The Man in the Myth by Eliza Smith

Ines Vuckovic (c) 2016

The Sasquatch affection began with the John Lithgow movie Harry and the Hendersons, which was a favorite in my family back when there were more of us and we lived in a blue house in the poor part of town, doing normal things like renting VHS tapes from the nearest Blockbuster. Harry seemed like such a clumsy, exotic pet, and I knew if any family in the neighborhood were to shelter a Sasquatch, it would be mine.

At a Scholastic book fair in my school cafeteria—the most exciting thing to happen to me in any given year—I stumbled across a book called Sasquatch by Roland Smith and my mother bought it for me, knowing it would provide a day or two of entertainment. Little did she know it would provide an entire summer of entertainment, a summer when I desperately needed entertainment because I was nine years old and home alone forty hours a week.

My father had recently died, and my mother and I lived alone in a duplex in the poor part of a different town. When she left for her data entry job every morning, I sat down in front of our computer and researched Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster until evening. Occasionally I would wander into the realm of the chupacabra and the Jersey Devil and other sinister, red-eyed creatures, but I would always frighten myself and run back to Bigfoot and Nessie because I was convinced they were benevolent animals who, upon my discovery of them one day, would be as devoted as my dog, Romeo.

In the book, which was perhaps the most thrilling novel I had ever read, a boy named Dylan is stuck with his dad for five months while his mom travels to Egypt to research King Tut. Dylan’s father is the obsessive type, and on a recent hunting trip he was rescued by Sasquatch after taking a spill down Mount St. Helens, so he teams up with the local Bigfoot chapter to find the creature and save him from the evil Dr. Flagg, whose burden of proof requires a dead Sasquatch. Dylan tags along to help his dad and befriends a man named Buckley, who actually winds up to be D. B. Cooper, the real-life hijacker who in 1971 held a Boeing 727 hostage and made off with $200,000, never to be seen again. Buckley/Cooper is friendly with the resident Sasquatch, who lives in the lava tubes below his cabin, and unbeknownst to Buckley/Cooper he is being tracked by an FBI agent who knows his true identity. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but suffice it to say there’s nothing like an erupting volcano to speed up a plotline.

After finishing the book, I took to the World Wide Web, tying up the phone line at least eight hours a day to discover everything I could about this Pacific Northwest creature and his similarly unproven comrades around the world. At the time, most of what could be found was on personal blogs run by cryptid super-fans and diehard conspiracy theorists, and I traveled down strange Internet rabbit holes until my still-developing brain started to cramp. Then I would rummage around in the refrigerator for snacks and let Romeo outside to pee.

It was an enlightening three months that did a number on my retinas and my career aspirations. Before long I was announcing to anyone who would listen that I wanted to be a cryptozoologist when I grew up, then grinning smugly when they asked what in the hell a cryptozoologist was.

“It’s the study of animals that haven’t been discovered yet,” I would reply with an air of obviousness. “Don’t you know you can be standing ten feet away from something in the rain forest and not even see it?” (This, a fact I got off a cryptid blog and used as logic in all of my Dinosaurs Still Exist arguments.)

Not only would I grow up to be a cryptozoologist, but I would also be a failure at my profession because I would never give up Sasquatch or Nessie upon my inevitable discovery—not when it meant exploitation or murder by the hands of curious and fearful humans. Rather, I would play a role like Dylan and D. B. Cooper, shielding the animals from discovery and becoming their faithful companion. That neither of these majestic beings had been conclusively found did not bother me; rather, I was convinced that they had been found and were being protected by a handful of valiant cryptozoologists who would let me in on the secret once I joined their inner circle.

My mother was encouraging of my newfound interest—or at least she wasn’t discouraging of it—despite the fact that she was in the middle of a nursing education and lived by a stack of scientific textbooks that weighed more than I did. She didn’t seem concerned that her nine-year-old was glued to the computer all day, learning about fantastical creatures from possibly unhinged adults, and anyway the Internet was a cheap babysitter.

It had been two years since the man who raised me had died, and I was finally starting to wrap my brain around the conversations that came after, during which it was revealed that the man I desperately missed was my stepfather, while my biological father was actually a faceless man living a couple of hours away, only visiting once shortly after I was born. That man, named Jeff, had two other children, a girl and a boy, who were both blonde (unlike me) and claimed him as father, though he lived with neither of them. He had been married to their mothers, briefly, but never mine.

