Shelly Bowman had to save her mother from the nudists.
One summer day Shelly’s father informed her that Margery Bowman, who previously had been best known for her rock collection and pot roasts, had run off to “some sex camp” on the shores of Lake Michigan in Bear County, near the town of Bear River.
“She’s not the same woman she used to be,” Dad said. He was sitting in his armchair watching television in the living room. He seemingly hadn’t left the chair since retiring from the Frosted Flakes factory five years ago. “She’s been, well, disagreeable. They can keep her as far as I’m concerned.”
Shelly didn’t really get along with her parents, but they still kept up appearances, especially now that she had a political career. So the next day she hopped in her shiny red Chevy pickup and hit the road northward from her home south of Battle Creek for the three-hour drive to Captain Jack’s Nude Resort. She didn’t have much of a plan beyond showing up and pleading with her, “Mom, please come home. Please.”
It was the only way Shelly could save her reelection campaign for Calhoun County commissioner and pursue her dreams to the state house, the U.S. House, the Senate. Who knew how far she could go. But if the Battle Creek Enquirer caught on that her mother was frolicking naked on a Northern Michigan beach with a bunch of hippies, Shelly would certainly be back to managing the late shift at the cereal plant come November 6 after one term. Shelly’s supporters, the working class families she worked alongside at the plant, would be shocked and disappointed. The Tea Party enemies in her own party would certainly make use of rumors that her 63-year-old mother was fornicating with old longhairs next to a bonfire.
She specifically thought of Merv Marl, the main Tea Party hothead who was running against her in the primary just a few weeks away. For the past few years, Merv had been showing up to Leroy Township board meetings and county commission meetings clad in a red, white, and blue cowboy hat and jeans held up by an outlandish soaring eagle belt buckle. He’d wait until the public comment portion of the meeting to rail against the evils of government. His flamboyant efforts were ignored at first, but now with the beleaguered economy, people were starting to listen.
Shelly fumbled with the printed-out directions on the passenger seat of the truck as she drove up U.S. 31, not remembering the name of the turn off. A sign about eight miles back had announced her arrival in Bear County, and she’d seen nothing except a smattering of old farms and pole barns framed by the lush summer tree line.
Shelly had looked up the nudist camp on the Internet the night before hitting the road. Her husband, Darrell, stood behind her desk holding their year-old son, Bobby. Darrell laughed when Shelly pulled up the poorly-designed web page. It had a baby blue background and gaudy red lettering: “Captain Jack’s Nude Resort.” The web site featured a dozen low-quality pictures shot from so far away you couldn’t even make out a nipple. Lumpy, wrinkly Baby Boomers were in the pictures doing a variety of activities in the buff: water skiing, volleyball, putt-putt golf.
“I wouldn’t think to do that stuff with clothes on,” Darrell said.
“Being naked frees you from your inhibitions in a variety of ways,” Shelly said mockingly.
Captain Jack’s slogan, written in large lettering on the top of the page, was: “Reveal the real you.”
Shelly herself wasn’t sure how she felt about it yet. Darrell and a few boyfriends in high school were the only people who had ever seen her naked, besides the doctor and, of course, her mother. Bodies should be kept private to keep some boundaries between one another. Still, Shelly didn’t really care what other people did as long as it didn’t hurt people. But what her mother was doing was hurting Shelly. Why didn’t her mother see that?
A roadside sign displaying a naked pirate with a strategically placed sword came into view. The pirate had flowing black hair, a hat, a moustache, and a pointy chin beard. His left hand was holding the sword over his groin area while his right arm pointed down a dirt road on the other side of U.S. 31.
“In search of naked booty? Captain Jack’s Nudist Resort, this way,” the sign read.
Shelly pulled off the road onto the gravel shoulder so her truck was directly in front of the sign. She wasn’t able to turn into the resort. Not yet. She wondered briefly about the origin of the pirate theme. In the brief research she had conducted, it seemed most resorts played up an earthy, hippie theme. Be one with nature. That sort of thing.
