Authors: Dianne Nelson,Dianne Nelson Oberhansly
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
A Brief History of Male Nudes in America
Winner of The Flanner O'Connor Award For Shart Fiction
Dianne Nelson Oberhansly
Paperback edition published in 2011
by the University of Georgia Press
Athens, Georgia 30602
Â© 1993 by Dianne Nelson
All rights reserved
Designed by Erin Kirk New
Set in 10/14 Berkeley Old Style Book
by Tseng Information Systems, Inc.
Printed digitally in the United States of America
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition of this book as follows: Oberhansly, Dianne Nelson.
A brief history of male nudes in America / Dianne Nelson.
137 p.; 23 cm.
ISBN 0-8203-1571-0 (alk. paper)
Paperback ISBN-13: 978-0-8203-3997-9
British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data available
Some of these stories first appeared in the following publications:
“A Brief History of Male Nudes in America” in the
, “Evolution of Words” in the
, “Exactly Where I Am” in
, “Ground Rules” in
, “A Map of Kansas” in the
New England Review
, “Nature's Way” in the
Beloit Fiction Journal
, “Paperweight” in
Hayden's Ferry Review
, and “Simple Yellow Cloth” in the
ISBN for this digital edition: 978-0-8203-4200-9
With special thanks to my parents, Marion and Wanda, to the Utah Arts Council, and to Ron Carlson
A Brief History of Male Nudes in America
ewis Houser and his thirteen-year-old son Nathan were hiding behind a toolshed in the unlucky state of Missouri. They had been like that for over an hourâwaitingâready to salvage their lives and take what was theirs. “Ground rule number one,” Lewis had told Nathan earlier, “is no talking, not even a single word because this hot, windless air can take a sound and stretch it and make it last forever.” Nathan was small for his age, but he understood perfectly what they were doing, and as he stood there with his father behind the shed he was determined that the sun could bake him and that he could stand forever and a day on a boy's shaky legs, but he would not say a word.
From their secret vantage point, Lewis and Nathan watched the back of the house, specifically the screen door, which had banged open and shut twice since they began their wait. Both times it was Alta who came out of the house, first to empty a white sack into a garbage can and then to hang laundry on the clothesline. Lewis noticed
that she was thinner than before, tanned and rather slow, no longer his Snow Queen, no longer the rouged Queen Bee he had married in a six-minute ceremony in Ely, Nevada.
“She's no one that we even know anymore”âthat was ground rule number two, and three weeks ago Lewis had bought Nathan a lime snow cone to explain it. “She was your mother once,” he told Nathan in a snack shop called Pacific Ice, “but now she's another woman. She made her choices, and they didn't include us. Thirteen is old enough to swallow your teeth and accept that.”
And, in fact, Nathan had felt nothing when Alta came out of the house. In the past three years that she had been living another life, Nathan had practiced feeling nothing, had steadily pressed the lead of a pencil into his hand every day of school until his father had seen it, opened the bottle of Merthiolate, and said, “Boys who like to hurt themselves wind up downriver.”
When Nathan looked at Alta there in her yard after so much practice, she was just someone reaching up to hang a wet shirt on a line. She was only a tired looking, dark-haired obstacle who separated them from what they had driven eight hundred miles in an oil-guzzling Chrysler to retrieve.
They knew that Todd was inside the house, and they knew that they were in limbo until they had him backâthe three of them in the Chrysler heading into a star-topped, million-dollar world where Lewis said their bread would always come buttered hot. The windows in the house were open, and soon after they arrived at their point of surveillance Lewis and Nathan had heard the TV from inside, something that sounded like cartoonsâa duck talking, a woodpecker going crazy on a tree. Lewis had turned to Nathan and pointed at his own ear, and Nathan shook his head yes in response, signaling that he'd heard it, too.
Standing silent as grass, their cotton shirts sweated through, they waited in their place and became familiar with ground rule number threeâinvisibility. At first Nathan could not imagine being a ghost,
but that's how his father had described it. “No one can see us. Everything has to be done in the blink of a blue eye.” They had bulldozed the brown getaway Chrysler into a hearty stand of sumac just down the road so that the car became invisible as well, vinyl top and rust spots lost to the dense Midwestern cover. Now they stood at the very edge of the toolshed in a hairline margin of safety where they could watch the house but still remain unseen. “One careless move, a sneeze or even a cough could ruin everything,” Lewis had warned Nathan, but Nathan had sworn he could do it, he could be a ghost, he could swallow a sneeze, he could bite a crouping cough back for hours.
“Know what a felony is?” Lewis had asked Nathan while changing the plugs on the Chrysler weeks ago. Nathan thought his father had said melody, so he answered yes. Lewis nodded and bent back over the engine, which was a place of comfort for himâgaskets and pinpoint metal and the high frequency belts humming when all was right.
There was no such comfort in Alta's yard, behind the toolshed, where the two of them shifted their weight from leg to leg. Lewis had shown Nathan how to stand loose, how to relax and let his arms hang like riffraff, but at the least sound or signal they were to cock their heels and get eagle-eyed, quick. “Don't keep time or it'll wind up keeping you,” Lewis had warned Nathan. An hourâwhich they had not trackedâin the midday sun had turned even their hair hot, and when Nathan moved his hand to the top of his head to shield it for a moment, Lewis shook his head back at Nathan in a hard no.
