A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Au Natural
by Beth Stephenson (Sep 2013)


It was the new minister’s fault. He was a man with cheeks pink as dawn with eyes lit from above like cirrus clouds, a beautiful man. He knew that the unpadded pews were iron against the old bones and worse for the young ones, unaccustomed to pain.

His God was a new, strange God. A God who reached out with hands dirty from working in the Earth. The sermons were short, poor excuses for sermons: full of cheerful tales that made him smile or watered his eyes. He was suddenly sorry he had passed by the stranded pick-up truck on his way to church. The wickedness had gone out of the children’s game of tag on church’s lawn and there was a football under the pulpit.

Alex had grown a beard. It was his first after sixty years of being able to. It itched. If the double edged razor had nicked him for sixty years, now,his skin reddened from scratching. His children gathered in the living room to worry together. “I was afraid this would happen,” his daughter mourned. “Without Mother, he’ll just go to pot.”

His grandson, Matt, saw him listening and a slow, knowing smile spread on his face. In the twinkling of an eye, a bridge arced between them.

It was noon the next day when the boy rode his Harley over the bridge with an extra helmet on the back of the Hog.

Alex was almost ashamed to admit that he knew very well how to ride it. He had test-driven them dozens of times.

His grandson held him at the waist, shouting directions.

They stopped at the Stumble-Bee, just ten miles from home. “They sell the best lemonade in the world here.” The boy said.

Alex had heard of it for thirty years. He had been afraid of feeling mean, stopping alone when May lived, but as much as he ached for her now, he hadn’t wanted to bring her then.

A gathering men boasting beards to bring pride to the prophets, sat with their boots on the chairs. Lemonades sweated in the heat of their talk. The minister pivoted a chair so that two were together where their elbows had places to lean, and beckoned them to sit.

“This comet has us star gazers all in a dither because it’s so much bigger than most sun grazing comets. Most of them are short lived, but this one will sling past the sun inside Mercury’s orbit.”

“He teaches Logic and Rhetoric at State, “ Matt whispered.

“I thought comets were mostly ice. Won’t it burn up when it gets close?” the apple-cheeked minister asked.

“Comets’ been circling for millions of years. They don’t just suddenly crash into the sun.” The barmaid had been leaning on her elbows while the cheese sandwich she was grilling smoked.

The professor turned his scowl on her, the only woman in the room. “You never know, Muy Linda. We think of things in terms of an 80 year -life-span. The universe isn’t governed by our rules. “

Matt whispered, “’Leen-da’ means ‘pretty woman’ and ‘muy’ means ‘very’ in Spanish.”

“After sixty years of hiring migrants and living with your grandma, don’t you think I know what ‘muy linda’ means? I wasn’t born yesterday.”

“You can say that again.” The minister was getting lippy.

“And at my age, I probably will.”

The men laughed. The minister pointed to his lemonade and to the places beside Alex and Matt with his eyes on Linda. He seemed to think himself suddenly made host and so he waxed eloquent. “Remember that God isn’t ruled by time or space. To Him, the universe is like watching an arena of gladiators. It’s always the Fourth of July somewhere.”

“My brain starts folding in on itself when I think about God not having time. It seems that whatever sphere He exists in would be subject to some sort of measure of past and present. Alex didn’t know the speaker but he nodded agreeably. All that space sounded like unlimited work to the farmer.

“Alex, what’s your expense ratio gonna look like this year? I aint never seen cows grow so fat so fast.” In an hour, the asker’s lunch hour would end and he’d be back to his grammatical world of the Daily Telegraph.

Alex’s gut froze. Such a personal question! Most men would sooner ask a woman her weight to ask a farmer about his profitability.

Linda chuckled. “You’re not talking about the Quilting Queens, are you? Growing fat as cows indeed! I’m going to tell them what you said.” Linda dyed her hair a brassy auburn and had her eyeliner tattooed in the 70’s. But she had a few blue ribbons for her quilts. Most of the wives of the assembled men were ‘Quilting Queens’. May had been one, too. Linda was no willow twig herself but there was nobody cleverer with a needle and a scrap bag. At least May always said so.

“You never tell. Besides, I like my women a little on the plump side.” Alex recognized the lawyer by his canary yellow boots. They weren’t even his brightest ones.

“Me too,” the man of the cloth sighed. “I said it to my wife once and was celibate as a Catholic for a month afterward.”