Captain Jack’s was different, however. Pirates were lawless. Nudists were lawless. Margery Bowman, who tended house and greeted visitors with a plastic smile for thirty years, was now in the hands of these pirates. Her mother, in fact, was one of these lawless pirates.
Shelly noticed another billboard a hundred feet away that had a simple slogan painted in white on a black backdrop: “Unmarried sex = sin.” Underneath, it read: “Sponsored by the Republican Women of Bear County.” The sign was an obvious rebuttal to the pirate.
A motorcycle suddenly came roaring up, driven by a grey-haired biker with a woman on back, her arms wrapped around his body. The bike turned into Captain Jack’s. Shelly imagined them playing badminton together with other naked bikers.
It took her fifteen minutes to muster up the courage to drive in. Lake Michigan came into view, then a sand-covered parking lot with a dozen or so cars, trucks, and motorcycles next to the grassy dunes that led to the beach. Shelly parked and walked to a trail that was blocked by a gate. A shirtless man with shoulder-length hair, probably around Shelley’s age was sitting in a booth reading a book. Shelly slung her purse over her shoulder a hugged it tightly with her right arm as if she expected the man to leap out and try snatching it. Instead, he set down the book – a faded paperback entitled Paradise Lost – and smiled widely at her.
To Shelly, the lurid smile suggested he was excited at the prospect of seeing her naked.
But all he said was, “Welcome to Captain Jack’s! I’m Dave. How can I help you?”
Shelly was close enough to the booth to see the man was, in fact, not wearing any clothes at all. The only item he had on was the type of fanny pack Shelly and her friends had derided for being decidedly uncool in the 1990s. Shelly took a step back so she wasn’t tempted to look down.
“Hi, I’m wondering if I could just go in and see if I could find my mother,” she said.
“That’s cool,” he said, with the strung-out ambivalence of a new-wave hippie pothead. “But ya still have to pay admission and sign our contract.”
Dave reached for some paperwork in the booth.
“I’m not getting naked, though,” Shelly blurted. “I mean, I’m not taking off my clothes.”
“That’s cool. Captain Jack’s is clothing optional. We do ask that clothing be bathing suits, though. I mean, it’s not cool if you just wanna go in and look at a bunch of naked people without revealing a bit of yourself. That’s just kinda creepy, ya know?”
“I don’t want to look at a bunch of naked people,” Shelly said. “I just really want to talk to my mom.”
“Gotta be in a bathing suit. Them’s the rules,” he said.
Dave slowly unzipped his fanny pack, pulled out a candy bar, a Mr. Peanut, unwrapped it and started gnawing. He was definitely stoned.
“I don’t have a bathing suit,” she said.
“Underwear works, too. People do it all the time. Ain’t no one in there gonna judge. They’re all naked, ya know.”
“And what happens if I refuse?”
“Can’t let you in. Cause any trouble, call the cops. They don’t like us much here, but it’s still private property.”
Shelly pondered her options. She could leave with her dignity fully intact and brave the unknowable in the primaries and the election. Or she could suck it up, strip down to her undies, go in and grab her mom, and be out in ten minutes.
“OK, how much is it?” she asked.
Dave’s face lit up as he worked on his Mr. Peanut.
“Thirty bucks for a day. Price goes down to twenty if you’re gonna stay the night at one of the campgrounds. Only $5 a day if you stay more than a week. That covers food, lodging and use of the hot tub and sauna.”
“Thirty bucks? That’s a lot. I’m only going to be in there ten minutes.”
“Ten seconds, ten hours, still thirty bucks, unless you stay the night. That’s when it gets rockin’ around her anyway.”
“I don’t want to rock,” Shelly said, digging in her purse for her wallet. “I just want my mother.”
Dave ignored this, took the money she slid over the small counter and produced some papers for her to sign. He highlighted the contract as she took a pen and scanned them over.
“No cameras. No pictures. Captain Jack’s isn’t responsible for any lost, damaged items,” Dave mumbled through a mouthful of candy bar. “The regular B.S.”
