Fiction

Marlene’s Detour

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For days, Marlene wouldn’t step out of the house. She’d lost her job, so there was no need to get up at any particular time. No need to do anything, really. She would’ve killed herself if there’d been a point to it, which there wasn’t. She ate only one meal — a can of Campbell’s Chunky Soup — and that was it for the day. At first she’d stopped drinking, then went back to it with a vengeance. Her own body disgusted her. She was paranoid and frightened of the telephone. Her parents had called several times, but she was too embarrassed to talk to them. Stuart couldn’t get though to her either, and she feared he’d stopped trying. They still slept together but hadn’t once had sex since her arrest.
    The police, as it turned out, had been exceptionally nice to her. She’d already made her court appearance, where she’d pleaded guilty to one count of public indecency. She’d offered no excuse, just looked at the courtroom floor and let the tears fall as Judge Caprio sentenced her to a small fine and sixty hours of community service. The judge was not a cruel man; he knew a broken woman when he saw one. Imposing his punishment, he ordered her to report back in the morning

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for her work assignment. The task was fairly easy and involved canvassing for voter registration.
    As to her previous habits, she’d stopped — simple as that. She stopped lounging naked around the house and even slept in her clothes, undressing only to take a bath or shower. She hated her body.
    Almost as penance, she went up to Stuart’s office one day and logged onto the internet. Surely she wasn’t the only person who’d gone down this same confused path. Public nudity wasn’t the worst crime in the world; there was rape, and bestiality, and premeditated murder. Googling “public lewdness” had brought up a fairly uninspiring list of legal briefs and court cases, nothing that she could really sink her teeth into. She wanted testimonials, firsthand accounts from people just like her.
    By chance, she stumbled upon a page called secret-exhibitionist.org, a very popular site, judging by the number of hits on its counter. The main page originated in Britain, with postings from all over the world, some dating back more than three years. A full three-quarters of these were from men, but the ladies chimed in as well, just as shamelessly and aggressively. One wrote: “I discovered this website today, and I can’t tell you how delighted I am. I used to think I was the only person who liked to go au naturel in public, but I can tell there’s a lot of us out there. Thank you! Thank you!”
    Other friendly, supportive contributors forwarded their responses to the woman’s story:
    “Welcome!!! Sounds like you had one hell of a night. Keep it up, and let us know the next time you do something crazy.”
    “I had a similar experience when I was in La Junta, Colorado. One word of advice: you should always keep an extra change of clothes hidden if you plan on going

They still slept together but hadn’t once had sex since her arrest.

out more than a few miles. It can take a little preparation, but it’ll save you a lot of trouble in the end. Other than that, good work. BTW: Anyone want to trade pix of PN in urban settings? I have construction sites, abandoned factories, highway overpasses. Daytime only, please. No shoes.”
    For several minutes, all Marlene could do was stare at the screen. The sheer quantity of the postings was impressive. Public nudity was everywhere, in stores, parking lots, every conceivable mode of mass transit. The idea bothered her. She felt as though something tiny and fragile had been taken away from her and stretched out of shape, made grotesque. According to these people, public nudity was like a sporting event, with its own lingo and code of ethics. “Secret exhibitionism” — a term Marlene had never heard before — was defined as “the display of the unclothed human body in places and situations where nudity is not permitted by law or social custom.” Fair enough. But why sound so clinical about it? This was a compulsion, not a sport. No equipment, no qualifying rounds, no tips from the experts. Just nightmares, and anxiety, and self-doubts. One or two brief glorious moments, but that was it.

Public nudity was everywhere, in stores, parking lots, every conceivable mode of mass transit.

Marlene and Stuart returned from Martha’s vineyard feeling even more distant from each other than they had the week before.
    They didn’t sleep together that night. After Stuart had gone to bed, Marlene took a bottle of Clos du Bois to the back porch and spent the next few hours drinking and feeling sorry for herself. With fatigue came a dismal sort of clarity. What she wanted wasn’t so particularly extravagant, after all — just to add one or two little sentences to the paragraph that ultimately described her life.
    The next morning, she waited until Stuart has left on his daily hour long walk, then took his car keys and drove out of Providence. With no particular destination in mind, she felt a strange pull leading her north into the mountains. Heath would be there and Nathaniel Pike, too. Maybe they would accept her, if no one else would.
 

