Ecology and Metaphysics of the North American Wetzel
T. S. McAdams
It’s the witness who makes the story. Not that my boss is picky—Cristiano publishes American Cryptid to launder money, is what they say—but he still gets excited when we find something real. Jay Keller saw the creature and collected footprints. And Cristiano says rich people are believable.
I follow GPS to a circular flagstone driveway, pinned down by a fountain like a turret on a roulette wheel, and I park my Honda next to a Mercedes and a Lexus. It fits in alright. I grabbed a car wash on the way to Beverly Hills. I start around to open the passenger door for Lacey Ahn, but she doesn’t wait. Lacey isn’t my type regardless, too scrawny, too young, and too out-there, but it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if it were more of an issue.
The house is basically Spanish Revival, with a ceramic tile roof and tiled gables on the chimneys. Bay windows one floor tall are topped by little balconies you reach through second-floor French doors. The house is wide, not deep, and we look through front windows to back windows and across the canyon. Lacey says the trick is looking past your own reflection. Mine isn’t all that distracting.
We’re meeting a studio executive on a Sunday afternoon. I expect a silk bathrobe and ostrich-leather slippers. Keller goes with the perm and alligator polo that were stylish during his middle school years (and mine) and a map of the Hawaiian Islands printed on his shorts. It works, with the house behind him. Lacey says, “I’m Lacey Ahn, and this is Bill Laird. We accept what you saw.” This is Lacey’s first Big Monster. Small ones are equally important, scientifically, and Cristiano is a big science nerd, but small cryptids are small stories until they speak English or lay eggs in someone’s eyeballs.
There are paintings of roses in the entry hall, and distressed replicas of ancient Greek vases, or maybe originals. Maybe Minoan. They were big on nautical scenes. French doors at the far end open onto a bright green lawn, a gardener on his hands and knees styling it with a wide-tooth comb. Off to the side is one of those infinity pools where up-to-date people swim against the current for exercise. One long jump from the house, the lawn drops off to the duller greens and browns of sage, sumac, mule fat, and a sprawl of prickly pear. That’s Hastain Canyon Park. The creature came from Hastain Canyon and took Doctor Grumbles right before Keller’s eyes.
Doctor Grumbles was a French bulldog. He was adorable and possessed human intelligence. Lacey accepts these facts. Keller agrees to a reenactment, and I convince him to put on long pants. I say, “While you’re changing, maybe we could look at the casts. You said you made casts of the footprints?”
Keller says, “I gave those to Ranger Wetzel. He’s having them tested.”
Lacey grins. She loves weirdness and conspiracy. I say, “Having them tested for what?” The Forest Service does have labs. Mostly, they test wood products. They test fire resistance, termite resistance, things like that.
Keller says to ask the ranger. He still has pictures, and we all have Apple phones, so he AirDrops them. A housekeeper dressed like a surgeon brings us flavored sparkling water. It tastes like bubbles and like that striped gum with the zebra on the wrapper. The casts in Keller’s pictures have three toes, and I tell Lacey about the Antelope Valley bigfeet. She probably already knows, but I tell her. They were seen in the desert in the ’70s, near the San Gabriel Mountains. They all had three-toed footprints. Northwest bigfeet have five toes. A three-toed anthropoid would be something new in primate evolution.
Keller comes out in khaki slacks. He says the creature was tall enough to play for the Clippers. One of the Antelope Valley bigfeet was supposed to be ten feet tall, but I think that witness was a teenager. Keller’s imitation of the creature is like the Patterson-Gimlin film, with jaunty, swinging arms. When he creeps up on Doctor Grumbles, he spreads his fingers like Lon Chaney’s wolf man. I get telephone video of this, and I get Keller as himself, yelling, “Stop! Put down my dog!” When he’s done, he says to Lacey, “So, you think this thing is real?”
Lacey says, “Everything wants to be real. I’m sure it’s doing its best.”
