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If Nudity Offends You

When Louanne opened her light bill, she about had a fit. She hadn't had a bill that high since the time the Sims family hooked into her outlet for a week, when their daddy lost his job and right before they got kicked out of the trailer park for him being drunk and disorderly and the kids stealing stuff out of trash cans and their old speckled hound dog being loose and making a mess on Mrs. Thackridge's porch. Drunk and disorderly was pretty common, actually, and stealing from trash cans was a problem only because the Sims kids dumped everything before picking through it, and never bothered to put it back. The Sanchez kids had the good sense to pick up what mess they made, and no one cared what they took out of the trash (though some of it was good, like a boom box that Carter Willis stole from down at Haley's, and hid in the trash can until Tuesday, only the Sanchez kids found it first). But when Grace (which is what they called that hound, and a stupid name that is for a coonhound, anyway) made that mess on Mrs. Thackridge's front porch, and she stepped in it on the way to a meeting of the Extension Homemaker's Club and had to go back inside and change her shoes, with her friends right there in the car waiting for her, that was it for the Sims family.

Anyhow, when Louanne saw that $82.67, she just threw it down on the table and said, "Oh my God," in that tone of voice her grandma never could stand, and then she said a bunch of other things like you'd expect, and then she tried to figure out who she knew at the power company, because there was no way in the world she'd used that much electricity, and also no way in the world she could pay that bill. She didn't leave the air conditioner on all day like some people did, and she was careful to turn off lights in the kitchen when she moved to the bedroom, and all that. All those things to keep the bill low, because she'd just bought herself a car—almost new, a real god buy—and some fancy clothes to wear to the dance hall on weekends, now that she was through with Jack forever and looking for someone else. The car payment alone was $175 a month, and then there was the trailer park fee, and the mobile home payments, and the furniture rental . . . and the light bill was supposed to stay low, like under thirty dollars.

It occurred to Louanne that even though the Simses had left, someone else might have bled her for power. But who? She looked out each window of her trailer, looking for telltale cords. The Loomis family, to her right, seemed as stable and prosperous as any: Pete worked for the county, and Jane cooked in the school cafeteria. No cord there. The Blaylocks, on the left, were a very young couple from out of state. He worked construction; she had a small baby, and stayed home. Almost every day, Louanne had seen her sitting on the narrow step of their trailer, cuddling a plump, placid infant. Directly behind was an empty slot, and to either side behind . . . . Louanne could not tell if that ripple in the rough grass was a cord or not. She'd have to go outside to see for sure.

Now, if there's one sure way to make an enemy at a trailer park, it's to go snooping around like you thought your neighbors were cheating on you somehow, and before Louanne got into that kind of mess, she thought she'd try something safer. Back when Jack was living there, she wouldn't have minded a little trouble, being as he was six foot three and did rock work for Mullens Stone; but on her own, she'd had to learn quieter ways of doing things. Like checking up close to her own power outlets, to see if she could spot anything funny coming off the plugs.

She was still in the heels and city clothes she wore to work (secretary over at the courthouse: she made more money than either of her parents here in Behrnville), which was not exactly the right outfit for crawling around under things. She took off the purple polyester blouse, the black suit skirt (the jacket hung in her closet, awaiting winter), the dressy earrings and necklace, the lacy underwear that her mother, even now, even after all these years, thought unsuitable. And into the cutoffs, the striped tank top, and her thongs.

Outside, it was still blistering, and loud with the throbbing of her air conditioner, which she'd hung in the living room window. She opened the door of her storage shed that Jack had built her, a neat six-by-six space, and took down her water hose from its bracket. The outside hydrant wasn't but six feet from her power outlet, and with a new car—new for her, anyway—nobody'd wonder about her giving it a wash. Especially not on such a hot day.

She dragged the hose end around behind her trailer, and screwed it onto the faucet, letting her eye drift sideways toward the power outlet. Sure enough, besides her own attachment, another plump black cord ran down the pipe and off into the grass. But where? Louanne turned the water on as if a car wash were the only thing on her mind, and sprayed water on her tires. They did look grungy. She flipped the cutoff on the sprayer and went to get a brush out of her storage shed. About then, Curtis Blaylock drove in and grinned at her as he got out of his car.

"Little hot for that, ain't it?" he asked, eyeing her long, tanned legs.

