Beach People

There were two lifeguard towers at Black Knife Beach, and the lifeguard office itself had a large wooden shutter on the seaward side, which could be lowered to provide a third outpost. The office sat at the end of the beach, where the strip of sand was narrow and the water was littered with large jagged boulders. Almost nobody tried to swim at this end of the beach, but the shutter was always opened anyway. Kristen was assigned to work as a runner, spending some time at each station, running errands and relieving the other lifeguards while she learned the job. She stayed to help Beth with the shutter while George and Trina carried supplies and opened the other two lifeguard stations.

“If I had my way,” Beth said, “we’d have two people at each station, and one person to run relief. This beach is too big and too busy. If things start to get hairy, we just don’t have enough depth to cover every situation.” She shrugged. “But I don’t always get my way. That’s why it’s so important to know the beach regulars—people like Erik and Sheila. Remember them from Saturday? Sheila’s a nurse, and Erik’s a good man in a tight spot. We need to know who we can count on, and who has what skills. The beach people back us up every day.”

Kristen nodded. “What about Paul and Maria?” she asked. She hadn’t told Beth about her encounter with the couple in the parking lot this morning.

Beth frowned, and shook her head. She thought for a moment, then said, “Maria would be okay if you need someone to go for help or carry a message, I think. I wouldn’t count on Paul for anything.” She looked up at the weathered wall of the office building. “Now let’s get this window open,” she said. “You ready?”

Kristen nodded. “I thought a lifeguard’s job was to sit high up in a chair with all the cute guys gathered at her feet,” she said, with a wry smile. She and Beth took positions at opposite ends of the shutter. They would each draw back a stout metal bolt, and the shutter would begin to drop open. They stood with their feet well back from the side of the building, each with one palm pressed firmly against the wood high up on the shutter, their naked bodies stretched to full length, leaning into the anticipated weight of the dropping shutter.

“Not the glamour job you expected, eh? Now, be careful, it’s heavy,” Beth said as they drew back the bolts.

“Wow, you’re not kidding!” Kristen gasped, when the massive shutter started to tip away from the building. She hastily adjusted her hold, now pushing against the rough wood with both hands. It took all her strength to control the weight. She looked up at her hands. “It looks like wood, but it must be made out of lead,” she said.

“This is good weight training,” Beth said. “Just think how strong you’ll be after…”

Suddenly Kristen shrieked and jumped back, raising her hands to cover her face, and tumbling unceremoniously onto the sand. Beth struggled with the shutter, but she couldn’t handle the full weight by herself. She let go, and the shutter slammed against the side of the building with a loud bang that shook the building and echoed from the cliffs.

Beth spun on Kristen, her eyes flashing angrily. “What’s wrong with you?” she shouted. “Why did you drop it?”

Kristen’s face was pale, and her eyes were opened very wide. She looked straight up into the clear blue sky. “There was something up there,” she said breathlessly. She scrambled awkwardly to her feet and looked into Beth’s eyes with a desperate expression that seemed to suggest that she didn’t expect to be believed. “Some huge dark thing just whooshed right over us.”

Kristen’s heart sank when she saw the furious look in Beth’s eyes. But Beth’s expression softened suddenly, and a smile slowly spread across her face. She walked up to Kristen and put a hand on her bare shoulder.

“You can’t let anything you see on Black Knife Beach surprise you,” Beth said warmly. “I want you to meet somebody,” she said, gently turning Kristen about just in time to see a naked man dangling under a dark-colored hang glider settling onto the ground about fifty yards down the beach. Together they walked toward the flying man.

“Johnny, you almost gave our rookie a heart attack,” Beth called out. “You need to be more careful.”

“Sorry, I didn’t see you two,” Johnny said, smiling apologetically as he disentangling himself from his flying gear. “Want me to make a hawk cry next time, or would that just make it scarier?”

Beth laughed. “Johnny, this is Kristen. This is her first summer as a lifeguard. Kristen, meet Johnny Bee.”

Johnny arched an eyebrow in surprise, and shook Kristen’s hand. “First summer anywhere?” he asked. “I could tell you were a rookie down here because of the bunny tail. But your first year as a lifeguard and you’re starting at Black Knife? You do dive right into the thick of things, don’t you?” he said.

Kristen blushed at the mention of her “bunny tail,” the tan lines that distinguished her from almost everyone she had met at this beach. She studied Johnny’s face. He had a broad and steady smile that seemed to shape every part of his face. There was a merry glint in his eyes. Johnny Bee looked like the happiest grownup she had ever seen, and Kristen found she couldn’t help but smile herself when she looked into his eyes. He wore a backpack, and thick-soled leather shoes with thick woolen socks. Encircling his neck was a necktie, carefully tied with a neat Windsor knot right under his Adam’s apple. Otherwise, he was totally nude. His skin was dark from the sun, and he had a burly athletic build.

“What’s with the tie?” Kristen asked, laughing.