Shelly went to her truck, took a deep breath, and started disrobing. She was wearing a pair of khaki shorts, flip-flops, and a red short sleeve V-neck shirt with a white T-shirt underneath. She scanned the beach and parking lot to see if anyone was looking as she shimmied out of her shorts, tossing them on the driver’s seat. She was horrified to realize she was wearing mismatched underwear, blue panties and a white bra. And while she had been blessed with good metabolism and never had to crash diet or go to kickboxing classes like some of her friends to keep weight off, she’d had the baby a year ago. Shelly couldn’t help but feel lumpy in certain places.
But that didn’t matter where she was going, she told herself. Ten minutes and it will be over, she told herself.
She slid her feet back in the sandals and put all her clothes in the truck. She locked the door and realized she had no place to put her keys. She suddenly wished for a fanny pack as she clutched the keys in her hand.
Dave was looking at a page in the book with confused concentration when she returned. He opened the gate.
“You have fun,” he said. “My shift ends at seven. Find me out by the beach if you wanna hang.”
She thought she could feel him staring at her breasts but couldn’t be sure.
“Like I said, I’ll be leaving in ten minutes.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Dave said.
Shelly took to a sandy trail, a cool breeze from the lake rushing over her bare skin. She didn’t feel liberated at all. If anything, she felt the opposite.
Shelly’s stomach rose with the frightful anticipation of seeing the nudists. She heard voices before she saw anyone. Then she heard a clanging noise. As she crested a small dune, she saw a group of six people playing a game of horseshoes, three people grouped near one stake, three by the other.
They were naked and she would have to pass right by them. She would have to look to see if one was her mother.
Shelly tried not to leer and instinctively hugged her arms over her breasts as she passed.
“Yo ho!” one of the men cried. “Welcome to Captain Jack’s”
“Yo ho!” one of the women cried.
“Yo ho!” they all cried in unison.
Someone tossed a horseshoe, and it thudded into the sand. They were all drinking from bottles of beer. A few of them were smoking. Their naked bodies were oddly shaped, hairy, and pale. Shelly didn’t see her mother, and so pressed on toward the main campground.
Campers and tents were popped up in various sites beneath pines near fire pits. Shelly began to see so many naked people that it stopped shocking her. They were going about their daily activities, albeit in the buff: washing out cups, stoking fires, grilling up hamburgers for lunch.
Shelly found her mother under the awning of an old camper, sitting in a lawn chair eating a hot dog, a smidge of mustard on her face. She was relaxed, legs crossed, her naked breasts looming large.
“Shelly? Oh my goodness! What are you doing here?” Her mother nervously set the rest of her hot dog on a paper plate she was holding and wiped her face with a paper towel.
“I’m bringing you home,” Shelly said.
A man bounded out of the camper. He was tall and not particularly handsome but had a penis that dangled to the middle of his thigh. Shelly felt her stomach churn when she saw it and remembered her own semi-nakedness.
“Please, Mom. We need to go.”
“Honey, this is Jerry,” she said. “Jerry, this is my daughter.”
“Oh, great to meet you,” he said, hopping over and extending his hand.
Shelly again hugged herself and ignored him.
“We can talk about all of this in the car on the way home,” Shelly said. “But please, we have to leave. I am extremely uncomfortable and we really just need to go, Mom.”
Her mom went lax. The chair creaked as she reclined into it.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said.
Jerry just stood there with his hands on his hip, his penis dangling there like a taunt. He was trying to smile in sympathy, for whom Shelly didn’t know.
“I’m not sure what you’re trying to prove here, Mom,” she said. “But you’re really hurting my feelings. And Dad’s.”
Her mother scoffed. “Your father has been taking advantage of me for years,” Shelly said. “You don’t understand how suffocating that man is.”
Shelly actually did. She understood how suffocating and needy all men were, even her husband, who wasn’t nearly as bad as her father.
“So take up a hobby,” Shelly said. “Or divorce him. But why this? It’s just…creepy.”
Jerry had been eagerly waiting for a chance to jump in the conversation. “You’re just brainwashed into conventions like everyone else,” he said. “You’re confined in your thinking and your inhibitions. Your mother is learning to release her wild spirit into the world.”
“That’s a load of crap,” Shelly said. “This is all just an excuse for people to do whatever they want without any repercussions. There need to be rules.”
