The Bog Monster of Booker Creek
Just to be clear – the bog monster was always me, never anything or anyone else. I wish I could have explained this to you in a way that made sense to you. I’m starting a record of what happened, but I won’t share it with you until you’re older, maybe when you’re twenty-five, old enough to chuckle at your off-kilter old man but young enough to remember how we survived the frenzy together. You were tough, tougher than I could have imagined, but I wish I could have done more to protect you. Maybe you’ll understand when you read this.
I am going to lay everything out from the beginning. You were an eighth grader at Phillips Middle School, a tall, lanky, skinny-armed boy, with pale skin and zits, a sometimes goofy smile that I saw you cultivate in front of the mirror – which fit with the oversized cat-in-the-hat headwear you wore sometimes to parties – and yet there was a penchant for the pained look of the only child. Your mother and I were worried about you because you started to bottle up, withdraw from the kids you had played with just a year before. Nothing seemed to interest you much; you watched too much TV, played too many video games, and lay around the house like an unacknowledged secret. Then the assignment came.
It was the worst kind of schoolwork – requiring your parents’ attention and time, too. Your mother helped as much as she could, invited your schoolmates to come over and snack and work, but in the end she came to me and said, “John, you need to get involved.” I was happy about being needed, but not about the position it put me in. “What is it?” I asked. She didn’t answer, which wasn’t a good sign.
Your science teacher, Mr. McGrath, had mastered the fine art of overblown homework: exquisitely defined projects whose purpose was known only to himself and his God; repetitive components adding up to an ungodly sum of points so that the whole seemed like a giant scramble; and a scope that knows no bounds, apparently on the assumption that thereby Mr. McGrath is not stifling the creative ones. This meant that the best projects were done primarily by parents, and students shrugged their way to a grade they didn’t deserve. I wasn’t going to fall into line. You were going to do the project, whatever it was.
“Brett,” I asked from your doorway. “What is this project your mother asked me to look at?”
“Huh?” you said, looking up from a hand-drawn comic you were working on.
“Oh that,” you said, looking back down at the sheet. “I dunno.” The pencil started moving again.
“Let me see the project description,” I said, and you pointed at your notebook without stopping. That particular habit of yours always irritated the heck out of me, but I decided to let it pass. I opened the notebook, but you had to point me to the page, which did finally distract your attention, in fact so much that you decided to reread the instructions yourself, until I yanked them from you.
Environment. Biology. Something about statistics. McGrath’s explanation didn’t enlighten me, but the examples set the light bulb off. My favorite was “Scat-ology”: “Map out a wooded area and comb it for wild animal scat. You’ll need a good animal-tracking book. What does your research tell us about wild animal populations? Use an appropriate graphing technique.” No surprise that Doreen deferred this one to me. I asked you what your team had decided on, and with hems and haws you laid it out: you were going to search old police blotters – from the days when the police were animal control – for reports of marauding animals, in order to develop a scatter plot of animals who lived in proximity to people but who found it difficult to co-exist. You speculated about wolves, bears and badgers. I thought more likely: rabid raccoons and stubborn skunks.
Jared’s father was a police officer, and Jared had said that he could get the information without problem. You didn’t know whether he had asked his father about this or not. I smelled some wishful thinking, but at the same time a hint of success. You seemed surprised by my reply: “This could be mapped.” Of course, it was a perfect match, since I was in charge of Orange County’s Geographic Information System (GIS), and I’d already offered to show you how it worked. “Cool,” you said before becoming absorbed again.
The topic waited for another week, until we reached a point where the deadline was impossible to ignore. I called up Jared’s father to see if he’d been brought into the loop. “Oh, we talked about it a couple weeks back,” he said with obvious irritation, “but he was going to find another project. We don’t have blotters at the station, or even criminal records, from far enough back in time to be of use to the kids. I suggested they try the county museum or the Chapel Hill Reporter, but I don’t think there’s anything out there.” At that second, I was trying to imagine how we could bring this into the present and get at existing data – Animal Control and road kill statistics? Nothing pleasant came to mind.
I confronted you the next morning at breakfast. “No worries, dad,” you said and kept eating your cereal. “What do you mean, no worries?” You waved me off and said, “Jared’s got it handled. He called the county museum and they have police blotters going back 100 years. We’re going there this weekend.” Oh, I thought, you might have told me. But I was equally surprised and pleased that it was handled.
Or seemed to be. I ended up driving you all to Hillsborough on Saturday. The team was you, Jared, Frank and Billy. The curator wasn’t at the museum when we got there, so we wandered down the main drag in Hillsborough, past the historic courthouse and down to the river park. Eventually, we came back up and only then read that the museum was open every other Saturday. We had already packed into the car when we saw the curator walk with peculiar purpose to the door, open and close it carefully behind him. “Jared,” I asked for the first time, “did you tell him we were coming today?”
“Sure,” he said immediately and with gusto, then: “I mean, I told him. I don’t remember if he said anything.” I just looked at him. After I thought I made my point, I sighed and added, “Well, let’s go see what he’ll say now.” I thought that was pretty equanimous of me.
You all piled out of the car and chatted and gravitated to the door without seeming to pay one bit of attention. A slight rain was threatening to turn into a downpour. The front door was locked, so I knocked. After some time, the curator came with a pained look to the door, but I doubted the curmudgeonly show.