           

  

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    By the time she’d arrived, she was a basket case. Three hours of freeway driving had given her heart palpitations and a tension headache. The other motorists didn’t approve of her apparently; they crowded her in the slow lane, then made a big, arrogant show of speeding ahead to cut her off. Whatever standards existed for the road, she didn’t measure up.
    At least the number of cars had dropped off, which allowed her to slow to a crawl in the breakdown lane as she looked for a trail marker. Finally she stopped at a roadside diner to ask for help.
    Inside, an elderly male patron said, “If you’re looking for that guy Pike, he’s about a mile south of the Kancamagus Pass. You cant get to it by a trail. You’ve gotta wish for it.”
    A waitress, who was pouring his coffee, laughed. “He’s pulling your leg, dear. Nathaniel Pike’s the big joke
around here.” She set her coffee carafe down on a hot plate, then took Marlene’s map and spread it across the breakfast counter. “You’re going to park here, at White Ledge, then follow the blue blazes for about two-and-a-quarter-miles until you come to a riverbed with a footbridge running across it. Go over to the bridge, walk another ten, twenty paces, then head due east off the trail for another eighth of a mile. Don’t worry if you get lost. Just give a shout and someone’ll come looking for you.”
    Marlene took the map back and folded it up. “Have you seen it? I mean — “
    “No, but my son’s been up there six times already. He just started working for Pike last week.” She smiled aggressively. “Pays pretty

By the time she’d arrived, she was a basketcase.

good, too. Pays better than this dump.”
    Marlene thanked both the waitress and her customer and hurried back to her car. The afternoon was waning, and it soon would be too late to start up the trail. But she knew she had to do this today, while she still had it in her.
    After another ten minutes of driving, she spotted the trailhead and turned into a dirt lot just off the road, parking under the trees near a pickup with a camper on the back. At the rear of the lot was a picnic table, a cast-iron cooking grill and a rusted-
out garbage drum filled with to the brim with beer cans and paper plates. Other than these few signs of life, the place looked abandoned.
    Do it/don’t make me.
    Like a woman undressing at home, she took off her shoes and socks, rolled the socks into a ball and stuffed them into the heel of one of her shoes, which she left in the car.
    Do it/don’t make me.
    Everything else followed — her bra, her jeans, her faded yellow panties. As a final casting-off, she threw the bundle of clothes into the backseat, left the keys in the ignition, locked the door and slammed it shut. She felt as though a quantity in the world she

Everything else followed — her bra, her jeans, her faded yellow panties.

hadn’t noticed before — a sound, perhaps — had suddenly increased, and she could hear it all around her. Leaving her car, she tiptoed across the lot and started up the trail.
    Within a quarter-hour, her feet were cut and dirty, so she stopped to rest on a flat, shelflike outcropping of rock. The forest was still except for the shiver of wind filling the Kancamagus. With her knees tucked, she picked the black mud from her feet. To her amazement, she found that the keen, hyper-real sense of being naked hadn’t worn off yet.
    Farther up the trail, she heard voices and turned her head to listen. Through the trees she could see three men and three women proceeding in single file. Despite her own instincts she remained in plain view, waiting for the group to pass.

  

           

  

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    When the first hiker saw her, she stopped about ten yards from Marlene and stared, slack jawed, as the others caught up to her. The hikers were all in their twenties and thirties; one might think they were college friends who’d kept in touch after school. The men all wore beards, and them women were muscular, prim and simple looking. One of them said, “Hey, what’s the matter? Are you all right?”
    Marlene didn’t answer. All of her attention was focused on certain pinpoints scattered on the surface of her body: her left nipple, a fingernail, a spot above her right knee. With her skin a creamy white, she seemed to have taken off more than just her clothes but also an invisible layer she’d always worn up until now.
    The woman asked again, “Are you okay? Has someone hurt you?”
    The man next to her added, “Do you need a doctor? Do you want us to help?”
    These questions were echoed by the other hikers. Marlene felt her confidence dwindle. She didn’t want their concern or pity. She wanted their admiration.
    In a breaking voice, she whispered, “Just look at me.”
    One of the women said to her friends, “Come on, let’s go. This lady’s giving me the creeps.”
    The hikers filed past and continued down the trail. The women regarded her more severely than the men, but even the men avoided looking directly at her, preferring to stare down at her feet. Long after they’d passed out of sight, Marlene could hear their scornful laughter rising through the forest. This aroused her, since part of her liked being treated with contempt.
    On and on she hiked, until she came to the riverbed the waitress had told her about. The footbridge was narrow and splintery, and she nearly fell into the muddy river as she crossed to the far bank. This high up the mountain, the trees gave way to scrub brush and boulders, and the open terrain made her feel even more naked than before.
    Following the waitress’ instructions, she went ahead another twenty paces, then turned off the trail and skipped across a field of broken rocks. The ground was murder on her feet, but there was nothing she could do about it.

All of her attention was focused on certain pinpoints scattered on the surface of her body: her left nipple, a fingernail, a spot above her right knee.