Shortly after that the back door opened with a dull scraping for the third time, and Todd walked down the limestone steps. Neither Lewis nor Nathan had seen him in three years, but both of them knew the towheaded four-year-old in an instant. They had lived their lives for him, driven across three states, and spent hours rehearsing a plan that was skintight and urgent. They had let go of everything back thenâAlta and the house in Durango and the easy constellation that the four of them had once madeâexcept Todd, the baby, whom they could
not forget. He had been too tiny then, just honeycomb wrapped in a blanket, but now he was halfway to Lewis's waist and had more than a fighting chance.
Todd lingered on the steps, looking down at his bare feet, and for both Lewis and Nathan that was the most difficult moment, the future flickering but not quite there. Nathan held his breath and looked at his fatherâthe lead man, the ball in the socket of this operationâwho crouched now, concentrating, calculating the distance and multiplying it by their adrenalin.
Then slowly, like someone in a wavy dream, Todd took three steps toward the yard. There was a tricycle in the grass and the bright, plastic pieces of some former toy. Lewis lifted his hand, made a fist, and he and Nathan went running, skimming the ground really, moving in what Lewis had described to Nathan as a “moment's opportunityâsometimes a crack no wider than a jarred window through which the rest of your life might be waiting.”
Nathan was at Lewis's side, not a follower now, but a thinking, running, feeling shadow who saw the expanse of grass between him and his brother Todd as a long, green tunnel, the sky above as a blue corral. And it was then, suddenly, that Nathan thought of himself as a horseâlong-legged and filled with lightning. “Don't think about your feet, or you'll monkey-wrench yourself,” his father had told him, and now, moving closer and closer to their target, Nathan doubted that he even had feet, except for the presence of his shoes. They were girls' high-top Keds, and it was the only thing in all the world that he resented his father for.
If Alta had looked out the kitchen window then, she might have seen something shimmering, something in a mad hundred-yard dash, white heat waves, or just a man and a boy, but Alta was making beds, struggling with a sheet to make a tight hospital fit.
Outside, Lewis picked the boy up, the towhead, the astonished baby whose face, Lewis could see now, was still sweet and small as an egg. Todd weighed forty pounds, Lewis guessed, as much as a wet
shepherd pup, and Lewis pulled him tight to his chest, in love, yes, but also in strategyâno kicking, no chance to get away. He covered Todd's mouth with his hand, not a thing he liked to do, but the windows were open and Alta had three ears and eyes in the back of her head and one time claimed ESP during her period. Lewis had doubted that, but he also knew that Alta was capable of surprises, like the day she had just up and packed two suitcases, some guy with slicked back hair waiting for her out front in a Wagoneer. Lewis had calmly walked out there and told him to get off the property; he could wait for Alta out on the road at the gate.
In all of itâthe plan to get their lives backâLewis and Nathan never stopped running: across the yard, then down for the boy, up and over the back hillside, and finally toward the car. “Fly,” Lewis had told Nathan, and he said it just the way Nathan thought the word should be said: spellbound, drawing the sound out into thin air. “Leave a footprint,” Lewis had warned in the early stages, “and that's as good as a letter of introduction. Make a leaf fall, and our butts are instantly stewed.”
So they were ghosts and birds, not the two of them, but three now, plowing through the Missouri countryside, which was not a landscape made for speed, covered, as it was, with thistles and cottonwood seedlings and brush. Lewis and Nathan were breathing hard, looking ahead for the car, though Lewis knew, every minute, every second, just where they were. For an instant he looked down at Todd in his arms, and the thing about being a father which he had felt before at unexpected timesâlike electricity, like biting on a hot bare wireâran through him.
Minutes later, days laterâNathan thought of it as yearsâthey arrived at the car, which Lewis had said only a wisenheimer would see as safety. They hurriedly got in and anchored Todd between them on the front seat, and with his mouth finally uncovered he started his eight hundred miles of whimpering, “Mama, mama, mama”âa cry in triplicate that would seep, eventually, into Nathan's every dream.
“Ground rule,” Lewis told both boys after an unfriendly Dairy Queen waitress had handed them melting Buster Bars in the bare little town of Sedalia. “Don't look back. Do what's necessary, then barrel like an ox toward Christmas.”
“Chryslers, unfortunately, beg to be seen,” Lewis told his sons, and so they drove the back roads, viewing the most plug-ugly state Lewis and Nathan had ever witnessedâbig, muddy rivers and a played-out sky. Late afternoon came and then twilight, and finally Lewis looked over and saw that both boys were asleep, rag soft and contorted on the seat next to him, boys who could fill up a space, make it fit their own needs. As he drove, he kept looking over at them, at the blonde baby and the dark, well-lessoned thirteen-year-old, and he imagined everything they would do: ski and rebuild engines, hang a Christmas piÃ±ata from the back tree, they would swim and cook eggs with Tabasco, grow some Indian corn. On and on it went in Lewis's mind until he grew tender with the largeness of their lives, until sometime after midnightâthe boys still sleeping, the chain link of stars glimmering aboveâthey crossed the line into the sweet, big grainbelt of Kansas.