“What can I do for you gentlemen?” he said, peering at each one of us over his glasses, stopping longest on Billy, who is black.
I waited in vain for Jared to explain what was up, so I said: “We were hoping we could see some records today. The boys have a biology project, and they want to look at animal control or police reports to see what kinds of animals end up in conflict with people.” That seemed pretty cogent to me.
“That doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said to me. Then he looked back at Billy, as if speaking directly to him. “Can you boys explain what you want with the Orange County Museum?” Frank and Jared both started talking at once, and at one point Billy cut in, but Jared finally got them to settle down: “We want to see your historical police blotters,” he said with a final smile.
“I see,” he said. “Well, we don’t have a public collection.”
“Oh, okay,” said Jared, as if that were it. I can’t tell you how badly I felt like sticking my index finger in that guy’s chest and telling him something about jerking people around. I decided I should let you all resolve this.
Frank said: “We have an assignment.”
“Have your teacher talk to me, then,” the curator said, with a peculiar smile.
Billy added: “He gave us an assignment, but this is our idea. We really want to do a good job.”
The guy registered as completely unimpressed, so it surprised me when he said, “All right, I think there’s something here that can help you.” We followed him in. He explained that a Chapel Hill resident had clipped the police blotter from local papers for 50 years, and had, when he died, bequeathed the entire yellowing and brittle mess to the county. The boys brought up three large musty cardboard boxes from the cellar, and we took turns pulling out a sample and trying to figure out what we had.
“If you agree to describe the contents of each box on one of these forms,” the curator said, “I’ll let you examine them. Here, though. Nothing leaves the museum. Policy.”
Jared had a giant smile, though the other three – yes, you included – had the look of sheep seeing their new guard dog for the first time: hang-dog and alert all at once.
So there you were digging through decaying newspapers and talking all over each other about how you were going to score the hits. It took a fair amount of time before you all realized, seemingly at once, that there were no hits: no jackals, no wolves, no panthers, no raccoons, not even a rampaging swamp rat. There was a long slow letdown. Even Jared didn’t know how to solve this one; he looked to me.
“How about property damage?” I said after a bit.
“We want to do wild animals,” said Jared.
“No, what if you look at property damage and see from the description whether a wild animal was involved? You’ll have to do some guesswork, but you ought to be able to tease out some cases.”
Jared looked to you to see if you were able to translate this, but you had no better sense of what I meant. It seemed like an admission of defeat to you all, but after a long hem-and-haw session I said, “Look, just start collecting property damage reports – what was damaged and whether the cause is identified – and let’s just see what comes out, okay?”
We finally got started for real, and it didn’t take long for the property damage cases to start rolling: car accident, neighbor busting a fence, break-in, a case of arson, garbage dumping, tree falling on a shed, and so on. Then someone, Frank I think, read aloud: “Chicken coup was opened from the top and six chickens were taken.”
“Wow,” I said, to get everyone’s attention, “does the article talk about what did that?”
He scanned the page. “No, there are just a few words about broken planks.”
“That must have been something big. A bear maybe?” I said and looked around. No one thought much of that suggestion, and the collective-you dropped your noses into the boxes again. I had to make the rounds a few times to convince you all to note enough details: whom, where (reported location and source), when, what, why (speculate if necessary) and who (modus operandi, if unknown).
We were there two hours, working away, before you all became too noisy and distracted to continue. You, Jared and I returned one time after we had processed some data to see if further searching substantiated our findings – which it did.
You never liked my summary of events. I have Jared’s version, from an interview he gave early on:
Reporter: So, how did you get on the trail of this creature?
Jared: We wanted to find out what wild animals were harassing people. Our assignment was to map how wild animals and people interfaced over time, as more and more people moved in. We couldn’t get data about wild animals directly. What we got was police reports from old newspapers.
Reporter: What did the police reports tell you?
Jared: That there was a pattern of property damage along a creek. That made us believe that a large animal was living there. It wasn’t until we looked at the kinds of damage more closely that we had to eliminate all kinds of animals except one – Homo sapiens.
Reporter: But you concluded that this was also not a person living in the woods –
Jared: Because the area was just too wet and too inhospitable.
Reporter: And that’s why you called it a bog monster?
Jared: It was a goofy name, but it stuck.
Reporter: Who came up with this nickname?
Jared: Brett Densch did.
You came up with the name? Not so. Sure, it was you who put the name to this hypothetical woods dweller. But to get to the root of this name we need to go back a good decade further, to the day you were born, a day on which your mother and I looked at each other differently and saw in each other’s eyes: “This is not the place and not the way to raise a kid.” We were living in Phoenix at the time – actually in Mesa, and we were both working in the city. Your mother stopped working for a year or so, but our monetary needs brought her back into the job market and you into a childcare home. You didn’t complain, but your behavior changed in ways that we didn’t like, a kind of diffidence toward your parents, a fixation on other kids and your caregiver, as if you were punishing us. It may have been that you were happy in a shared environment, but we felt it was time to simplify our lives.