Johnny’s smile instantly vanished, replaced by a pinched, dour expression that took Kristen aback. “It’s so everyone can tell that I’m important,” he said coldly. “The only bad thing about a nude beach is that nobody can tell who the big shots are,” he added, jerking a thumb toward his chest.

Confused, Kristen looked at Beth, but Beth’s impassive expression provided no clue about how to take this strange comment. She turned her eyes back to Johnny. His smile was back, as if it had never been gone. He started singing softly: “Slow down, you move too fast.

“Johnny’s got one thing in common with you, Kristen,” Beth said. She looked up to the top of the cliff that towered over the beach. “He hates walking down that trail.”

Kristen studied the hang glider lying on the sand. “But he has to haul all this stuff back up the hard way, doesn’t he?” she asked.

“Ah, it’s no trouble at all,” Johnny said, beaming. He slipped the backpack off his shoulders and dropped it on the ground. He stooped and started unlacing his shoes.

“It—it looks dangerous,” Kristen said, her eyes still on the hang glider.

Johnny shrugged. “It can be, if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. He slipped off his shoes and his socks and stood up. “You pitch it too far forward, or too far back, and you don’t so much glide, as plummet. Now, I suppose that’s exciting in its own way, but it seems to me it would all be over much too quickly.”

Kristen laughed, watching curiously as Johnny started to fold up the hang glider. He sang another line: “Got to make the morning last.

“Beth, do you mind if I go grab my axe?” Johnny said.

“No problem,” Beth said. “It’s right where it always is, in the corner behind my desk.” Johnny jumped up and trotted toward the lifeguard office.

“His axe?” Kristen said.

Beth smiled. “His guitar,” she explained. “He’s really good, too—you have to hear it to believe it. He plays this one classical piece—I think it’s by Vivaldi—and it’s so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes.”

“Classical music on a guitar?” Kristen asked, suspecting she was being put on again.

“Guitars were around long before Elvis,” Beth said, laughing. “The world is full of interesting things, Kristen. Keep your eyes open, your ears open, your senses alive. You’ll be surprised again and again—just don’t get so surprised you drop what you’re doing.”

“Sorry,” Kristen said ruefully. “I’d never seen one of these things before. I didn’t have any idea what it was.” She looked up from the hang glider partially disassembled on the sand. Her eyes followed Johnny Bee as he stepped through the door of the lifeguard office.

“Listen, I think we’re squared away here,” Beth said. “You might as well get started. Go see how George and Trina are doing.”

Kristen nodded. She saw Johnny emerge from the lifeguard office with an acoustic guitar carefully cradled in his hands. “Sometime I want to hear what classical music sounds like on a guitar,” she said. Reluctantly, she turned away and started the long walk down the beach.

The sand was soft under her bare feet. She felt the morning sun and the sea breeze on her body, making her even more conscious of what she could not forget—that she didn’t have any clothes on. The beach wasn’t crowded, but there were more people than she had seen here before—certainly more people than she had ever imagined would see her naked. She could see even more people making their way down the steep trail from the parking lot. Most of the people on the beach sat or sprawled on beach blankets, soaking up the sun. A handful were starting to venture into the water. They were as naked as she was, or they would be soon. They seemed completely at ease with their nudity.

Kristen had been at Black Knife Beach for two full days, and she wondered when she would outgrow the self-awareness that made every fiber of her body seem to tingle. With every step she took, she felt her nipples jiggle just a little bit. She looked down, and saw the little bounce. She felt the rolling rhythm of her hips as she walked, and she could imagine what that must look like to anyone who cared to watch. The beach people here might be accustomed to nudity, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that every pair of eyes was following her. Her cheeks were growing hot. She couldn’t turn back; she couldn’t cover up. She bit her lip, then drew a deep breath and tried to stand a little taller as she continued her walk down the beach. She looked straight ahead, not daring to let her eyes wander to the faces of the people she walked past.

George stood on the wooden deck of the first lifeguard tower, alertly scanning the environment all about him. Kristen focused on him as she walked. She felt a vague pang of disappointment at the sight.

For the first two weeks of the season, while Kristen was getting oriented, all the lifeguards were working seven days a week, in two shifts. Kristen was on the first shift; Janet, Richard and Don were all on the second shift. Kristen had hoped to get reacquainted with Janet, the childhood friend with whom she had been reunited only two days ago. She had a thousand questions for Richard, the brother of her mysterious new housemate, Brenda. And more than once a warm glow had suffused her body when she imagined herself standing beside Don on the deck of one of the lifeguard stations.

George was a nice-looking guy, but he wasn’t Don. Don was—well, spectacular. He had worked as a male model, and he radiated a kind of personal magnetism that Kristen had never experienced before. But he was working the second shift, and she was working the first. Kristen sighed.

She had reached the foot of the lifeguard tower. The lifeguard station was essentially a wooden shack standing on stilts. On the seaward side was a deck with a wooden railing around it, and the roof of the shack extended over the deck to provide essential shade. There was a ramp from the sand up to the deck. Standing at the foot of the ramp, Kristen looked up. George was leaning against the railing, looking back down at her with a beatific smile.

