issue 41: March - April 2004 

 | author bio | spanish translation

G.K. Wouri Naked With BoysNaked With Boys
G.K. Wuori


At the truck stop they were all told there were showers inside and that it was a law in America that people shower every day. Their driver said he had been ignoring that law and he was sorry about it, sorry that he’d forced them into lawlessness when they didn’t even know the laws yet. "Thing is," he went on, "it’s one of those things that’s so natural you hardly think about the law."
      He said it with his big mustache quivering and the man Scuttles at his side seeming to give him elbow taps in the ribs.
      Someone in the group said he was relieved to hear it was a law because he knew these people, these Americans, were a little beside themselves about their cleanliness. It was good to know they weren’t simply crazy and obsessed with lice and dander and a smudge or two on the neck, that they were only doing what God, through the written mandate of hard law, had said was necessary.
      Su-Tea decided the only strain she saw was the one on the truth as it emerged from beneath that quivering mustache, the same truth as when the driver had come up to her in the brushy place where they were stretching and eating cold food, and he’d said to Su-Tea it was a law that he must collect a urine sample from her.
      "What law?" she had asked. "We are not even by law within this country."
      Nevertheless, she’d squatted and peed beneath his imperious stare and that quivering mustache, knowing full well that none of the men had been asked to do this so the driver was only being what his testicles demanded that he be: impolite, perhaps something slightly degenerate. It was maybe a thousand miles later, too, when she realized there had been no cup, no glass, no collection at all of her pee, only the watching, and so she’d marked him right then as a man who would be offering her sweet chocolates or hot coffee in exchange for her attending to those personal things that came from deep within his mind and his muscles. Such men were usually various in their desires.
      Su-Tea resolved that she would regard his words the way you regard One Million Times Fire Sauce, even though, right now, he was telling her she needed to stay with the truck people for this showering, that he could not risk losing the only woman in the shipment and so she could goddamn well shower with the men.
      "There won’t be no foolin’ around," he said, "because I’ll be in there watching over things."
      Su-Tea wasn’t surprised by this, by what he wanted to see of her or that he would have her shower with the boys. At forty, and still lovely as she was always told, she knew all about the rattles that echoed within empty men. She was only surprised that he didn’t come right out and say what he wanted, that he wasn’t clear with her so that choices could be made and, if necessary, various trade agreements worked out. Su-Tea cared little anymore for the truth—not three days had she been in this country, far too soon to know what was true—and wanted only that the stories, lies if such they be, be of a consistent fabric, the stitching in a straight line even if the garment turned out to be a meaningless thing.
      Since it was three in the morning, the shower room was empty of everyone except Su-Tea and the rest of the U-Haul people, most of whom were hardly more than boys, healthy boys who could handle a trip that sometimes took eight or ten weeks, who could vomit on the sea and freeze in the mountains and sweat true grains of salt in the desert and still talk about the work ahead and how they would send back home aspirin and paper towels and Levis 505™ jeans.
      One of the boys said he was going to be part of the Olympic team—a running boy, Su-Tea thought (which, in a sense, described all of them), a child of stamina and dreams he couldn’t get to quickly enough—to give his skills to the red, white, and "What is the other color?" It was then that the driver, who was nearby, walked over and hit him, a blow with the back of the hand to the boy’s nose that made him cry. It was the only time this contractor had been violent toward them.
      "We let you live here, okay?" the driver said. "Don’t go thinking you’re gonna get your picture on no cereal boxes."
      That made no sense to any of them.
      Su-Tea knew one of the boys wanted to become a marine soldier if he got all his papers in a time when he was still young enough, though the boy (wisely, Su-Tea thought) said nothing at that time. The incident was more embarrassing than anything else, and Su-Tea was sure the man was not as mean a man as he wanted to appear. She decided he was just a practical man who had no time for the hopes of strangers.
      When they got to the room outside of the showers Su-Tea said out loud that "Mr. Yall" (the best she could do with U-Haul), "wants this so you’d best think of me as your mother. Who will wash my back?"
      She was, certainly, old enough to be mother to most of them, her own motherhood showing in her dark nipples and the belly that the Distinguished Purveyor of Distances had said would feed her well on inky nights when others were chewing the wax from each other’s ears. Her children, though, not often in her thoughts, a boy and girl, had been caught with Mass cards sometime during the One Hundred and Fifth Delicious Uprising and had been brained.
      Hardly anyone had thought Su-Tea would live through that. She’d pounded her body with heavy sticks and recited prayers backward. She’d eaten coal, and one day tried to tear off her genitals inside a shop that sold ironwear. Ancient lore filled her desperation, and she called upon old spirits to stop savaging these pathetic remains of her person. A doctor was finally brought in, and Su-Tea had been put to sleep for a month. When she woke, the memories in her mind and heart were still there, but her body would no longer cry or try to bend itself into the many shapes of agony. Time, finally, put her children in a quieter place so that she could think about another life.