Your mother and I also hoped that a change in environment might change some negative dynamics between us. So we both put out feelers on family-friendly locations, and the “triangle” (Chapel Hill – Durham – Raleigh) came up high on the list. We hoped to move to Portland, Oregon, but I didn’t get a nibble, let alone a job, so Doreen deferred and we moved to Chapel Hill on the strength of my job and a few possibilities for her. It took her a while, but she was able to find a part-time position and a part-time child-care situation for you. Still, the transition felt like a big win: daily commutes measured in minutes; twice the house and lawn; clean air and two-lane country roads; a community of college professors and biology PhDs, with equally smart and engaging kids; enough rain and greenery to soak out fifteen years of living in the desert.
We’ve visited Phoenix since, but you won’t remember what it’s like living there. Desert living these days is something unto itself, maybe comparable to living in Alaska in winter. During the inhospitable season, you live inside, moving from one man-made space to another, and you venture out experimentally, warily. Chapel Hill is more the kind of place that you inhabit – wet when it rains, sweaty when it boils, exhilarated on Carolina-blue days, disgusted in summer nights by the arthropodal abundance under electric lights, mesmerized when the cicadas echo from the trees like a permanent parade. We lived through one extended Carolina ice storm, when power was out for days, and a single fireplace served as a substitute for central heating. We felt like pioneers, camped out in their drafty first-generation cabins. Fortunately, that was in our first few years, when the cold was still a novelty.
We were here five years when I first tried the phrase on you. For exercise, I had adopted hiking – on trails in Chapel Hill, through the roads and paths of the Duke Forest, and around the few state parks – and your fate was to give me a reason and justification. You didn’t appreciate the walking, but mostly you complained about being in the woods. I thought that you’d internalized a Brothers Grimm fear of treed areas, but Doreen said: “He doesn’t like bugs any more than I do.” I thought I could do what I usually do, which nerves Doreen and never sat very well with you: make a big joke out of it.
“I forgot to tell you, Brett, I guess I should explain now,” I said one day as we walked along the creek trail from MLK Blvd to the Community Center. “There is something you should know. It’s – well, it’s an old legend I’m sure. But they tell of an ancient creature in these woods.” I stopped talking and looked at you to make sure you understood the joke. “Something that lives here in the bogs. Do you know what they call it?”
You answered non-committally: “No.”
“The Bog Monster of Bolin Creek, of course.”
“Really?” you asked, raising your voice and looking at me.
“That’s the legend,” I said.
“Really?” you asked. “Really, daddy?”
“Really, that’s the legend, or really, is there a bog monster?”
You were unable to respond, so I said, “That’s the legend. But there are no bog monsters. Do you see a bog monster here?”
“No,” you said, looking around.
“Neither do I. Maybe there’s nothing to be afraid of…?”
You didn’t answer, but after a few moments you got on the balls of your feet, ran ahead and stopped at a bend in the trail to wait for me. Ooops, I thought, this didn’t go right. I resolved to repeat it until you got so sick of the notion that you’d lose any reaction to it. When Doreen picked up on this, she had a heyday explaining to me why this kind of irony is lost on children and asking what was I thinking, and finally pleading: Could I leave her only child alone with my pretzel psychology?
You and I never did work out what a bog monster would look like, but pretty soon we were discussing it like a bad children’s book – “daddy, I told you that’s a silly story” – not exactly the fear tamer I had hoped for, but it lost its lightning-rod status. After a year or so we forgot all about it. More years passed before you developed into the young man I know now, and when you did, you discovered, as the young are wont to do, that you had unexpected talents. This one was cartoon drawing. One fine summer day Doreen brought you home from cartoon camp and later that evening put a drawing under my nose. “Six years, and he’s still afraid; thanks a lot, John.” There it was, reminiscent of Yeti or Big Foot but with a Fort Bragg crew cut and appropriately short fur, labeled: “The Man-eating Bog Monster of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.” It smiled a big carnivorous smile, with an oversized blood drop hanging from one incisor, and had large anime eyes. That was the only time you drew it, at least as far as I know, and I got the impression that you drew it as part of an assignment rather than any eruption of suppressed childhood angst, but I didn’t ask you, in case the question itself would circulate and keep the unpleasantness in front of us. I think I may have thrown out the drawing.
When that afternoon the four of you put your heads together, you saw the obvious zone of activity, along the course of Bolin and Booker creeks from the heights to the west, down to the Estes flats, where they come together at Little Creek; there were signs of a retreat over time, the only consistency being a series of acts that implied a prehensile and skilled set of appendages. You didn’t know what this indicated, and retreated to the notion of ambulatory bandits (“What,” I asked, “a lost tribe of marauding Native Americans?”). You all feared you had nothing in your hands.
“Don’t despair,” I said, “let’s take another look at your data. Maybe there’s a pattern we’re missing.” One of you, maybe Billy, proposed that maybe it was Indians, using deer trails. “Or some other animal,” said Jared. “Maybe it’s a bear?”
“Now you’re talking,” I said.
“There aren’t any bears around here,” replied Frank, morosely.
“Any more,” I finished. I was afraid at that point that you would all lose your nerve and want to start over, the one thing I couldn’t stomach. An improbable but intriguing result seemed more than good enough for Mr. McGrath’s daft assignment.