“This isn’t about sex,” he said.
“Not now, Jerry,” her mom said.
“Well, if you can’t come home for dad, think about me,” Shelly said.
Her mother snorted and took another nibble off her hot dog. “I know what this is about,” she said. “You’re afraid for your political career. You’re afraid that if it comes out that your mom is hanging out here, you’ll lose the election.”
Shelly shifted her feet where she stood in embarrassment, feeling exactly the way her mom wanted her to feel: selfish.
“Is that so bad? It’s my livelihood,” she said. “I want to make a difference.”
“I wanted to make a difference in my life, too,” her mother said. “You have to respect that. And if people won’t elect you for your talents and who you are, then who needs them? Who cares what I’m doing, or what anyone here is doing? I mean, think of the whole world, the whole universe, and who we are. Animals crawling around on a planet. In the end, they’re just tits, Shelly. You were always braver than me. Now I’m trying to be brave. I’m trying to be happy.”
Well, thought Shelly, who could argue with that.
Shelly hustled out of there as quickly as possible and put her clothes back on next to her truck. It felt comforting to be covered again, though she was disappointed to be driving back to Battle Creek empty-handed. Shelly couldn’t force her mother to leave, after all, and didn’t want to stand around half-naked trying for the rest of the day. She could only hope none of her political foes caught on before the primary or the election.
Those hopes were immediately dashed, however. Waiting out at the entrance of Captain Jack’s was none other than Merv Marl, his ancient, beige Ford LTD parked in front of the pirate sign. Merv was leaning against the long sedan with a camera slung around his neck, wearing his usual American flag cowboy hat and soaring eagle belt buckle.
Shelly was shocked. Merv brought the camera up to his eye and started snapping pictures as she turned her pickup onto U.S. 31. Shelly punched the gas as hard as she could and sped off. In her rear-view mirror, Shelly saw Merv giving her a pleasant wave.
“No comment.” She said it dozens of times over the next week. The media was having a field day: “Why was politician visiting nudist resort?” “Commissioner unclothed?” “The naked truth about Calhoun County commissioner.”
The press, as usual, only had half the story. They had Merv’s pictures of her driving out of the camp, leaked “anonymously” to various outlets across the state. They had an on-camera interview with Dave, who confirmed Shelly had paid to come in, though he said that he didn’t know what she did while inside or when she left.
“I dunno, seemed like any other chick that comes through here,” he said.
The Captain himself appeared on camera, a middle-aged naked biker outlaw relishing the free publicity. They blurred out his crotch on the telecast as he extolled the virtues of nakedness and his resort.“I think all politicians should spend a day here. It would make them more honest,” he said.
Her mother called to apologize, yet still refused to leave Captain Jack’s. “Maybe it will be good publicity,” she said on the phone.
“Mom, I’m the secretary for the Republican Women of Calhoun County. This is not good publicity.” Shelly really wished she could handle the situation with more aplomb. She knew the right thing to do was to sit down with one of these reporters, explain what was happening, crack a few jokes to keep it light, and say she wanted to focus on the real issues. People responded to honesty.
But for some reason, she couldn’t. There were messages from higher-ups, one even from the head of the Michigan Republican Party. Shelley ignored all of them. She wanted to hide under as many layers of clothing as she could and never show her face again.
But that wouldn’t work. There was a commissioners’ meeting in a week.
“Just skip it,” Darrell said. “What’s the worst that could happen? Say you’re going on vacation.”
“It’s a cop out. It’s suspicious. I’m going to have to face this. I just wish I had more time.” Shelly hoped a miraculous plan would present itself before the meeting, but it didn’t. She couldn’t eat anything that day. Even though it was a scorching summer day, 93 degrees, she wore a long-sleeved turtleneck and pants.
A half-dozen reporters were waiting outside the county building downtown when she arrived. Shelly took a back way in. Her Republican colleagues, who were considered friends, wouldn’t make eye contact with her in the back room, so she decided to go sit out in the chambers.
As soon as she walked out, a flurry of camera lights flashed. Reporters started shouting questions.
“Did you have sex while you were there?”
