, Est.
1918
. Having never seen anyone go in or out, she’s convinced that this so-called publisher of German scientific texts is actually a front for a spy ring so sloppy about details they’d ask you to believe the Germans were establishing esoteric publishing firms in the last days of World War I. Next door to Ehmer Verlag is the American Basenji Society, where sometimes on hot afternoons the door is left open, revealing two elderly ladies typing amid a Dickensian mess of papers, folders, filing cabinets stuffed with pedigrees maintaining the purity of this rare breed of African barkless hound. Once Vera rode up in the elevator with a Basenji and its owner. The dog kept flapping its mouth in a yawning, undoglike fashion; Vera kept expecting it to talk.

The lettering on Vera’s door says Magazine Marketing Management, a title that has less to do with pretension than with making it harder for the wrong people to find. Once the wrong people were creditors; now they’re mainly poor souls who think
This Week
is printing their life stories or beaming directly to their brains. Every month at least one of these stumbles in; they’re much more persistent and resourceful than people who want to order subscriptions or place ads. So Vera’s less surprised than she might be when she walks in and finds Carmen, the receptionist, dealing with Charlie Manson’s double.

Shivering visibly though he’s wearing a heavy pea coat and it’s August, he grips the edge of Carmen’s desk with both hands and whispers, “Please. I need to see someone.”

The pop of Carmen’s gum fills the silence in a companionable way. Plump and pretty even in the baggy shirtwaist dress that supposedly has some connection to her being a Seventh-Day Adventist, Carmen’s known for her ability to type like a demon while soothing the troubled in spirit like Mother Teresa, and for her wonderful, crazy laugh. Now she blinks impassively at him from behind the owlish glasses that make her eyes look liquid and enormous, then puts on her earphones and rests one hand on the switchboard. “Who?” she says.

The Mansonite reaches into his pocket and pulls out a ragged copy of
This Week
. “Is this yours?” he demands, like someone trying to housebreak a pet by confronting it with its mistake.

“Not me,” says Carmen. “I’m just the receptionist.”

“Is this
This Week
or isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir,” says Carmen.

“I’m sorry I can’t tell you where I found this.” He glances over both shoulders, then at Carmen, then Vera, somehow managing to check them both out without seeing them at all. “Okay, I’ll tell you. In the
garbage
! Guess whose.”

“Whose?” says Carmen.

He looks around once more; then, so softly they have to strain to hear him, says, “Henry Kissinger’s.”

Of course, Vera thinks. The screamer’s friend.

“No kidding,” says Carmen. “Where’s he live?”

The Mansonite eyes her suspiciously. It’s fascinating and more than a little scary to watch the rearrangements his face goes through. “All right,” he says. “Who cares whose garbage, right? Look at this.” He spreads the paper out on Carmen’s desk and begins leafing through it. Most of the pages are puckered and glued together and the rest keep sticking to his fingers, but somehow he finds the right one. Vera moves closer.

“Here!” He karate-chops the paper with the side of his hand. The headline says:
WASHINGTON WILD CHILD: RAISED BY CATS
! Vera knows the story. She wrote it. Still she reads it slowly to herself, keeping pace with Carmen, who’s reading it aloud:

BOOK: Bigfoot Dreams
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