“Hi,” Kristen said. She started to walk up the ramp.

“Welcome aboard,” George replied.

As she climbed the narrow but sturdy wooden ramp, Kristen looked back down the beach, where she could see Johnny Bee at work disassembling his hang glider while a curious crowd started to gather around him. “There sure are some strange people on this beach,” she observed with a smile.

“Oh, don’t say that,” George said. “You’re unique, but you’re not really strange.”

“Funny man,” Kristen said, laughing. “I was thinking about people like Johnny Bee.”

George looked down the beach and nodded. “He’s unique, too,” he said. “What’s strange about him?”

“What’s strange about him?” Kristen repeated, incredulously. “Oh, I dunno—he swooped down onto the beach on that hang glider and scared the crap out of me. Beth says he plays classical music on a guitar. And he’s on a nude beach, but he’s wearing a necktie.”

George frowned and nodded soberly. “Okay, you’ve got a point,” he said. “I’ve always thought there was something a little creepy about people who wear neckties.”

“You know what I mean,” Kristen said.

“I probably do,” George said softly. He was silent for a long moment. “Listen, Johnny Bee’s okay,” he continued. “Everywhere you go—even down here—you’ll see people twisting themselves into all sorts of shapes, trying to be what they imagine everyone else wants them to be. When you meet someone who isn’t all twisted up—well, it can take a little while to get used to that.”

Kristen cast another glance down the beach. “A little while, huh?” she muttered.

“Anyway, I’m glad you’re here,” George said. “Could you go down and talk to those folks back there on the blue blanket—see them?” He inclined his head toward a couple stretched out on a beach blanket a few dozen yards behind the lifeguard tower. “Straighten them out a little? I would have done it myself, but I didn’t want to leave the post for that, and I knew you would be coming along soon.”

Kristen looked down at the man and woman relaxing on the blanket. “What do you mean, straighten them out?” she asked.

“They’ve still got their swimsuits on,” George said. “They’ve been down there fifteen or twenty minutes already, and they haven’t made a move to get undressed. Like I said, I would have done it myself. I didn’t want to leave the post, and I didn’t want to shout at them or use the bullhorn. It’s probably their first visit. No sense embarrassing them.”

“You—you mean go down there and tell them they have to take their clothes off?” Kristen said, aghast.

“Yeah,” George said. “Be polite, but remind them…” His voice trailed off when he saw the expression on Kristen’s face. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I—I can’t walk up to a couple total strangers and order them to strip naked,” Kristen stammered.

“Well, don’t phrase it like an order,” George said. “Be friendly, just…”

Kristen’s face was very pale, and she was shaking her head slowly.

An annoyed expression flashed across George’s face for just a second. Kristen was taken aback—George always seemed utterly serene. “Who did you think was responsible for enforcing the dress code down here?” he asked. “If you were working at a pool or one of the other beaches, you might have to tell some people to put their clothes on, you know. It’s part of the job.”

“What—what if they refuse to undress?” Kristen said, her mouth dry.

“They won’t refuse if you ask them right,” George said softly.

“But, what if…” Kristen said.

“Listen, just forget it,” George said sharply, holding up a hand to halt Kristen’s objections. He glanced down at the couple, and let out a long sigh. “I’ll take care of it. You stay and hold down the fort here. Keep a sharp eye on anyone who goes into the water. You do know how to swim, right?”

“Of course I know…” Kristen said. George didn’t wait for her answer; he vaulted effortlessly over the railing at the side of the deck and dropped catlike to the sand below.

Kristen watched George walk toward the people on the blue blanket. She turned toward the water and put her hands on the rail facing the sea. She lowered her head dejectedly.

Was she in over her head? This was opening day—her first day really working as a lifeguard. Already she had angered Beth, when she dropped the heavy shutter at the lifeguard office. Now George was upset with her, too, because she had balked at something as simple as reminding some beachgoers of the rules. Kristen stifled a sob and tried to blink away the tears that were starting to sting her eyes. She had worked so hard, for so many years, to become a lifeguard. Could it really be that she just wasn’t cut out for this job?

She leaned heavily against the wooden railing. The wood creaked a little. She listened to the waves washing rhythmically over the sand. Somewhere farther up the beach some seagulls were making a lot of noise. Then, not far away, two girls shrieked as a big wave crashed against the shore.

Kristen snapped to attention. She stood fully erect, even rising onto her tiptoes. Her eyes darted along the shoreline until she found the two girls. They were wading in water waist deep, a little unsteady, trying to keep their balance as the water surged around them. But they were laughing now, and splashing each other. Kristen smiled and breathed a sigh of relief.

Sharp-eyed, she scanned the scene before her. Off to her left, some distance away, a scrawny young man was cautiously approaching the water. He didn’t look like a strong swimmer, and Kristen made a mental note to keep a close watch on him if he went into the water.