Climb any hill in Hastain Canyon Wilderness Park, and the view is ridgetop mansions. On the road threading the canyon, you’re hemmed by oaks, sycamores, and pine trees. Not pine trees like car air fresheners. Coulter pines, probably. The kind that find their own shapes. We find the southern entrance more by luck than GPS and disappear from the city.
Yesterday, we walked the canyon, and Lacey took notes on rustling in the brush. I told her Laird’s Axiom: Squirrels make a lot of noise. A squirrel in dry oak leaves sounds like a furtive sasquatch. And there are thrashers, mockingbird cousins that stir plant litter looking for bugs. The California thrasher is the largest subspecies, and it sounds like chupacabras wrestling. Lacey said, “I gather evidence, not explanations.” Then we went to the nature center and talked to Ronald Wetzel.
Wetzel was a dried-up character in a Forest Service cap and white undershirt, either a volunteer or a ranger who takes off his field shirt when it’s hot. I had to look twice to be sure we weren’t related; he was that much like my uncles. I pictured him saying, “Our family picked cotton and grapes and potatoes, but we never picked asparagus like foreigners.” A lot of that Okie stock looks pretty similar. I nodded and walked past his counter at first.
I stopped by a diorama of Pomo Indians making huts of redwood bark, as if Pomo or redwoods lived in the Santa Monica Mountains. The next scene over was better: unspecified people grinding acorns and making houses out of willow poles and grass. Lacey admired a collection of skulls: mule deer, rabbit, skunk, raccoon, bobcat, coyote. Even a stuffed and mounted mountain lion. I joined Lacey in front of a plaster slab done up with faux petroglyphs. The ranger or whatever he was said, “That’s a replica.”
I said, “I wondered about that.” I walked back to the information counter and looked over a rack of flyers. One was about heat exhaustion in dogs: watch for panting, drooling, and a red tongue. Others covered poison oak, rattlesnakes, and turtles. If turtles leave the lake, they’re trying to lay eggs, and you shouldn’t pick them up. The lake isn’t natural. William Mulholland built it as a reservoir, and then a bigger reservoir made it obsolete. That wasn’t in a flyer. I had read that online, and I was going to ask about it. Letting an old man talk about infrastructure makes you friends for life.
Lacey said, “Have you seen the monster?”
He hadn’t seen it. No one else had mentioned it, either. Nothing here but quails and squirrels and skulls and Ronald Wetzel, sorry. That was yesterday. Today, Jay Keller. So we’re back. It’s a ten-minute drive from the park’s southern entrance to the nature center at the north end.
The nature center smells like linoleum, but the floor is concrete with beige enamel paint. Wetzel is tall and withered. He’s wearing the same hat, possibly the same t-shirt. I lean on the counter, casual. “Hey, Mr. Wetzel. Listen, why did you say you’d never heard of the creature when Jay Keller told you he saw it and gave you casts of footprints?”
He looks at me. He has small eyes. He says, “You’re nothing.” He turns to Lacey. “Did you have a question, Miss?”
“Yes, hi, I’m Lacey Ahn. My colleague and I were here yesterday?”
“I remember you. No colleague.”
I say, “That would be me.” Wetzel acts like he doesn’t hear.
Lacey says, “Oh. Well, I was wondering if you’re sure you haven’t heard about that creature?”
“Still haven’t heard anything.”
“Okay. Thanks anyway.”
Lacey leaves. I stay where I am. Wetzel rummages under the counter for a bag of sunflower seeds and an orange plastic bowl. He spits shells in the bowl. Sometimes he misses and brushes shells off the counter. He doesn’t brush them on me. That would be too obvious. There’s no response when I push off the counter and say, “See you later, Mr. Wetzel.”
Lacey doesn’t complain about the wait. In the car, I say, “That was weird.”
She says, “Wetzel can’t be a common name.” I don’t see her point. I trust my face to say so. We’re parked under a low oak limb for shade, toothy little ovals fumbling my windshield. Lacey taps her chin with each finger. Pinky, ring, middle, index, thumb. That means she’s about to quote Charles Fort. I give my face a lot of leeway on that too. Every monster hunter picks up Book of the Damned eventually, finds a mishmash of German Idealism and Old Farmer’s Almanac, and puts it back down. Lacey memorized it. Pinky, ring, middle, index, thumb. “It doesn’t matter where you start when you measure a circle.”
