The Naked Man

Written by John Gardiner

Life could have a tendency to come unraveled as you got older. It all seemed so darned straightforward when you were a kid. You got up in the morning and you had fun. Pure passionate fun. You pushed aside your troubles, such as they were, and got on with the only thing that seemed important in life -- having fun. And playing games. Skinny dipping in the river. Playing hockey on a frozen pond. Fun. That's what life gives us at birth. And it takes years of dedicated effort to break the youthful habit of having fun. Or so he thought.

His life seemed devoid of the fun that came with childhood. At least that's what he was thinking, as he stood by the doorway on the way out of work, reading the note he had found added to his bi-weekly pay package.

Dear Employee:

We regret to inform you that a downturn in orders for our product means that your services will not be required for an indefinite period of time. We will notify you when we require you to return to work. Please leave the grounds immediately.


The Management

And just like that, he became one of the people he'd been reading about in the paper. One of the nameless, faceless unemployed. Another statistic to be bandied about by those who were, themselves, above such trivialities. A victim of the changing economic reality.

But he didn't even flinch. Just stuffed the darned note in his pocket, and walked out into the freshness of the early summer air and into the parking lot where little knots of his co-workers were standing about, no doubt discussing how this latest downturn in the sale of the company's products would result in a kick in the economic stones for each of them.

He would not survive. He had been teetering on the brink of financial ruin since his wife had left him three years earlier, and this would surely push him over the edge and into the abyss of bankruptcy. He climbed in the passenger side of his well-worn automobile, the driver's side door being more or less permanently out of order, and squirmed over behind the wheel, knocking over a can of warm, flat Diet Coke in the process. He cursed.

He drove straight home. Opened a beer. And sat at the kitchen table.

He could manage one more loan payment. And maybe one more month's rent. He was already two months behind on the hydro. He thought of the gasbarbeque and the coming summer.

He would get unemployment. But not for weeks. Welfare would fill in. But just for the necessities. What about his support payments?

Christ, how he had struggled to keep his head above water. And now he would fail. He would lose the little he had accumulated during his rather checkered life span. Like his old wreck of a car that was collateral on his bank loan. Was probably worth about two hundred bucks to a parts place, but the bank would take it -- just on principle. And he guessed his self-respect would also have to go. Couldn't have any of that. They'd take it as well.

He took a swig of the beer and felt it wash through him. What to do?

The phone rang.

He reached over and answered it.

It was the phone company. Had he paid his bill? Did he intend to pay his bill? Did he know they would cut off his service? It would cost $42 to have it re-connected.

He said nothing. Left the questions unanswered. Let the receiver slide back into the phone's cradle. Drained the beer with one final swallow. Got up from the table -- very deliberately -- with purpose.

He found a pen and paper and stuffed them into the pocket of his denim jacket. He left the apartment.

He got into his car, through the passenger door, fired it up, and headed for the bank.

When he arrived, he parked the car in the bank's parking lot, got out and walked into the building. He went to the customer service area, and pulled the pen and paper from his pocket. He had a thoughtful look on his face, as he wrote a short note to the teller.

Then, he went to the short line-up to wait his turn. There were only about three people in the line, so there wasn't long to wait. When his turn came, he walked purposefully over to the available teller, and shoved the note at her. She looked at him a little strangely as she took it, no doubt seeing a certain look in his eyes, but she opened it, and read.

She looked up, her eyebrows arched with surprise at the words she'd read on the paper, and found herself watching him remove his shirt, which he placed in a heap on top of his jacket which was already situated on top of the counter.

She watched, with apparent disbelief as did others in the place who by this time had noticed something unusual, as he gradually, but deliberately, stripped out of his clothes and placed them on the counter. Finally, he stood naked on the marble floor.

No one said a word. There was complete and total silence. The bank manager had come to the door of his office, and was standing there in wide-eyed amazement.

The teller was the first to snap back into reality.

"But, sir . . . . ." she stammered, looking nervously away.

That seemed to wake the bank manager. "What's going on out here?" he blustered, as he strode from the doorway to his office.

