Nudity and Nocturnals

by Danielle Kessinger

From a distance it looked almost staged—the people lining the water's edge, the blankets and bits of clothing fanned out around them, the five naked, struggling forms revealed in the rise and fall of waves—nudists being pulled out to sea. She should have known when she saw the armadillos out in daylight, the sun upon their shells creating shuffling points of light, that the hurricane wasn't turning.

At first, she just watched the animals from the window of her house, a salt-worn two-story that stood on the thin strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Florida's Intercoastal Waterway. It was the last house still occupied within the bounds of the National Seashore. When the government annexed the land, it let the few elderly retirees remain. She hadn't wanted to stay, but Richard had loved the house surrounded by ocean and mangroves, the place he'd spent his life working towards.

Going down the driveway and out onto the road, she watched the animals warily, her cane keeping a slow, careful rhythm. The armadillos were staying in the grass on the side of the old road, not going past the frayed edges of pavement. She'd never seen them during the day unless they were flat and frying on the blacktop. Richard had always admired their form, the complexity of their shell, but she thought them ugly, something prehistoric-looking that should have disappeared with the ice age.

She measured the distance in parking lots. Each one designated a different segment of beach, all of them unofficial: the fishing beach, the tanning beach, the surfing beach, and the nudist beach. That morning, the parking lot for the nudist beach was full of shiny Harleys, BMWs, and a banner strung between two trees with bright red letters declaring "National Nudist Week." Richard had always joked that he'd take her to that beach someday.

When she arrived at the ranger station, two of the rangers, Jeanine and Nathaniel, were leaning against the counter. They waved in Mrs. Frumess' direction before continuing with their argument.

"Hurricane Fred?" Nathaniel said. "They're calling it Hurricane Fred. If we have to get those nudists off the beach, it's going to be difficult to convince them with a Fred."

"Don't worry. They always hit up in the Carolinas or down south. They're already predicting it'll make landfall near Charleston." Jeanine turned towards her, pushing back hair sun and salt bleached from hours of surfing. "Mrs. Frumess, have you ever seen anything more serious than rain and some great waves?"

"You might be too young to remember when Andrew hit, but the winds up here were enough to take the shingles off roofs." She gestured with her cane. "Of course, there were fewer homes then, and people built sturdy. Fewer of these fancy places with the floor to ceiling windows asking for a palm tree to go flying through."

"Mrs. Frumess, was that a jab at the bourgeoisie?" Nathaniel asked.

"Stop being a troublemaker," said Mrs. Frumess.

He tipped his hat at her.

She remembered Nathaniel as a little boy running barefoot on the sand. His father, Gabriel, owned the bait and tackle shop, the only business at their end of the beach. After a year of early morning pleasantries, Gabriel invited Richard fishing with his friends, and it became a weekly ritual.

She'd gone with him once, on one of his first outings. Richard had greeted each man with smiles and back slaps, while she stood separate from their easy camaraderie. When evening fell, an armada of little boats had moved to the center of the channel. As the motors stilled, the men took out small nets and, gripping one side with their teeth, cast them out in an arc. Nathaniel, barely ten at the time, had patiently reminded Richard where to hold the net, demonstrating the turn of the shoulders, the snap of the wrist. A shouted encouragement from his boy-teacher, and Richard gathered the nylon with deft fingers before throwing it to spread gossamer threads like a spider web on the water. It had been years since she'd noticed his grace, the calm precision of his movements. Instead, there had been dinners cold on the table and his hands on her tensed shoulders promising time someday, always the whispered someday, until she wanted to press his palms firm against her ears.

She looked at Nathaniel, suddenly, inexplicably a grown man, the curves of his face given over to hard planes, and felt the weight of years.

"Mrs. Frumess, do you need me to come by and pull in the porch furniture, just in case it passes near here?" Nathaniel asked.

"When the leaves start coming off the trees, I'll worry." She picked up her cane. "I should head home."

"Let me drive you," he said, moving to take her arm.

"I'm fine," she said, waving his concern away.

The next morning she rose early to sit outside and watch the storm swells carve their way up the shore. When people said, "You must love it out here. It's so quiet," she wondered that they didn't notice the constant rustle and roil of the ocean. Usually it was a steady hum in the background, but there were times when she felt the waves would deafen her.