I say, “How about knocking off for today and getting an early start tomorrow?”
The Gud Nite Motel is avocado green outside and lime green inside. The lobby smells like corned beef. The courtyard is a parking lot without wheel stops, so residents pull up too far and trap each other in their rooms. The art in 116 is a donkey in a straw hat carrying a basket of pineapples. On the expensive southern edge of the San Fernando Valley, surrounded by high-end shops and restaurants and the tallest Mexican fan palms, the Gud Nite Motel is a dump, a beachhead for seedy invaders. I like it. Lacey has no opinion, gathering evidence, not explanations.
Half the rooms are empty, but the tiny parking lot is full. Lacey pulls out, and I take her spot. I rode in her Ford Fiesta once, and I couldn’t breathe, so I know she transports a cat sometimes. Also, the driver picks the music. It’s not a sin to exaggerate your symptoms if it gets you to Hank Williams instead of Girls’ Generation.
Lacey heads for Reseda and a cousin once removed. I walk to a gastropub for an eighteen-dollar burger on a brioche bun. I’ll say it cost twenty-five. Cristiano knows we pad expenses to pump up our lousy salaries. We understand he pays lousy salaries to balance padded expenses. Not quite the American Dream, but it’s enough for the people Cristiano hires. By six o’clock, I’m stretched out on a waterproof, stainproof, semenproof duvet, TV remote in hand. Footsteps pause outside. A key turns in the lock—the Gud Nite uses actual keys—and a couple walks in: a brown woman, an apricot man, red suitcases, Universal Studios t-shirts. I say, “Uh, hello?”
They stop at the foot of the bed, like people visiting a stranger in a hospital, and the woman holds up a key ring with one key and a plastic tab. The tab says 116. “This is our room.”
I have a 116 key too, so I hold it up. “This is my room.”
We hold up our keys like crosses, but none of us are vampires. I would know by now if there were vampires. I drop my key on the bed and pick up the phone on the bedside table.
“This is Bill Laird in 116.”
“You gave someone a key to my room.”
“You have the other key?”
“Could you bring that back to the office?”
“I’ve been here since Friday. I reserved a week.”
“We’ve got other rooms. We’ll figure this out.”
“Great. The new people will be right there to figure it out.”
The couple hesitates, but the bed is the superior position. I kick off a boot, the left one only because the right one’s laced too tight. I turn on the television, change the channel a couple of times, settle on John Wayne. He’s leading a cattle drive with a crew of schoolboys. When the apricot man gets interested in the movie, the brown woman drags him out. I get up and chain the door behind them. I unlace my other boot. John Wayne delivers the cattle, and the boys become men. The movie after that is older. Yankees drive young Robert Wagner into a sepia life of crime. I leave it on as proof the room is occupied.
Monday morning, we use the north entrance. Upper Hastain Canyon Road has banks of wild grape, and the oak canopy lets through a puzzle of sun and shade. Speckled trout would be well-camouflaged, but red and blue and white and silver cars are easily discernible, lined up behind and ahead of us. Hastain Canyon is their traffic work-around between the Valley and West Los Angeles, and we’re caught in the avoiding-traffic traffic. An Altima ahead of us moves half a car length, and a Prius creeps to my bumper, urging me to do the same. Wild grape gives way lurch by nudge to telegraph weed and mustard. Mustard isn’t native to these hills, but it’s been here longer than the Forest Service. We reach the south lot early for our appointment but later than we planned.
We meant to explore again, but it isn’t worth it now. I roll down the windows, and we watch the traffic taper off. We listen to underbrush sounds coming back. A raven croaks and rattles on a pine branch. It may be a crow. I’m not one of those people who can tell a raven from a crow without an autopsy. Lacey says, “Have you ever heard of the Riverside Pumpkinhead Bigfoot?”
