Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
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Strange Fire

After I heard about the nudists, they were all I could think about. Maybe it was guilt from thinking about them while I was supposed to be worshipping the Lord, but the summer sun felt hotter through stained glass. High to my right, glowing Moses stood tall with the Ten Commandments held over his head and blazes shooting from his eyes. I squirmed in the hardwood pew, sweltering in the baggy suit my parents said I’d grow into. Sweat dripped from my temple, that soft spot in my skull where I imagined Moses was most easily penetrating my mind and seeing the naked girls I had playing around in there.

Late the night before, my parents had whispered about the nudists in the kitchen while I listened from the hallway with a hard-on. It was 1982, but my parents spoke about the greater world like it was still full of hell-bound hippies. Completely naked. Free love. Just outside of town. I could only hear bits and pieces, but it was still enough to create a sexual epic in my imagination, fused together by a thirteen-year-old’s hormones and memories of various nude photographs. I was mostly aroused by how my mother called the nudists invaders. I imagined walking down the street or through the woods and then—beautiful naked girls beaming down from space like aliens.

Our church was small. There weren’t more than seventy people in the pews. The preacher walked back and forth on a short, carpeted platform. Behind him, the choir sat in white robes on metal folding chairs. Two flags, an American and a Christian, hung furled on poles off to the side. A tall, wooden cross hung on the back wall. I kept trying to listen to the sermon, but then something would happen like I would look at Miss Lacey with her curly, brown hair and big lips sitting there in the choir, and I would go back to imagining again.

The first naked woman I ever saw played the lead role in my nudist fantasy. I was nine when I saw her. She was blonde, slender, tan, and stretched out across a velvet couch on a calendar in an auto shop bathroom—the only clean thing in that dark, greasy space. The hanging light bulb swung a shadow back and forth across her breasts like a hypnotist’s pocket-watch. I had been so entranced I peed on my shoes.

The preacher shouted about Leviticus, and I snapped back to attention. “There is a great chasm we cannot cross!” he said. “Sins of the flesh require sacrifices of flesh! You have to be consecrated and purified, made holy by blood and the pleasing aroma of burnt flesh offered to the Lord.”

I glanced back at glowing Moses. He knew what I’d been thinking, and he was aiming those stone tablets at me, damning me to a far greater blaze.

“Sin is atoned for by fire,” the preacher bellowed. “God told the Israelites that sacrifices had to be made—bulls, goats, lambs, even doves. All were burned on the altar and offered to the Lord. There can be no sin in the Lord’s presence.”

My father nodded along to the sermon and occasionally mumbled an “Amen.” I didn’t understand how he wasn’t sweating and squirming too. Earlier that summer, I’d found his stash of dirty magazines tucked in a folded tarp beneath the pile of oil rags in our shed. I hadn’t been surprised. Many of my friends had already said their dads or granddads hid magazines. But I didn’t want to look at my father’s. I tucked them back in the tarp and tried to pretend they weren’t there.

“But two of Aaron’s sons brought what the scriptures call ‘strange fire’ to the altar,” the preacher said. “What made the fire strange, we don’t know exactly. Why they did it—ignorance maybe? Pride? Some have argued drunkenness. Whatever it was, it was the sin that harbored within them. And the presence of the Lord came down. And a holy fire came out. And Aaron’s two boys were consumed by the flames.”

Beside me, my mother flipped the thin, crinkly pages of her Bible back and forth. She always did this, checking the preacher’s words, making sure he wasn’t making stuff up. Mostly she nodded in agreement, but on occasion, she’d blast a snort of contempt through her nose like a doe that smells something off. “You get a little something about scripture wrong,” she always told me, “and the next thing you know, all hell comes running out the gates.”

After the sermon, we sang with sharp conviction and clapping of hands that we were washed in the Blood of the Lamb, but I couldn’t stop sweating and looking up at Moses. When the service ended, I squeezed out of the pew and darted down the center aisle, dodging dresses and suit jackets, to escape Moses’s laser eyes. Outside, I spotted Gus at the front of the potluck line.

Gus Wilkinson had freckles, straight brown hair cut into a bowl around his head, and a small gap between his front teeth, all of which had made him the butt of weasel jokes until he grew four inches during our first year of junior high and was promoted from weasel to captain. He was also our foremost hormonal pioneer. By that summer, he’d already kissed two girls and managed to touch Julie Lyman’s left breast while pretending to trip.