She noticed the way the water surged and eddied as the waves hit the beach—the places where the water welled up and the way it rushed out when a wave receded. Without giving it much conscious thought, she was already mentally mapping out her path into and out of any danger point in the water. Her gaze swept slowly up and down the shoreline. She started counting heads—three people down there, the scrawny guy still trying to make up his mind, a couple individual people out there, the two girls, splashing and shrieking, a couple more people beyond them. If she didn’t see one of them the next time she looked their way, she watched hawk-like until the missing person was accounted for. But even then, she somehow managed, with quick glances, to keep an eye on the other swimmers, too.

Kristen was so intent on the water and the people in it that she didn’t even see the sandy-haired man until he was almost directly in front of her. She might not have noticed him even then if it hadn’t been for the clicking of the shutter on his camera.

She looked down and found herself staring directly into the camera lens. The man quickly snapped another photo. Kristen’s face turned red. “Hey, you can’t take pictures here!” she shouted.

The man lowered his camera and gave Kristen a quizzical look. He wore wire-rimmed aviator glasses. He had a camera bag slung over one shoulder, and another camera with a long telephoto lens hung from a strap around his neck. Otherwise he was completely nude. “Can’t take pictures? Why not?” he asked.

“It’s a nude beach, that’s why not!” Kristen said. She looked up and quickly scanned the shoreline again. She couldn’t let the photographer distract her from her real duties.

The man smiled. “You’re new here, aren’t you?” he asked pleasantly.

Kristen glared at the man and gave a quick nod. “Yes, I’m new here,” she said, with growing impatience. “But that doesn’t alter the fact that those cameras have got to go. People are naked here.”

“I’ve noticed that,” the man said, nodding. “But you really should talk to Beth or George or somebody before you start making up rules.” He gave a little nod to George, who was returning to the lifeguard tower. “This beach is a public place, you know. If somebody doesn’t want me to take their picture, they should stay home.”

George looked up and smiled at Kristen. “I see you’ve met the skinny-dipping shutterbug,” he said.

“He was taking pictures of me, and who knows who all else,” Kristen said. “Take his film away, George!”

George shrugged and shook his head. “Can’t do it, Kristen. He’s right, this beach is a public place. He has a right to take pictures in a public place. Anyone who wants to bring a camera down here can take pictures.”

“What?” Kristen cried incredulously.

“Don’t worry,” George said. “The photographers on the beach are all nude themselves. You don’t find them abusing the situation.”

“Listen, I understand,” the man said. “Some people are a little camera shy. It’s okay. I know what my rights are, but I’m not trying to embarrass you, honest. So for today, at least, I won’t take any more photos of you. Deal?”

“Oh, that’s more than fair,” George said, encouragingly.

“How—how many pictures did you take of me?” Kristen said after a long, stunned silence. “I want you to throw out those negatives.”

The man shook his head. “No, there’s good stuff on this roll of film,” he said. “It’s not all you, either. I won’t take any more photos of you, but I’m not throwing out anything I’ve already shot.”

Kristen stared at the man for a long moment, then threw up her hands in frustration. “What choice do I have?” she sighed. “Do whatever you want, I guess.”

The man looked up at Kristen and smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said.

He turned to George. “You should have seen her, George,” he said, pointing up at Kristen. “Eyes like laser beams. She’s going to be a fine lifeguard, if she learns to relax a little.” He looked down at the camera in his hands. “Well, I’m going to go see whether there’s a Pulitzer Prize somewhere on this beach, so I’ll see both of you later.”

George smiled and nodded. “Good luck,” he said. As the man walked away, George walked up the ramp to join Kristen on the deck of the lifeguard station. “Ol’ Skinnydipper there is a pretty decent photographer,” he said. “He’s managed a few shots that made even me look good.”

“He took photos of you… naked?” Kristen asked.

“I didn’t really pose,” George said, nodding. “He took some shots while I was working, and I’m afraid this was the only outfit I had.”

“Were—were you embarrassed?” Kristen asked.

George shrugged. “There was nothing in any of the pictures that folks down here don’t see every day,” he said. He gave Kristen a curious look. “Are you okay? You don’t seem like yourself today.”

“I—I just don’t understand how you do it,” Kristen said, shaking her head in amazement. “You and Beth and—and most of the people on the beach, I think. Everybody acts like it’s, ho-hum, just another day at any old beach. ‘Everybody’s running around stark naked? Oh, I hadn’t noticed.’” She blushed. “Am—am I the only person here who feels a little bit embarrassed about that?”

“Embarrassed? Really?” George said. “You seemed to take to this place like a duck takes to water. And didn’t you say your parents were nudists?”

“They used to be nudists,” Kristen said. “Years ago. And I didn’t know about it until last Saturday, so… I guess it’s easy for you, but I wasn’t raised as a nudist.”

“Neither was I,” George said. “I was never nude in public until I got assigned to work this beach. I think the only lifeguard here who grew up as a nudist was your friend Janet.”

