Palo Alto Weekly 23rd Annual Short Story
Third Place Adult
Naked Politics was inspired by several bizarre incidents recalled from my childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. Despite the conservative environment all around us, my liberal parents adopted an unconventional, freethinking and clothing-optional lifestyle that still makes friends and relatives shake their heads today. But my eccentric parents also had a fierce commitment to civil rights and social justice, a political legacy that enabled me and millions of others to make history during our recent presidential election.
My father died in 1986 at the age of 47, fuming over Reaganomics and despairing that the fight for equal opportunity was far from won. Two decades later America elected its first Black president, and a few days after that, on what would have been his 70th birthday, I found out this story had been chosen as one of the winners of the Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest. It was another strange confluence of events—one that I’m sure would have made my father very happy.
by Jill O'Nan
In 1972 the summer of love finally reached Cincinnati, a decidedly unfashionable city that had difficulty keeping up with national trends. It was also the summer of the Watergate break in, an event that confirmed my father’s long-standing suspicion that Richard Nixon was indeed the anti-Christ. I don’t know whether it was the harmonic wave of peace and love that swept over the city, or whether it was the eruption of the biggest political scandal since Teapot Dome that brought about the change. Perhaps it was a strange confluence of the two. But, in any event, that summer my parents decided to take the hippie dictum “let it all hang out” literally and began wandering around our house stark naked.
My mother’s penchant for nudity was somewhat easier for me and my three younger sisters to deal with since we had the common bond of womanhood to preserve us. My father’s propensity for nudity, however, was much more problematic. A mere glimpse of his dangling, purple-red genitalia was enough to sate any natural curiosity we may have had, and the four of us girls all quickly mastered the art of averting our eyes immediately so as not to see anything.
Our apparent discomfiture bemused and slightly irritated our parents.
“I don’t know what you’re so hung up about,” my naked mother said to me one day as she sat spread-eagled in front of the large, square fan that buzzed continuously in our stuffy living room. With her body reclined indolently against the imitation-tweed of my father’s Sears and Roebuck easy chair, and her feet positioned obscenely apart on the footrest, she looked like a peepshow performer who had casually consented to an impromptu pelvic exam. “There’s no reason to be so uptight,” she admonished me from the recliner. “Just remember: everybody’s got one.”
It was of course impossible to forget that fact as the summer wore on and my parents wore nothing. The sight of their pudgy, potato-fed, peasant-stock bodies became a familiar one. I grew accustomed to the sound of my mother’s large pendulous breasts—stretched well beyond their natural limits by four successive pregnancies—slapping against her chest as she walked. And although I continued to avert my eyes whenever I encountered my father nude, I couldn’t help but notice the sparse crop of tiny black hairs that populated his ghostly white backside whenever he turned away from me.
With our parents’ free-spirited example set down before us, my sisters and I staged our own generational rebellion by adopting the rituals and mannerisms of a medieval cloister of nuns. We never left our bedrooms unless fully dressed, never disrobed in front of family members, including each other, and, even on the most sweltering summer nights, refused to remove the thick, floor-length bathrobes we had received as Christmas gifts the previous winter. As the eldest daughter and the first to face the onslaught of puberty, I also bound myself with an ill-fitting training bra, which I wore day and night, like a hair shirt.
My parents, on the other hand, became increasingly emboldened by their newfound freedom from the strictures of clothing, even venturing out on the front porch to collect the mail and the newspaper au naturel. Fearful that our neighbors might see them, I decided to discuss the matter with them individually. Their responses were predictable.
“Look,” my mother said, laughing, “if they haven’t seen it already, it’s about time they did!”
"Look,” my father said, angrily, “if those Nixon-loving sellouts don’t like it, they can go screw themselves.”
So I retreated back to the convent where my sisters and I began an informal novena for the return of cold weather that would transmute clothing from an option into a necessity again. Our prayers were nearly answered when my parents abruptly announced that we would be taking a two-week family vacation in Canada, which is where they planned to emigrate if Nixon was re-elected in November.