There’s nothing like a minister mentioning sex to silence a conversation. But Alex wanted to answer the Editor’s question. His cows had indeed beefed up like so many corn-fed animals. The soil, so long parched, had rioted in the summer rains, growing the grass past the cattle’s shoulders. If the price of beef held, he’d set a record. The ‘history’ on May’s laptop would show he’d been scouring the region for trophy trucks.

He gestured to the lawyer’s boots. “I never saw boots like those before. I don’t think you won ‘em off a cowboy.”

“Nah, a cowboy’d laugh me out of town if he saw my boot collection. These are ostrich leather. You like ‘em?”

“Be careful how you answer.” It was a new speaker with a vaguely familiar voice. “Mark Wilson admired his turquoise pair and he made him try them on after church a few weeks ago. When Mark admitted that they fit well, Norm made him keep em’. Said they were a little small for him. Rode his cycle home in his stocking feet and went and bought himself a new pair exactly like the other pair the next day. Mark Wilson has to wear them once in a while, so he won’t hurt Norm’s feelin’s.”

“Yeah, they’re even prettier than these,” the lawyer sighed. He stroked his sideburns luxuriously when he said it. “Shouldn’t you be getting back from your rounds, Doc?”

That was why his voice was familiar. He had been May’s gynecologist. “Nah, I got time for one more round of Linda’s lemonade. If a doctor shows up on time for an appointment, the patients think you’re not busy and a physician who isn’t busy couldn’t be any good.”
Linda came around the bar with a dripping pitcher of lemonade and filled all the glasses in the room.

“I was wonderin’ when we’d see you in here, Alex.” The minister mused. “I knew it wouldn’t be long when you started the beard. You have to have a beard to join the Circle of Sages.”

The doctor pushed the minister’s chair with his foot. “I don’t know why we endure this imposter. Not only does he not have a beard, he can’t grow a beard. His wife told me he only shaves once a week.”

“My wife told you no such thing. I only shave on the first Sunday of the month. And if ya’ll kick me out, where’ll I get my sermon ideas? They’re bound to be longer, meandering around looking for a point.”

A low, warm chuckle rippled through the room.

Matt spoke. “I can’t grow a beard either. I’m hoping I’m just a late bloomer. I’ve always wanted to grow one.”

“You can have mine. It itches like the dickens.” Alex muttered.

“I wish I could take you up on that.”

“Alex, you’d be better off having Doc here, graft that beard on the top of your head for some shade.” He was one lippy preacher.

The chuckle rose and fell.

“I always wanted to ride a bull,”Norm-the-lawyer said.
“Not in the those pansy-yellow boots, I hope.” The editor could turn a phrase.

“Nah, I’d wear a white shirt and a black string tie with a silver slide. With my blue jeans and my body trampled to a red pulp, I’d be already dressed for a patriotic burial.”

The men took a thoughtful sip from their straws.

“There’s something else, other than comin’ in here, that I’ve always wanted to do. Never had the courage.” Alex matched his drawl to the pace of the languid talk.

“I bet I can guess it,” Matt said.

“I think not.” Alex was not the garrulous sort.

“Here’s something I know about my Grandpa that I don’t think anyone else in the world knows.” Matt, on the other hand, loved an audience. “On the far edge of his property, where Cottonwood Creek runs across the corner, there’s a swimming hole straight from Paradise. There’s a rope swing that I think he put up himself when he was a boy. The water’s always cold under the surface and there are a few catfish in there that are older than I am.”

“Yeah, we’ve heard of it.”

“Well then, I don’t need to describe it.”

“No you don’t.” The wistful note in the editor’s voice softened the boy’s tone.

“One day last summer, I rode a bunch of friends out there in the back of Grandpa’s farm truck. Even with the drought so long, the pool was still there.”

“That’s cuz there’s a spring in the bottom of it. It never goes dry,” Alex explained.

“Anyway, Grandpa comes out to say hi and he’s standing there in his sweaty overalls and his long sleeved shirt. He undid his one buckle and then his pager went off and he hurried back to my grandma. Am I on the right track?”

“I always wanted to go skinny-dipping. I never have.” The words slipped out naked as newborns before he could wipe them clean.

The minister sighed. “We used to sneak out of the boy’s cabins at midnight during church camp and go skinny dipping in the lake every year.”