But it was too late. The naked man had already gathered himself up, turned, walked to the door, and out into the great beyond.

He felt good as he walked. Oblivious to the scene he caused. He had capitulated. And for the first time in many years, perhaps since boyhood, he felt profound relief. It was over. He could not struggle on. There was no point. The note he had handed the teller had admitted defeat at the hands of life and had awarded all his life's possessions, including the clothes on his back, to the bank, in an effort to pay back the debt he apparently owed society. He knew it wouldn't quite cover the cost he had incurred as a person, but perhaps it would come close, and he would end up almost even on the balance sheet of life.

In fact, he felt himself smiling as he walked -- out into the intersection and across the street, paying no mind to the traffic light, the traffic seeming to pay him an unusual amount of respect.

He walked straight to the small park located across the street from the bank, and, once there, went to a small knoll that was the only undulation in the park's flat surface, where he sat, cross-legged, facing the busy downtown street.

And there he sat. While life passed by. Albeit somewhat more slowly than usual, being just a slight bit curious as to why there might be a naked man sitting cross-legged in this downtown park, apparently content to watch the world pass by.

Although it might seem somewhat surprising, most of society seemed to want to have little to do with him. Naked men in parks are apparently not popular, other than as a curiosity. Although most people craned their necks for a second look, no one approached. So, for a while, he sat alone, watching them, as they watched him.

In due time, however, society came calling.

"Hey, buddy, what do you think you're doing?" asked the policeman, as he approached across the grass.

"Waiting," he answered.

"Well, you can't sit in the park in your birthday suit," replied the policeman.

"Why?" he asked.

"It's against the law," answered the policeman.

"I don't have to obey the law anymore," he said. "I've dropped out. I've quit."

"What do you mean, you've quit?" asked the policeman. "Quit what?"

"I've quit life," he answered. "I've lost."

The policeman stood, apparently somewhat perplexed, seeming somewhat confused as to his next course of action.

"So, what's the idea of sitting here naked in the park?" he finally asked.

"I just can't take it anymore," the naked man answered. "I don't want to live anymore."

"So, you're going to kill yourself by sitting naked in the park?" asked the policeman with a sarcastic tone to his voice.

"No," he answered, speaking in an even, monotone type of voice. "I don't really want to die either. I just don't want to play anymore." He paused for a moment. "Not the way things are. I've had enough."

"So, what's this about?" asked the policeman, indicating the nakedness.

"I guess you could say I'm on strike," the naked man answered, pleased he had come up with such an interesting way of describing his recent actions. “I’ve withdrawn my services from society."

The policeman looked, again pondered the situation, wondering what should be done.

"I'm not sure you can do this," he finally said.

"Why not?" asked the man sitting cross-legged and naked in the downtown park.

"You're naked," answered the policeman.

"I'm being discreet," he replied.

"I should drag you away," said the policeman with just a hint of a threat to his voice.

"Why?" he asked.

"You're sitting naked on public property," answered the policeman.

"I'm not bothering anyone," the naked man said. "This is a personal thing."

"Will you come with me?" asked the policeman.

"I think not," he answered.

"I may have to physically haul you out of here," threatened the policeman.

"Do you really want to do that?" he asked.

The policeman didn't answer right away. He seemed thoughtful. "I don't think I do," he finally answered. "I'm not sure why, but I don't think I want to, “he said.

"Then don't," said the man sitting naked in the grass. "Let me do my thing. “And that phrase reminded him of a phrase from the sixties and he smiled.

"I don't know," said the policeman. "This is pretty strange. I better check with somebody. I still think I'm going to have to toss you in the klink. Just don't do anything. Don't bother anyone, or anything like that."

And he turned and walked back across the grass to the street.

After the policeman's visit, it wasn't long before word started to spread about the guy who was on strike from life. And that brought the guy from the newspaper.

"Let's get this straight," he said, as he walked up to the man who was sitting naked and cross-legged in the park, "you're some kind of protester, or something. Is that right?"

"I guess you could say that," answered the naked man, looking up into the newspaper guy's leering face, "but I might better be called a nothing."

"A nothing?" asked the newspaper guy. "Why that?"

