Untitled #2, Karl Rivera
Mr. Walker didn’t give us a warning or indication of any kind when he decided to become a nudist. I had pulled into my driveway after a long day at the lab when Mr. Walker came strolling along, walking Rocky, his pit bull. What was more disorienting than seeing his flaccid penis bop up and down with each step was the massive grin on his face. It was similar to watching a child’s reaction when promised a trip to Chuck E. Cheese.
“Howdy neighbor,” he called, pausing as Rocky sniffed my mailbox. “Did you get a haircut?”
“Yes,” I said. “I did. Did you forget to put on pants?”
“Nope! I’ve converted.”
Apparently he thought clothing was a restriction in every shape and form. He was convinced the amount of exposure of the human skin was directly correlated with the exposure of the human soul. He also never realized how uncomfortable clothes were until he didn’t have to wear them anymore, and it is through nudism, or naturalism, as he said, that he thinks society will achieve true liberty. As he was speaking, Rocky decided it would be a good time to urinate on my mailbox.
“Oops,” Mr. Walker said. He tugged at the leash. “Have a good one, Keith.” He walked off, the fat on his belly jiggling with each step. I wanted to look away, to walk into my house and scarf down the leftover lasagna I knew was waiting for me inside the fridge. Instead, I watched the throng of liver spots across his back shift as he moved, tightening and loosening into various constellations until he disappeared into his house.
Soon, all the neighbors were talking about it. We held a meeting without Mr. Walker’s knowledge at the Bakers’ house to discuss this sudden conversion, what might have brought this on, and whether or not the authorities should get involved.
“Does he have dementia?”
“Is this his way of saying he wants to have sex?”
“Think of the children!”
But no, Mr. Walker wasn’t crazy, or a pervert for that matter. I repeated what he had told me about freedom and the human soul. The responses were overwhelmingly negative.
There were only four houses on Pine Street, resulting in six of us at the meeting: myself, my girlfriend, Mrs. Baker, Mr. Baker, and the Smiths who lived across the street. Chloe claimed to have seen him stroking himself in front of our mailbox while the Smiths swore they saw him urinating in the storm drain. Mr. Baker said he’s seen Mr. Walker’s penis more than his own and Mrs. Baker said enough is enough.
“My son doesn’t need to see a seventy-year-old man’s you-know-what trotting around our street. Can you imagine what people would think?”
I pointed out that her son probably wouldn’t care, considering how he spent all his time playing video games inside, and that no one came down our street except for Halloween, which was a good five months away. It wasn’t like we were living in Portland—Oakridge had significantly more trees than people, so unless she was afraid a Douglas fir might catch sight of Mr. Walker, I didn’t think there was going to be a problem. She barely looked at me as I was speaking, and I had the suspicion she considered my opinions irrelevant since I was still in my twenties and she was in her forties and therefore, much older and much wiser.
A tense silence followed. I watched helplessly as my words evaporated into the air when Mrs. Baker abruptly adjourned the meeting on a final note: something needed to be done.
I asked Chloe what she thought when we got back home. The whole situation seemed to be blown out of proportion and I didn’t want it to end with Mr. Walker’s banishment from the neighborhood.
“It’s not a huge deal, right? I mean it’s not like he’s going around offering candy and asking kids to pet his dog.” I knew the words sounded bad coming out of my mouth, but I couldn’t seem to stop. “Maybe it’s just a phase.”
She wrinkled her nose the way she did when I said I didn’t need a gym membership a few months back. “Phases are for kids and dramatic teenagers, not men old enough to be grandpas. You know what they call people like Mr. Walker?”
Sex offenders, I thought to myself. Maybe even pedophiles, if children were involved.
“A menace to society,” Chloe said.
Prior to becoming a nudist, Mr. Walker was notorious for his exuberant garden. Not a day went by in the late spring and summer when we didn’t see him tending to the towering stalks of green that grew so tall we couldn’t see his backyard. He was generous with his produce, too—he routinely left large paper plates filled with colorful eggplants, cucumbers and squash on each of our front steps. “Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste,” he often said, quoting Charlotte Brontë.
Becoming a nudist didn’t change any of that.
One morning, when he was outside tying his tomato plants to bamboo sticks, Chloe told me his bare ass looked like a pair of deflated balloons filled to the brim with lumpy oatmeal.
“If you don’t want to see his butt so bad, maybe we should just move,” I said. I was tired of being surrounded by the Willamette National Forest and all of those outdoor enthusiasts I had nothing in common with. I had grown up in the city and every day I thought about returning to New York and its concrete jungle. Chloe was the only thing keeping me here.
“I’ve spent my whole life in this house,” she said. “You know I can’t leave. If anything, he should be the one to go—I was here first.”
But he has no family, I wanted to say. He’s a retired operations and program manager for NPR. I’d never seen another car in his driveway other than his own, and from what I could tell, his only friend was that old pit bull who I wasn’t even sure would wake up the next day.
But I also knew how Chloe would react. “Just because he’s sad and old doesn’t mean he can strut his stuff,” she’d say. “End of discussion, Keith.” And then we wouldn’t have sex for weeks.