“Is it true you’re recovering from a meth addiction?”
“Are rumors that you participated in an orgy true?”
Shelly buried her face in the agenda packet and didn’t say a word. On the agenda were the usual issues: drains, a report from the sheriff, purchasing road salt for the winter.
The rest of the commission came in and took their seats. Shelly was burning with embarrassment. The dozen cameras only made it more intense.
The head commissioner, Rod Daniels, a longtime Republican, sat down gruffly. “All right, all right,” he shouted. “Everyone settle down. We’ll have time at the end of the meeting for public comment, but for now we have an agenda to get through. I’d appreciate it if the members of the press would please be respectful and save their questions and picture-taking until the end.”
The crowd in the room listened to Daniels. People settled into their seats. In the back row, Shelley could see just the top of an American flag cowboy hat. For the next 45 minutes, Daniels led the commission through the mundane agenda. All the votes were unanimous.
Then the meeting was opened for public comment. Merv Marl was the first in line. Shelly braced herself.
“Let’s address the 800-pound gorilla in here,” Merv said. “What everyone wants to know is what Commissioner Bowman was doing at Captain Jack’s Nude Resort?”
Shelly followed her instinct. “And I’d like to know what you were doing following me around, Mr. Marl?”
“Trying to keep you honest. The last thing this county, this state and this republic needs are more whoremongers in office. Who knows what despicable, lewd activities Mrs. Bowman was doing there? With a husband and a baby at home. This is filthy behavior and it needs to be addressed.”
Shelly fumed. She felt herself standing up. She felt her fingers clutch the hem of her turtleneck. She felt her arms lifting up her shirt. She felt the cold on her bare stomach. She felt the shirt lift up over her bra-clad breasts. She felt the hot cameras on her. She felt the heat of anger rising in her.
“They’re just tits, Merv,” she heard herself say. “Get over it.”
The crowd gasped. The shutters clicked. The cameras rolled.
Shelly bolted from the meeting, got into her pickup, and turned on the radio real loud to drown out her thoughts. Her cell phone was buzzing and lighting up every few moments. She tossed it on the floor. What had she done? She couldn’t explain it to herself. All she could picture was Merv saying the word filthy, and it made her want to do it all over again. Shelly Bowman decided it was worth it even if she was never elected again and spent the rest of her life managing the night shift at the Frosted Flakes factory.
Her husband was waiting by the television when she got home. The baby was asleep. “What did you do?” he asked, pointing at the TV.
“It was impulsive,” she said. “I couldn’t help myself.” She glimpsed herself on the television, an endless loop of her flashing America. Her chest was blurred out like Captain Jack’s crotch, even though she had a bra on.
“Well, everyone is getting a real kick out of it, that’s for sure,” Darrell said with a laugh.
Shelly did numerous interviews afterward and explained what had happened with her mom, that Shelly was at the resort to speak with her. The public was responding to her honesty, she was told by higher-ups in her party. She breezed through the primary, defeating Merv and all her other challengers. This meant she’d be a lock for the actual election. The head of the Woman’s Republican Party for the whole state approached her about a possible run for state senate in two years.
“You’ve become quite the sensation,” the woman said.
With just that gesture, Shelly had become famous. “They’re just tits,” became a rally cry. They were even selling T-shirts at the mall with the slogan written wide across the chest. Shelly thought them tasteless, but there was nothing she could do about them.
Her mother came home that fall and replanted herself beside Shelly’s father.
“I’ve had my fun,” she told Shelly in the kitchen that Thanksgiving. Her father was sitting in his armchair, yelling for Margery to bring him another piece of pie. The women ignored him.
“What about Jerry?” Shelly asked.
“He went home to his kids in Southfield,” she said. “It would have never worked out. He was a little too simple for me.”
As for Captain Jack, Shelly saw him on the news a few months later, being led away in handcuffs from the nudist resort, the blur hovering over his crotch. It turned out that the good Captain hadn’t been paying taxes for years. All the publicity from Shelly had prompted investigators to crack the books.
Nude Captain Jack was undaunted.
“This is America!” he shouted into a news camera. “I’ll be back! I’ll be back, America!”