The potluck was set up on long tables in the shade of two live oaks. Mrs. Lyman, the mother of the girl Gus had groped, and Mrs. Walters stood behind the tables fanning flies away with paper plates. The smell of fried chicken wafted across the lawn. When I broke in line behind Gus, Mrs. Lyman glared at me and said, “You know better.”

I looked down and scooped butter beans onto my plate. Gus leaned over and elbowed me. “Mrs. Lyman, did you make this breast?” he said. “This sure is a nice breast. Real tender and juicy.”

I kept looking down.

“Thank you, Gus,” Mrs. Lyman said, “but that’s Mrs. Sharron’s chicken.”

“Oh, it just reminded me of yours,” Gus said, baring his cleft smile.

“Is something funny, Gus?” Mrs. Lyman said, clearly aware of what Gus was doing but too proper to actually address it.

“Oh, no ma’am,” Gus said.

Mrs. Lyman looked at me again. “You know better,” she said.

Gus got his guts from his older brother Hank, who had left for college at the end of the last summer. Out of state college. Hank went all the way up to St. Louis on a wrestling scholarship. He used to wrestle Gus and me, pin us to the ground, and drip long strings of spit across our faces, but now Gus said that since he was bigger, Hank was teaching him real moves. I was hoping he’d teach me too. Hank was back for the summer, but he didn’t go to church. Gus’s uncle told people it was because Hank was an adult now and was allowed to make his own choices, but Gus told me Hank and his uncle fought about it every Sunday morning, and in the end Hank just refused to come.

Gus and I piled our plates high with chicken, collards, and mounds of casserole. We stuffed plastic forks and knives into our pockets and balanced small plates of pecan pie atop our sweet tea Dixie cups. The younger kids took their lunches and ate them on the playground, but we went the other way, back into the trees behind the tables. A handful of boys our age trailed us through the shadows and into the relative privacy of the woods. We hung our suit coats from low branches and sat in a circle on logs and roots, talking and shoveling oversized bites into our mouths.

Jeffrey Howells started bragging about how he and Sammy Tate had watched a movie about piranhas eating people in a river and how some of the people that got eaten were naked. “In this one scene this girl had these huge tits,” Jeffrey said.

Sammy stood up and acted like he was struggling to hold invisible, bouncing watermelons against his chest. Everyone laughed.

I waited for the right time to tell about my nudists.

“Then the fish started to get her,” Jeffrey said, “and blood went everywhere.”

“What size do you think her tits were?” Louis Canton asked. Louis was the shortest of us and the only one who still didn’t need deodorant. The way he said tits sounded like a bird chirp, and we all squeaked in mockery.

“Tits! Tits! Titstits!”

When the laughter died down, I was about to speak when Gus said, “Well, I got something you guys gotta see.” He stood, untucked his shirt, and reached back in his pants. Out came a magazine with Playboy written across the top in bold, yellow letters.

Eyes grew to the size of pool balls. Mouths opened, but everyone was too cotton-mouthed to speak. We glanced over our shoulders at the dense, green leaves to make sure we were hidden. A few of us stuffed a hand in a pocket as we stood and clumped around Gus.

“I snatched it from my uncle,” he said nonchalantly.

Gus’s uncle was a deacon and revered for possessing the gift of healing prayer, but I already knew he had a stash of dirty magazines. Hank had showed it to Gus a while ago. What I couldn’t believe was that Gus had actually taken one and then sat through church—the hymns, the sermon, the call to repentance, all of it—with a Playboy stuffed down the back of his pants.

Gus flipped the pages. The women were posed like wild, surreal creatures. I can still remember them bending and arching, stretching and smiling. I would have sworn they were actually moving, rolling around in silk sheets and crawling across checkered tile floors.

We were all spellbound. And it wasn’t just that there were nude pictures in front of us. It was that we could point and laugh and elbow each other while there were nude pictures in front of us. It felt like a church revival. Something was there, and we were all caught up in the ecstasy of it.

“You guys hear about the nudists?”

Everyone looked at me like I had spoken in tongues.

“What nudists?” Gus asked.

Then my father and Gus’s uncle shouted for us from the tree line, and Gus quickly shoved the magazine back down the back of his pants and retucked his shirt. We threw on our jackets and walked back toward the potluck. Gus asked me again in a whisper, “What nudists?”

I told him what I’d overheard from my parents, sweetening the story with my own details. “Lots of women with big tits just hanging out naked.”

The dark gap between Gus’s front teeth split his big smile in equal halves. We shut up as soon as we saw two blue suits through the leafy underbrush.