I’ve been a cryptozoologist since she was a middle schooler memorizing Time Life books on psychic powers and UFOs. I say, “That wasn’t a bigfoot. It had a beak.”
“It was a one-time creature, reported in 1958 and never seen again. There was a Ronald Wetzel mixed up in it.”
I say, “1958? Was he a kid?”
“No. He’d be over a hundred now.”
The park feels like rush hour never happened. We can hear one set of tires shooshing worn asphalt and pine needles. That’s today’s interview. They park nearby, and we all walk uphill to a picnic table off alone beneath a spreading oak.
Lacey says, “Is this where you heard it?”
It is. Mallory Figueroa is a teacher on summer break. Gerald Figueroa does something with semiconductors, and he called in sick to be here. I didn’t ask him to. They’re not eyewitnesses. They only heard something. We could have done this over the phone. They say they were having a picnic, and it doesn’t matter what they ate, but I ask because none of this matters. They ate homemade empanadas. Mallory got the recipe from her mother-in-law, and Gerald diced onions and peppers, and it all turned out pretty well. Also, they heard something crash through the brush. Something bigger than a man. I hold up a finger. Listen. Is that it?
They don’t hear it at first, and then they do. That could be it! What is that? Most likely a twenty-ounce ground squirrel.
Ronald Wetzel stomps and crashes through a screen of oak branches into the little cleared area beneath the tree. He says, “That was me. Both times. Ranger Ron Wetzel, keeping an eye on the nature, like rangers do. Are you two having a nice visit with Miss Ahn?”
Lacey says, “My partner Bill Laird and I are interviewing Mr. and Mrs. Figueroa about the monster. My partner Bill Laird and I are happy to see you, Mr. Wetzel.”
I give Wetzel my indifferent look. You aren’t impressed with me? Maybe I’m not impressed with you. Sometimes it takes, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Wetzel says, “I’ve met Miss Ahn before, always alone like she is now because she doesn’t have a partner.”
I grab Wetzel’s shoulder and shake it. “Hello, Mr. Wetzel! Hello, Mr. Wetzel! Hello, Mr. Wetzel! Hello, Mr. Wetzel!” Now pretend I’m not here, motherfucker. You think they don’t see your shoulder moving?
Mallory and Gerald Figueroa realize this is abnormal. They leave. They have errands. Wetzel bares his teeth at me, yellow equine teeth. He crosses the road and strides up a hillside, plowing through sage scrub, awfully spry for anything past sixty. He calls back, “Goodbye, Miss Ahn, and now I’ve said goodbye to everyone because there is no one else here!”
Lacey yells, “Goodbye, Mr. Wetzel! My partner Bill Laird and I will see you again!” I walk away from the road, pushing through the oak branches that Wetzel came through. I stand in mustard and fennel. Both have yellow flowers. Fennel is like yellow broccoli. It isn’t native any more than mustard is, but it’s home here. Fennel has pulled it off.
There’s a trail, an official trail or one people made with their feet or the illusion of a trail that peters out around a bend. The ground is sandy and dusty, not the best for prints, not the worst. I can make out boot prints like mine. Wetzel wears boots like mine. The prints follow the trail but moving back and forth and circling, as though he was looking for tracks himself. That or dancing around a line of widely spaced smudges and scrapes. Lacey pushes through behind me. She says, “I was online for hours at my aunt’s house last night.”
I say, “I thought she was your cousin.”
“She’s my mom’s generation, so I call her Aunt Min.”
“We did that in my family too.” It steadies you, talking about your people.
Lacey says, “I was looking up Ronald Wetzels.”
“He’s a recurring phenomenon?”
“There are recurring reports. Ronald Wetzels have encountered everything from lizard men to phantom kangaroos. Bad news for the cryptids. They always fizzle out.”
“People still see phantom kangaroos.”
“Not in Nebraska. Not since Ronald Wetzel.”
I say, “Look at these marks on the trail. Does it look to you like Wetzel was in here scuffing out bigfoot tracks?”