“Okay,” Billy said, “let’s go with a bear.” Right, you all said, at least for the next few minutes, but then, as you were breaking up, Frank spat out: “We’re going to have to change. A bear leaves scat, and Mr. McGrath won’t accept it if we say one was hiding around here and no one saw the signs. We’re going to have to go with a panther. It must bury its poop, like a cat.” Great, I thought, a stealthy and clever bear is one thing; a great cat wandering up and down our creek without anyone the wiser seemed to push the limits of possibility. But at least no one threw up his arms.
Some mornings later, the day the assignment was due, I heard from you during your breakfast (head in a bowl of cereal, comics laid out beside you), that discussions with Jared’s dad had produced a new result: “He said the blotter crimes had to be persons, a group of people living somewhere along the creek.” “So you’re giving up on the animal angle? It’s all people?” “I guess so,” you said, slurping and munching. Okay, I thought, as long as the assignment goes in.
It did, and we went on with our lives. The next stage is the key. How did everything go awry? Who framed this as news? How in the world did a press release come out about an assignment by a group of middle-schoolers? Who put the tail to the donkey, or more precisely, to the bog monster? When did you say it, Brett?
It’s too easy to mix things up in your memory, so I’ve asked questions of everyone I thought I could, and perused all the clip-outs and digital archives I could bring together. Facts: The assignment as turned in doesn’t mention a monster of any kind. A news release from the school district appearing three weeks later stipulated that no students turned in an assignment about a fictional creature. Mr. McGrath was never quoted in the press and so could not say anything about a monster, but the district’s press release stated he was pleased with the assignment and its fundamental scientific soundness. According to the same release, the students speculated that, despite a large range reminiscent of a top predator and a carnivorous MO (mostly: creating access to prey of various kinds), a ring of human thieves were probably involved. This was not what was assigned, but represented a good effort and an honest result.
The first mention in the press appeared in the Chapel Hill Reporter a month after the assignment was turned in. No one ever admitted to seeding the story, and the reporter who filed it seems to have disappeared – whether up or down the journalistic food chain, I don’t know. I do know that the reporter was at a school board meeting three evenings before the Sunday edition that carried the story, and that the reporter was seen laughing with a member of the board. That board member was known to be friends with Jared’s parents.
When did you say it? You couldn’t tell me exactly when, although you affirmed when I asked if you did: “I guess so.” It must have been an offhanded joke – ‘my dad used to talk about a bog monster.’ Wistful? Were you still angry with me, the perpetrator of an ill-conceived fairy tale? Was it anything other than an innocent recollection? Not rancorous? Certainly fateful. I read somewhere that fate is what happens when you stop at a port of call not in your itinerary. When that happens, the unexpected becomes the destination and you little more than a passenger.
Here’s the Reporter story:
Headline: Local Students Uncover Historical ‘Monster’
Subheader: GIS and police data suggest creature’s range and activity
A local group of middle school students uncovered a pattern in 50 years of yellowing police blotters as old as a hundred years ago, gathered from Orange county newspapers, that indicates a large carnivorous animal stalked outlying areas now incorporated into Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The pattern emerged when the data was coded and entered into the county’s GIS system with the help of system administrator John Densch, whose son is one of the student researchers.
Spokesman Jared Brightman explained at an impromptu press conference in his parents’ home that the students had initially reached an opposite conclusion. “We thought it was a band of thieves,” he said. His father, police detective Ferguson Brightman, affirmed this interpretation: “I still don’t know what else it could be.”
“It wasn’t until later,” the younger Brightman said, “that we realized that this was an unsatisfactory explanation.” He displayed a large map depicting the beds of Booker Creek through northern Chapel Hill and Bolin Creek from outside Carrboro to their confluence, with stars to indicate incidents. The map also indicated historical roads and trails and original areas of wetlands. “This map shows how unlikely it would be for humans to navigate among these sites, except by road. And if these acts were carried out by humans on roads, why would they go to the trouble of doing this just in the creek areas?”
Then Brightman put up a poster with a selected list of events. “Chicken coop broken into, three chickens taken, four left. Dog maimed. Garbage contents upset and spread around lawn; rib bones taken. Pond fish taken. Locked freezer in carport damaged during attempted break-in. Window over kitchen sink broken, no bird, rock or other cause found. These and many other events are inconsistent with human activity, which would show different ways to maximize the reward for the risk. These random occurrences are more like the acts of a roaming animal, necessarily a large animal.”
When asked what kind of animal, Brightman responded that they were still unsure, but they had a name for it: ‘The Bog Monster of Booker Creek.’ He attributed this whimsical name to his fellow researcher, Brett Densch, the son of John Densch, pointing out that the family resides near the Cedar Forks tributary of Booker Creek. At press time there was no comment forthcoming from the Chapel Hill or Carrboro police departments about the students’ investigatory work.
– Yes. I gave Jared the map. I gave him the argument against human activity. I provided him with the perfect opportunity to mix it all together and make a mockery of us. I don’t know why. I was upset, I guess, that you had all taken Jared’s dad’s advice over mine. I was showing off. I couldn’t imagine it would have the slightest consequence. My mind was elsewhere.