"Well, you know . . . new car . . . ." Louanne didn't meet his eye, exactly, and went back around the end of the trailer without stopping to chat. Becoming a father didn't stop most men from looking at everyone else. She scrubbed at the tires, then sprayed the car itself, working around it so she could look everywhere without seeming to. That ripple in the grass, now . . . it seemed to go back at an angle, and then . . . lot 17. That was the one. A plain, old-fashioned metal trailer with rounded ends, not more than a twenty-seven- or thirty-footer. She thought she could see a black cord lifting up out of the grass and into its underside.

She finished the car, put her hose and brush back into the storage unit, and went back inside. Through the blinds in her bedroom, she could see a little more of lot 17. A middle-aged pickup with slightly faded blue paint sat beside the trailer. Lot 17's utility hookups were hidden from this angle. Louanne watched. A man came out . . . a big man, moving heavily. Sweat marks darkened his blue shirt; his face looked red and swollen. He climbed into the pickup, yelled something back at the trailer, then slammed the door and backed carefully into the lane between the rows. The trailer door opened briefly, and someone inside threw out a panful of water. Louanne wrinkled her nose in disgust. White trash. Typical. Anyone that'd steal power would throw water out in the yard like that instead of using the drain. It was probably stopped up anyway.

Louanne got herself a sandwich and a beer from her spotless refrigerator, and settled down on the bed to watch some more. A light came on as the evening darkened; against a flowered curtain, she could see a vague shape moving now and then. About nine or so the pickup returned. She heard its uneven engine diesel awhile before stopping. It was too dark to see the man walk to the door, but she did see the flash of light when the door opened.

Her light, she thought angrily. She'd paid for it. She wondered how long they left it on. Eighty-two dollars minus the maybe twenty-seven her bill should be, meant they were wasting over fifty dollars a month of her money. Probably kept the lights on half the night. Ran the air conditioner on high. Left the refrigerator door open, or made extra ice . . . stuff like that. She flounced off the bed and into the living room, getting herself another beer on the way. She didn't usually have two beers unless she was out with someone, but getting stung for someone else's electricity was bad enough to change her ways.

Thing was, she couldn't figure out how to handle it. She sure wasn't going over there in the dark, past nine at night, to confront that big, heavy man and whoever else was in there. That would be plain stupid. But on the other hand, there was that bill . . . . She couldn't afford to have her credit rating ruined, not as hard as she'd worked to get a decent one. She thought of just pulling the plug out, maybe at two in the morning or so, whenever their light went out, and cutting off the plug end. That would sort of let them know they'd been found, but it wasn't the same as starting a fight about it. On the other hand, that didn't get the bill paid.

Louanne put the can of beer down on a coaster—even if the tabletop was laminated, there was no sense in getting bad habits. Someday she'd own a real wood dining room table, and pretty end tables for her living room, and she didn't intend to have them marked up with rings from beer cans, either—and eased back into her darkened bedroom to look between the blinds. The light was still on behind the flowered curtain. It wasn't late enough yet. She went into her bathroom and used the john, then checked her face in the mirror. Her eyebrows needed plucking, and she really ought to do something about her hair. She fluffed it out one way, then another. The district judge's secretary had said she should streak it. Louanne tried to imagine how that might look . . . . Some people just looked older, grayer, but Holly Jordan, in the tax office, looked terrific with hers streaked. Louanne took out her tweezers and did her eyebrows, then tried her new plum-colored shadow. That might do for the dance hall on Friday.

But thinking of the dance hall on Friday (not Ladies Night, so it would cost her to get in) made her think of that electric bill, and she slammed her makeup drawer shut so hard the contents rattled. She was not going to put up with it; she'd do something right after work tomorrow. She'd make them pay. And she wouldn't cut the cord tonight, because if she did that, she'd have no proof. When they got up and didn't have lights, all they'd have to do would be pull the cord in, slowly, and no one could prove it had been there. On that resolve, she went to bed.


The blue pickup wasn't there, which she hoped meant the big man wasn't there, either. She had chosen her clothes carefully—not the city clothes she wore to work, in case things got rough, but not cutoffs and a tank, either. She wanted to look respectable, and tough, and like someone who had friends in the county sheriff's office . . . . And so, sweating under the late-afternoon sun, she made her way across the rough, sunburnt grass in a denim wraparound skirt, plaid short-sleeve blouse, and what she privately called her "little old lady" shoes, which she wore to visit family: crepe-soled and sort of loafer-looking. There was an oily patch where the pickup was usually parked. That figured. So also the lumps of old dried mud on their trailer steps, when it hadn't rained in weeks. Anyone who'd throw water outside like that, and steal power, wouldn't bother to clean off a step. Louanne squared her shoulders and put her foot on the bottom step.