Pinky, ring, middle, index, thumb. “I prefer to substitute acceptance for belief.”
Monday night I call Mom because it’s Uncle Dean’s birthday, and he’s dead, so now Mom is the one you call. We remember Dean a little, and then Mom says, “I ran into Marian Ward today. Her son Russell gets an alumni newsletter for Kerman High. You graduated the same year as Russell, right?” I say yes, and Mom says, “I knew you did. Well, they had a list of everyone in your year, and Marian said you weren’t on it. I was thinking who to complain to, but I guess you don’t care about that.”
I agree, automatically. Then I say, “Actually, Mom, if you do think of anyone, I should be on that list.” She tells me she knows someone who knows a Kerman High School principal, not the principal now and not the one when I was there, the principal in between. She’ll talk to him. I say I appreciate it. I don’t know if principals have much to do with alumni associations, but that’s just her first idea. She won’t give up after one call.
I hang up and stare at the donkey on the wall. Driving back from the park, Lacey gave me her whole theory: there’s only so much reality, cryptids got shortchanged, and some catch up by stealing it from others. She had a quote: “Nothing can attempt to be except by excluding something else.” She invented a buzzword: “Ontological Predation.” That didn’t throw me. You can get a good education at Cal State Fresno without losing your Okie accent. Cristiano will understand it too, maybe even know how to say it in Portuguese, but he won’t print it. As for the donkey, his ears are attached to the crown of his hat. If the hat blows off, he’ll be deaf.
I call my ex-wife and her new fiancé answers, but he calls her to the phone because he doesn’t know my voice. I say, “Do you remember our first date? We saw Howard the Duck and went to Dairy Queen.”
Cynthia says, “Hi, Bill. Are you drinking?”
I haven’t had a drink in ten months. I dropped out of a twelve-step program and quit booze alone to prove I didn’t need a higher power. It’ll be a year in October, and I’ll celebrate with gin because a year is proof enough. I tell Cynthia about the newsletter.
She says, “I wouldn’t think you’d care.”
Everyone acts like they don’t care; you’re supposed to. I must really sell it. I say, “I know, but I’m part of the history of that school. I was on the football team.”
“Not varsity.” I don’t answer, and Cynthia says, “You were good, though. I remember I went to some games. I remember Dairy Queen, too.”
I say, “Thanks. I’ll let you go. I just wanted to see if you remembered.”
She says, “We were married fourteen years. I’m probably not getting ready to forget your name.”
Tuesday, Lacey and I adopt a dog and talk to Jay Keller again. Lacey talks to him. My phone isn’t right. I hear Keller well enough, but he only says, “Who is this? Hello? Hello?” He hears Lacey. He remembers her helping him look for Doctor Grumbles. Ranger Wetzel has also been helping. Lacey reminds Keller about the creature. She sends him his picture of the footprint. I AirDrop the video of Keller’s reenactment, and she sends him a clip, a short clip where he doesn’t look ridiculous. She keeps saying, “My partner Bill Laird and I,” and after a while, she says, “I’ll show you.” She stands in front of me outside the animal shelter with her almond-smelling hair against my jaw and takes a selfie.
The dog’s in the picture because I’m holding him. He’s half pug and half Chihuahua and looks like a tadpole but also like a French bulldog. I hope Keller will keep him when we’re done, so I name him Ambassador Snuffles. Wednesday, Lacey holds him, and I drive a winding road between eclectic homes and scrub slopes, up from the Valley and across Mulholland Drive to the edge of the L.A. Basin. I’d say we’re driving through a canyon and over a ridge, but the local terminology is “going over the canyon.”