I took this news with ease, but here and there a new thread would unspool and I would cry out over breakfast: “Wait! You mean my grandma isn’t my grandma and my cousin isn’t my cousin and that’s why we all have different last names?” Could this be the reason why my cousin got to go to Disneyland and I never did? They loved me enough for obligatory Christmas presents and birthday parties but not enough to take me to Disneyland—was that the measure of biological love? And were we still related if my dad was dead, especially if he was never my dad at all?

Once the threads were unspooled and I developed an algorithm that determined familial status to a degree of accuracy at which I felt comfortable, I began to develop a curiosity about this man who was my father and simultaneously not my father. I was spending a fair amount of time with his mother and my newfound younger brother, and one evening we drove by Jeff’s house and he was in his front yard and my grandmother pulled over and he poked his head through her window and said, “Hi Eliza” to me there in the passenger seat. I shrunk down and blacked out his face and my grandmother drove away and I felt uneven for days.

The drive-by occurred in spring or summer, and by Christmas I had gathered a reasonable amount of courage and asked Jeff’s mother to invite him to the hotel where we were staying so my brother and I could play in the indoor pool. I stayed up later than anyone else that night, but he never knocked or even called and I decided it must be because he thought I was mad at him for abandoning me all of those years, so when I got home I wrote a letter to assure him this was not the case because I had been lucky enough to have another father and he had performed brilliantly.

That letter went unanswered, and during the summer of cryptids I found out why: Jeff had remarried—his third wife—and furthermore, she had kids. Five of them. Five formerly fatherless kids who were now being raised in part by my biological father, who had zero interest in communicating with me, the girl who possessed half of his crappy genes.

Outraged, I penned a second letter, this time with a much different agenda. I informed him that he was possibly the least responsible, most selfish, stupidly harmful person on the planet, and I was lucky not to know him and I never wanted anything to do with him, not if I lived a thousand years. I think I actually wrote the words, “Thanks for the sperm (and nothing else).” I mailed the letter off and retreated back into the world of cryptids, imagining my future as an explorer and friend of Sasquatch, a real life Henderson, a saint, really, whose biggest accomplishment would be measured by how few people knew about it.

I did receive a response to that letter. I don’t recall the words, but I remember his handwriting was childlike and the paper felt hot in my hands, and I did not feel vindicated—could not feel vindicated—because he claimed responsibility for nothing. My mother called it ridiculous, an attack on a nine-year-old that proved she made the right choice by never marrying him, by giving me an alternate paternal figure: one with diseased lungs, perhaps, not the longest-term investment, but one who wrote me into short stories and left me his dog when he died.

My summer of cryptozoology ended with a trip to family court, where my mother was suing Jeff for the child support he had evaded by either not working or working under the table for almost an entire decade. I wore my best clothes and the sapphire ring my mother gave me for taking a break from benevolent monster hunting to clean the house. It was finally my chance to look Jeff in the eye and shame him for his behavior.

But he did not look shamed, and the ring vanished from my finger, and though the judge demanded Jeff start payments immediately, we didn’t see a check until I was fifteen.

By then, my mother was a neonatal nurse and we owned a three-bedroom house in the secluded part of another town. Unintentionally or not, we removed ourselves from the vicinity of both my father’s family and my biological father’s family and lived alone on a half-acre with an assortment of stray animals. I stopped claiming cryptozoologist as my future career path around the same time Romeo’s heart failed and said journalist instead, though I hoped to someday embed myself in a group of Sasquatch believers, perhaps on the side of Mount St. Helens. I held out hope that Nessie was still out there, protected.

One afternoon when my mother drove me home from school, there was a red pickup truck in our driveway and she said, “Oh my god do you know who that is?” and I said no, and she said your father, and there he was clutching a teddy bear and asking to meet us for lunch, and at lunch he told us he wanted to be a missionary but he couldn’t leave the country with all the child support he still owed, so he borrowed four thousand dollars from his mother and cut us a check and we called it even. I bought an Altima with a salvage title that would never be worth a cent but tasted like freedom like to me.

Jeff didn’t leave the country. He got another woman pregnant when I was sixteen and I got a second brother, and he married the woman briefly and left like he always did. But he did father that baby, he fought for half-custody in fact, and for a time I wondered if my rage had been a factor or if he’d forgotten all about the letter. Maybe he just wanted to be a better person. Maybe he wanted to disprove the myth.

Eliza Smith is a master’s student at the Missouri School of Journalism and will be pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction at The Ohio State University later this year.