We all had a yuck about the Reporter article, though, as I said, the school district did go to the trouble of issuing a disclaimer. A day or two after the press release, I got a call at work from a reporter claiming to work for the Associated Press. Okay, I thought, I’ll bite. “Sure, I can answer a few questions.” It turned out that he had already interviewed Jared and wanted to know my reaction to a few statements that seemed more than a bit provocative about those peculiar Densches. He wanted to speak with you. “Absolutely not,” I said, not knowing that you yourself had already given an in-person interview to the Reporter reporter, now writing for the regional paper. The story had gone out on the wire? I was nonplussed. It was being played as local interest throughout the southeast? In the “wacky news” bin nationally? Being prepped for morning radio shows and morning weather anchors…
I wanted to call Doreen right away, but maybe you’ll understand my hesitation. ‘Bog monster?! Now you’re humiliating him in the national media?! Why you are so destructive with your own lifeblood, I’ll never understand, John. Never.’
I was nervous about going home, but when I did, it was without incident. We had a couple more days before it all blew up.
At one time, there were thousands of acres of bog in North Carolina. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that. I assumed that a bog was a northern cranberry- or peat-growing watery wasteland. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that bogs are a common natural feature at various altitudes and latitudes, one of many contradictions in the distribution of water around this world. The Chapel Hill area probably did once have its share of Piedmont bog land, although our GIS maps will only show you the designation “wetlands,” and these are now mostly wannabe reconstructions standing in for natural features that we’ve destroyed. At least Bolin and Booker still run free, except where they disappear into concrete tunnels beneath the University and Eastgate malls, only to emerge free and mostly unsullied – the Booker dramatically from beneath the local Burger King.
I’ve walked most of the length of these old creeks and found surprising room for a bog monster to stretch out in the muck. If you trace the Bolin out to Lake Hogan Farms, you can even begin to imagine an untamed, dark, and forested time, in those few minutes from when you leave one subdivision behind and before you see the next.
I can almost hear you say, ‘You can’t follow these creeks. They pass through private property almost the whole way. Now you’re just crapping me.’
Brett, you’d be right, mostly. That brings me to an admission I hadn’t planned on making, but this narrative seems to have taken on a life of its own. There may be no one alive who has seen more of this county than I have. Think about this. Delivery people, police, handy men, they all travel from one end of the county to the other – but they never get far from roads and driveways. What if I told you if easily 50% of the county is more than 100 meters from a road? Maybe 20% more than 1000 meters from any public road? Who knows what’s there? The landowner, sometimes. The hunters he or she rents to. The farm workers. Otherwise, the occasional agent from a timber company interested in buying a tall tree stand.
And me. If you had walked over to my car at the time and opened the trunk, you could have found – after some shuffling – a reflective county safety vest marked “Surveyor” and a big, industrial looking GPS unit. I used these on random afternoons, when I couldn’t stand the office any more or when I’d leave work a bit early, or what have you, to find an undiscovered corner of the county. Usually I consulted a random number generator to grab coordinates from the GIS map, figured out the best way to approach the location, and drove straight there. It was a compulsion, I guess. It had begun a few years before as an innocent game, but sometimes the urge to get out left me completely unable to concentrate – and I just had to go.
When this first blew up, I started to walk these creeks systematically. I had to be cautious, of course. It’s one thing for a salt-rock-shotgun-toting farmer to find me pacing off his hay field, it’s quite another for a father to find me walking behind the family house, for all the world an unpredictable stalker. Eventually I walked the whole lot of them – Booker Creek, Cedar Fork, Bolin Creek, Little Creek, even down to Mill Creek off of University Lake. There’s not a lot now that would count as a bog or even a true wetland, but enough to give you a feel. All these things we call lakes now – Elizabeth, Eastwood, University – they may well have been good bog candidates, way back when, maybe in between dammings by beavers and humans.
One morning, you were more morose than usual and when I made a point of it Doreen glanced at me with that “you lunkhead” look. “I’m fine,” you said. After you went upstairs, she said quietly: “There’s a love interest.” Made perfect sense, but it also made me feel useless. Despite all the hard lessons I’ve had to swallow, I wouldn’t take my own counsel. Sure, I can give you the statistics on, and try to steer you from, self-destructive behavior, but otherwise my perspective is too clouded by my own unplanned life. And even if I somehow felt justified to do so, could I really tell you something about love that you won’t have to learn on your own person?
I never thought much of words like “passion” and “love” because they make it seem like this thing comes from the mind. Not that I’m arguing that “raging hormones” and “lust” are a good substitute for what we feel. It’s the intersection that gets us: a physiological state that leaves a deep and broad sense of lack – and, every once in a while, settles on a mental picture of its completion, in a feedback loop that heightens every sensation, every slight, every hope. It’s an unsustainable disequilibrium that cannot be explained as desire itself, but that sometimes finds its object of desire.
Here’s the thing about living this long. I’m 42 years old and – although my life has nothing in common with that of the skinny young man I once was – I’m still him. Sure, the humor has changed, at least beyond the need to protect myself with a quick joke. The impassioned and longing young man has become the impatient and distracted husband. The infinite potential has become a comfortable technocrat. The existentialist a realist. The sworn opponent of the failed nuclear family an uncertain and angry father. You get the picture.
But I am still there with that young man. Even as I sit here quietly at a desk, or sometimes when I sit on my car hood in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina, I can feel my way back, as if all the changes are incidental and the core are these few events, which feel as real to me as the day they happened, no matter how much they lose in fidelity. It’s as if I’m stretching a latex sheet back through a dimensionally folded distance into the past, and I’m sitting there as the young me. Details are few, but the reality is undeniable – a continuity I’ve felt for the last twenty-five years.