      So Su-Tea was motherly without being a mother, and her husband had only said, "Go, go," once he’d stolen the money for her trip. He’d said it would take about two weeks for them to connect him to the theft, and by that time he’d be sucking yak teats in a yurt somewhere in one of the –Stans.
      They both knew they’d never see each other again. They also knew Su-Tea had been working hard trying to respect her husband and had regularly failed. He was average, he told her, and always would be, a marker on the human median without her facility for languages (Su-Tea was fluent in six) or her eye for color or her patience with children. Her husband fixed small gasoline engines and loved to do it, and although he didn’t think there would be many small gasoline engines out in the wilderness, he did know that wherever there was human life there was always steel and rubber and wires and nuts and bolts. He also said he would never divorce her, but if she wanted to marry again in the Americas he wouldn’t mind, he would understand.
      With her sick-grief finally gone, Su-Tea was still saddened by all of it, by a life that should have been simple, enriched only by good work and the growth of children and the things that a peppy mind could do as it grew older.
      Yet, here she was, naked with boys. Promises had been made, arrangements concluded. Soon these children would be carving the earth or cleaning toilets or walking American dogs. They would be food men or chicken killers or spend whole days lifting shovelfuls of the garbage from products that hadn’t even been invented when Su-Tea was a girl. One boy was good with numbers, and there were no places in the world where such a skill wasn’t valued. Another could play many musical instruments, including some of the electrical ones that put permanent vermin in the ears of the elders, and she hoped someone would soon see that this one, right here, with what looked like a nose broken by a gentle lover, that someone would see he was an actor, that he was terribly funny with voices and impersonations in— most importantly—an American way. He could wrinkle his face and become Mr. Harrison Ford, or sneer like a mockingbird and be Mr. Sean Penny.
      She, however, what could she say about herself? She was with a cash-only American man washing her back (which she didn’t mind, his hands being soft and not at all impertinent), and trying to figure out how he could get her alone somewhere to bask in her wisdom and to soak in the soothing streams of her temperament. His thoughts, his needs, were hardly unique since Su-Tea could see six, maybe eight, of the boys stumbling around the shower trying to wash and hide their erections at the same time.
      I must be astonishing, she thought, better than pictures, although we have come such a very long way in such a very long time these boys would probably try to penetrate a poppy if they didn’t think it would fall apart on them. Truthfully, she wondered about the tantalizing secrets her own flesh still hid from her, though her wish at the moment was for nothing more than to feel someone behind her, to feel arms encircling her and holding her so tight she had to bend forward ever so slightly. Such very small conveniences.
      It was one of those times when Su-Tea ("as an intellectual," she thought, the entirety of her womanhood not necessarily up for barter) wished it were acceptable for her to offer her loins only so that life would be better for these boys, their lonely futures not half so lonely as they would have been back home where they would have faced all the questions of high value and happy worth that various daughters would have directed at them. Liars, they would have become, whereas at this moment they were immersed in truth, human truth, all the muscular verities of the buttocks and genitals and silent satisfactions.
      Su-Tea noticed, off in the corner of the shower, two of the boys relieving each other with their hands, certainly the loneliest of all possible praises, and there, over against the wall, by himself, was the man who had owned ten newspapers, his hand just then writing only the story of his body, a story told using words of distance and all the phrases in the pornographic picture books that meant, Hello, How Are You?, Is Everything All Right?
      She pulled away from the man who was washing her, the man not unclothed so she supposed he obeyed the law elsewhere, his hand with the ring on one finger slippery with soap and making her rump jiggle. Su-Tea began to sing then, her silky lilt like silver strings in the heavy steam of the shower room, a voice of gentleness and integrity that mitigated the sad imperative of all this solitary satisfaction.
      She sang children’s songs about frolicking animals and hefty giants whose cheeks shone with gold dust. Newts and fishers scuttled around on the slippery floor in lyrics the boys all knew, glass-like harmonies from their own mothers. Su-Tea squawked like a macaw and hissed like an ice beetle. She had everyone smiling and even an American truckman, surprised at first by this strange group in the shower, a woman in the group no less, and who couldn’t begin to guess at Su-Tea’s words, laughed, as did the boys, whose laughter became more precious as it took them back to places of fine shadows or brilliant suns or the hissing whisper of spray coming off the chop on a lake. They were not the common smiles that had been with them for weeks and weeks, the smiles over another’s misfortune, over Mr. Yall’s difficulties, the smiles over a great tragedy the Americans suffered while Su-Tea’s group had barely had time to dirty their feet on American soil (some port, it had been, in a warm place that had need of business, a clean port where it had struck Su-Tea that most of the workers were longshorewomen). They had smiled in that place not out of joy for the recent unspeakable committed by those Arab boys, but because for once they knew a horror that touched none of them at all. No secret burials, no sudden disappearance of an uncle or a sister or a cousin would become, over this, an unspoken history. So they’d smiled to a grief unvisited and hoped the Americans knew that sadness was a fat puppy that always scurried away. Yet none of that smiling had been as it was here and now, songs of a nursery, delicacies, Su-Tea thought, for these travelers who’d had to open food tins with their teeth and walk off a ship with rags over their eyes as if blinded—so long had it been since they’d seen the sun.