"Well, I'm not trying to make any trouble for anyone," he answered. "I just don't want to get involved because things just aren't goin' my way. You might even say I'm a quitter."

"A quitter, eh?" mulled the newspaper guy. He paused for a moment, like the policeman had, seeming somewhat confused and at a loss for words.

"You can't do this, you know," said the newspaper guy, as he started to get a little involved in his story.

"Why not?" asked the naked man.

"You just can't quit on life because it's not treating you the way you want," the newspaper guy said. "Who the hell's going to look after you? “he asked.

"I don't want anybody to look after me," came the answer. "Just leave me alone and I'll go away."

"You can't just sit here in the park," said the newspaper guy, who hadn’t written a single word in his notepad. He looked suspiciously at the naked man. "It just isn't natural," he added with a confused tone of voice.

"What could be more natural?" asked the naked man.

Just then, an older lady who had been passing by on the street, and who had paused in her walk and overheard most of the conversation, put in her two cents worth from across the grass.

"Why can't he sit naked in the park if he wants?" she asked. "I get fed up enough some days that I'd like to just shuck it all and tell the world to go take a hike and maybe sit naked in the park. I mean it does sound a little weird, but I don't think he's a pervert. . . .and I know how he feels."

"I just don't think life was supposed to be like this," the naked man said.

"Neither do I," answered the lady.

"Most people are made to be entirely miserable," the naked man said. "I’ve struggled and struggled and things just keep getting worse. It just doesn’t seem worth it."

"Well, I'm not sure we should all take off our clothes and sit naked in a park," said the newspaper guy. "I work hard and never seem to get ahead, either. My life just seems to be one trouble after another. But you don’t see me sitting in a park naked," he argued.

"Maybe that's what's wrong with us," remarked the lady. "Maybe we just keep following along like a bunch of sheep. Maybe if more of us took to sitting in parks naked, somebody'd get the idea that we're not too happy."

"Look," said the naked man, "I'm just sitting here doing my thing. I'm not making any statement. I just quit."

"Well, I quit too," said the lady, and, as quick as a wink, she pulled her sweater over her head and was slipping off her slacks.

"You can't do that," said the newspaper guy, obviously taken somewhat aback by the woman's actions.

"Watch me," she said defiantly.

And, as quick as a flash, there were two naked people sitting in the park in the busy downtown.

"This is pretty weird," said the newspaper guy.

"So," replied the naked lady in a challenging tone of voice.

The newspaper guy ran his fingers through his hair, showing frustration, like he might be caught on the horns of a dilemma.

"I guess I should probably do a story on this," he finally said, apparently having decided on a course of action.

"There's no story here," said the naked man.

"It sure looks like a story," answered the newspaper guy.

"No story," repeated the naked man.

The newspaper guy looked curiously at the naked lady.

"No story," she said, turning her head away in a way that showed she meant it.

The newspaper guy wrung his hands in exasperation. But he turned and walked off across the grass, leaving the two naked people behind.

He walked out onto the sidewalk, where a small crowd of curious onlookers was gathered, but he walked right past them and on up the street to where his car was parked.

He opened the door, tossed his notepad in, and climbed in behind it. He started the car, and shifted it into gear. Or at least he tried to shift it into gear. But there was this noise. An awful sounding noise. Kind of a grinding, metal-meets-metal sort of noise. And the car would not go.

He continued to try to wrestle with it, as a cold sweat came over him. Thoughts of mechanics' bills were swirling in his head. As were thoughts of the four dollars he had in his bank account. And thoughts of over-extended credit cards. And poverty.

The newspaper guy switched off the car and sat quietly for a minute.

"Sounds like the transmission," said a man who was passing on the street.

The newspaper guy let out a rather large sigh. And he got out of his car and walked back toward the park.

He walked quietly up to the two naked people sitting in the park. And he stripped off his clothes and sat cross-legged on the grass.

"Welcome," said the naked man.

"Hello," said the newspaper guy.

And so the three of them sat in the park, doing nothing in particular, but each having rejected society for his or her own reason. But it was not long before society returned for another try. It was the policeman.