“Well, then… don’t you feel a little self-conscious sometimes?” Kristen asked.

“Maybe a little when I first started working down here,” George admitted. “But not anymore.”

“So, I—I guess it’s something you just get used to after a while?” Kristen asked.

George started to nod, then furrowed his brow and shook his head. “No, it’s not really that,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to… can I ask you a question? When you first came down here, do you remember how the sun and the breeze felt against your body?”

Kristen nodded, and smiled at the memory.

“It felt good, right?” George said. “For me, it felt like I was suddenly using all these nerve endings that had been anesthetized for my whole life. I knew right then that this beach was where I wanted to be.”

“I think I understand that,” Kristen said quietly.

George smiled. “Some people talk about ‘getting used to’ being nude, and I think they mean somehow deadening those senses. But if that’s the secret to feeling comfortable on a nude beach, why bother? For me, at least, the secret was not ‘getting used to’ being nude, but understanding something about being nude.”

“Understanding what?” Kristen asked.

“I can’t tell you,” George said. “I mean, even if I could find a way to put it into words, it’s not something you can understand in that way. You can really only understand it when you’ve learned for yourself.”

“Well, can you give me a hint, at least?” Kristen said.

George thought for a moment, then rubbed his chin and nodded soberly. “I’ll give it a try,” he said. “Can you take a couple steps back that way and turn to face me, please?”

Curious, Kristen complied. George backed away from Kristen until he was leaning against one of the side rails. “Could you lower your hands to your sides, or put them behind you, please?” he said.

Kristen blushed. “Okay,” she said weakly, and clasped her hands behind her back.

George stared intently into Kristen’s eyes. He made a great show of covering his left eye with his left hand, then, after a few seconds, switching and covering his right eye with his right hand. Kristen smiled nervously. Slowly, his eyes moved down her body. His gaze seemed to trace every curve and line of her body, as if he were searching for something. She felt her face growing hot. She was curious about the point he was trying to make, so she stood patiently and let him look. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen everything already.

George was every bit as naked as she was, so Kristen decided to take a good long look at his body. His physique couldn’t match Don’s, but she had to admit that George was a good-looking man. His body looked sleek and lean and powerful. She remembered how he had jumped effortlessly over the deck railing and dropped gracefully onto the sand just a few minutes before. Now she admired the clearly delineated muscles of his arms, his legs, his chest, his stomach…

Suddenly she felt embarrassed and flustered. She raised her eyes to George’s face. He was still staring at her body with an intensity that seemed entirely out of keeping with the notion that it was perfectly ordinary to be naked at the beach. The hot flush in Kristen’s cheeks now seemed to spread over her entire body.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Kristen said sharply. She turned away from George. With one hand, she covered the place between her legs, and she draped her other arm across her breasts. “That’s enough,” she repeated.

“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” George asked.

“No, of course not,” Kristen said.

George smiled. “I didn’t think so,” he said. “Well, I’m happy to report that you are all there. Whole and entire. Not a thing missing.”

Kristen shot an irritated glance at George. “Nothing missing but my clothes, you mean,” she said.

“No, that’s not what I mean,” George said, with a sort of eager excitement in his eyes. “See now, on the planet where I come from, people don’t have removable parts. So I don’t believe that you left any part of yourself back in your locker. This is the real Kristen—the natural Kristen—right here.”

Kristen looked down at her body, still blushing.

“And at the end of the day, when you go back to the locker room and you get dressed, you aren’t making your incomplete self whole,” George said. “You are complete, right now. When you put clothes on, you’re still complete, plus you have clothes on.”

Kristen gave George a curious look. “That’s it?” she asked. “After all that rigmarole, that’s it? That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?”

George smiled and shrugged. “Really? And here I thought I’d revealed some deep insight.”

Kristen laughed and shook her head. “Nope, sorry,” she said.

George looked chagrined. “Gosh, then do you think it’s obvious to Brenda, too?” he said. “Because I wonder about her sometimes. And is it obvious to all the people who support her efforts to close this beach? Is it always obvious to you when you’re away from the beach? After you’ve hung around with Brenda for a month or two, will it still seem obvious to you?”

Kristen looked into George’s eyes for a long moment. “Those—those are good questions,” she said softly.

She thought about the questions for a long time. When George showed her how to use the walkie-talkies, Kristen was attentive, but she was remembering how incomplete she had felt the night before when she couldn’t find her clothes.

George demonstrated what Kristen thought of as the ultimate symbol of a lifeguard’s authority, the battery-amplified bullhorn. “A little bit of that goes a long way,” he warned. Kristen nodded, but she was thinking about the harsh sound of Brenda’s voice the night before, when she had called Kristen a slut.

The questions were still turning over and over in her mind when Kristen finally left George and made the long trek down the beach to join Trina at the second lifeguard tower. She couldn’t help thinking about the clothes she had left back in the locker room—so far away now, and she was walking away from them.

