The Naked Man

Geoffrey Becker

I hadn’t always been the Naked Man. While his head was mine—dark, curly hair, glasses, an earnest, somewhat baffled look on a middle-aged face with an almost blue beard line and what I like to think of as a dueling scar on my left cheek (actually, I had a cyst removed there, and the doctor botched the job)—the body belonged to my wife’s former boyfriend, a man with the unlikely name of Garth, who taught earth science at a high school in Ohio. Garth had posed for other paintings, too, but this was the last, and the only one he’d done nude. To make him feel better about his slight paunch (he probably had ten pounds on me), she’d exaggerated his private parts, but she hadn’t finished the painting when they split up. The face was still only blocked in, and for various reasons, she didn’t feel right about having it be Garth’s at all anymore. “What do you think?” she asked me. “You’ll impress the world.” And I have to admit, it did enter into my thinking when I agreed.
    Tina had been accepted for a show at a nonprofit gallery in Virginia, and though we debated going, when the time came, we decided to make a trip out of it. It was probably our last, just the two of us, since our baby, Frick, which was what we were still calling him, was due in May, and it was already February. Now we were at this party at a house right out of the pages of Architectural Digest, planted in the middle of horse country, ten miles from town and at least a half mile from the country road we’d followed to get here. Earlier tonight had been the pre-opening opening, especially for benefactors and supporters. The gallery had used me, in a detail from the painting, for the postcard advertising the show. My head, Garth’s body, this composite naked man standing on a country path holding a shopping bag full of groceries, staring out into space as if trying to remember some item he’d forgotten to purchase. So that the image would be acceptable to the post office, they’d designed a little sticker in the shape of a pair of red boxers to affix to each card. It was pretty cute. All night, people had been eyeing me, trying to remember where we’d met before. Then it would hit them. They’d look at me, they’d look at Tina, with her swollen belly. They’d look back at me and smile.
    I rejoined Tina in the living room. I knew she was worried. “You ought to see the bathroom,” I said, placing my wine carefully on the glass coffee table. “One whole wall is see-through.” In fact, there wasn’t a door in the house, other than the ones leading outside.
    “Just imagine trying to sell this place,” she said. We talked about real estate a lot. We were in a little over our heads in that respect, having bought a row house two years ago, at the top of the market. Our neighbor, an older guy who’d purchased the rental property next door back in the 1960s for ten bucks and a carton of Lucky Strikes, was always looking at me like I was Ed McMahon, come to deliver him his Publishers Clearing House check. But I knew—it would be a long while before anything in the neighborhood sold for near what we’d paid. I could hear the value escaping from our walls like air hissing out of a leaky tire. I was upside down on the store, too, and in general, money was keeping me awake nights.
    “You couldn’t,” I said. “It’s too strange.”
    “Anyone who bought it would have to change who they were to accommodate the house.”
    I moved with her to the floor next to the enormous fireplace, which was not part of a wall, but away from it, with a black metal chimney that shot up a good twenty feet before meeting the steeply angled roof. All around us, the party was happily chattering away. The two other artists held court in the opposite corners, enjoying their celebrity. One was an older guy who taught at a prestigious college someplace and did small paintings that seemed to be scenes from a love affair—a messed-up bed, someone peering through Venetian blinds, a half-finished drink sweating on a desk next to a fan. Then there was this tall kid with hip eyeglasses and a ski hat whose six-foot canvases were staged images of his girlfriend and other people in his life in the aftermath of some violent event, sporting bruises, bloody lips, etcetera. He’d assured us earlier that no one had actually gotten hurt. It was all just theater.
    “Anything?” I asked.
    “Nope.” It had been a few hours since she’d felt the baby. Tina’s hair had grown long and thick over the past months and was now well past her shoulders. Her full breasts pressed against the flower-print top she’d bought to wear for this trip. Back home, when she wasn’t going in to teach at the college, she lived mostly in a pair of stripy pajama bottoms.
    “Did you drink water?”
    “I drank water. I lay down. I stood back up. I did the jerk. It’s like he stepped out for a cigarette break.”
    “No more than usual.”