At the same time, the sheet is impermeable. I cannot interact; I cannot change a thing, employ my experience or benefit from hindsight. The girl will never look at me, or lean over to kiss me, always just that painfully un-self-aware young man, painted onto the other side of the sheet. The answers never change, the mistakes never get undone. The beautiful moments and the horrible ones, together. Take my advice or not – I’m not sure anyone’s advice can help you, for however much I or others stretch back and forward in time. It hasn’t helped me. Just don’t be surprised when, later in life, you find yourself identifying more with the helpless teenager than the person you’ve built of yourself.
The TV truck was waiting at Phillips Middle School: lots of good background shots there, enough woods to convey the mood, and a small creek if water were desired. Jared was on tap for a national interview before school began. We didn’t know a thing because we don’t watch morning television. Off you went to school, backpack, trumpet case and lunchbox in hand, like a sheep to the slaughter.
I can imagine you on the bus, unhappy and still sleepy, a tickle of longing in the back of your brain, looking out the bus windows, unable to fix your mind on anything until the very last minute, when you feel the tensing before the school day, at the moment you see the school parking lot open up before you. You observe a white truck where there should only be mustard-yellow buses, a large truck that slowly resolves into a television broadcasting truck from the local arm of a national network. You sense why it’s there, but it seems too unreal to accept. The whole world, after all, doesn’t revolve around you. You’re just a middle-school cog in an education machine, a boy on a bus like hundreds of thousands of others, an awkward 8th grader indistinguishable from any other, seeing only his worst self-image. If there is someone special here – she, whoever she is, only she is indecipherably more.
The front doors flap open, and you wait your turn, force your way into the aisle at the necessary moment, then jump down the steps onto the asphalt. You look back over your shoulder at the truck, a huge antenna arm extended skyward, a generator chugging away. Still wondering, you pass into the building like hundreds of times before.
Your first class is what, math? You are sitting in the class for 15-20 minutes before the distorting intercom activates. The principal’s voice itself comes on. “Mrs. Winchfield… Mrs. Winchfield, would you please send Brett Densch to the office? Brett Densch. Thank you so much.” A click off.
You look up at the box in disbelief, or maybe you have already played through the possibility so much that you show no surprise. In either case, a series of moments pass, during which your teacher and your fellow students process the message and speculate in their own minds why you are being summoned, sometimes with a mental “tsk” or “ooh.” You get up and wonder if you should bring your books, but Mrs. Winchfield indicates with a small wag of her head that, no, you should assume that you’ll be right back: Always assume you’ll be right back, unless you are given to understand otherwise.
The walk to the office just builds the tension, and you have to slow your steps as you approach the office. You turn the corner and there he is: the early-twenties production assistant, with the headset with mic, the clipboard and a harried expression. Or maybe it isn’t so hackneyed, but you are introduced to the staffer, who tells you that you should be congratulated for making such an impression at an early age, that this is a unique opportunity, enviable but, more importantly, your chance to be a participant in modern American culture. This kind of opportunity may only come once in a lifetime, you know?
You come around, or you wonder how you can say no, or you wish someone could decide for you. “You just need to call your parents,” he says, handing you a cell phone with your home number keyed up. Doreen picks up, because she happens to be home. “On television? What?” she says. You explain in half sentences, then: “Never mind.” You hand the phone back to the assistant as if to say this is now officially over. But he continues the conversation in glowing terms with your mother, who is the picture of disbelief, temporarily, before the realization hits her that this all stems from that one ill-conceived joke. She throws up her hands. “I suppose his father is there. If this is really what he wants to do to his only child.” “It’s fine then?” the attendant asks, with his digital recorder up to the earpiece. “Just great,” she says and hangs up.
You are shuttled outside to where the small crowd of onlookers and the equally crowding TV crew have encircled the interviewer. He is perched on a director’s chair, with an empty chair beside him. You probably don’t recognize the man, but his face is better known among the great slew of Americans than all but a few politico faces. His shtick is weather, but his role is the easy, informal and wacky interview. “You’re going to be great,” the assistant says. “Just be sure to speak up for the microphones, okay?”
After you’ve been seated next to the weatherman, who peers up for just a moment from his assistant’s notes to squint at you and then briefly smile, you wait. A considerable time rolls by, with no one paying a wit’s attention to you, until you hear a voice from somewhere behind the camera: “One minute.” “Okay,” the host says to himself, and he looks at you and smiles. “Hi,” looks down, “Brett.” Looks up. “I am so-and-so. I’m going to ask you a few questions about this story. I’m going to ask you how you came up with the name, and why you think there’s a monster in the woods around Chapel Hill. How does that sound?” “Fine,” you may say.
Once the lights come on and the camera operator gets very serious, there are only a few seconds until the producer points at the weatherman. “We’re back in Chapel Hill…” The rest blurs in your mind, until the man shifts a little forward in his chair and half turns toward you. “With me outside Guy B. Phillips Middle School is Brett Demsch, the young man who is credited with helping to identify and name Chapel Hill’s answer to Sasquatch. Brett, how are you this morning?” “Fine,” you say, quickly, defensively. Not an auspicious start.