“Time to go,” my father said.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Us too,” Gus’s uncle said.

“Yes, sir,” Gus said.

We walked around the church to the dirt parking area. The noon sun glared off windshields and bumpers and made everything look like a mirage. Heat rose hazy from the hoods like steam.

“Another scorcher,” Gus’s uncle said. He and Gus headed toward the short, white bus the church had recently bought. The deacons took turns driving it as a shuttle for people who lived farther out of town. “I’ll see you tonight,” he said to my father.

My father nodded and turned toward our truck. I followed in his shadow, lengthening my stride to step in his footprints.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked as we climbed into the cab.

“She’s staying to help clean up,” he said.

“You got another deacons’ meeting tonight?”

He turned the key and looked straight ahead through the sputter and catch of the engine. “Yeah,” he said.

The way he said it, I knew not to ask anything else.


Later that afternoon, when the heat outside became unbearable, I went to my room to read a comic book, but as soon as I lay down in my bed and looked at the pages, my mind went right back to fantasizing. After the Playboy, I had a fresh cast of characters, and it wasn’t long before I was rubbing myself. When my mom knocked on the door and asked if she could come in, I had only been rubbing on top of my pants. I grabbed a pillow and covered my lap before I said yes. She sat on the edge of the bed. I peered at her over the comic book raised vertical on my chest and tried to make my breathing sound like I hadn’t just been running a sprint.

“You’re feeling guilty about something,” she said, pushing the comic book down. Her cheeks were an angry red.

“No, ma’am,” I said and lifted the comic book back up to avoid her eyes. This wasn’t the first time I was convinced she had superpowers like Moses.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not lying,” I said.

“Well, I just got off the phone with Louis Canton’s mom, and he apparently confessed to looking at a dirty magazine someone brought to church. He wouldn’t tell who. Do you know anything about that?”

I didn’t answer for a moment, and she held the silence in front of me like a spoonful of truth serum.

I swallowed dryly and looked down to see if my heart was causing visible ripples across my shirt. “I heard something, but I didn’t see anything,” I said. “I figured it was a joke. Louis is probably just trying to get someone in trouble.”

“Then why didn’t he give a name?” she said. Her eyes narrowed.

I didn’t know what to say to that. I wondered who would sock Louis in the stomach first. “Where would someone even get a magazine like that anyhow?” I asked.

She huffed out her nose and laughed. “That’s what your father said too!” She stood up and put her hands on her hips. She looked at me as if she’d won something, some other argument I didn’t even know we were having, but when she saw my confused look, her face changed. Her cheeks mellowed to a blush, and she sat back down. “Those things, magazines and stuff like that,” she said, “that’s not anything to joke about. They’re filthy, and we shouldn’t have impurity like that around.” She looked to the floor. “You try your best to stay away from it, and if you hear anything, you come tell me.” She stood back up to leave but turned around at the door. “Or you can—you just tell your father about it.”

I knew then that my mother was aware of my father’s magazines. I also knew she believed me when I said I hadn’t looked at any, or at least, she wanted to believe me. She might have been ready to yell at me for looking at a dirty magazine, but she wasn’t ready to just talk about them. My father had been the one to talk to me about sex. “You know how it works?” he had asked. I nodded. “You got any questions?” I shook my head.

My mom closed the door behind her. I couldn’t go back to rubbing myself after that.


That night, I woke to what sounded like a bird pecking at my window. I rolled over and saw Gus’s split grin. His fingers were rapping lightly on the glass. I got up and opened it.

“Hank is here with his truck,” he said. “Down the road. He knows where the nudists are. If we each pay him two dollars, he’ll take us to see them.”

My mouth opened, but no words came out.

“You listening?” Gus said.

“You mean they’re real?” I said.

“Yeah. Hank said they’re just over the bridge, back by a lake in the woods.”

I couldn’t believe it, just as I had imagined. All we had to do was walk through the woods and then—Hank’s truck horn blared from down the street.

“My folks are going to think something’s up if he does that again,” I said.

“Well, if you’ve got two dollars, let’s go!”

I could hear my mom still cleaning and putting away dishes in the kitchen. My father’s truck wasn’t in the driveway. The deacons’ meetings often went late.

“OK,” I said.