The beach was bustling. There were several hundred people now, with more still making their way down from the parking lot. There were people of all ages, shapes and sizes, walking, running, talking, laughing—enjoying their day at the beach, just as if it were any other beach. A growing number were venturing into the water now, and Kristen tried to stay alert for any sign of a swimmer in trouble.

Small crowds congregated around a handful of vendors who sold cold drinks, hot dogs or ice cream out of bulky white metal boxes. They had apparently hauled the boxes all the way down the steep beach trail.

Kristen shook her head with astonishment. Hundreds of people, completely naked. But everyone seemed so relaxed, and there was such an absence of self-consciousness that she almost wondered whether her eyes deceived her. She was still thinking about George’s questions, but the more she watched the people unashamed on the beach, the harder it was to remember just how she had felt the night before, naked in the presence of Brenda and Marcie.

When Kristen reached the other lifeguard tower and climbed the ramp, Trina was there with an expectant look in her eyes and a huge grin spread across her face. “Okay, rookie, tell the truth,” Trina said. “Exhibitionist or voyeur?”

“What?” Kristen said.

“C’mon, give!” Trina said, her grin growing wider still. “Do you like having all the guys watch you, or do you prefer watching them?”

“I—I don’t understand,” Kristen stammered.

“Oh, come on!” Trina said, laughing. “Deep down, everybody’s either an exhibitionist or a voyeur. And either way, this beach is paradise, right?”

Kristen’s cheeks reddened. “I—I don’t think I’m either one,” she said.

“Oh, my gosh—you’re in denial!” Trina exclaimed. “You know what that means, don’t you? You’re both! You’re an exhibitionist and a voyeur! Wow, you must be in seventh heaven right now!”

Kristen scowled. “That’s not what this beach is all about, and you know it,” she said sharply.

Trina laughed again, her eyes sparkling. “Oh, come off it,” she said. “You’re a bright girl. That whole ‘nudity is perfectly natural’ scam is fine for the general public, but we don’t have to pretend down here. Everybody knows it’s all about sex.”

Kristen frowned and shook her head. “That’s not true,” she hissed. “You sound just like Brenda!”

Trina laughed and slapped a hand to her forehead. “Like Brenda?” she said. “Oooh, that’s just mean! Brenda is…” The smile suddenly disappeared from Trina’s face. “Oh, crap!” she muttered. With a little nod, she said, “Excuse me, please.” She brushed past Kristen and purposefully marched down the ramp to the beach.

Kristen stood, confused, for a few seconds, then followed after Trina.

“C’mon, Larry! For cryin’ out loud!” Trina shouted to a man walking along the beach near the waterline. “Somebody’s going to take a picture of you from one of those boats that cruise by, and you’re going to be the ammunition they need to close the beach.”

Kristen stopped a little behind Trina. Puzzled and curious, her eyes darted from Trina to Larry and back again.

“It’s perfectly natural,” Larry protested, his voice full of wounded dignity.

“Yeah, so’s drowning,” Trina said. “We don’t allow that down here, either. People come down here with their families, you know.”

Larry lowered his eyes. “It’s a reflex reaction, you know,” he said. “I can’t help it.”

“Baloney!” Trina said. “I’m not stupid, Larry. If you don’t behave yourself, I’m going to have the beach patrol come haul you in.”

Larry planted his feet, put his hands on his hips and glared defiantly at Trina. “This would be a free country if it weren’t for…”

Suddenly Kristen let out a little shriek and clapped a hand over her mouth. Red-faced, she looked away from Larry. “Oh my gosh!” she gasped. “I didn’t see it.”

Trina cast a quick look at Kristen.

“I didn’t see it,” Kristen repeated, trying in vain not to laugh.

Trina started laughing, too. Larry looked at the two laughing women in puzzlement. “She didn’t even see it!” Trina guffawed. “You’re wasting your time, Larry. You’re completely wasting your time.”

Larry’s face turned bright red and his shoulders slumped. He turned and started to walk away.

“Larry,” Trina called out, still laughing. “Face down on your blanket until you’ve got things under control, you understand?”

Larry nodded sullenly and covered his privates with both hands. “I understand,” he muttered, then he walked back toward his beach blanket.

“He’ll behave himself for a while now,” Trina whispered to Kristen. She grabbed a handful of her long auburn hair in each hand and pulled hard, opening her mouth wide as if screaming. “Being a lifeguard is so much fun,” she whispered.

Kristen, still trying to contain her laughter, glanced at Larry’s retreating figure. “Do you get a lot of stuff like that?” she asked.

“Not a lot,” Trina replied, still whispering. “We get all kinds of screwballs down here, but most people know how to behave themselves.”

“Do you think he’s dangerous?” Kristen asked.