“Great,” he says as he looks down. “Brett, tell me, how did you and your schoolmates decide that a Bigfoot has been stalking Chapel Hill?”
You look at him, a bit astonished, every bit the young teenager aghast at another incomprehensible twist in adult logic. “We didn’t say Bigfoot – ”
“Right! – So, how did you come up with the name ‘bog monster.’ That seems a bit more appropriate for Connecticut, my home state, or maybe New Hampshire. Are there bogs in North Carolina?”
“I don’t know,” you say, and let the first question rest.
“Then why ‘bog monster’?”
“My dad – ” you say, but don’t know how to finish that thought in a sentence. I understand why, believe me, as I keep writing.
On television, a graphic of three ‘conclusions’ touted by Jared replaces the speakers, during which a signal to the interviewer must have indicated, let’s cut this short. “Your dad coined the phrase? He helped you map out the territory of the bog monster, didn’t he?”
“Yeah,” you say, again with a pregnant pause that shows you want to fill it with the truth, but the interviewer finishes: “All right, I appreciate your coming out this morning to share this with us. What class do you have right now?”
“I’m not sure,” you say, looking over your shoulder at the school, as if it could answer you (good for a laugh in 60% of viewer homes).
“All right, Brett, you get to your next class. Back to you, guys….” He waits motionless and smiling some seconds for the signal, and when it comes he relaxes his spine and takes off the mic as a surgeon might doff plastic gloves. He doesn’t turn back to you, Brett, at all, and the production assistant moves you away from the impromptu set and back to the school entrance.
That evening was hard. It began with Doreen’s and my muted greeting of each other – our eyes seemed to have the same magnetic pole and couldn’t catch each other without diverting. Doreen moved with the motions of someone in soaked clothing – soaked in disappointment. I walked the way you might to say, “This downpour isn’t so bad.” You, Brett, had homework and didn’t stay long at the table. We were left sitting beside each other, chewing slowly, unable to speak. Not that this was new, and in a strange way this was already better than where we’d been many times before.
You deserve to understand. Imagine you and your friends at a table, at lunch, laughing the way friends do – not exactly un-self-consciously but with such practice and repetition that it becomes easy, routine, comforting. Then this kid you know – son of a circus geek or an inveterate nerd or someone who stinks or just the kid with the crossed eyes, decide for yourself – comes to you and says, “Brett, can you come over to my house this afternoon?” You (thirteen again) look at him incredulously. “No,” you say with half a laugh and a look at your buddies. What was he thinking? But imagine he keeps asking, day after day, until you don’t answer any more, you just glare and let that silence wrap around his ears, weigh down his shoulders and keep him locked in place, while you just walk away.
Doreen and I have been silent with each other that way. If you can hate a stranger who imposes himself for just a few seconds a day on your space and your mind, imagine someone whom you love, who seems to say the same kinds of nonsense and with the same indifference to your answers and your feelings and your sense of what’s right, until you don’t speak any more, you glare and let silence whoosh in with a great big icy vapor cloud of contempt, until you are both spitting it back out with half a breath and freezing out everything you share.
There we sat at the dinner and couldn’t begin to talk, couldn’t look at each other, and yet we couldn’t walk away. We were both angry and that was a relief in its own way. You don’t argue out of contempt, although you can stop any argument that way. No, if you argue and shout, it’s because you want something from your opposite, and as unreasonable, insulting, impossible or selfish as it may be – it’s still something that holds you together.
Doreen finally broke the silence. “So, John, I got to see your son on national TV this morning. Anne gave me a copy, in case you’d like to see it. But then I suppose you were there.” She held her words and her breath, her cheeks draining of color as she looked at me. Unwatched, her fork lazily collected spaghetti on her plate.
“I wasn’t,” I replied, “but I heard about it. I can’t believe they put him on without our permission. George recommended that I sue.”
She dropped her folk with a clatter and looked at me. “Are you saying you weren’t there? They said you were. But don’t try to put this on anyone else. You’re the one who started this, you kept it alive at every turn, and now, along with your being likened to the village idiot” – ouch! – “your son was absolutely humiliated before a national television audience while trying to defend you.”
“Now wait a second,” I shot back. Then like a shark smelling blood: “You gave them permission to do the interview?”
“I told them that if you wanted him to talk to them,” she said, “I wasn’t going to stop you.”
“Where the hell did you get the idea that I wanted them to talk to him?” I shouted. “I’ve turned down every interview request.”
“Don’t curse at me, John.” Then back on message: “This whole thing is because you cannot be straightforward with your own child. You’re always playing out these jokes, hiding behind them. Your son doesn’t even know who you are.”
“He doesn’t, or you don’t?” I asked, still with an edge on my voice. Attack prevarication.
“Ha,” she said with no humor. “I’ve given up.” Pause. “But I’ve been trying to get you to participate in raising your son, and all I see from you is a constant tearing down.”
“Wait a second –” I said, putting up a stop sign in my mind.
“It’s not just this,” she said. “This is bad – very bad – but it will pass. What I am worried about is how you fail to connect with your son. You don’t play with him; you don’t share any hobbies with him; you don’t share anything about yourself. You show up late for dinner, then you sit in front of the TV or that computer, and you live in your own little universe, no matter how much your family tries to bring you out.” A sigh.