Gus took off across the yard. I put on clothes and took two dollars out of the cigar box in the back of my sock drawer. I had about fifteen saved up with grand ambitions for a Walkman, but I figured this was worth putting that back a bit, especially since I knew my parents wouldn’t let me buy any good tapes anyway. I shoved the bills in my pocket and shut the window behind me. A full moon lit the yard in a silver twilight. I sprinted across the grass and down the street. When I got to Hank’s truck, I held up my money and said, “I’ve got it, but I’m not paying until I get what I’m here for.” I had heard the line in a gangster movie and had been waiting for the right moment to use it.

Hank laughed and said, “All right. Get in.”

The streets were mostly empty in town, but Gus and I crouched as far as we could at the foot of the bench seat. The windows were down. The breeze that circulated inside was warm and thick. Out the passenger side, the tops of roofs and trees blurred in front of stars. Hank turned up the radio when Van Halen started playing. Gus and I were used to looking up at Hank, but whether it was because of the angle or what he was taking us to do, he seemed beyond us. There was scruff on his face and dark circles under his eyes. His hair was shaggy because no one made him cut it in college. He sipped a can of beer and hung his arm out the window. He knew where the naked girls were. He’d seen them.

A river formed the eastern border of town. When we got to the bridge, Gus and I sat up. I looked out the passenger window at a mirror reflecting the night sky. During the day, the wide river flowed quiet and slow, the color and viscosity of maple syrup, but that night there were two big, bright moons, one above and one below. The bridge was a portal from one world to the next, nothing around but space and stars.

On the other side, the asphalt turned to gravel and then to dirt. I’d been on the dirt road a few times before. There was a good fishing hole on a creek nearby. But I’d never gone down it as far as we were headed.

“How do you know where they are?” Gus asked.

“Everyone knows,” Hank said.

“Where’d they come from?”

“They were at some concert in Athens last weekend, then they just started camping out here instead of leaving. Rumor is their van broke down. Pretty shitty place to be stuck.”

“They went to the concert naked?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” Hank said. “But they definitely aren’t wearing clothes out here.”

Gus turned to me. “At concerts Hank says you see girls flash the band.”

Hank grinned and sipped his beer.

We didn’t pass another car. The roadside changed from farm pasture, interrupted now and again by rows of planted pines, to dense hardwoods of oak and sweet gum. Moonlight broke across boughs and streaked through shadows. Hank turned onto another dirt road that couldn’t be made out unless you knew where it was. Branches slapped the windshield and scraped along the sides of the truck like long fingernails.

The previous summer, before Gus and I started junior high, the church got all the kids our age together and split us up by gender to talk about sins of the flesh. They told us our bodies were temples of the Holy Spirit, that we were altars for the Lord, but our flesh, our lustful and wicked desires, was Satan’s abomination. It had made sense when they were saying it, but afterward I couldn’t tell the difference between my body and my flesh. That night, in Hanks truck, I felt more mixed up than ever. I was hot and cold at the same time. My skin tingled and my legs bounced. I wiped my sweaty palms across my shorts.

Hank pulled off onto the side of the road between some trees and killed the engine. “We got to walk from here,” he said, “so they don’t spook.”

Gus and I climbed out of the truck and followed Hank down into the hardwood bottom. Everything was quiet and still except the crunch of leaves beneath our feet and the distant trickle of a creek up ahead. Our eyes adjusted back and forth between light and shadow. We wiped the dripping sweat from our faces. When we reached the creek, my shirt was already soaked and clinging to my skin.

“We should have brought water,” Gus said, and Hank shushed him.

Hank led us up the creek in a single file line, slowly, the way we were taught to hunt, trying not to snap twigs with our steps. We walked for a while, not able to see much, until the trees suddenly parted in front of us and the lake appeared, small and shining with that same magic that had allowed the river to look like outer space. We heard splashing and giggling. I immediately got an erection. Gus turned to me, backlit by the moon, and I couldn’t see anything on his face except his large glowing grin and the dark streak in it. Hank motioned us toward a dense clump of trees near the water’s edge. He held his finger to his lips and waved us in front of him like a theater usher.

They weren’t but thirty yards away, and—for some reason I had never considered the obvious possibility—they weren’t all women. The lake was shaped like a small egg, and the nudists had a couple tarps strung up as makeshift tents beside the beach at the small round end. Patches of cattails and trees surrounded the rest of the lake. Fifteen or so naked people were there, splashing about in the moonlit water or running across the beach and jumping in. A few were lounging on the sand. Everyone was laughing. They were radiant at first, otherworldly, like the beautiful aliens in my fantasy, swimming around the stars; but when I started to focus on them, I didn’t want to look anymore.