Only a day’s drive north of Cincinnati, the cool Canadian summer was a refreshing respite from our family polemics. Huddled under blankets and in sleeping bags, surrounded by the crisp night air and the song of unceasingly cheerful cicadas, we were, for the first time in weeks, fully covered as a family.
Unfortunately, our Canadian idyll did not last long. Shortly after we arrived, my father uncovered two very unpleasant aspects of Canadian life. First, the price of gasoline was outrageously high, at least compared to what he was used to paying at our local Sohio station. Second, Canadian cigarettes were sold in narrow, rectangular packs that were not wide enough to store either his matches or his Bic lighter.
“Jesus Christ!” my father exploded as he read the gas pump while trying to cram his lighter into the narrow crawl space between the cellophane wrapping on the outside and the paper wrapping on the inside of the pack. “How do people live like this?!” And so, even though the kindly Canadian people were in no way responsible for Nixon’s election, their lack of facility with gas pricing and cigarette packaging forced us back to the sultry air of Cincinnati.
The closing of the Canadian escape hatch weighed heavily on my parents, who now spent most evenings seated nude on our couch in front of the television, eagerly devouring any and all information about Nixon’s role in the Watergate break in and arguing vociferously about the impending collapse of freedom and democracy as we know it. Intrigued as I was by the content of these political discussions, I took care never to sit on the couch with my parents unless their legs were crossed, or unless they held cushions across their laps to use as arm rests.
On the weekends, my parents spent much of their daytime hours lounging around the house nude as well. I spent most of my weekends swimming at my friend Kim’s house, always making sure to wear my bathing suit under my clothes so that I wouldn’t have to change in front of her. One Saturday morning, before I set off, my parents surprised me and my sisters with a long list of chores and a lengthy lecture about our general lack of tidiness around the house. We stood in a solemn row, heavy robes brushing against the dirty floor, eyes trained on our naked father’s toenails. There was no point arguing with him, particularly with his male dominance on full display, so we obediently dispersed and commenced the cleanup.
My friend Kim, however, was concerned when I didn’t turn up at the usual time, and headed down the block to look for me. As is the custom on muggy days in midwestern houses that don’t have air conditioning, the only barrier between inside and out was a delicate screen door, whose ability to shield the inhabitants’ privacy was largely symbolic.
From the dining room where I was sweeping, I saw Kim cup her hands around her eyes to block out the sun as she peered inside. Seeing me, she waved and pulled on the screen door, which was never latched. In the late morning glare, she mistook my frantic gesticulations to stop, run away or gouge out her own eyes as an invitation to step inside, which she promptly did. There on the living room couch she found my nude parents, contentedly reading the newspaper and appearing as unself-conscious as the members of some indigenous tribe photographed in National Geographic.
Kim stopped short and stared. Slowly her lower jaw began to unhinge and sink down to the recently swept floor. Standing there in the bright morning sun with her mouth wide open, she looked like a large reptile gaping stupidly on the banks of an African river.
Although I knew we were already well past damage control, I sped across the room and took my friend by the arm.
"Let’s go outside,” I said softly into her ear.
The sight of Kim’s gaping maw broke the spell of complacency afflicting my parents. They immediately grabbed sofa cushions and tried to cover themselves. Paradise lost, they were Adam and Eve after The Fall, cowering behind their overstuffed fig leaves.
Kim began to giggle uncontrollably even before we reached the sanctuary of the backyard, where we were finally out of ear- and eyeshot of the transgressors inside.
“Ohmigod!” she gasped between giggle fits. “I can’t believe I just saw your parents NAKED!”
A cover up was clearly in order, but as co-conspirators go, Kim lacked the intrinsic loyalty of a G. Gordon Liddy. Only my tearful pleading and promise of a Popsicle kept her from going back inside for a second look. There was much negotiation and debate before finally, her maw now plugged with a frozen neon orange treat, Kim agreed to accept my offer of a smuggled copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask in exchange for her silence.
I hoped a scandal had been averted, but these were politically uncertain times. In a John Dean-style turnaround, Kim confided in her older sister Vicki, who, at 13, was much less interested in reading a book about sex than she was in catching a live nude act in her own neighborhood. Vicki spread the word, and it passed like head lice from one child to another. Soon she was leading bands of neighborhood children in guerilla-style raids on our house, trying to catch my parents in flagrante delicto once more.