    “I’m going to call the store,” I said.
    “Go ahead.”
    After a few rings, Hobey picked up. Between the noise of this party and the one that seemed to be going on in Baltimore, it was hard to communicate. “You okay?” I shouted. A man across the room with a white suit and a pink tie turned to look at me, and I smiled.
    “Fine!” sang Hobey. I’d taken her on mostly because she was a wizard at changing guitar strings, and it turned out that this was a service I needed to provide the public on a regular basis. I’d bought a little mom-and-pop music store last year from a guy named Edelman, who was now someplace in Florida, supposedly, although I was having a hell of a time contacting him. It turned out that a lot of the stock I’d paid him for—much of it dusty and dating back to at least the eighties—was in fact still the property of various manufacturers who had given up on Edelman years ago, but now, smelling fresh blood in the water, were circling again, sending me letters suggesting litigation, boycott, and ruin. I did most of my business on lessons, strings, and picks. But I got to be around guitars all day, which was something I’d always thought I’d like, and sometimes I imagined little Frick in there with me, crawling around in the dust balls, knocking over music stands.
    “You practicing?” I’d told her Hobey and the Lesbians could rehearse in the shop, so long as they kept it down and quit by eleven.
    “Yeah!” she shouted. “How’s the show?”
    I poked Tina, who was sniffing the cookie I’d brought her. “How’s the show?”
    “So far, so good.”
    “Good!” I said. This whole call was beginning to feel pointless. I imagined the scene back there. Hobey and her girlfriend the bass player, her buddies Jason and Jeremy on drums and keys, a case of National Bohemian. Hobey fully admitted to needing more lesbians in Hobey and the Lesbians, but Jason and Jeremy were filling in for now and didn’t seem fazed by their temporary status. I envied all of them. They were driven with a kind of energy and optimism about the future. They had an actual gig upcoming in the spring, at a women’s collective in Greektown.
    “And Frick?” she shouted.
    “Sound asleep,” I said.
    “I wish you wouldn’t talk to her about us,” said Tina, when I hung up. “It feels like bad luck.”
    The financial-advice guy was winding down the speech he was giving to some horsey-set lady who actually had on riding boots, and I could tell he had his eyes on us for next. I’d never been at a party where people wanted to be around me so much.
    “I’ve got a buyer for the Naked Man,” I told her. “She approached me in the bathroom. That Broccoli woman.”
    “This is her house.”
    “I know that.”
    “In the bathroom?”
    “They have the bar set up in there. Don’t ask me why.”
    “What did you tell her?”
    “NFS. I think she might be related to those movie people, the ones who do all the Bond films.”
    “That’s interesting,” said Tina. She didn’t like movies. Her paintings were narrative oils depicting imaginary adventures of Marco Polo: as a tourist at a provincial museum full of dusty, strange objects, or being welcomed by beautiful girls at a city that was in fact nothing but a painted set, behind which you could see the crumbling facades of the real buildings. The paintings were about perception and reality, about xenophobia, about appropriation. They took about 150 hours each and were excruciatingly detailed—she was a big Fra Angelico fan. But the main thing about them was that they were not for sale. In the time we’d been together, she had yet to agree to sell a single one of them. She needed them all so she could try to get into a New York gallery. The irony of this did not escape either of us, although we didn’t talk about it much. If she did get a fancy gallery to take her on, and they sold these pieces, it would be years before she’d have enough work for another show. With the kid, maybe longer. Of course, I loved her paintings, even the one with me in it (Marco Polo chooses to scramble off the path I’m walking along rather than confront me, even though the vegetation is all thorns and cacti and there are bees—it was one of her funnier scenes), loved having them hang on our walls when they weren’t out at some show. But a commodity is a commodity, I kept telling her. If art is your business, you figure out a way to make it economically viable. You sell your work.
    “Did you eat anything? They have a lot of good stuff. Not just those designer hot dogs. There’s veggie lasagna.”
    “I’m not so hungry.” She sniffed the cookie again.
    “You’re always hungry.”
    “Thank you. Am I supposed to be worried or not? Whatever you say, I’ll try for that. But could you try to be consistent?”