When I left for the lab, I almost tripped on the small basket of vegetables that was sitting on our front step. Carrots, parsnips, cucumbers, and tomatoes were strategically laid out, resembling a sort of elaborate mosaic. I picked the basket up. I would tell Chloe I went grocery shopping after work.
Scanning the neighborhood, I saw there were two identical baskets waiting on the Bakers’ porch, and the Smiths’ driveway. Those baskets remained there for the rest of the week, the shiny vegetables discoloring and shriveling up into moldy lumps of decay.
Since it seemed like I was the only one who wasn’t totally repulsed by Mr. Walker’s nudity, the neighbors decided that I was to talk to him and try to convince him to cover up his privates.
He invited me over to his house when I requested a conversation. When I arrived, he opened the door in one easy swing, his exposed, pale body reminding me of a beached whale. The smell of baked banana wafted in from the kitchen.
“Hey there,” he said. He stepped to the side. “Come on in. Have some banana bread.”
I followed him to the dining room and sat down at the table. He tended to the oven. It was strange seeing him wear oven mitts when the rest of his body was so blatantly naked. He shucked off the gloves once the heated container was transported to the table. “Mitts piss me off,” he explained. “They’re just like clothes. But what can you do?”
“Actually,” I said, “that’s sort of the reason why I’m here.”
“Oh, I know. The old wifey isn’t fond of my pee-wee, is she?”
“Well, girlfriend. And yes. But also the whole neighborhood.”
Mr. Walker made a snorting sound as he began cutting the bread. The knife clinked against the baking dish with each jerk of the elbow. “You kids. You’d think you’d be more open to things these days.” He brought me a slice of bread. “Tell me this, Keith: do you like being social? Have you ever felt like something was keeping you from expressing yourself truthfully?”
I considered this. “Well, Chloe. Sometimes. But, like, I can express myself just fine with my crotch covered.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong. Clothing does something to us—it alienates us from each other. And I like not feeling alienated. For once, I feel accepted for who I truly am.”
“Really?” I asked. “Have you talked to the neighbors? Are you familiar with the term, ‘indecent exposure’?”
He said that he was, but it wasn’t like he was committing lewd conduct—he was just being his true self. I asked him if he ever considered moving to a nudist colony, or maybe confining his new practice to the privacy of his home. To the first question, he said Pine Street had been his home for over twenty years, and it would be his home until he died. To the second question, he said he wore clothes outside if he had to, but he often didn’t since, ironically, it made him feel like a prisoner.
“Isn’t that what most people think of when stepping outside?” he asked. “Being free?”
Our conversation went back and forth like this for a while, and about an hour and three banana bread slices later, we came to the agreement that if he minded his own business, I would mind my own. We shook on this before parting ways.
The incident occurred three days after our conversation. According to Mrs. Baker, Mr. Walker had approached Billy after school when he was locked out of the house. No one was home, so Billy (who was only seven, mind you—seven!) had sat down on the front steps and did homework while waiting for Mr. Baker to come back from work. It was then when Mr. Walker decided to strike. He had walked up to Billy, penis erected, and asked him if he wanted to come to his house so they could have intercourse. Afraid, Billy had started shouting until Chloe came and rescued him, but not before telling Mr. Walker that the entire neighborhood wanted him and his lumpy oatmeal-ass to leave.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “That doesn’t sound like him at all.”
Chloe shrugged. “I’m just telling you what Mrs. Baker told me. The kid won’t talk. But really, Keith, you weren’t there. How would you feel if a naked old man approached our hypothetical son when he had nowhere to go?” I didn’t say anything, and she took this as a sign of defeat. “Doesn’t matter now. This will be the last time we see Mr. Walker and any of his appendages ever again.”
“What do you mean?”
Chloe explained that after calling and reporting to her what had happened, Mrs. Baker had thanked her for rescuing Billy, and in an eerily calm voice, said that she would take care of the situation. Chloe looked me in the eye. “From what I understood, the cops are on their way as we speak.”
When I delivered this news to Mr. Walker, his lips rippled with grief. “It was raining,” he said. “Did she say anything about that? Was I just supposed to let him sit outside in the rain?” His entire body shook. Spotted, wrinkled hands came up to cover his face.
Seeing an old person cry wasn’t unlike seeing a child cry. In some ways, it was worse—while children got upset over broken toys and dropped ice cream cones, the elderly have seen the world. They knew things that kids didn’t know, things that we didn’t know. And it is this notion of knowing the unknown that sets them at the very top of the totem pole.
From down the street I could see the flashes of red and blue sparking up between the thick trees. They looked strained and out of place, like Christmas in the summer.
Neither of us moved from where we stood. At one point Rocky waddled over and after noting his owner’s distress calls, began wailing himself. Their howls started to harmonize, rising and falling together and when I closed my eyes, it sounded like the noise was coming from the same animal.
I listened carefully to this song of isolation before removing my shirt, pants, and briefs. They fell to the ground one by one, forming a crumpled mass of plaid and cotton fabric around my feet.