There’s a new girl working the register when I buy the rope. Everything about me offends her, but she has the courtesy not to hide it. You get tired after a while of people pretending they don’t notice the smell, don’t see the acne, aren’t repulsed by your size. I’m seven foot six and damn near five hundred pounds, but when the girl reaches for the rope I flinch. Girls make me nervous.
Without thinking I grab a handful of candy bars and drop them on the counter. She snorts and rings them up.
The rope is to hang myself. I’m twenty-five years old. My father, Patrick Peele, Sr., was dead by forty, a massive coronary that took him out mid-dump. I’m already two-hundred pounds heavier than he ever was, and all I want is to not die like him, alone in the bathroom of a roach swarmed apartment. I figure, a guy like me hangs himself, well, nobody’s going to ask why.
The convenience store is less than a block from my apartment. On another day, I’d be hauling a duffel bag full of two-liters, porn, and frozen pizza. I make the trip two or three times a week. I don’t mind the walk; I’m actually pretty strong. Mom says it’s because I’m still young. She says Dad was the same way.
Seattle’s a good city, if you want to get around easy. Good place to ride a bike, or take a bus. Good place to walk. I watch people sometimes, from my bedroom window. People that go and go and go. A city bus pulls up in front of the convenience store just as I’m leaving, and this girl gets off and stares. She just stares at me, no shame at all. I act like I don’t notice, but I do, enough to see she’s pretty the way some girls are in Seattle. Pretty without makeup or well conditioned hair. She’s small-chested and short, which I like. Funny, I know. You pick a type that wouldn’t pick you, you’re not risking much.
So even though she’s staring, and even though she’s my type, I don’t think much of it. Mostly I feel embarrassed, because I care that little bit. And when she says something to me I ignore her. People think it’s easy in some ways to be a big guy, like nobody picks on you out in the open. That’s not how it works.
She won’t let up.
Some people will be polite to get your guard down. I stop but I don’t smile. I mean mug her, try to make her feel our difference in size. A guy like me could crush her.
“You want to make some money?”
I turn and leave. To her credit, she doesn’t chase after me.
The next time I see her she’s in front of my apartment building. I guess she watched where I was going. Like I said, I don’t live far from the bus stop.
I haven’t killed myself. It’s been a week. The thing is, I’m not very brave, and anyway I don’t know if the rope will hold, or what to anchor it to. The ceiling fan would just fall on top of me, and the balcony rail rattles as it is. Last thing I need is to be known as the fat failed suicide, found on the ground with two broken legs and a rope around his neck.
She’s on the bench in front of my place when I come down with my empty duffel bag. She doesn’t play coy. She stands and flags me down.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to scare you,” she says. “My name is Rachel. I have a job for you.”
I give her the glare from yesterday.
“Don’t need a job.”
“I can pay in whatever you want. You collect baseball cards?”
I laugh. I guess as hobbies go that’s a safe guess for a fat guy. “No, I don’t.”
“I just mean it doesn’t have to be cash. You could ask for something.”
I just want to scare her away and get to store. I want to buy a frozen sausage pizza and some rat poison. “I’m going to kill myself. What should I ask for?”
She doesn’t miss a beat.
“Ask me to help.”
Rachel says she’ll hang me from a bridge. She’ll use braided nylon cord. It’ll be easy, she tells me, a sure thing. Even if the cord breaks, my neck will snap once it goes taut.
That’s my payment. First I have to do the work.
Seattle’s big on Bigfoot. The Sasquatch. Rachel plans to cash in. She’s an art student, she tells me, and she’s big into hoaxes. She tells me about other artists who do this stuff all the time. One guy, she says, pretended to starve a stray dog to death in a Mexican art gallery. Another girl, this one in New England, pretended to display her abortion as a thesis project. People got mad.
But Rachel doesn’t want to make people angry, exactly. This is where she gets goofy. What she says is, she wants them to feel wonder. Awed. The first night we’re together, I go to her apartment and she shows me a scene from Jurassic Park, the one where the two paleontologists see the dinosaurs for the first time. I look at her as the tape plays, the music sweeping up in this big cheesy swell, and there are tears in her eyes. She pauses the movie as the Brachiosaurus rears up to nibble a tree. She doesn’t mind that I see her crying.