      The actor boy came over to her as she began her third song and he sang with her, his face wet, perhaps from the shower, though it could have been tears. Yes, she was sure it was tears even as she heard Mr. Yall behind her saying, "Well, I’ll be goddamned."
      Su-Tea didn’t think he would be. He’d had to be stern, breaking his own laws just as other men had to be stern in enforcing them. They all played this kind of game, a very serious game, because all the leaders wanted to pretend that no game was being played. You had to satisfy the leaders, no question there.
      She’d seen that when the Pimple Boy had misplaced something in Guatemala, a very dear something, a cat he’d been hiding in his undershorts. One of the Paid Men had seen him retrieve the cat and place it back inside his clothing. Then the Paid Man had beat the cat, had killed it bloody while it was still in the boy’s pants and had badly injured the privacies of the Pimple Boy. The Pimple Boy had stopped talking then, and in a short time he stopped eating. They’d left his body in a parked car somewhere in Mexico. It was their only loss although they’d been told there could be many, that it could be all of them and that you didn’t get insurance on this kind of trip. The only family the Distinguished Purveyor of Distances knew of who’d requested a refund (their daughter, the family said, left to starve to death on a mountain even the satellites had yet to map), well, that family had been outright killed so you’d best know the stakes of this freedom game. It might not be what you think.
      When the showers were over, Mr. Yall and Buddy gave them new clothes, although they were only T-shirts in a size XXX-Large, shirts that had a funny Jordan Rules printed on the front, that and a black man’s face.
      Their truck was at the rear of the building then, and Mr. Yall led them out a back door. Far away over the flat land a piece of dawn had been laid on the horizon, a mere sliver of another day.
      Mr. Yall, though, said, "Not you," to Su-Tea, as he took her by the arm and they walked away from the truck and down into the dark valleys of all the other trucks whose engines were rumbling out protection and sleep to the drivers.
      They stopped and Su-Tea expected her new shirt would be pulled from her, that she would be looked at and smelled and arranged and penetrated, things that would not exactly be unwelcome since it was time for her whole world to turn and groan and give birth to a new world where all the old things, but especially The Status Of Being Perfect (as the women at home understood it), would be overturned and give rise to change so heartbreakingly swift she knew she’d have to change her name. One of her schoolteachers from when she was a little girl, a reader of many foreign things, had suggested Tiffany, which had a lazy, greasy sound to it, not the sort of person Su-Tea thought she’d want to be. Her husband, though, who’d bought a telephone directory from a place called Fort Worth, had said he liked Ethel. Su-Tea thought she might go with that if only because her husband had also said, "If I have to begin speaking of you as though you are dead, I would feel comfortable with that. Yes, I would."
      Mr. Yall, however, did not remove Su-Tea’s shirt. As she looked up at him expecting that he would either kiss her or beat her, she was shocked to see that he had tears on his face, true tears and not shower-maybe tears. She knew American men were not fond of crying, so she concluded she had done a terrible thing, an error atop the great mountain of this man’s being. She wondered if she should quickly say she wanted to be buried as Ethel so that her husband could remember a truth.
      Mr. Yall did not hit her, though. He did not remove her shirt and begin to make preparations for manly use. He whispered to her (she’d never noticed how deep his voice was, as though he’d run fearfully into a cave and was now beginning to panic in the dark) that she was a beautiful woman, that her beauty came from a kind of history he’d never be smart enough to study—old bones, he suspected, castles and ruins riven by war—that she was like a woman in a movie, a dazzling presence the size of all the surrounding darkness, and would she marry him, would she do that? She didn’t have to, it wasn’t part of the deal, but if she did he’d do different things with his life so that she would be comfortable and feel pride in him.
      Su-Tea, her bare feet hurting on the stones of the parking lot, and not at all naļve about a man’s infatuation with a woman who had no home, no possessions, no money, hardly any clothes, told him she could do that if he really needed for her to do it, that her husband weeks and weeks ago had given her permission to open up yet another life to see what would stay put and what would choose to fly away with the hawks on the merest of breezes. Yes, she decided, it would be better than cleaning hotel toilets, or going to yet another school to learn how to do things that might no longer need to be done by the time she learned how to do them; but she wasn’t sure, she said to him finally, what a wife in this country was supposed to do, that it must be complicated from what she’d heard.
      "I don’t even know," she began, looking down at her shirt, "these Rules of Jordan."
      He laughed then and said, "Oh, I think you do. I honestly think you do."
      Su-Tea was happy for herself then, a feeling she’d put aside what seemed a thousand years ago, and even happy that she could now ride in the front of the truck sitting on cushions between Mr. Yall and the man called Scuttles.