The women weren’t like the pictures in Playboy. All the shapes were off. Their breasts were oblong and loose and didn’t match. The hair between their legs was bushy and unkempt. And when I saw the men, their penises shrunken beneath their bellies, I noted my own erection with embarrassment. I wouldn’t look at their faces. I felt the same as when I had found my father’s magazines tucked in the tarp. I wanted to pretend like they weren’t there.

I looked at the ground where the three of us were kneeling. There were empty beer cans scattered about the weeds. I wondered how many people had snuck up the same creek and sat in the same spot and watched. I was disgusted by the thought, and then proud. Everyone knew where the nudists were. I did too.

“Look at that one,” Gus whispered. He pointed, and as I followed his gaze, I felt the same camaraderie we’d experienced back in the woods after church. The woman wasn’t slender, tan, and stretched across a velvet couch, but she was real and she was naked and we were looking at her. She ran along the beach and dove into the dark water. She came up laughing and tossed back her long, blonde hair. The water dripped from her arms and streamed down her breasts.

That’s when I heard the pull of an engine cord and the sharp buzz of a boat motor. Just on the other side of the creek from us, toward the big end of the lake, a small fishing dinghy shot out from behind a clump of cattails. The man driving sped along the shore past us and cut across the lake with one hand on the motor and the other holding some sort of canister off the side.

“Is that Mr. Lyman?” Gus whispered.

The boat passed within ten yards of the nudists. The naked women screamed and turned their backs. The men yelled and splashed water at the boat. They were as startled and confused as we were.

The man in the boat reached the other side and jumped onto shore. Two other men came out of the trees and helped him pull the boat up. Then one of them tossed a flare at the water, and I knew what was in the canister the man in the boat had been holding. The gasoline tickled my nose right before it ignited and lit across the lake. The nudists screamed and splashed violently toward the beach. The line of fire ate its way after them, unnatural flames rising and flowing with the waves.

Gus said, “Hank, what’s going—” but Hank reached over and covered Gus’s mouth.

The three men across the pond lit torches and ran toward the nudists. They shouted as they ran, their deep voices bouncing like war cries across the water and through the flames. The nudists stood together. They had gotten out of the lake unharmed, but even from the distance I could see panic on their faces.

Our church’s white bus arrived out of the darkness and pulled up beside the shuddering entanglement of naked bodies. More men came out with torches already lit. I could see their faces: Mr. Raymond, Mr. Canton, Mr. Stowe.

“What the fuck?” Hank said.

The men from church yelled and used their torches to threaten and herd the nudists toward the bus. Some of the nudists yelled back and started to charge, but they stopped when they got close, scared of the torches or scared of something else the men from church carried. The nudists started to board the bus like doomed cattle. I watched the woman with the long, blonde hair stumble and fall to the sand. She stayed there, cowering and shrieking, as the men with torches stomped around her. One of the men grabbed her arm, yanked her up, and pushed her toward the bus. When the man turned back toward the water, I saw Gus’s uncle’s face clear in the torchlight. I looked for my father.

I spotted him, fire flicking across his face. He threw his torch in the water, got on the bus, and they drove away.

“Come on,” Hank said and took off sprinting through the woods.

Gus and I ran after him, trying to keep up. I don’t think I’d ever run that fast in my life. We jumped over logs and ripped through underbrush. Thorns slashed my arms and shins. Gus tripped, and I helped him up. We kept running and stumbling, and Hank became harder and harder to see ahead of us until he was only the sound of thrashing leaves in the dark, and then he was nothing. Gus and I stopped and tried to catch our breath.

“Which way’d he go?” Gus said, gasping.

For a moment I believed we would be lost there forever, that somehow we had crossed over into a dark and strange dimension and the portal had closed. Nothing looked familiar. I glanced around, scared my father would emerge from the trees with a torch and lasers shooting from his eyes.

The truck horn blasted and the engine cranked to our right. We started running again.

“Get in!” Hank shouted.

I slammed the door shut, and Hank peeled back onto the road and floored the gas pedal.

“What was that?” Gus said, still trying to catch his breath.

“That’s what I’m gonna find out,” Hank said.

It didn’t take long to find the church bus. There weren’t many roads that way out of town. Hank turned off his headlights, and we followed at a distance. No one said anything. We jostled with the bumps and curves of the road. I wondered what my father was doing on the bus, what he was saying to the nudists, what he was looking at. I wondered what made those men do what they did. I wondered if it was flesh or body.