That's when she saw the notice, printed in thick black letters on what looked like a three-by-five card. "If nudity offends You," it said, "Please do not ring this Bell." Right beside the grimy-looking doorbell button. Just right out there in public, talking about nudity. Louanne felt her neck getting even hotter than the afternoon sun should make it. Probably kept the kids away, and probably fooled the few door-to-door salesmen, but it wasn't going to fool her. Nobody went around without clothes in a trailer park, not and lived to tell about it. She put her thumb firmly on the button and pushed hard.

She heard it ring, a nasty buzz, and then footsteps coming toward the door. Despite herself, her palms were sweaty. Just remember, she told herself, that you don't have $82.67, and they owe it to you. Then the door opened.

It wasn't so much the nudity that offended her as the smell. It wasn't like she'd never smelled people before. . . . In fact, one of the things that made her so careful was remembering how it was at Aunt Ethel and Uncle Bert's, the summer she'd spent with them. She wasn't squeamish about it, exactly, but she did like things clean. But this was something else. A sort of heavy smell, which reminded her a little of the specialty gourmet shop in the mall near her sister Peggy's house in north Dallas—but reminded her a lot more of dirty old horse hooves. Bad. Not quite rotten, but not healthy, either; and the bare body of the woman staring at her through a tattered screen door had the same look as the smell that wafted out into the hot afternoon.

Louanne swallowed with determination and tried to fix her eyes on the woman's face . . . where she thought the face would be, anyway, hard as it was to see past the sunlit screen into the half-light where the woman stood. The woman was tall—would be taller than Louanne even if she stood on the ground—and up above her like that, a step higher, she looked really big, almost as big as the man. Louanne's eyes slid downward despite herself. She was big, with broad shoulders gleaming, slightly sweaty, and big—Louanne dragged her gaze upward again. She saw a quick gleam of teeth.

"Yes?" the woman said. Even in that word, Louanne knew she wasn't local. "Can I help you?" The rest of the phrase confirmed it—she sounded foreign almost, certainly not like anyone from around Behrnville.

"You're plugged into my outlet," said Louanne, gritting her teeth. She had written all this out, during her lunch hour, and rehearsed it several times. "You're stealing electricity from me, and you owe me sixty dollars, because that's how much my bill went up." She stopped suddenly, arrested by the woman's quick movement. The screen door pushed outward, and Louanne stepped back, involuntarily, back to the gravel of the parking slot. Now sunlight fell full on the woman, and Louanne struggled not to look. The woman's face had creased in an expression of mingled confusion and concern that didn't fool Louanne for a minute.

"Please?" she said. She didn't even look to see if anyone outside the trailer was looking at her, which made Louanne even surer the whole thing was an act. "Stealing? What have you lost?"

A bad act, too. Louanne had seen kids in school do better. Contempt stiffened her courage. "Your cord," she said, pointing, "is plugged into my outlet. You are using my electricity, and I have to pay for it, and you owe me sixty dollars." She'd decided on that, because she was sure not to get what she asked for. . . . If she asked for sixty dollars, she might get thirty dollars, and she could just squeeze the rest if she didn't go out this weekend at all, and didn't buy any beer, or that red blouse she'd been looking at.

"You sell electricity?" the woman asked, still acting dumb and crazy. Louanne glared at her.

"You thought it was free? Come on, Lady . . . I can call a deputy and file a complaint—" Actually, she wouldn't ever do that, because she knew what would happen in the trailer park if she did, but maybe this lady who was too crazy or stupid to wear clothes or use a sink drain or take showers wouldn't know that. And in fact, the lady looked worried.

"I don't have any money," she said. "You'll have to wait until my husband comes home—"

Louanne had heard that excuse before, from both sides of a closed door. It was worth about the same as "the check's in the mail," but another billow of that disgusting smell convinced her she didn't want to stomp in and make a search for the cash she was sure she'd find hidden under one pillow or another.

"I want it tonight," she said loudly. "And don't go trying to sneak away." She expected some kind of whining argument, but the woman nodded quickly.