“Doreen,” I said firmly, as if her name would bring her back from this brinkmanship.
“Doreen, Doreen, can’t you do any better? Doesn’t something occur to you? Isn’t there anything you can contribute to this discussion?”
“What am I supposed to say?” I said. “Gosh, Doreen, your analysis is perfect again. It’s all my fault. I should just shrivel up and die. Thanks for letting me know.”
She looked away and sighed again. “I don’t know why I even bother. You can’t ever seem to get beyond your own little ego problems. Fine. I don’t want to know anything about you. Just share something with your son beyond the fact that you imagine monsters behind every rock, okay?”
I looked at her incredulously. She got up and went to the kitchen. The storm seemed to have passed, and maybe the sun would come out, I couldn’t tell, but regardless we were both shivering wet.
The experts – a phalanx of them – emerged from God knows where. A biologist specializing in urban fauna. A statistician with an advanced degree in geography. The columnist with no patience for hoaxes. The science teacher with his own TV show. A former police chief. The cultural literacy specialist. A former chicken coop thief. The Bigfoot debunker. A muckraking reporter. The “shame-on-you” plain-talking parent activist. A local politician. They mostly took this opportunity to pontificate about the irresponsible way I fooled you and your friends, and then the unforgivable way that I let you advocate for me and my cheap publicity stunt; a few thought you were the adolescent criminal genius and I your patsy.
You, Brett, seemed unaffected, that is, no more morose than before, for which I was very grateful. I found my hands shaking just a little bit more; my sleep a bit shorter; and distractions all the more important. I sat in front of the TV one evening after another, and watched more B movies than I’d like to admit. I watched until I was sick of them and their mechanically predictable plots, so much that a single question came up again and again: Just how many B writers are there, just how many imaginations flow like a vortex around that drain…?
You won’t know this about me, Brett, but I once thought about being a writer. That may explain why this missive won’t stop growing, though more to the point is my prolixity at memo writing. I can write them at a clip, and my colleagues tend to pass the assignment to me whenever they can. My emails can be quite the production, too, with the result that my supervisor has more than once phoned me to get the one-minute version.
As a writer, I have a B sensibility myself, with a predilection for the grandiose storylines of science fiction – so believe me, I am not disparaging those who make formulaic, half-baked movies. But you can only chew through so many of them before the inconsistencies and conventions itch inside your brain no differently than the tension that you’re trying to escape….
After many such evenings, I started unpacking from my memory old stories that I had told myself, recreating an internal life that I had had many years earlier. I had thought many times about getting them down on paper, and started more than once. The elation lasts for a few days as words flow and ideas take form, then you find yourself before a problem, a scene that doesn’t come into focus, and you let things lie, tell yourself you’re strengthening the plot in your mind. After several days you know you have to get back at it, but when you look at what you’ve written, you see nothing but trite phrasing and paragraphs of filler and plot-propping characters, and a storyline that no different than a story you’ve seen four or five times before – and which has no doubt been told somewhere on this world hundreds of times before. Why go on? For someone like me, it’s so much easier to finish a memo.
The media hounds called our house for a few days, until they concluded I wasn’t going to talk to anyone, and the feeding frenzy went on in a whirlwind around my apparently cold, lifeless body. Doreen – it would be wrong to say that she reveled in my pain. I could see the struggle in her eyes and sometimes a stifled laugh, sometimes a swallowed sigh, often with an edge that said, this is my man to make fun of, not anyone else’s. I guess that’s a kind of protection, in the same way a man might want to put his arm around his little lady’s shoulders (though Doreen is at least as tall as me) and say, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about all that.”
I felt like I had hit bottom. No matter what they thought of my representation in the press, friends, colleagues and acquaintances all seemed to agree that I had brought this upon myself. “A smart aleck with an unpleasant tinge of arrogance,” I saw with a glance at an email that made Doreen guffaw. Much as this irritated me, I couldn’t contest it. Even you seemed to have had enough of me. I don’t know if it was because you yourself were suffering. I didn’t have that much access to your inner life; even the few moments of visible weakness – “a girl’s involved” – seemed to have passed.
The transition came for me one morning when I opened to the local news in the newspaper and found a two-paragraph story with an inauspicious two-line headline: “Farm to host monster fest.” It described how a farm field along Bolin Creek – outside of Chapel Hill – had been leased for a weeklong summer festival celebrating the Bog Monster of recent fame. “The lessors are ‘The Southeast Sasquatch Society’ and the ‘Renaissance Fayres Group of the Piedmont.’” This was my chance to guffaw, spilling coffee all over the paper and half over me. I thought: something to distract everyone from my mistake. Sure, this would doubtless drag my name through the cow dung again, but I was pleased: there are people crazier than I.
I dried the page, and downloaded the story off their website. I could look Doreen in the eye after she read it. She laughed, too, but couldn’t see any vindication for me in it.
She and I didn’t talk much, and she went to bed most nights without checking in with me. I began to sit in front of the computer until late at night, and to write little chunks of the stories that were coming back to me. You were quiet, reclusive, impenetrable. Doreen opined: “Oh, there’s a girl all right.” I felt I understood your impassiveness, but I can’t say whether you felt any of the empathy from your parents.