    “Absolutely,” I said. “I’ll be consistent.”
    “So which is it?”
    “We’re not worrying.” I stroked her leg. “Everything’s fine.”

Maybe it really was the drugs. Back in high school, my friends and I always used to joke about the ridiculous things they wanted you to believe, that LSD would screw up your genes (not to mention make you turn into Art Linkletter’s daughter and try flying off a roof). Your kids would come out with two heads, or bicycle wheels instead of feet. For whatever reason, I wasn’t worried. I was certain that when I decided to have kids, despite my misspent youth, I’d be able to.
    But we couldn’t, Tina and I. We started trying right after the wedding. It was late for both of us—she was thirty-four, I was forty-three—but I still expected to knock the first pitch right into the stands. Instead, I struck out swinging. We tried different positions. We monitored her temperature, circled days on the calendar, went out for romantic meals followed by elaborate desserts. After a year, we went in for tests. The results were interesting.
    Oliogiospermia. Astenozoospermia. Teratosoospermia. Low count, lousy swimmers, misshapen, anyway. This, in spite of the fact that my college girlfriend had hit me up for three hundred dollars for an abortion, something I now considered to have been unlikely to have been related to me. Enter “Brad.” “Brad,” is what I called him, of course. Cryo-Logic, the company we eventually settled on, called him N311. For close to a month, Tina was glued to her computer every night, going through the profiles. Before we’d met, she’d done some computer dating, and she brought all her skills to bear on this new problem. Eye color, education, height, ancestry, religion. It was daunting.
    “I sort of want a vegetarian,” she said.
    “I’m not a vegetarian,” I pointed out. “Shouldn’t you want someone like me?”
    “Of course,” she said. “Of course.”
    For more money, you could get more info. Some places allowed you to see adult photos of the guys, but I drew the line at that. I didn’t want her hearing voice clips, either, although that was a possibility with an upgraded membership. What did they sound like? Hello, my name is Brad. I like walking on the beach, sunsets, and old Billy Joel songs, from before he met Christy Brinkley. I hope you’ll choose me.
    And now, Brad had begot Frick, who had somehow managed to grab onto my wife’s uterine wall and ontogenically recapitulate phylogeny, moving from tadpole to fish to alien space-being (we’d seen him at the twenty-week ultrasound in all his Kubrickesque weirdness, big headed and dreaming of world domination), to the restless, waiting child who liked to practice Tae Bo in my wife’s stomach while she tried to paint.
    I walked her into the dining area, and we looked at all the food. A platter of cheeses, the lasagna, an enormous bowl full of duck and boar sausages, three kinds of mustard, pasta salad, fruit salad, salad salad. I could see into the kitchen, where the caterer was readying an enormous chocolate cake.
    A commotion began in the other room. A woman shouted. People drew away, and the scene revealed itself. The older painter had the younger one in a headlock from behind. “Worthless little shit,” he was saying. They moved together that way, the boy’s long frame tilted backward and unbalanced, his eyes tight, his red ski hat riding up on his forehead.
    “Do you believe this?” I said. “What idiots.”
    “Post ironic?” the older one was shouting. “Post ironic?”
    “This is awful,” said Tina, alarmed. “Someone needs to stop them.”
    I figured it might as well be the Naked Man. I pushed through a couple of onlookers and quickly reached the two artists. “Hey!” I shouted at the older one. Bill was his name. I think it was Bill. His shirt had little flamingos all over it. Post ironic, indeed. I pried his hands from around the kid’s neck, then got between them and took a deep breath, hoping to inflate myself a size or two so he wouldn’t think of messing with me.
    “Ha!” shouted Bill, his eyes lit with delight.
    “Ha ha,” said the kid, behind me, who had dropped to the floor and was now getting to his feet. “Ho ho. Oh, man.”
    Bill moved past me, and in a moment he and the kid were embracing like teammates who’d each had part of scoring a winning goal. Bill worked the kid’s hat around with a muscular hand. “I love this guy,” he said.
    “When you come to Atlanta,” said the kid, “we’re going to roast a pig.”