As the wind strengthened, she went into the house, ignoring the ringing phone. She wondered if the storm would damage the dunes, remembering their first months on the barrier island and watching a sea turtle laying eggs among the hillocks. That night, she had told him she wanted to move back inland, hating the mosquitoes, the armadillos, and long days with only him for company. He had agreed to discuss it only if she would take a walk with him. It was late, the water turned to ink and silver. She'd been the first to spot the turtle struggling to pull its weight up the shore. They'd crept nearer as it made a hollow in the sand with rhythmic, powerful sweeps. Richard had taken her hand as they stood counting each globe as it caught a bit of moonlight before dropping into darkness.

She moved slowly around the living room, dusting twenty years worth of mementos of the beach, pictures of Richard nestled among them. The phone rang again, and she closed her eyes and imagined the hurricane taking the dunes, the house, and her.

There was a loud bang at the door and a shouted, "Mrs. Frumess."

"Mrs. Frumess," Nathaniel banged again. "I don't have time for this. We've got to evacuate now. It's turned right towards us." There was no give in his voice.

She opened the door, feeling proud. "You look so tough."

He glared.

"It's not as if the world would miss one old woman."

Nathaniel put a hand on her shoulder. "You don't really believe that."

She shrugged. They only knew her because they'd all loved Richard. She was merely what was left in his wake.

Jeanine's voice came through the static on the radio. "Five nudists caught in a rip tide. I need you down here."

"Shit, I'm on my way." He got her into the car and sped down the road, swerving to avoid armadillos nosing their way onto the black top. When they pulled into the parking lot Nathaniel told her to stay in the car.

She looked at the ramp leading to the beach and wished she'd sat naked on the sand with Richard, sharing what they could with the air. There were so many somedays still stored and unspent when they'd called her from the marina to tell her about his heart, and the ambulance, and the nothing they could do. Forty years of work and he'd only gotten six by the sea, leaving her alone with decades of waves.

She got out of the car and made her way slowly up the ramp. As she reached the top, Nathaniel dove into the water. There were clumps of people in various states of undress scattered across the sand. She hobbled over to a group of pale, middle aged men watching their companions swirled in the surf and thought she hadn't missed much skipping the beach for all those years.

Mrs. Frumess shook her head, picking up discarded beach towels. "Wrap yourselves up, you idiots," she said handing them towels. "You're getting all shriveled."

The men stared at her until she forcibly wrapped a towel around the waist of a large man with a snake tattoo. She had convinced half of them to put something on when a thin, gray haired man stopped her.

"What are you doing?" He stood in front of her, hands on his naked hips.

Mrs. Frumess handed the towels to a short woman standing next to her. "What does it look like I'm doing?" She said, mirroring his pose. "I'm covering people up."

"There is nothing shameful about the human body." For all his gray hair, he had the physique of a man who spent a great deal of time ensuring there was nothing shameful to see.

She held out a towel. "This wind's reaching gale force and it can't be healthy for you to be flapping about."

He glanced down and, with great dignity, took the towel and carefully wrapped it around his waist. Together, they turned towards the tide to see Jeanine and Nathaniel pull the last of the swimmers from the water.

Thirty minutes later, she was in a large white van sitting between a woman not that much younger than her and the man with the snake tattoo, now covered. The rangers were outside trying to move armadillos off the road by shaking towels like capes in a bullfight.

"Why don't we just drive over them," said the woman sitting next to Mrs. Frumess.

"That would be faster, but so would have been letting you people wash out to sea." She looked around and saw the tops of canoe paddles sticking out from behind a seat. "Grab those for me," she told the man sitting beside her.

They passed them up to hand to the rangers, and she climbed out after them.

"Mrs. Frumess, get back in the car," Nathaniel told her.

She held out her hand. "Let me just do one." When Nathaniel shook his head she said, "Please, I'm old and today's the day."

"Okay, just be careful," he said, handing her the paddle.

She took it from him, grip firm, and found her target, a small armadillo directly in front of the van. She gently swung the paddle in its path, until its little legs took it, grunting, into the brush. She smiled, thinking she was eighty-two years old, and in a single day she'd seen more naked men than she'd seen in a life time, and herded a dinosaur, however small its size.

BIO: Danielle has lived and written in the mountains of Colorado, Japan, North Carolina, and Costa Rica. Now, she resides in the flatlands of Florida and composes poetry on a paddleboard in gator-infested waters. She recently completed her first novel.