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Short Story


Ah, but is there anything more liberating than nakedness, your honor? When I shed my clothes last summer, I didn’t become vulnerable, like some molting animal. I grew stronger and bolder without that false skin. Immediately, those I dislike gave me a wide berth, and those I still favor gave me all the camaraderie I could ask for, mostly. Honestly, I don’t even like the words naked or nude. They’re worn out, like flickering neon, conjuring notions of sex and vulnerability, etcetera. They’re unnecessary. Think about it, your honor: just as the associations we have to those words are unnecessary constructs, so too is clothing. Ditch the dungarees and you can forget the thorny issues of Kantian Ding an sich for good, at least sartorially.

What about my sandals, your honor? No, I don’t think they make me a hypocrite. They’re protection against hot asphalt—another man-made concealment. I can save you time: if you’re trying for an angle, the privilege angle’s the one. Branford, some have said, Branford you’ve given up clothes because you can. I concede that being a man of a certain age—and of a certain endowment, tenured, and living in a Mediterranean climate—has considerable advantages over, say, being a young woman walking about nude in Maine in February. Still, can I help my gender, my genes, my age, or the place of my mortgage? Branford, they say, you wouldn’t be able to go without clothes if you were pale. You’d be burned to a crisp. Well, now, my skin scorches the same as anyone’s, but that’s what this sombrero is for: exception numero dos after the sandals. I’m not trying to be cute, your honor. I’m simply saving you the effort of bringing it up after going after me for the sandals. The sombrero is for shade, but also makes quick cover if, say, a school bus happens by. No, no. Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s not for me or even for them, but because the law will twist things around and brand me a sex offender merely for having taken a stroll down the street in the form nature has granted me.

The morning of my arrest? Yes, let’s see…I rose, shaved, ate a bowl of fiber-rich cereal and took my coffee like any other American man. But you know what I skipped? Getting dressed and the long tail behind that: the laundry, the stains, the ironing, the matching, the shopping, the accessorizing. I don’t even carry an umbrella when it rains. Skin is waterproof. A slow amble through rain is one of life’s hidden luxuries. It’s nature’s bath. I’ve probably added a decade to my life by ditching clothes. Where, for instance, would I pocket a phone? Your honor, I have never been healthier, nor cleaner, than I am now, standing before you. Sunlight and breeze do wonders. Don’t forget: sweat is meant to quickly evaporate thanks to sunshine and a good breeze; it’s not meant to soak your T-shirt or leave you with crotch swamp. Of course I shower! But I shower in the out-of-doors, a fresh-air bathing that also waters the grass. You should see how small my water bill is. And no need for a towel after a shower, either. The sun dries me in minutes. If you don’t have even this sliver of time to spare, listening to the birds, strolling in your backyard looking at the plants and flowers as you dry, then why bother raising the bones from bed every morning?

The arrest, yes. I apologize for the digression. So. When my ex-wife saw me, I wasn’t trying to… perhaps I should back up. You see, Dori didn’t know I’d become a naturalist. It never came up. We separated shortly before the quarantine, and it was then, working alone in the house, that I thought: the hell with clothes and—yes, yes, the morning in question. The morning in question I walked to Dori’s place, my first time there, and knocked. While waiting, I admired the water-wise garden her now-husband had put in. Huge blooming whats-its sticking up from the agaves like giant asparagus. I felt I’d shrunk. I knocked again, then removed my sombrero and sat down on her steps and waited. It was a three-mile walk from the old house to her new place and I was, frankly, hoping to use her bathroom. The coffee, you understand. Why was I there, your honor? I had a check for her from Gab’s college fund that we’d dissolved, now that Gab’s re-upped in the army instead of enrolling in college. A leadership nut, that kid. Dori’s doing. Yes, anyway, neither of us had any other qualifying educational use for the money. I mean, there’s a nephew we could have given it to, and I know he’s only five, but he’s also a little shit. So we decided instead to pay the penalty, get that college money out, and split it straight down the middle. We need all the dough we can scrape up these days. I’ll be honest—I’m grateful Dori’s ambitions for Gab were high. No measly community college fund, that 529. It’s serving me well on my unpaid sabbatical.

So you see, I was simply at Dori’s place to drop off the check with her half of the funds. The check? In the band of my sombrero. The incident? Well, picture me, with the pressure of two or three coffees, getting a little desperate now to visit that proverbial man and his horse. I walked along the side of the house to find an appropriate place to relieve myself and stumbled on the backyard baby shower. I knew nothing about it. I didn’t even know Dori was pregnant. I mean, your honor, at her age? No, your honor. I was not upset about not being invited. My appearance there was not an attempt at sabotage. Unfortunate timing, I’ll concede. I can see how the guests might not have appreciated an uninitiated view into this old professor here, paunch and surgery scars aplenty. Though I was surprised to see so many colleagues from the philosophy department there, and even some of the sociologists from the third floor, though I don’t fault them for attending. Dori is a highly social creature, after all. What’s that? Well, if that’s in the record, then, yes, I may have said something along those lines. So perhaps I faulted them just a little at the time.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have begun an impromptu lecture about Whitman and Thoreau and how they also enjoyed a naked walk in the woods. Well, if there was laughter, I didn’t pay any attention to it. I probably shouldn’t have made that long, long toast, afterwards. Was it really ten minutes long? It felt like the police arrived much more quickly than that. But don’t you see? All of this was a simple misunderstanding on Dori’s part. I wasn’t there to spoil her event, I wasn’t there to embarrass myself or her, I wasn’t there to “stir things up again.” I was there to simply give her a check. And I meant to deliver the check, but up there in the band of my sombrero, it was out of sight and out of mind. And yes, when her new husband arrived, I can understand how he could have misconstrued the scene. I only defended myself. How was I to know he’d fall over so easily? Ask me, they should never have put a fish pond there to begin with. You should note that the pond was not fenced—and I saw children there who might have fallen in and drowned.

I would only add, before you make a decision your honor, to consider my patriotism. Yes, that’s right, my patriotism. Are you aware that there are entire countries whose beaches permit walking about in nothing but flip-flops and a sombrero? And yet here I am. I’m an American patriot, not a Dane or Swede or a German. I am a patriot of the human corpus, Homo erectus on down, as he was made and deserves to be, here in the New World. Free. This is my skin, mine as much as any animals’ scales or fur or feathers are to it. The idea that I should feel shame for not covering myself? No offense, your honor, but the self-loathing this species of ours has practiced since Eden stinks.

That is all, unless I’m allowed to address Dori sitting over there?

Darling, I forgot how much pregnancy suits you. You look radiant. Absolutely radiant.

“Darling” first appeared in The Avenue Journal.