We hung around until about ten, me tossing back the wine and helping myself to the food, Tina making polite conversation with more of the guests. She’d gained twenty-five pounds so far, but I’d gained ten, easy. I thought it was the least I could do. That and making encouraging sounds for Frick, my mouth pressed against Tina’s stomach, something I’d done morning and night after the transfer, back when we were waiting to see if we’d gotten lucky. There were two embryos; only one had managed to hang in, which was what we’d hoped for. Frack had just been there to load the odds, which might sound kind of hard, but these are things you have to be hard about, and twins would have broken the bank for us, although we’d have sucked it up if we’d had to. I made the noises with my lips those first few days, just a quiet, pop-popping, like what I imagined bubbles sounded like underwater. I didn’t want to upset him; I just wanted him to feel at home. Lately, I sang classic rock and soul to him.
    Norma Broccoli walked us to the door. “It’s been such a pleasure,” she said. “Your work is magnificent. So controlled. Of course the artist herself is just as impressive.”
    “You’re only glad I didn’t stage a fistfight,” said Tina, smiling.
    “Absolutely. Thank you.”
    Norma looked at me.
“Sorry,” I said. “She won’t do it. Although, out of curiosity, I wonder how much you might be willing to pay for the Naked Man?”
    Tina blushed. “We have to go,” she said.
    “Ten thousand?” I asked.
    “You look wonderful,” said Norma Broccoli. “Enjoy this time. It’s very special.”
    The walk to the car was cold and silent. “How could you?” she said, when we were inside and I’d started the engine. “Paintings aren’t sold that way. You know that.”
    “Well, maybe they ought to be.” I turned on the fan for the heater and put the car into gear and attempted to figure out where the driveway was. We’d parked in a field, and even though there was a net of bright stars glimmering above us, the night was very dark.
    “That was crass. You don’t talk money to people. Your gallery does that.”
    “And takes fifty percent.”
    “They have bills to pay.”
“I can’t believe you’re worrying about your gallery’s bills when you don’t even have a gallery yet.”
“And I can’t believe you would embarrass me like that.”
    “I just wondered. In my world, everyone knows what things are worth. A cheap Mexican Stratocaster costs two to three hundred dollars, period. That kid from Atlanta wants eight thousand bucks for a portrait of his girlfriend with a fake black eye? That should fund a couple of pig roasts. I don’t know—” I ran over a big rock, making the whole car bounce up and down. “Sorry.”
    “Just don’t strand us out here. We might never be found.”
    My cell phone rang, and I answered it. “Is there a fuse box or something?” Hobey asked.
    “Circuit breaker.” My fingers were freezing. “In the basement. Bottom of the steps, on the right.”
    “Thanks!” she said, cheerily.
    I pushed “End Call.” “Circuit breaker,” I explained.
    “I still don’t feel him,” said Tina. “It’s been hours and hours. It’s never this long. He should be awake by now. He should be swimming around.”
    “Maybe art bores him. Maybe he’s meditating.” Among the things we knew about Brad was that he practiced transcendental meditation. I’d thought this alone ought to disqualify him, but Tina said she got a feeling from N311. Here were some other things about him. He was five ten, an inch taller than me. He’d graduated from an Ivy League school, summa, with a degree in history; I had barely eked out a music degree from a second-rate college in New Jersey. He played soccer, basketball, and tennis, all competitively—I’d never been a team-sports type of guy. (Tina claimed that this part of his résumé meant nothing to her, but I wondered if the prospect of reproduction had somehow brought out the latent cheerleader in her.) His hair was the same color as mine, which was something. His favorite color was orange. That one had really gotten me. I didn’t think I had a favorite color. I liked certain colors at certain times. It seemed unreasonable to ask such a question without any context. But orange? What kind of guy would pick orange? I suspected this answer. It was perhaps the one thing I had on Brad—I was certain he’d lied about his favorite color.
    “Hey!” I shouted. “Wake up!”
    She put her hand on her belly for a few moments, then looked at me. “Nothing.”
    “It’s okay,” I told her. “Really, I’m sure of it. He’s come all this way, he’s not going to give up now.”
