Karelin was laid out on her stomach, in the grass near the playground, when she spotted the first naked man. She had looked up from her book and found the bare, older man standing beside the playground fence with his arms hanging loosely at his side, his paunch extended, and his eyes pointed vaguely in the direction of the swing set. He must have just arrived.
Karelin immediately got up from her beach towel to warn the children’s parents. As she rounded the playground toward the parents’ benches on the other side, she looked through the jungle gym with its swarming knot of children at the man still standing in the same position, with the same distant expression on his face.
Something was off, Karelin thought. She had never seen an act like this before, at least not so brazen a one, but she had had this idea that perverts who liked kids would, if placed before them, actively watch them. And that was the thing. The naked man stood there behind the fence, definitely naked and definitely next to a playground, but by the languid posture and the vacancy in his eyes, he seemed to Karelin to be completely disinterested in the children. And, well, everything else.
And that’s when she spotted the second naked man. She had turned away from the first, toward the benches where the parents sat oblivious, and noticed a pair of bare feet hanging down from the tree above them. A couple steps later, she was looking up at the man, sitting bare-assed on a branch with the same tired posture and the same distant, lukewarm expression. Karelin gave a cry and pointed up at the man for the parents to see. This naked man was facing away from the playground and seemed to have less interest in the parents’ children than the first, but still, she felt it important to notify someone.
The parents followed Karelin’s gaze, and gave startled cries of their own.
“What the hell?” yelled one mother.
“Julia!” shouted a father, which was quickly followed by the rest of the parents yelling out their child’s name.
Karelin called out again and pointed at the first naked man, who still hadn’t budged beside the playground fence. This elevated the terror among the parents, who now dashed madly into the wood chipped area to find their offspring, and made Karelin think she should call the police. She dug into her pockets for her phone, but in vain, because her phone was where she had left it on the beach towel.
Walking back quickly around the playground fence, she noticed a third naked man standing lazily in the parking lot beside the park, and then a fourth who had apparently just fallen out of another tree on the far side of the grassy area. Karelin put her head down and walked faster, afraid to trust her eyes and unwilling to test them further.
She was almost back to where she had been reading and finally looked up, to find another naked man sprawled casually on her beach towel with her book under his head and her phone hidden, presumably, under some other part of his flesh. Karelin only had a moment’s glance at that same fish-eyed stare into space and half-smile on the man’s face before panic set in, and she took off in a dead sprint for the park entrance.
Another naked man straddled the stone gateway pillar as she ran through the opening and into the street, turning left with the idea of running to Maria’s apartment just a couple blocks away. Karelin wasn’t much of a runner, and could feel already the chronic asthma constricting her breathing, but instinct told her that to stop would be an enormous mistake. So she continued.
It seemed the naked men were not limited to the park. Karelin passed one standing with shoulders slouched on the hood of a parked car, then another sitting atop the roof of a stoop, then another still who looked to have climbed halfway out a manhole. There was no organization to the naked men that Karelin could see. They were facing in every direction, seemingly oblivious to each other, to their environment, to their condition of attire. None made any attempts to change their positions, but stared off absently with their arms hanging and their guts protruding.
Karelin wheezed around one corner and then another, all the while juking the increasing number of naked men, who, with all the less conspicuous and more creative perches taken, had resorted to stagnantly milling about in the middle of the roads and sidewalks. She turned another corner and, finally, was within sight of Maria’s apartment building.
Upon reaching the front steps, above which two naked men hung casually from the fire escape, Karelin smashed the buzzer with her finger before doubling over to breathe. A crashing sound from the trash cans beside her told her one of the hanging naked men had fallen. She punched the buzzer, again and harder.
Where was Maria? she thought. She should have been home now. Karelin tried to keep down the resurgence of panic in her stomach, tried to ignore the pulse throbbing in her throat. She turned around to survey the street around her. In all directions, as far as her eyes could see, naked men stood and sat and lay benignly in every available space – the trees and telephone poles hung heavy with them, the asphalt blinked with them, the building roofs and fire escapes sagged and moaned with them. Thousands of naked men, all listless and pitiable, all incredibly unwelcome.
Karelin tried the buzzer a third time. She tried it a fourth. Plan B was already, regretfully, forming in the back of her mind, when the buzzer speaker crackled into life.
“Maria! It’s Karelin, open the door.”
The buzzer sounded, and in seconds Karelin was slamming the front door shut behind her, sliding down onto the floor, catching her breath. Her eyes squeezed shut, she slowly counted to ten. One naked man, two naked men, three… ♦