“That’s what I want to do,” she says, waving the remote at the television. “That’s what I want people to feel. I want to turn Seattle into another world. I want to give them Bigfoot.”
The second night we’re together she takes me to her studio, in the art building at Seattle U. I feel awful when we climb the flights of stairs, disgusting, breaking into a sweat and running out of breath. My chest hurts and I feel light-headed, and what scares me is the thought that I’ve blown my chance, that on the way to killing myself I’ve triggered a coronary. But it passes, and we get to the top. She says there’s an elevator we can take back down.
“This is a secret,” she tells me, and then she opens her locker. There’s a black duffel bag inside, padlocked, and inside that is a black wooden box, wrapped up in chain.
“You can keep that in my apartment,” I tell her. “If you want.”
“My supplies are here,” she says. “Otherwise I’d just keep it at home.”
What she’s done is fashioned two very large feet out of some kind of rubber or silicone. She shows me what she’s proudest of, there on the undersides. It takes a magnifying glass to really appreciate. Carved into the material, as intricate as a tiled mosaic or hand woven tapestry, are hundreds of whorls and arches, carefully patterned ridges. Every square inch of both feet is covered. Every toe has a unique design. She shows me where she’s buffed the material smooth on the pads of the feet, the heel – areas that would callus. She shoes me, in the right arch, where she stuck a screwdriver into the foot and then sealed it up again to make a scar. The feet are completely, remarkably singular. They are the feet of something alive.
She got the idea from a t. v. special. “They showed this plaster mold that’s supposed to be the only one with dermal ridges. If you look at it, though, it doesn’t look right. The ridges were really just these little pebbly speckles. That’s how you could tell it was faked. Mine are way better looking.”
I have to agree, because she keeps going on and because I don’t know any better. She keeps talking about ‘wonder’ and ‘majesty.’ I keep thinking about the quick, sharp crack when the cord goes taut. We both have our goals.
She has me try on the prosthetic feet. My toes end at the base of the false ones. She has to make a few adjustments, cuts the rubber on the sides to make more room, and then she has me stand still while she takes a couple large squares of leather and wraps them around my calves. I’m sure she can smell me, but she doesn’t react, doesn’t even try discreetly to hold her breath. The leather, she says, will be secured to the feet and tied behind my calves, making a kind of boot. It will help hold them on. The whole project would be ruined if, halfway across the mud, my real foot slips out and touches ground.
It turns out Rachel knows the outdoors. She likes to hike, likes to pack water-resistant backpacks with flashlights and granola and BPA-free water bottles. A few days after testing the feet on me we drive to the site she’s chosen. After a while the road runs out, and we’re driving on car-blighted grass, yellow and dead where it isn’t mud. I think about heart attacks. I imagine falling to the ground, an immovable object, Rachel trying frantically to get my feet on and have me walk a few steps before I die. I imagine how pathetic it would look from the rescue helicopter, descending to hoist my cold dead bulk. Maybe they’d send a bulldozer.
The car bucks when I get out. The pine scented air freshener swings on the rearview mirror.
Rachel pops her trunk and takes out the feet. I start to kneel to take off my shoes, but she shakes her head.
“Not yet. Not until we’re by the river.”
She’s scouted out an area where the ground is exposed stone. Her plan is for me to start there, then walk across the river and out the other side. The riverbanks are muddy, but far enough up either direction the mud gives way to the same flat gray rock. When I reach the other side she’ll have me take off the feet, walk down along the river and cross back over.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see holes in her plan, but that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to do a job and get a certain kind of payment. She can ask me to write BIGFOOT WAS HERE across the rock face and I’ll do it.
Rachel’s brought a digital camera with her to take pictures of the footprints. “I’ll take these back to the university and get someone to come take plaster casts,” she explains. When she looks at me, looks at the feet she’s made to outsize my own, her eyes start to water. “I’m sorry,” she says, faking a laugh. “God. You just, you don’t know. This is going to be amazing. I wish someone had done this when I was a kid.”
I step off the stone and into the mud. It tugs a little on the fake feet as I keep going, but the straps keep them on, and so I plod, step by step, leaving behind footprints that a forensics expert can determine came from an animal over seven feet tall, and nearly five hundred pounds. At the edge of the river I glance back at Rachel, who gives me a thumbs up, and then I take a step forward and water floods into my silicone shoes. It’s ice cold and I have to wiggle my toes to keep my feet from cramping.