"What the hell is going on here?" he said, as he came striding across the grass in his shiny black boots. "Bert," he said the direction of the naked newspaper guy, " what in Jesus name are you doing here without your clothes on?"

"I've had it, Bill," the naked newspaper guy answered. "I was standing here trying to interview these people, and they're tellin' me that they’ve had enough of life, and they quit. And it's runnin' through my head that my life's not exactly great. Always strugglin' to keep my head above water." He paused briefly, to catch his breath. "Well, Bill, I walks back out to my car thinkin' that nothin's so bad that I'd take off all my clothes and sit in a public park. I get to the car and try to drive away, and the transmission, or something else really expensive, dies. Why the hell should I bother, Bill?"

The policeman stood quietly and seemed calm, considering that earlier it had taken only one naked person to send him into a dither -- now there were three.

"Jesus, Bert," he finally said, his voice filled with pleading, "I’m probably going to have to arrest all of you, you know."

"Why?" said the naked man, taking up right where he had left off with the policeman earlier.

"Look!" said the policeman, his voice suddenly filled with an air of authority. "You people are breaking about ten laws sitting here naked in the park. You just can't do this sort of thing."

"Bill, Bill, Bill," the newspaper guy repeated. "What's wrong with you? You don't want to arrest us."

"And why not?" asked the policeman, with just a little of the authority fading from his voice.

"Because I think we could be on to something," answered the newspaper guy, who’d always thought he had a bit of a flare for marketing.

"And what would that be?" asked the policeman, the authority replaced by a trace of impatience.

"Remember just last week," answered the newspaper guy. "We were sitting in the bar with Fred and Ernie. Remember what we were talking about? Remember what we always talk about?"

The policeman said nothing, but seemed as if he might be pondering the question.

"We were bitchin'," said the newspaper guy, answering his own question. "Bitchin' about life. As a matter of fact, that's about all anybody does anymore." He paused for a moment, wanting this bit of information to hit the mark.

"What about you, Bill?" he continued. "You were tellin' us you had to cancel your vacation this year because your swimming pool liner just went, and the roof on your porch needs replacing. You were sayin' the chief was hasslin' you. And you were having all kinds of trouble trying to quit smokin. “Another brief pause. "Christ, you made your life sound pretty miserable."

The policeman stood quietly, again seeming to be thinking things over.

"When I was a kid," started the naked man, suddenly overcome by a feeling that all life might hang in the balance, "I used to trust everybody. I treated every adult like the friendly giant, and it seemed to work. I mean I don't remember ever being particularly worried about anybody screwin' me when I was a kid. And it worked."

He paused briefly, but no one spoke. "But, as I got older, I found out that trusting people seems to be a mistake."

"In what way?" asked the policeman, now just a little intrigued.

"Because people have gotten real cynical," the naked man answered. "It’s like nobody trusts anybody anymore. And you can't dare trust someone else if they're not going to trust you. You're at a distinct disadvantage."

He paused again, letting the thought hang.

"And, like, everything's bad news," he continued. "Even if your own personal life ain't so bad, what about some of the other poor jerks on the planet. Starvin' people. Sick people. Fightin' people. Homeless people. Abused people. Assaulted people. It's a bitch, man. There ain't no joy in Mudville. Not on this night or any other night. There isn't any point to the way we do things. There isn't any reason to be happy. I quit. “He added the last two words as definitive punctuation. He also shrugged off the policeman, and, thus, was at an end with society, as well.

The policeman said nothing. Soon, however, there was a neatly folded policeman’s uniform on the grass, and sitting atop it was a pair of shiny black shoes. And there was also a naked policeman sitting on the grass. “I feel pretty silly," he said. But the others only smiled.

And it came to pass that the naked man led, and the people followed.

And across the land word spread, and it was good. And more and more people saw that it was good. And it became known as the time of the quitting, when the naked man had led and they had followed. When enough had been enough. And people had simply quit. So pissed off had they been once they realized how miserable they were, that they threw off their clothes and became naked and sat in the park. And society left them alone because they were society.

And, gradually, they came to realize this significant truth.

And it was good.

Until winter.