But none of the others ever had. “We’re a bunch of warped old men,” the gynecologist murmured. “Never been skinny dipping and we come to bar to drink lemonade. No offense, Linda.”

“None taken. Why didn’t you try it, Alex?”

“I didn’t want May to think I was going to the devil. She was the rebar in my spine, keeping me upright.

Linda threw back her head and laughed from her generous belly.

“I’ll come with you, if you invite me,” the young minister said. “Just to make sure you don’t go to the devil. I’ll baptize you, if you want.”

In a moment the whole room had promised to come the next day, except for Matt.

“I’d be scarred for life,” he smiled, “skinny-dipping with a bunch of albino walruses. And I have a class.”

Alex didn’t sleep that night. He wondered half-fearfully what May would think of him. She who never paid less than exactly a tenth to the church, no matter how lean the larder was. She wore hose all summer long because it was ‘lady-like.’ He’d loved her for it, but sometimes in his sweaty moments alone in the dusty fields, he still thought of stepping into the Stumble-Bee. And he’d always wanted to feel the unimpeded lick of the cold, clean creek on his hide. Now, he trembled at the thought of it.

The first sun rays to dart into the kitchen found Alex stirring his raisin bran and wishing he’d never gone with Matt. Every great fall started with a little bite of forbidden fruit. But that minister! He’d endorsed the idea like they were planning a Rotary meeting.

The solar orb burned its way through the heavens, mercilessly climbing to the highest seat in the bleachers for a good view. Alex took off his watch and wedding ring. He’d lost weight since May died and they were loose.

He walked to the pool, his towel rolled under his arm, hoping and dreading that nobody would come.

The deep grass gave way at the edge of the low, red sandstone bluff. Alex pulled off his boots. A motorcycle sputtered to death. Another hummed in the distance, drawing closer.

Alex unbuckled his overalls, daring himself to let them slide.

But the commotion on the sandy road gathered. Old men, hoarse from not speaking their minds laughed now like G.I’s going to war, scared to show themselves men.

“I’ve never taken my shirt off in daylight since Nam,” the lawyer said. He shucked off his shirt and they honored a moment of silence for his scars and stripes.
Alex went to the bluff and let drop his trousers. He leaped out of his drawers in a perfect swan dive.

He heard splashing around him before he rose up from the green depths of the pool. Men shouted and launched themselves into the air. Cottonwood Creek had more moons than Saturn.

The smiling sun burned their flashing, white skins pink when they came up for air. Dimples and wrinkles wriggled into the depths, counting coups on the cowering catfish.

An hour goes wonderfully fast when time is suspended in sixty years of wishing. Cell phones buzzed and the staid suits were stapled back into place. Alex watched them go, listening to their tires rolling slowly away.

The hairless minister, more naked than anyone, recovered his clerical collar and mien. “It was a good time, Alex. See you Sunday.”

“You’ll never look the same to me, Preacher.”

The holy man waved and turned to his hospital duty.

Alex laughed and laid himself back on the quieting pool.

“I have fond memories of this place myself.”

Alex yelped as he recognized Linda. She stood on the bluff, nudging his clothes back from the edge with the side of her foot.

She laughed, throwing back her head like she had the day before. “I’m glad for you, Alex. We always felt mean, May and I and the other Quilting Queens, when we’d sneak off here for a swim, au natural, and never invite our men folk. But then it might not have been proper, either. Back then, when we were pleasingly plump and knew you’d be all hot and bothered.”

She unstretched her blue-jeans from the plentiful folds of her body. The polyester silk slid away from her chest as she unharnessed herself underneath. “But it’s not like that now.”

Alex averted his eyes in gentlemanly horror.

“ You can look. I know you’re curious. And it’s only fair, since I took a good look at you.”

The brassy red hair was a wig that covered the grey wispy memories. She wasn’t much different than May was, there at the end.

“May always said we looked terrible in bathing suits, so why bother?” She seized the old rope and swung into the air, dropping into the mighty crown of a splash. Muy Linda gurgled and laughed as she spit out the pond and splashed the old man in the face.

And Alex kicked slowly away, feeling the cool liquid licking on his unprotected head and tasting the salty wisdom that streamed, too late, from his eyes.

Site Map

HOME           ShortStories           Essays           Poems         Websites      

Meetings         Comments         ContactUs         Members

This is the website of the Red Dirt Writers Society.
Revised September 2013.