Mercifully, the mountainside sloped downward again, and soon she was back in the forest, only this time without the benefit of a trail. The sun was low in the sky, and she began to worry that she might not find Pike’s lair before nightfall.
    She eventually came to a small clearing, where she noticed a faint humming noise. The sound was so out of place that she thought at first she was hallucinating, but no — she distinctly picked out the dull roar of a motor, and voices conversing in low, lackluster tones. When she peered deeper into the woods, she saw nothing to indicate where the noise was coming from. No point in standing here forever, she thought, and called out, “Hello? Anyone? Where are you?”
    Like two armed sentries, a pair of young boys appeared, both carrying flashlights and dressed in identical uniforms with name tags pinned to their chests. “Shit!” one of them said. “It’s a naked lady!”
    Marlene covered her breasts with her hands. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m trying to find Heath Baxter.”
    The boys recognized the name. The one who’d already spoken said, “He’s working in sporting goods. We’ll take you to him.”
    “Sporting goods?” Marlene wondered but came out of hiding to follow the boys through the woods.
    They walked for another few hundred yards until a faint light, like a will-o’-the-wisp, glowed up ahead. Marlene stopped to catch her breath. “What is it?” she asked.
    Neither boy answered. Instead, they swung their flashlight beams around, picking her out of the darkness.
    “I’m sorry,” she said and lowered her head. “I know I look disgusting to you.”
    The boys didn’t understand her, so they turned and trudged on.
    At a certain point, the trees thinned out, revealing a vast expanse unlike anything she’d ever seen before. Moving past the

His eyes gleamed cheerfully. “You’ve got balls, lady. I’ve never met a nudist before.”

boys, she stepped onto a surface of newly spread blacktop. Its smoothness came as a relief after walking on the trail all afternoon. The area around the parking lot was lit up with giant stadium lights that ran on power generators — the motor sound that she’d heard earlier. Beyond this nimbus of light, a deep blue forest extended on all sides, sloping upward to the mountains, which looked remote and two dimensional, like scenery in a stage play.
    In the foreground stood Mr. Pike’s fully functional Kmart. The sign hung over the main entrance, which consisted of sliding glass doors that opened onto the foyer. Through the display windows, she could see dozens of cashiers standing idle at their workstations. They appeared lifeless behind the glass.
    A handsome man welcomed her, and she read the solid gold name tag on his jersey: Nathaniel Pike, Store Manager. “You must be Stuart’s wife,” he said. He took little notice of Marlene’s nudity, except to glance down at her breasts. His eyes gleamed cheerfully. “You’ve got balls, lady. I’ve never met a nudist before.”
    Marlene instinctively brought her arms around her chest. The blazing glare of the stadium lights made her feel visible from a great distance. “I’m sorry,” she said.
    “Don’t be. Hey, you’ve got nothing to apologize for. I’ve seen far worse, believe me.”
    Pike’s creation had a hypnotic effect on Marlene, and she found herself forgetting herself entirely, even as she began to attract the attention of the people inside the store. “It’s beautiful here,” she said.
    “Come on, I’ll give you a tour.” He presented her with his arm, which she hesitated to take. “It’s okay, Marlene. No one’s going to hurt you.”

  

           

  

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    Reluctantly, she slid her hand into the crook of his arm, and they crossed the parking lot together. It was all Marlene could do not to cover herself, particularly when they entered the store and the cashiers who’d noticed her through the display window came forward for a better look.
    Pike led her farther into the building, past the aisles and aisles of shelf stock that looked picked-over, like the day after a clearance sale. Marlene began to suspect that employees weren’t really working for Pike but were living off of the merchandise inside the store. In one section, cashiers who’d gone off shift for the night were sleeping on displays of Sealy Posturepedic mattresses, while nearby a group of stockboys made good use of an electric grill to cook their dinners. The entire store was its own self-sufficient universe.
    “I’ve got fifty-one employees right now,” Pike explained, “including myself. Of course, anyone’s always welcome, but I’m not actively looking for new hires at the moment. Maybe I’ll open a superstore next year.”
    They’d come as far as the women’s clothing department, where a salesgirl with long, sandy blond hair was sale-tagging a display of floral-print blouses, each identical to the one that she was wearing.
    Marlene halted before the display. “If you don’t mind, Mr. Pike, I think I’ll get dressed now. I just . . . feel weird all of a sudden.”
    Nathaniel withdrew politely. “Of course. Help yourself to whatever you need. It’s all for the taking.”
    She thanked him and went to find her size at the end of the sale rack. Her choices were all arbitrary; the important

“If you don’t mind, Mr. Pike, I think I’ll get dressed now. I just . . . feel weird all of a sudden.”

thing was to cover herself with as many layers as possible. With trembling hands, she tore open a package of plain cotton panties and put them on. Likewise, she picked out a bra, a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a cable-stitch sweater. Most of the items had security tags on them, so she brought them up to the salesgirl in the floral-print blouse. “Can you pull these tags off for me?” she asked.
    The girl took the bundle of clothes and set it by her at her register.
    “You’re Stuart’s wife, right?” she asked. “Marlene, the nudist?”
    The question startled Marlene, who took a closer look at the salesgirl’s tag. Hers wasn’t gold, like Pike’s, but a blue and white plastic card that read Allison Reese, Sales Associate. Marlene felt embarrassed at meeting Allison under such awkward circumstances. “That’s me,” she admitted softly.  

Excerpted from Pike’s Folly by Mike Heppner. Copyright: © 2006 by Mike Heppner. Published in arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.



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© 2006 Mike Heppner & Nerve.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mike Heppner is the author of The Egg Code and Pike’s Folly.
He grew up in Grosse Pointe and Rhode Island. Today he lives in Watertown,
Massachusetts.