Rachel says something from behind me, but when I try to turn and look at her I lose my balance. The water is only shin high, but it pushes harder than I’d have guessed, and I stumble forward before catching myself. A little pissed off, I turn to see what she wants.
“Come back,” she hisses, but she’s pointing across the stream. “Come back slowly.”
Stepping into the water, I’d been watching the stones, but now I follow her finger and see, on the opposite bank, an enormous bear. It’s almost too big to see, so massive you assume it’s a tree, a boulder. The animal is on all fours, still but fearless, regarding us as casually as I might an ant across the living room.
Her fur is matted and wet, and as if at my notice she gives herself a hard shake. I can hear the wet splatter of water against stone, the whoosh of her fur and fat as it whips back and forth. She stops to look at me again, in case I’ve come closer while she was distracted.
“Patrick,” says Rachel, as close to screaming as a whisper can be. “Get the fuck back here.”
The bear’s eyes are black and wet, and when she blinks them it’s like a dare. Come forward, she says. Get closer. She looks over her shoulder, back into the trees. I don’t see you, she’s saying. You’d be safe to keep coming.
I surprise myself by taking a step forward. The water splashes around my foot – as much as I’d like to be quiet right now, I don’t move with much grace. At the sound the bear looks back and away again, like this is all a big game. She makes Rachel’s Sasquatch look like just another monkey.
“Patrick! Patrick, we had a deal, goddammit! This is no way to kill yourself!”
It would be awful, and brutal, and deep down I know I am such a coward. The thought of those claws slicing through my belly, those teeth clamped around an arm or a leg has my heart pumping so hard I would not be surprised to collapse here and now, to die as my father died. But I just. Can’t. Stop.
“Patrick!” Rachel screams. “Please!”
And the bear looks at me.
And the bear stands up.
And for the first time in my life, I feel small.
Rachel is silent the whole way to the bridge. She has her pictures, but I didn’t make it to the other side of the stream. Besides, her own footprints are right there in the mud, too, where she stood to scream. She thinks it might not matter. She has faith in her work.
The braided nylon cord is in Rachel’s trunk. The bridge we’re heading for is one of the great black iron bridges built at the turn of the century, spanning the same stream I failed to cross. That kind of construction ought to hold a lot better than my apartment balcony. A bridge like that was built to last.
My feet are still wet from the water, and I haven’t put my shoes back on. I guess it doesn’t really matter now, but I do my best to dry them off before I pull on my socks. Rachel pulls onto the shoulder and puts her car in park. She waits for me to finish tying my laces.
“Phoo,” I say, sitting upright. “I need a shower.”
Rachel can’t remember how to tie a noose so we settle for a slipknot. She tries to put it on me right away, but I wave her off. It’s probably bad luck to wear something like that before you’re ready.
“I know you’re about to kill yourself,” she says, as we walk toward the bridge, “but I think you should know it was really shitty of you to keep walking toward that bear. You really scared me.”
“I scared me too.”
That doesn’t seem to satisfy her.
We walk about halfway down the bridge. It’s going to be a pain in the ass, I can see that already. I’ll have to climb over the side, and then jump out a little way or get clipped by one of the support beams that stick out underneath. One thing about guys my size – we’re not real big on jumping.
And it’s foggy, too.
“What do you see?” asks Rachel, who has to stand on tiptoe to see over the side of the bridge. “Is the bear down there?”
“I can’t see anything,” I tell her, and I’m glad, because from this height even the bear would look small. Then I’d be me again, the biggest there is. “Maybe this is a bad day for it.”
“For killing yourself?”
“Yeah.” I wave at the fog, moving in from the trees. “You can’t hardly see anything. If it didn’t work, you couldn’t see to come help me.”
“I’d hear you splash,” she says. “I’d hear you gurgling.”
I mull this over. “Sure. But still.”
We walk back to the car. Rachel puts the braided nylon cord back in her trunk, and I ease in on the passenger side, Rachel’s bad shocks bouncing again beneath me. The fog is getting worse. Rachel turns on her brights just to make sure other cars can see us, but eventually we’ve slowed to a crawl, trying to follow whatever hints we can get from ten feet of road. You expect to be swallowed up in fog like this. You expect to drive straight off a cliff, falling end over end until you’re a speck in the endless gray, and then you’re gone entirely.