“On the Shore of the Great Salt Plains Lake Near Jet, Oklahoma” by Nathan Knapp
The couple arrives at the mostly empty campground in the afternoon, when it is already blazing hot. The earth above them is a white-hot blue blaze, and the sky is nearly white. Barefoot, they climb out of their car through the high grown weeds and ragweed and walk down to the water, clutching towels and wishing they’d brought sunscreen.
At the water’s edge they see salt flies flitting in and over the surface. The water looks heavy. The young man puts his toes in, then plunges his foot deep into the sandy floor—as his foot sinks the water explodes with skittering bugs.
I’m not swimming here, says the young woman.
You’re not swimming, says the young man.
The young man proposes that they walk further down the beach, past the campsites. He has a motive. The woman knows this.
She walks behind him, the sand cooking her feet, and smiles.
She didn’t bring a swimsuit anyway.
In the woods beyond the shore, a boy is hunting through the brush, a .22 rifle in his hand. He is looking for birds and trying to work up the courage to shoot one. He’s killed a bird before—a wood thrush blown not so completely apart that he still regretted the destruction of its soft, still-warm underbelly.
He wants to be able to tell his father when he gets home from work—I killed a bird today! And to not have to lie when he does it. As he steps past the green briar and the tall, razor-sharp sand grass, though, he knows he won’t be able to pull the trigger at any living thing. Especially a bird.
A slight breeze brings slight relief from the heat and a taste of the saltwater lapping against the hard sand. He’s been here many times. Though he has no desire to kill a bird, he loves this place, this lonely beach at the edge of this lonely lake too shallow for boats and too lifeless to attract fishermen. He loves the sand bugs and the sharp edges of the sand grass. Especially he loves the deep shade beneath the willow trees, and the sound of the cicadas’ music in the sun.
The Jet, Oklahoma Recreational Area is marked by a rusted sign with bullet holes in it at one end of a dirt road off a desolate highway. The Rec Area itself, half a mile or so down this dirt road, is not exactly awash with tourists, although this is the only salt lake in the state (though, the young man will discover later, to his disappointment, man-made) and one of the only land-locked saline lakes on the entire continent.
As he climbs over a rock outcropping that juts into the water, the young man observes the next stretch of beach is just as abandoned as the one that he and his girlfriend have just traversed.
He grins and throws down his towel on the sand. The girlfriend lays hers down beside his and sits down. For awhile neither speaks, and they watch the gentle lifeless waves approach and fade, approach and fade.
It’s amazing how wide it is, says the woman. And it’s true: the trees on the other side of the lake are tiny green specks, and nothing more. The young man agrees with her. A trickle of sweat slides down his back. It feels good.
You could probably go naked here and no one would notice, he says, although this is unnecessary.
She doesn’t need to be convinced.
A male cardinal in his cross-airs, the boy ticks off the safety and wills himself to pull the trigger. The bird, perched on the edge of a blackjack branch, is perfect. In the scope he sees its crimson throat, watches it vibrate as it calls.
The boy lowers the rifle, hunts the ground for a rock. Can’t do it. He finds a good smooth stone and pitches it at the bird. He misses, of course. He’s as half-hearted at baseball—his father’s sport—as he is at killing birds.
She strips off her top. The breeze tickles her bare sunlit breasts, clammy with sweat as they are. For him, she wriggles out of her white cotton skirt—slowly—so slowly—pushing it down over her hips, bending down and letting it fall in a delicate collapse of fabric on the towel below.
There is a burning between her legs that is very different from the burning heat reflecting off the placid surface of the lake.
What’re you waiting on, she says. This was your idea.
He is always less eager to take off his clothes—he likes to watch.
Come on, she says.
He smiles, embarrassed now, and looks back up the beach, in the direction they came from. Still no one there. They’ve got the whole vertical expanse of the sand to themselves, and the vaster span of the lake beyond.
Off comes his shirt, and then, looking around once more, hesitant, his jeans. She can see his penis pushing against his boxer-briefs, a pleasurable bulge, and she knows he’s self-conscious to be already hard.