Mom catches us in a pocket of good reception and updates me on her progress. Carla English, who was Carla Russo, is the one who writes that newsletter. Carla works at Shasta Market, and Mom shops at the Super Center, but she’ll go to Shasta for that elk jerky people like, and she’ll talk to Carla in person. I thank her and hang up, and Lacey says, “Family is important.” She tells me this may be dangerous. I say, statistically, bigfeet attack less than sharks, and sharks, statistically again, are not especially aggressive. Lacey says that’s not what she means. It makes sense to her that obscure cryptids would have a weaker grip on reality, on realness, but bigfeet are well-established. “It might be our expression,” she says, “that Mr. Wetzel is now erasing bigger prey.” Then we’re at Keller’s house. The Lexus and Mercedes have been waxed again, it looks like. My car is getting dusty.
Lacey introduces me to a man we met together, and Keller leads us through the entry to the pampered strip of lawn. Keller is wearing slacks and tasseled loafers with today’s Lacoste shirt, so maybe he’s been to work or plans to go. I screw an aluminum stake into the lawn, near the edge, and tie Ambassador Snuffles to it. That’s the whole plan. Doctor Grumbles was not secured. The housekeeper brings out dining chairs because, apparently, Keller doesn’t own lawn furniture. Ambassador Snuffles lies down, and I’m afraid he won’t bark, but a towhee lands nearby and he goes full Chihuahua.
The creature that takes him is a pretty standard bigfoot, aside from the toes. Long mahogany-brown hair. The face of an apish man or a short-snouted ape. A little more gracile than I expected, but I wouldn’t wrestle with it. It snaps off the aluminum stake without much trouble. I’m not trying to tackle it and rescue Ambassador Snuffles; I’m just trying to keep it in sight, but the slope is steeper than I realize. Five steps past the edge of the lawn, I’m running faster than I really can, and there’s no way I can stop. Wetzel passes me, coming from nowhere, yelling something about Ms. Ahn’s dog. A generic woody shrub slows me down, painfully, and I steer for another. Lacey is well behind me, probably more under control.
Near the bottom of the hill, I trip over a spray of pinkish-white buckwheat and land in a mule fat bush. There’s a hollow near the trunk, a nest, with heaps of old and new grass, probably foxtail, invasive, and bits of feather and fur. A collar with an engraved tag: Doctor Grumbles. I put the collar in my pocket and crawl out the other side of the bush.
Wetzel is across the road, a few yards up another hill. This is like a dream where you don’t know why you’re doing things. Why are we all chasing that dog? I’m awake, though, so I concentrate, and I remember. Dirt under Wetzel’s feet is about as churned up as shallow, rocky soil can be, but the only footprints will be his. Maybe it rains insects for a second. More likely, Wetzel startled some grasshoppers from a creosote bush. Wetzel calls, “The dog got away.” He’s addressing the hillside behind me. The dog runs from mustard and needlegrass to press against my shins. I’m a big dog person, when I’m not using them for bait.
I say, “Ambassador Snuffles is right here.”
Wetzel says, “Miss Ahn, does the dog have a name?”
Lacey says, “My partner Bill Laird calls him Ambassador Snuffles.”
Keller doesn’t want the dog. He says Doctor Grumbles is irreplaceable. Ambassador Snuffles can stay with Aunt Min tonight; then we have to find him another home. That’s what we talk about in the car. That, and Lacey says something about how everyone likes ontology, but phenomenology is the only science. She says this without tapping. It’s a Lacey Ahn Original. It means: “You never know.”
There’s a strange suitcase on the bed in 116. My suitcase is still in the closet, and the owner of the new suitcase isn’t here. I toss the new suitcase into the parking lot. I chain the door. I open curtains and turn on lights and flop down on the bed where passers-by can see me. I sit up again and fiddle with the clock radio, thumbing that red needle past pop and talk and rap. I find Merle Haggard just starting “Mama Tried.” Well, she did. I turn it up until someone pounds the wall in acknowledgement.
I don’t exactly have Haggard’s accent, and I don’t exactly not have it. I sing along. We sing that we turned twenty-one in prison, serving life without parole. Merle served less than three years, and I’ve never been arrested, but the Wayward Redneck archetype has more juice than old Bill Laird. Maybe they’ll play “Lost Highway” next. I put my diaphragm into it and make people hear me.