The Nude Poets Society
by Dillon Hayes
Keith knew and loved his wife, mitigating his anxiety about defending his values to her while at home. The men he worked with, however, caused trepidation that could not be assuaged. Keith never shied from contact, though, and, in fact, went out of his way to interact with his colleagues. He refused to let scrutiny, real or perceived, interfere with potential friendships. In response to his outreaches, he was generally met with kind responses, and he stifled his innate skepticism just enough to let himself believe these men could be his friends. They had not yet invited him to any after-work gatherings, but they soon would.
Today was Friday, and the nudist could not help but keep an eye on the clock. The agenda for his evening was blank, but Keith was sure he and his wife would find something enjoyable to do – read together, maybe talk about their feelings. Who knows, he thought. He knew for certain, however, that they would not be watching “24” again (Marcia referred to Keith as “Kiefer” while the two were acting like adults the other night). And just as Keith wiped the disgusting memory off of his face, the intern turned the corner to deliver Keith’s office mail. A fairly nondescript character aside from an indiscernible neck tattoo peeking from his shirt collar, he had proven to be a pretty nice kid, so far.
“How’s the paper route treatin’ ya, chief?” asked Keith with a smile.
“Just fine, Mr. Howell. Here’s a few things for you,” said the chief, handing the envelopes to Keith. His etiquette quickly became less formal before he started, “Hey, listen, you’re a little different than most of the guys I’ve met here. Most of these guys, they’re here because they sold out. The way I see it, you’re here because you won’t.”
“That’s nice of you to say,” said the modest nudist dismissively, hoping none of his coworkers could hear the intern further widening the gap between the nudist and them. As he turned around to end the conversation, the intern continued his thought.
“We’re kind of the same, y’know. Well, we’re here for different reasons, but, in our hearts, y’know, we’re really the same.”
“Yeah-huh,” Keith mumbled shortly.
“Me, I wanted to be an English major, but my dad said he wouldn’t pay for my school if I didn’t take a business degree, which is very bogus.”
The well-meaning intern realized that he was acting too cool and brought himself back to the office-friendly behavior. “Listen, I just noticed that you, like me, are cut from a different cloth and wanted to see if you wanted to hang out with my buddies and I tonight, if you didn’t have anything going on. We’re going to an open-mic poetry thing at a bar. Just gonna have a few brews, listen, relax. You’re welcome to come if you’re not busy.”
The nudist ruminated on the offer for all of a few seconds before realizing that the sedate night at home that awaited him would be forgotten in a week, while a memorable night with new people was an affirmative reply away. Even though he was just an intern, the time would at least be spent with someone associated with the office.
“You know, I could use the adventure. Sure, where should I meet you?”
Keith thought a 9:00 p.m. meeting time was a little late, and his wife thought it was really late, but Keith made the trek to the bar district and showed up a few minutes early. He waited for half an hour in front of the Poetry Pit, the well-dressed passersby spectating. He had long grown indifferent to the sticky eyes of others, but the people walking in and out of the Poetry Pit were dressed so well and so chic that the nudist found himself feeling very under-dressed. Even more embarrassing was Hudson, the intern, showing up at 9:30 with two of his friends.
“I may have misunderstood, but I thought we were meeting at nine,” said the confused nudist.
Hudson, now seeing the nudist’s lack of familiarity with Hudson’s lifestyle, replied, “I mostly meant nine-ish.”
Hudson and company lead the way into the bar, where the only visible light was the spotlight on the stage and some candles on the tables. The group chose a table in the way back, Hudson and company being careful to not seem too interested in the stage. Hudson’s friends introduced themselves as Gus and Sabrina, and they seemed nice enough. The nudist was surprisingly well-received in the bar. “Individuality, man,” one patron slurred to Keith.
“Four PBR’s please,” Hudson said to the waitress, whose outfit did not signify that the bar employed her. Keith was unsure of what conclusions to draw of the dress that seemed standard fare in the bar. The jeans seemed uncomfortable and the shirts were baroque pieces of art. Then Keith looked at himself and laughed.
“So, Keith,” started Gus, “How long have you been a nudist? Pretty recent change, or are you way into it?”
Hudson looked at Gus with reproach, but Keith had never been approached so forwardly about his lack of clothing, and it made him feel comfortable telling the story. “Well, I started as soon as I got out of high school. I had been trying it around the house alone, but I went to a private school, and my parents would have killed me if I did anything to mess up my family’s reputation there. So when I graduated, I donated everything I owned.”
“Cool, man,” Gus approved. “Very original.”
“Wow, man!” shouted Sabrina. “That’s amazing! How do you get away with it? Why doesn’t anybody stop you?”
“I think -” and as Keith started explaining, a man in a tweed jacket stepped to the microphone and spoke.
“Thanks for coming out tonight everybody,” he said in dispassionate manner. “As you know, tonight is open mic night, so, step up at your leisure. If everyone could, please blow out the candles at your tables, and let’s get started.”
The first poet stepped to the microphone and started reading. Keith had no idea what she was saying, and she bobbed her head really weird while she read, but her cant was beautiful and Keith was mesmerized. All he could tell was that art spilled from her mouth, and he wanted to be like her.
As soon as she finished, Keith stood up. “The bathroom’s in the back, man,” said Hudson, assuming Keith’s objective, but Keith walked to the front. The chairs were really close together, and Keith felt his ass slide across someone’s corduroy pants. Up the stairs, onto the stage, under the light, every feature illuminated.
He was in a trance on the walk, sober but blacked out, but he was now somewhat conscious of his actions. He could see only silhouettes of people, but he felt close to them. As he felt himself starting to speak, he blacked out again.
“My life, marred by criticism, scrutiny, prejudice. But I am more human than those who serve. As I came, so I am. Those I am close to hardly know me, and they won’t.”
As the final line dripped from his tongue, he regained consciousness of both himself and his surroundings, and he grew timid while the crowd grew wild. Without acknowledging their applause, Keith walked back to his seat and looked downward while Hudson, Gus, and Sabrina celebrated.
“You were brilliant, man!” “Seriously, you gotta come back next week” “So succinct, so rare.”
As they walked out of the bar, multiple patrons asked to shake Keith’s hand, take pictures with him, and one girl groped him.
“It was the best art piece I’ve ever seen,” one said. “Stripped down, bare, exposed. I felt you.”
Keith was one of them now, whether he knew it or not. He was a warrior poet, a real intellectual. Hudson congratulated Keith, explaining the gauntlet of authenticity Hudson was subject to before he was accepted, the gauntlet Keith forewent.
Keith returned home in the early morning, a member of a new tribe whose ideals he did not necessarily subscribe to. His wife would never know of his membership, and he hoped that Hudson would keep work and play separate. Keith crawled into bed with his wife and thought about himself. Those guys were nice, but they were young and weird on purpose, and Keith only knew how to be weird on accident. Maybe he would go out with them again one day, but not tomorrow and probably not the day after. He went to sleep pondering the truth in their approval of him, but thought it better to reserve his skepticism for the government and the music industry.