© G.K. Wuori 2004
spanish translation

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author bio

gk wouriG.K. Wuori’s stories and poems have appeared in such journals as Prairie Schooner, The Gettysburg Review, Other Voices, The Missouri Review, New York Stories, Flaunt, Carve, and The Barcelona Review. A Pushcart Prize winner, he has also published a story collection, Nude In Tub, and a novel, An American Outrage, both by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. He lives in Sycamore, Illinois, in a house with eight gables. Website: www.gkwuori.com
      See also: You’re Stanley Now (issue 34) and Madness and Murder (issue 13).


issue 41: March - April 2004 

Short Fiction

G.K. Wuori:Naked With Boys
Nelly Reifler:Personal Foundations...
Pat MacEnulty:The End
Paul Bergstraesser: Humility
Colm Clark: Mimes for Christ
picks from back issues
Javier Marķas: Fewer Scruples
Adam Haslett: The Beginnings of Grief


Gretchen McCullough:The New Beirut


Adam Haslett by Sherry Ellis


19th-Century English Literature
answers to last issue’s quiz John Steinbeck

Book Reviews

Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins
The Furies by Fernanda Eberstadt
Dead I May Well Be
by Adrian McKinty
Boy A by Jonathan Trigell
The Language of Sharks by Pat MacEnulty

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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