"I tell him, as soon as he comes in. Where are you?" Louanne pointed to her own trailer, wondering if maybe the woman really was foreign, and maybe in that case she ought to warn her about standing there in broad daylight, in the open door of her trailer, without a stitch on her sleek, rounded, glistening body. But the screen was closing now, and just as Louanne regretted not having gotten her foot up onto the doorsill, the door clicked shut, and the woman flipped the hook over into the eye. "I tell him soon," the woman said again. "I'm sorry if we cause trouble. Very sorry." The inner door started to close.

"You'll be sorry if you don't pay up," said Louanne to the closing door. "Sixty dollars!" She turned away before it slammed in her face, and walked back to her own lot, sure she could feel the woman's eyes on her back. She wasn't too happy with the way it had gone, but, thinking about it, realized it could have been worse. Who knows what a crazy naked woman might have done, big as she was? Louanne decided to stay in her visiting clothes until the man came home, and, safely inside her own kitchen, she fixed herself a salad.

She had to admit she was kind of stunned by the whole thing. It had been awhile since she'd seen another woman naked, not since she'd gone to work for the county, anyway. She saw herself, of course, when she showered, and like that, but she didn't spend a lot of time on it. She'd rather look at Jack or whoever. When she looked at herself, she saw the kind of things they talked about in makeovers in the magazines: this too long, and that too short, and the other things too wide or narrow or the wrong color. It was more fun to have Jack or whoever look at her, because all the men ever seemed to see was what they liked. "Mmmm, cute," they say, touching here and there and tugging this and patting that, and it was, on the whole, more fun than looking at yourself in a mirror and wondering why God gave you hips wide enough for triplets and nothing to nurse them with. Not that that was her problem, Louanne reminded herself, but that's how her friend Casey had put it, the last time they skinny-dipped together in the river, on a dare, the last week of high school.

But that woman. She could nurse anything, up to an elephant, Louanne thought, and besides that . . . . She frowned, trying now to remember what she'd tried so hard not to see. She hadn't been particularly dark, but she hadn't been pale, either. A sort of brown-egg color, all over, with no light areas where even the most daring of Louanne's friends had light areas . . . . You could tan nude under a sunlamp or on certain beaches, but you couldn't go naked all the time. But this woman had had no markings at all, on a belly smooth as a beach ball. And—odd for someone who smelled so—she had shaved. Louanne shook her head, wondering. Her aunt Ethel had never shaved, and Louanne had come to hate the sight of her skinny legs, hairy and patched brown with age spots, sticking out from under her shabby old print dresses. But this woman . . . the gleaming smoothness of her skin, almost as if it had been oiled, all over, not a single flaw . . . . Louanne shivered without knowing why.

She stood and cleared the table, washing her single dish quickly. She started to get a beer out, and then changed her mind. If that man did come, she didn't want to smell of beer. She looked out her bedroom window. Nothing yet. The sun glared off the gravel of the parking space and the lane behind it. She was about to turn away, when she saw the blue pickup coming. It turned into the space beside the trailer, and the big man got out. Today he wore a tan shirt, with dark patches of sweat under the arms and on the back. Louanne wrinkled her nose, imagining the smell. He looked sunburnt, his neck and arms as red as his face, all glistening with sweat.

He went in. Louanne waited. Would the woman tell him at once, or wait, or not tell him at all? She didn't want to go back there, but she would, she told herself. He couldn't do anything to her in daylight, not if she stayed out of reach, and Jeannie Blaylock was home, if she screamed. She saw the flowered curtain twitched aside, and the man's face in the window, looking toward her trailer. She knew she'd been careful how she set the blinds, but she still had the feeling he knew she was watching. The curtains flipped shut. Then the door opened, and he came out, his round red face gleaming. He shot a quick glance toward her lot, then looked down before he went down his steps. He opened the pickup door, leaned in, came back out, shut the door. Then he started toward Louanne's trailer.

Her heart was hammering in her chest; she had to take two long breaths to quiet herself. He was actually coming, almost right away. She hurried out to the living room and sat poised on the rented tweed sofa. It seemed to take a long time, longer than she thought possible, even trying to count the steps in her mind. Finally a knock at her door. Louanne stood, trying to control her knees, and went to the door.

Even a step down, he was as tall as she, a man Jack might have hesitated to fight. But he was smiling at her, holding out a grubby envelope. "Sorry," he said. His voice was curiously light for such a big man. "We didn't mean to cause trouble . . . . The money is here . . . ." He held it out. Louanne made a long arm and took the envelope; he released it at once and stepped back. "The . . . the connection at our lot didn't work," he went on, looking slightly past her, as if he didn't want to see her. His voice, too, had a strange accent, something Louanne classified as foreign, though she couldn't have said if it was from the East Coast or somewhere farther away than that. "I have already taken our wire away," he said, glancing quickly at her face and away again. "It will not trouble you again . . . . We are sorry . . . . It was only that the connection did not work, and yours did."