The bus finally stopped at the first crossroads, and Hank slowed down. Gus looked at me. “Let’s jump out real quick and hide in the bed.”

“Stay put,” Hank ordered and kept us rolling forward.

Of all the images from that day, that is the one most deeply seared in my memory. Those people, completely naked in the middle of the crossroads. Dust caked their legs with red mud. The men cast their eyes to the dirt and held their arms straight down, covering the awkward stub of their manhood. The women cried softly. Their hair draped over their faces. They each held one arm across their chest and the other covering below their waist. All huddled together, bare skin touching bare skin. More than naked, they were spirits glowing in the moonlight—transformed from the people I’d just watched laugh and swim.

Hank stopped the truck, and Gus’s uncle walked over. He stood by the hood and didn’t see Gus or me. “What are you doing out here?” he said to Hank.

“Driving,” Hank said. “What are you doing to them?”

“It’s some sort of nudist cult or something,” Gus’s uncle said. “They’ve been camping at the old Franklin property.”

“Yeah, all right. What are you doing to them?”

“Doing? Nothing. Just a warning. We’re leaving them here, so they know we don’t want none of their impurity around our town.”

“They weren’t fucking hurting anybody!” Hank said.

“Now, you listen here,” Gus’s uncle said. He took a step closer to Hank’s window and saw Gus and me sitting in the truck. His face dropped. “Jay,” he called over his shoulder. “Get over here.”

My father walked over. His gaze met mine. He didn’t look mad or surprised.

“You were at the lake,” he said.

I nodded.

Gus’s uncle shook his head. “That’s why we had to do this.”

I studied my father’s face and tried to read his mind, like Moses, like Mom had read mine.

“You best not tell your mother you were there,” he said.

I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to yell, Liar! You liar! You don’t think she knows about you? You don’t think she knows about your magazines? But I didn’t because I knew I was a liar too. I held my anger and hid it inside of me with the lust and all the rest of my sins, hid them just like he did, hid them where we would never have to speak of them, where we thought they were safe.

“I’m not gonna let you leave them here naked,” Hank said. “What are they supposed to do?”

Both men were quiet for a moment.

“Now that they know their shame,” my father said, “maybe God will stitch them clothes.”

When he said that, I realized the depth of my father’s shame. How out of that shame, he’d done this. They all had. You bury your sins and they burn inside of you and make you desperate, make you violent. Flesh was needed, the preacher had said. They were sacrificing the nudists’ to try and save their own.

My father looked to Hank. “You take these boys on home,” he said. Then he turned, patted the hood of the car and walked away.

“Fuck that,” Hank said.

“Hey!” Gus’s uncle said. “You want to play the man now, huh? Cuss like a man? Well, you should have thought about that before you spent the night running through the woods with a couple of boys getting your jollies off. You’ve done what you came to do. Now, get back to town.”

My father’s tall back faded into the rest of the shadowed figures walking circles around the nudists. I heard him shout, “You leave and you stay gone! Got it?”


We drove back across the bridge, back through town. Gus and I sat up in our seats the whole time. When Hank parked down the street from my house, I pulled the two dollars out of my pocket and held it out across the cab.

“Here,” I said.

“Keep it,” Hank said.

“I don’t want it. Take it.”

Hank ignored me.

I shook the bills. “It’s what you asked for.”

“Just get out of the truck,” Hank said.

“You gonna give me back my two?” Gus asked.

“No, you little prick!” Hank said. He put the truck in drive and looked at me. “You gonna get out or what?”

I crumpled the two dollars into my fist and got out. I walked slowly along the road and down the driveway. I even stood for a moment in the front yard. I wanted my mom to see me. I wanted her to run out and yell at me and ask me where I’d been. I wanted to tell her everything. But all the lights in the house were off, so I crawled back through the window into my bedroom. I lay down on top of my bed, sweating and staring at the shadows on the walls. I waited for the sound of my father’s truck pulling into the driveway. I waited to see his headlights search the corners of my room, and when they did, I closed my eyes.

I thought about the nudists.

As Hank pulled away from the crossroads that night, I had looked back at them huddled together. I spotted the woman I’d watched closely at the lake. She was as still as a photograph. Her back was turned and her head was bowed. Strands of long, blonde hair fell between her shoulder blades to her lower back, which dipped like a shallow bowl before the widening of her hips. I thought about the last thing the preacher said in his sermon. God told Aaron, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” I memorized her image so I would remember the difference.  

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