Trina shook her head. “No, Larry’s not dangerous, just annoying. You’d think a beach where everybody’s naked would sort of defeat the purpose for an exhibitionist, but I guess not. I think his real problem is that he can’t enjoy the freedom he has. He’s not happy unless he’s pushing the limits, and then he’s not happy when we push back. But a word of warning now and then keeps him fairly much in line. We get all kinds down here—exhibitionists, voyeurs, people rebelling just for the sake of rebelling. And a lot of perfectly nice people, too. It all comes with the territory.”

“I thought you said everybody here was an exhibitionist or a voyeur,” Kristen said.

Trina laughed. “I’ll bet Larry thinks that’s true,” she said. “Maybe, at some level, it is true—who knows? But I think most of the people down here…” She paused, groping for words. “I think most of the people down here just want to breathe free, you know? They come down here and all the trivial things that weigh down on them seem a million miles away.”

Trina and Kristen walked up the ramp of the lifeguard tower together. “In a way, I’m almost glad we’ve got characters like Larry down here,” Trina said. “Most of the time we’re just handing out bandaids or helping somebody with a sunburn. There aren’t that many real Hero Moments, thank goodness. The hardest thing about this job is staying alert. People like Larry help to keep us on our toes. But don’t tell him I said that.”

“I won’t,” Kristen said, laughing.

“So you’re running relief, right?” Trina asked. “You’re here to give me a break?”

“Yes,” Kristen said, nodding. “Well—that, plus I’m supposed to learn something about the job from you.”

Trina smiled. “I’m supposed to pass all my bad habits on to you?” she said. “Actually, you know what I need more than a break right now? I could really, really, really use some ice cream.”

“It’s turning into a hot day,” Kristen said sympathetically. “I noticed some people selling ice cream while I was walking down here.”

Trina got money from a little black bag she had left inside the lifeguard station. “You see that guy with the long hair pulled back in a ponytail?” she asked, pointing out one of the vendors on the beach. “Everybody else just sells popsicles and ice cream bars and that kind of junk, but he does things right. He makes a hot fudge sundae, believe it or not, that’s out of this world. I’ve been dreaming about it since the beach closed at the end of last season.” She handed the money to Kristen. “Tell him it’s for me; he’ll know how I like it. Get yourself one, too. You’ve got to taste it to believe it.”

“Gosh, thanks,” Kristen said, accepting the money. “I haven’t had a hot fudge sundae for years.” She hurried down the ramp and across the sand. Many people looked up, smiled and greeted her cheerily as she walked by. She returned their smiles and nodded in response to their greetings. She was halfway to the ice-cream vendor before she realized that her errand was taking her through one of the thickest clusters of people on the entire beach. She glanced up to watch a frisbee sail over her head and almost collided with a very rotund woman hurrying down to the water.

“Oh, excuse me!” Kristen said, stopping short and stepping out of the woman’s way. “I’m so sorry! I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

“No problem,” the woman said, smiling. She looked down at her body. “You would have just bounced right off anyway. I’ve got enough padding for both of us.” The woman laughed and winked, then bustled off again. Kristen watched for a moment, amazed by the woman’s unabashed self-acceptance.

There was something unusual about Black Knife Beach, Kristen thought. Something more than the fact that everyone was naked. Every other beach she had been to was crowded with strutting men and slinky women. The regulars formed tight little cliques with a rigid pecking order. But here, virtually everyone seemed relaxed, cheerful and friendly—friendly to everyone. A few people—newcomers, perhaps—seemed nervous and tentative, but they smiled, too, and their eyes were bright with excitement.

Kristen’s eyes widened when she approached the place where the ice cream vendor had set up shop. A large white tarpaulin was spread over the ground. There were several insulated boxes with clear plastic covers. There, in a frosty haze, were cardboard drums of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream. Another box was packed with an assortment of small containers of more exotic flavors. A gleaming metal rack held glass containers with a variety of sundae toppings—chocolate, butterscotch, and strawberry syrups; nuts, maraschino cherries and more. She marveled at the amount of work it must have taken to bring everything down the steep trail. She was surprised at how spotlessly clean everything looked, outdoors on a sandy beach.

A few feet from the other things, on a metal stand of its own, was a little black kettle. It was heated by a brilliant beam of sunlight focused on it by a glass lens mounted on a long metal arm that extended from the stand that held the kettle. The curious arrangement seemed to work. Kristen inhaled the rich warm aroma of hot fudge sauce.

“Ooh, no fair!” Kristen said to the man serving the ice cream. “If there isn’t a law against filling the air with hypnotic smells to make people buy your stuff, there ought to be.”

“Oh, the hot fudge?” the man said, smiling. “It smells good, doesn’t it? It’s the specialty of the house.” He stretched his hands out to indicate the makeshift ice-cream shop laid out on the tarpaulin.

Kristen noticed that the man wore a large white towel tightly wrapped around his waist. She glanced around uneasily—was she supposed to make him take it off? She bit her lip, and decided to say nothing. She took another deep whiff of the tempting vapors.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said. “Not on a beach, anyway.” She winced. “You know, I was going to be good this summer—eat right and get lots of exercise.” She shook her head and sighed. “Two hot-fudge sundaes, please. I’d like mine plain—just vanilla ice cream and the hot fudge topping. The other one is for Trina, the lifeguard. She says you’ll know how she wants it.”