Vicki’s first few strikes were marginally successful, but the third or fourth time my parents looked up from the 6 o’clock news to find a half-dozen children staring at them through the screen door like visitors to the Primate House at the zoo, they also decided a cover up was in order.
First, though, they followed Nixon’s example and disavowed all prior knowledge.
"You damn kids!” my father screamed. “Quit leaving that damn screen door open!”
Second, they donned the minimal amount of clothing possible, at least during guerilla-raid hours. My mother’s strategic defense was to drape herself from head to toe in a loose-fitting, off-white polyester nightgown that was completely diaphanous and made her look more like a soft core porn star than the floppy-breasted mother of four.
Apparently unaware of these deficiencies in her dress, my mother took to spending the cooler evening hours sitting outside on our front porch, where even the monumental Sears and Roebuck catalog she kept balanced on her lap could not fully obscure the startling view. The real show started after nightfall, however, when my mother turned on the porch light to continue her catalog perusal. Backlit from behind, she appeared to be wearing tinted cellophane, evoking unabashed honks and hoots from passing cars and pedestrians.
“Nix on Nixon!” my mother called out merrily, thinking these primitive sounds were a show of support for the McGovern/Shriver sign in our front yard.
My father took more offensive countermeasures against the neighborhood guerillas. Inspired by a Bruce Lee-fueled fad that had finally reached Cincinnati, he bought a pair of Chinese pajamas consisting of cropped black kung fu pants and a bright red-and-black karate top. He immediately dispensed with the pants of course, finding them too restrictive after a summer spent al fresco, and wore only the top, as if it were a short robe. A very short robe. Although designed to cover the average Chinese to about mid-thigh, the karate top barely covered my taller-than-the-average-Chinese father’s buttocks. The front and side views were worse: from certain angles, the bottom of my father’s scrotal sac could be seen bobbing along between his legs as he walked.
My sisters and I tried to point out the defects in our parents’ attempts at modesty, but the prodigals were unrepentant. So, while they were preoccupied with the evening news one evening, we did seize the opportunity to loosen the porch light bulb.
Fall arrived, and my parents were so distraught over Nixon’s imminent re-election that I feared they might rend their already inadequate garments. My father talked about emigrating to Australia if the apocalypse came, but after watching a PBS special on the not-yet-completed Sydney Opera House, he realized he could never reside in a country with such low architectural standards.
“What kind of godforsaken, sheep-herding morons,” he said, flicking his cigarette so violently that ashes flew all over the coffee table, “would spend 15 years and millions of hard-earned tax dollars to build that butt-ugly piece of crap?”
When Election Day finally came it seemed to confirm my parents’ worst fears. Based on our local election returns, it appeared they were the only people in the greater Cincinnati metropolitan area who voted for McGovern. Even my paternal grandparents, who had once donated money to the IRA, thought McGovern’s politics were “too radical.”
“This country’s going to hell in a hand basket,” my father declared as we waited for the official election results. Though the outcome was a foregone conclusion, he would not go gentle into that good night. Occasionally he clutched at straws, citing Truman’s surprise victory over Dewey in 1948—“I’ll bet those Republican bastards never saw that coming!”—but more often he sank into despair or erupted in rage, spewing cigarette ashes all over the living room floor and furniture, like a peripatetic volcano.
There was an unmistakable chill in the November air. My parents sat huddled together on the sofa, my mother encased in a long flannel nightgown, my father clad in both halves of his ill-fitting Chinese pajamas. The summer of love was over. It had washed over us and receded, leaving an older, more familiar feeling behind. For the first time in months, I sat down unhesitatingly beside my parents. Taking care not to burn myself on my father’s dormant but still dangerous cigarette, I gave them each a comradely hug. The Evil One had been re-anointed, the Imperial Presidency remained intact, and the country was falling apart at the seams but, as long the barriers between us held firm, my family was back together.
Naked Politics is a smart, funny story. The author captures an era, a family, a child's point of view on the particular way in which parents can embarrass their children. This makes for a great read!