The money in the envelope was twenties . . . more than three. Louanne looked at his gleaming red face and felt a quiver of sympathy. Maybe they hadn't known, if they were really foreigners. "You have to pay a deposit," she said. "To the power company, before they turn it on. That's why it didn't work."

"I'm sorry," he said again. "I didn't know. Is that enough? Are you satisfied?"

Greed and soothed outrage and bewilderment argued in her forehead. "It's all right," she found herself saying. "Don't worry." She wondered if she should give some of it back, but, after all, they had stolen from her, and it was only fair they should pay for it. Then her leftover conscience hit her, and she said, "It was only sixty, anyway, and if . . . ."

"For your trouble," he said quickly, backing away. "So sorry . . . . Don't worry. If you are not angry, if you are not reporting this to authorities. . . ."

"No," said Louanne, still puzzled. Foreigners afraid of the law? Illegal immigrants? He didn't sound Mexican. Drug dealers?

"No more bother," he said. "Thank you. Thank you." And turned and walked quickly away, just as Curtis Blaylock drove in. Curtis looked at the man walking off, and at Louanne standing there with the envelope in her hand, for all the world like a whore with her pay, and grinned.

"Trouble?" he asked in a silky voice. Louanne had to stop that right where it was, or she would have more problems than a big light bill.

"Foreigners," she said, allowing an edge in her voice. "He wanted to know where to find"—she peered at the envelope as if to read the address, and found herself reading what was written on it—"3217 Fahrenheit, wherever that is. Not in this town, I told him, and he asked me to look it up on the county records. Somebody must've told him I work for the county."

"Pushy bastard," said Curtis. "Why's he think you should look things up for him?"

"I don't know," said Louanne, wondering why men like Curtis had a knack for asking questions you couldn't answer.

"Well, if you have any trouble, honey, just give us a call."

Louanne didn't answer that, and Curtis went on into his trailer, and she went back into hers. It was real money, all right, all twenties, and there were five of them. She could smell a fainter version of the smell in the trailer on lot 17, but money was money. A hundred bucks. It was too much, and made her worry again. Nobody in their right mind would've paid the sixty, let alone more. She made up her mind to send some of it back, somehow. Probably the woman would take it; women usually did. She readjusted the blinds in her bedroom, so that no one could possibly see in, and had a cooling shower. And finally went to bed, wondering only briefly how the foreigners were getting along in their lightless trailer.


She overslept, and had to run for it in the morning, dashing out of the door, slamming into her car, and riding the speed limit all the way to work. It wasn't until noon, when she paid the bill at the power company with the twenties, tossed the crumpled envelope in the wastebasket by the counter, and put the change in her billfold, that she thought of the foreigners again. Something nagged her about them, something she should have noticed in the morning's rush, but she didn't figure it out until she got home and saw lot 17 as bare as a swept floor.

They were gone. They had left in the night, without waking her or anyone, and now they were gone.

All through the subsequent excitement, Louanne kept her mouth shut about the hundred dollars and the stolen electricity, and made the kind of response everyone expected to rhetorical questions like, Who do you suppose? and Why do you think? and Whoever could have guessed? She figured she was thirty or forty dollars to the good, and didn't see why she should share any of it with old Mrs. Thackridge, who had plenty already or she wouldn't own the trailer park. They all knew she'd talked to the man (Curtis being glad to tell everyone, she noticed), but she stuck to her story about him wanting an address she'd never heard of, and wanting her to look it up in the county records. And she said she'd thrown the envelope away after not finding any such place, and not caring much, either, and after a while they all let her alone about as much as before, which pleased her just fine.

But she did wonder, from time to time, about that foreign lady wandering around the country without any clothes on. Brown as an egg all over, and not a hair on her body, and—it finally came to her one day, as she typed up a list of grand jury indictments when the judge's secretary was off sick—and no navel on the smooth, round, naked belly. She shook her head. Must have been there; everyone has a navel. Unless she had plastic surgery. But why?

After a while she didn't think of it much, except when she was wearing the red blouse . . . and after a while she was going with Alvin, who didn't like her in red, so she gave the blouse to the other secretary, and forgot the whole thing.



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