The man’s smile broadened, and he nodded. “Yes, I do indeed,” he said. He picked up his metal ice-cream scoop and raised the lid on one of the big insulated boxes. With his other hand he picked up two paper ice-cream cups. “Trina likes the whole works—nuts, whipped cream, cherry on top.” He neatly scooped a dip of ice cream into each of the cups. He lowered the lid on the ice cream box, then turned to the simmering kettle of hot fudge sauce. He opened the lid and Kristen let out a little moan when a wave of the sweet scent struck her in the face. The man looked at Kristen and grinned. With a long-handled metal ladle, he poured hot fudge sauce over one of the cups of ice cream. “Here you go,” he said, handing the cup to Kristen. “You can get started on yours right now. Help yourself to a spoon.” He turned his attention to Trina’s sundae.

Kristen blushed, embarrassed that her eagerness was so obvious. She picked a plastic spoon out of a little box and scooped a spoonful of the sundae into her mouth. “Oh, it’s good!” she said.

“Was there ever any doubt?” the ice-cream man said, as he finished making Trina’s sundae. “A real work of art, if I do say so myself,” he said. He stuck a spoon into the ice cream and handed the finished creation to Kristen.

“Thanks,” Kristen said, and handed the man the money Trina had given her. Already the hot chocolate topping was sliding down into the cup as it melted the ice cream underneath. The man opened a black leather money bag and fished out Kristen’s change. Kristen noticed that some of the fudge on her own sundae was starting to drip over the rim of the cup. Her hands were full, so she lifted the cup to her lips and licked off the errant drip.

“Here’s your change,” the ice-cream man said. There was a bit of awkward fumbling while Kristen tried to accept the money without losing hold of the two cups of ice cream. The man laughed. “Sometimes it can be a little tough with no pockets,” he said.

When Kristen finally felt she had both ice cream and money under control, she muttered a hurried “Thank you,” and turned away to rush her burden back to Trina. Immediately she smashed into the bare back of a tall man.

The man let out a loud yelp, but Kristen’s startled shriek was louder. The collision had smashed both sundaes against her chest. Now a soupy mess of hot chocolate sauce, whipped cream, nuts, and ice cream was dripping slowly over her breasts and down her stomach. “Oh, yuck! Yuck!” Kristen cried. She tried to wipe the mess away with her fingers, which served little purpose but to get her hands messy, too.

The man she had collided with turned. “Oh, it’s you again!” he said. Kristen looked up into the face of the sandy-haired photographer with the aviator glasses. He still carried his two cameras and his camera bag.

“Say, I’ll bet you could find volunteers willing to help lick that off,” the photographer said brightly. Kristen shot him an icy glare. “Sorry,” he muttered. His face changed instantly to a mask of remorse. “There’s a shower right up there,” he said, indicating the public restroom building.

Kristen noticed that she and the man were becoming the center of attention on this part of the beach. “Okay, thank you,” she said tersely. Her face burning with shame, she started walking toward the restrooms. The photographer walked along beside her.

“I can find it myself, thanks,” Kristen said angrily.

“Hey, I need a shower, too,” the man said. “You plastered me pretty good, see?” He turned to show her the ice cream and chocolate running down his own back and over his buttocks. “It’s cold, too.”

“I’m sorry,” Kristen said softly.

It didn’t take them long to reach the large concrete block building. Kristen groaned when she realized there was a single showerhead mounted over a grating on the outside of the building, between the men’s and women’s entrances to the restrooms.

“This is it?” she said. “They expect people to shower outdoors?”

The photographer gave Kristen a curious look. “Ladies first,” he said. “I’ve got to put my cameras and stuff down somewhere. Can’t let them get wet.”

Kristen watched the man warily as he backed away from the shower, still carrying his camera equipment. She glanced down at the gooey mess that still dripped down her body, and wrinkled her nose in disgust. She looked up at the showerhead, which glinted brilliantly in the sunlight. She turned and scanned the beach, where hundreds of people had an unobstructed line of sight to the outdoor shower.

Heaving a great sigh, Kristen turned on the water and stepped under the shower. Feeling painfully aware of all the people who could watch her, she closed her eyes. The warm water streamed over her body. Slowly, she rubbed her hands over her breasts and across her stomach. The chocolate sauce and melted ice cream washed off easily.

An involuntary gasp escaped the photographer’s lips as he watched Kristen under the shower. The sunlight on her hair and on the million tiny droplets of water from the shower enveloped the naked lifeguard in a dazzling halo of light. Instinctively, the man’s hands reached for one of his cameras. With a supreme act of will, he resisted the impulse to raise the camera to his eye. He had promised, no more photos. Scarcely daring to breathe, he watched. This image would survive, he knew. It would be locked in his memory for as long as he lived.