With my tanned right hand I pushed aside the bamboo curtain and stepped into the humidity of Wisconsin’s Mazo Beach. The buzz of hungry mosquitoes and the harsh caw of a crow shattered the sultry silence. Faintly I could hear a car rattling on the rutted, gravel road that leads to this public naked place. Like an oncoming train the clatter of loose fenders banging grew louder and louder. Abruptly the awful intrusion stopped. Silence returned.
Warm sand mounded invitingly around my feet. Near the end of my toes the Wisconsin River slid silently by with a muffled whisper and an occasional soft pop or gurgle. The current did not disturb the glassy surface mirroring the bluffs covered with lush, leafy trees across the river. Billowing, boiling cumulus clouds provided a motion picture with no sound. The breeze was enough to deter the insects and keep the perspiration just below the skin’s surface. My eyes followed the shoreline where a solitary man was sprawled on a blanket.
I thought of the one hundred people who had been sunning on the scorching sand yesterday. Today it was only him and me. I trudged ahead through the squishy sand which reluctantly released each foot when I raised it. I walked toward the man.
It would have been easy to walk a comfortable distance down the beach to spread out my quilt away from my beachmate. I didn’t. Instead I stopped close to him. I didn’t speak. I just spread my tarp, then my quilt and piled my towel next to my low bottom beach chair. I shed all my clothes.
“Do you think it’s going to rain? This is a beautiful place. Do you come here often? Do you mind if I keep my beer in your cooler?” I spoke generally in his direction. He nodded and groaned but resisted my entry into his world. His posture suggested his reluctance but my questions finally opened a dialogue.
He answered, “Sure, hand it over.” His verbal response gave me permission to look at his well-formed physique. His hair was full and richly brown. He hadn’t shaved, giving him a rugged, handsome appeal. His slender hips and his upper body had been contoured by lifting. I guessed him to be in his mid-twenties. He was completely tanned even under his sculpted armpits. I had only been tanned like him once in my life.
I was stunned at the speed with which he smoked Camel cigarette after Camel cigarette. Continuously he reached for one more can from his 12-pack of Busch beer. He puffed and swilled. The condition of his body was not in harmony with his habits.
“Is this your day off?” These words were the switch. Instantly his words started to flow.
“I’m working the graveyard shift while the second assistant manager is on vacation…I don’t see why they keep the store open; almost no one shops at three in the morning…But someone has to be there by four anyway…I guess it really doesn’t cost that much.” He rolled from his position on his stomach to his left side. He propped his head on the palm of his left hand. “Four, that’s when the dairy truck arrives. It’s first; then the produce truck comes and later, the grocery truck. Someone has to be there to let them in, I guess.” He popped another beer and lit another cigarette.
“I want to be an assistant manager in dairy,” he continued. “I want to do the ordering. All I do is work the order. I already make more money than the third assistant manager…I’ve been doing groceries since I was sixteen. I got my degree in agriculture retailing from University of Wisconsin-Madison last year. Now I’m working at Coles in Madison. They have some great stores and they are great people to work for.”
The enthusiasm in his voice kept building. The wisp of brown hair on his forehead was slipping toward his eyes. At the exact moment the hair was going to cover his right eye he whipped his head to the side and sent the hair back to its proper place. He had a black skin mark on his left collarbone and a Band-Aid on the ring finger of his left hand. I may have been looking too intently because suddenly he finished talking. He abruptly got off of his towel, walked toward the river and slipped into the cool, dark liquid without looking around.
As I watched, his butt slipped below the mirrored surface of the water. I wondered why this handsome, obviously ambitious young guy with clear career aspirations was killing himself with cigarettes and alcohol. I turned over on my blanket and focused on the sand that had crept onto the edge of my quilt.
A hippie couple walked onto the beach. Apparently it was their car I had heard on the road. They moved close to my space. The guy had long, black greasy hair that fell to his shoulders. A dirty headband kept the greasy mop out of his face and off of his impossibly scratched glasses. The girl, who looked to be about eight months pregnant, was taller than the guy by three or four inches. Her straw-colored mane fell to mid-back on her worn cotton house dress, not designed for pregnancy. The buttons strained to keep the dress closed over her protruding belly. She didn’t talk — just giggled.
“How long before the rain begins?” I asked.
The greasy guy blurted out, “I seen that SOB swimmin’. Don’t know his fuckin’ name!” He and the girl got settled — he on a broken lawn chair and she on an overturned white plastic bucket. “They only let me work four hours today. They sent me home, bastards. Not enough peas to pack, they said. So Sharon and me came down here. We just live a mile ’n a half from here.” He kept talking; I stopped listening. Neither of them undressed.
The UW-Madison man returned from the river. He stared at the couple as the water dripped from his fingertips and his shriveled pink dick. He didn’t speak but the local said, “I come here often enough…I don’t have to take my fuckin’ clothes off every time.” He paused, then screeched, “Goddamit, Sharon, get your nose out of your fuckin’ magazine and get me a beer!” She didn’t move so he got one for himself. The raindrops were creeping across the glassy surface of the river. The bluffs blurred and disappeared. Grocery man quickly gathered up his blanket and started toward the parking lot with his cooler and his empties. He pulled a blue tank top over his head and put on high top black basketball shoes leaving his ass exposed. He walked away saying nothing. We watched. All that remained of his presence was an irregular circle of cigarette butts.
The rain suddenly reached us and gushed from the churning clouds. The greasy guy and Sharon huddled under their sleeping bag. I covered my towel, chair, book and quilt with a tarp and stood waiting out the deluge. Droplets of water ran down my face. I childishly blew the water away from my lips. The raindrops continued to pelt my bare skin. In fifteen minutes the quantity of water subsided. I retrieved my towel but didn’t dry off. The hot air returned sultry and close. I took a step or two toward the couple. The guy began telling me his life’s story. Sharon returned to her magazine, so I guessed she had heard the story many times. Their ratty, stringy hair was stuck to their faces. His shirt and her dress were glued to their shoulders.
He got up and took a couple of steps toward me. “I grew up poor on a fuckin’ dairy farm just west of Mazomanie — about 20 miles from where we are standing. I’ve been married before and have two boys fourteen and sixteen that live with me. Sharon and me are going to get married in a while.” I assumed he said that to legitimize her condition.
“Tonight’s our first Lamaze class.” I tried to hold my face muscles still so I didn’t show surprise. He kept talking: “I love to pack corn, beans and peas…you know it’s too late for tomatoes…but we really don’t pack them anymore…we just process, freeze and send everything to Big Rapids, Michigan. They package ’em…I love to eat fresh sweet corn. Pop it in the microwave for a couple of minutes…just a few more weeks and its ready. I can’t wait.” His voice trailed off as big raindrops splashed onto our faces. We quietly waited but both of us knew that the rain had taken up residence. He and Sharon gathered up their things. No further words were spoken.
Reluctantly I gathered up my rain-soaked, sand-covered tarp and other beach items. After a few steps I turned to experience the beauty of the beach. I walked out of nature’s finest artistic accomplishments. The rain stopped momentarily. The boiling, gray clouds opened and the sun sent laser beams onto the rugged bluffs and still water. I wished I had invited the UW-Madison man for a burger. I smiled thinking about the guy and Sharon as I heard the softening rattle of their car. I assumed he would continue his search for an elusive better-paying job or a place where there were plenty of peas to pack.