    “You don’t know that,” she said. “You don’t know anything for certain.”
    “Did I ever tell you about the mouse? Years ago, back when I lived in Brooklyn, back in my twenties, we had a mouse problem. It was October, and they were coming in to get warm and I was trapping them at the rate of three or four a day. Then one night I hear this weird sound from the next room. I figure out it’s a mouse, only it’s got a trap on its tail. I mean, there’s really nothing wrong with the mouse at all other than fear, but it’s got this big Victory-brand trap attached to it slowing it down and making it impossible for it to slip into some nook or crack in the woodwork. My brilliant solution was to try to drown it. I got this forceps we had lying around to use as a roach clip, and I picked the poor guy up by the trap and dunked him into a Chock full o’ Nuts can full of water. It was horrible. I still remember every second of it. He struggled in there and even cried out—I’m serious, I heard little mouse screams from inside the can. It must have taken a full minute, or even longer. It seemed like an hour, I know that.”
    “Why are you telling me this?”
    “Because.” I watched another departing guest’s headlights approach us, momentarily filling our car with light—the side of Tina’s face appearing and disappearing before my eyes—then pass away along the driveway. “I’d thought if I just stuck that mouse underwater, he’d turn off—go out like a candle or something. But it’s not like that at all. Living things want to live, more than anything. They want to live. It might be the most powerful force in the universe.”
    She took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “That’s a sad story,” she said.

At the hotel, there were free cookies out in the lobby, so we took some up to our room and ate them on the bed. She cried a little, but not too much, and I turned on the television to see if they had HBO, which they did, but it was some sex show about middle-aged swingers, and so instead I turned on TV Land, where The Andy Griffith Show was playing. We both thought Barney was one of the great TV characters of all time, and in this particular episode, he was dealing with a station house full of dogs. We’d been talking about getting a dog for Frick, and I said something about that, but she didn’t answer. Looking over at her, I realized she’d fallen asleep.
    I adjusted her shirt a little—it looked like it was pulling at her around the neck. Then I let my hand rest on her belly. I had no idea who the Naked Man was supposed to be, exactly—just some resident of a far off place where people walked around naked. Someone for Marco Polo to encounter, that’s all—an extra. In the painting, my eyes had a nervous quality, and I thought back to how strange I’d felt, standing in the studio of Tina’s tiny house, the one she’d sold when we got married, staring at the wall, pretending to be naked while she took my photo. I was a lousy actor, even in paint.
    “Sugar pie,” I whispered. I didn’t want to wake Tina up. “Honey bunch. You know that I love you. I can’t help myself. I love you and nobody else.”
    Something inside her—a finger, a foot?—drew a line straight along my palm.     Since I was still dressed, and not tired, I decided to take a little walk. I eased quietly out of the room and down the hall to the elevator. In the lobby, a guy in a business suit was sitting staring into the big, roaring fire in the fireplace like he expected it to talk to him. I pushed open the heavy glass doors. It was still and wet and cold outside. I walked a few blocks toward the center of town, thinking maybe I’d get something else to eat, but then I turned around because I wasn’t hungry, and I didn’t want to get that far away from my family. There was a store directly across from the hotel that had a sign advertising “Typewriter and Calculator Repair.” I’d been wanting to look in the window. I was in awe of a business even more hopeless than mine. Calculator repair? There they were, lined up on shelves, maybe ten of them, most with rolls of paper so you could have a printed record of your calculations. There were some typewriters, too. I recognized an IBM Selectric, as well as a couple of Royal electrics, and even an old Corona portable from the 1930s. They had ribbons for sale, little boxes hanging from a display rack. Of course, the world was full of calculators and typewriters, and even if most people never gave them a second thought, it stood to reason that there would be someone out there to look after them, to care about them, to be in charge of their little deaths and resurrections.

Geoffrey Becker is the author of Dangerous Men, a collection of short stories that won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and Bluestown, a novel. His new collection, Black Elvis, won the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. His novel, Hot Springs, won the 2008 Parthenon Prize for Fiction and is forthcoming from Tin House Books.

“The Naked Man” appears in our Summer 2009 issue.