February 19, 2014KR OnlineFiction

The Nudist Contemplates Cannibalism

The Saturday campfire, his first in weeks, a July night, cool, save the flames. He’s brought his guitar, but can’t bring himself to play. Eighteen other nudists in flip-flops and mosquito repellent surround him. Marshmallows and hot dogs straddle sticks. Brandy makes the rounds. Someone suggests ghost stories. Without prompting, without precedent, the thought pops into his head: if he were a cannibal, all this exposed flesh, glowing orange, browning by the fire–it would be too much, the temptation unbearable. He’s not hungry. He has no cravings. He can’t imagine eating another person, let alone one of his neighbors, his friends, people so rare in their like-mindedness. But all that meat, cooking glacially, as if on a spit, he can’t shake it. All he can think of is how delicious they’d appear to that particular appetite, a buffet of slow-roasting nature enthusiasts. Worst yet, he wonders how a cannibal would go about making it happen, who to pick, the pursuit, the preparations. What he’d serve on the side.

Twenty years before, the nudist met a woman at his work, courted her, won her affections. They dined, visited museums, saw movies, slept together at his house. Months in, he still hadn’t seen where she lived. She cited boundaries; he suspected a husband, children, something complex. Finally, his prodding overwhelming, she relented, offering one condition: she’d drive. An hour north, they reached a gate in the woods. The soon-to-be nudist read the camp sign, thought she was playing the greatest joke ever. Then his lover typed into a keypad and the gates parted. Driving up the gravel road, she began unbuttoning her blouse, unzipping her skirt. Three visits and a lot of angry stares later, decision time arrived: strip or leave. The nudist felt shame, beamed self-disgust, but the woman, she was the one. He was certain. He started with shoes and socks, felt the earth between his toes. He continued, the breeze on his skin like an aroma, drowning him inside and out.

The campfire fades to smolder. Nudists trudge toward their trailers, everyone wishing the nudist well, squeezing his shoulder, offering condolences, welcoming him back. He smells the smoke in their wrists, imagines them at his table, their visit their first in years, some ridiculous cake or bottle of wine in tow. He expresses gratitude, remains behind to pick chords, survey the smoking embers. Lynn, her trailer across the path from his, lays her towel on his log and sits down. She wants to hear something she knows. He plucks the opening to “Wish You Were Here,” then stops, says: “I thought about eating all you tonight.” She laughs, instructs him to keep playing, says she’ll sing along. The nudist says he’s tired, wants to sleep, and they empty the water bucket into the pit, steam hissing, rising white like a toque. Lynn lingers at his doorstep, asks what he’d meant, wanting to eat them. “Thinking aloud,” the nudist says. “I do that, too,” Lynn replies. She pecks him on the cheek then ambles off, plump drumsticks carrying her away. The nudist has lost his urge to eat her, to think of eating her, like he once lost his urge to stare, to be excited. They’ve gotten so used to muting pleasure, this group, to normalizing what’s meant to tantalize. It’s their weakness, he knows now, what they’d always considered their strength.

Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of two collections of stories, Elephants in Our Bedroom (Dzanc Books, 2009) and Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions (Curbside Splendor, 2012), and a 2010 recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Prose. He is an assistant professor at Missouri State University, where he serves as editor of Moon City Review.