All of it, off! she says, and off comes his underwear. His penis flops out awkwardly, at a ninety-degree angle from his body.
He loves her for this, this urging, although it takes him a moment longer to lose the self-consciousness that comes with being naked outside, naked for the whole goddamn outdoors to see, and lies back on the towel facing the lake.
She kneels, and takes his penis between her lips, and gives it a small lick. Hi, she says.
The breeze feels good on her back, between her legs. For a moment, even the murky, lifeless water behind lets off a pure, salty scent with no traces of its sick saline lifelessness.
Through a break in the brush the boy sees the couple through the willow leaves. Stopped in his tracks, he feels his chest go cold, the same way it does when Jenny Mather in third grade looks at him for more than half a second.
He’s never seen anything like this, never even seen his mother naked. He saw some pictures on a friend’s computer late one night, once, but that’s it, and those pictures horrified him. What he had imagined to be a holy act—something that was, at the very least, serious—was made crude, animal, gross.
This, though, seems different, and he’s transfixed.
He doesn’t realize what he’s doing when he drops into the sand grass and levels the rifle at them.
She looks at him the way she does when her jaw is tired from giving head. In me, she says. Get in me.
He gets on his knees and tells her to turn around, which she does, facing the lake, her hands in the sand and her knees on the towel. Waiting for the warmth of him to enter her.
She tells him, again, to put it in. He does. In and out of her, never fully coming out, slowly at first, getting faster, like she knows he knows she wants him to.
The boy can see the whole thing through the scope. A wild beats in his chest, and he realizes he has an erection, too. Absurdly, at the same moment, he remembers his father’s admonition never to point a firearm at a person, but he does not lower the weapon. He imagines firing the firing at the couple. A shudder works its way through his belly. The thought is horrifying, and he watches the strange animal motion of the man, the increasing speed and violence of his thrusts, the woman’s breasts swaying back and forth, and the boy is suddenly thinking, those are tits, those are tits, those are tits.
The young man finishes faster than he means to, before the woman moans in the way that means she is getting laid, but he can’t help coming early—not here, in broad daylight, where the surface of the lake stretches so far he can barely see the other side. Still, he savors the last strokes as he comes, and comes, and comes, and slides out of her, and lays back on the towel, elbows in the sand, still hard.
Good idea, he says.
The woman pulls the towel up around her groin, wishes that he had pulled out. The reason for this desire, she tells herself, is because semen will be oozing out of her for the rest of the day, all the way on the two hour drive back home, and because she doesn’t want to get sand in her vagina from the towel. But there is another reason. A reason she secrets—or tries to secret—even from herself. She says nothing about this, a powerful feeling of nakedness floods over her, and she slides back on her shirt.
Already, she says, and pulls the cotton skirt back over her sandy knees, over her hips. She grabs her towel and takes off back down the hot sand toward the car, leaving the young man to dress, alone.
On the drive home the couple will argue over something that the woman said, or didn’t say—neither of them will be able to remember in the end. They will drive through the heat and the new corn growing in rows all the way to Enid. Their yells will fade as they turn eastward toward home.
And then, in the silence that persists in the space between them, both will wish to be back on the shore of the salt lake, unthinking, all-body.
When the boy emerges from the brush and crosses the expanse of wheat that borders his family’s yard and every other yard at the edge of town, he’ll open the back screen door, and avert his eyes from his mother’s, not knowing why he can’t meet her unsuspicious gaze. He’ll feel like the whole world is giving him a stern look.
Still later the boy will lock himself in the bathroom, climb into the shower, and, under the water, as he closes his eyes, he’ll take his own hairless manhood in his hand, and expel his own white-gray shot onto the shower wall.
Then, he will pray Dear God for forgiveness. A feeling he’s wholly unfamiliar with will well up his chest, and he’ll help set the table for dinner.
Nathan Knapp’s writing is forthcoming from or has appeared in Parcel, Frequencies, The McNeese Review, Sundog Lit, jmww, and other publications. He edits The Collapsar and lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.