Brenda with Skin
Terry Dalrymple grew up in the Texas Hill Country but later settled with his wife, Lorraine, in San Angelo, TX, where he teaches literature and creative writing at Angelo State University. During his thirty-plus years of teaching there, he has published three books and a number of short stories and articles in a variety of journals.
When summer began between my junior and senior year in high school, my life felt complicated. Then Mrs. Grogan stripped naked in front of me and complicated it even more.
It started with Carol Mayfield. Our freshman year, Carol, who had probably been beautiful from the day she was born, blossomed in all the right places. All the girls wanted to be her friend. All the boys just wanted her. If rumor had it right, she wanted them, too, and any guy old enough to take her on a car date received a gift from her the likes of which he'd never received before. Despite what I liked to believe about myself, I was a little naïve about and more than a little awkward around girls. Even when I got my license, I didn't dare ask her out. By early in our junior year she settled in with one guy, David Taylor, and by the end of that year everybody said they'd probably get married someday.
But during the last few weeks of the school year, Carol had been flashing me glimpses of her lovely flesh. She doled those treats out daily: a short skirt that rode up too high when she sat in the desk across from me in English, or a split skirt that fell open too far when she slipped into that desk, or a loose blouse that gapped at the top when she dropped a pen and leaned down in front of me to pick it up, or a hand gently touching my shoulder or elbow as we spoke in the hallway, or even a brush of boob against my arm as we walked toward class. On purpose, always on purpose, that was clear.
On the last day of school she told me that her family was vacationing the first two weeks of June. I observed that David Taylor would surely miss her. She shrugged, then said that he'd be gone the next two weeks after that. "I'll just be around," she said. She cupped her palm around my elbow. "You know, just hanging out. Looking for something to do."
That seemed like a pretty clear invitation to me, and I definitely planned to call her. Any guy with an invitation like that would be a fool not to. But David Taylor complicated matters. He was a decent guy, and he was nuts about Carol. When I thought about him, I felt bad about what I hoped to do with her. So I tried not to think about him, and instead set about finding a job so I could afford the kind of date Carol deserved for the kind of treat she would surely bestow on me. Still, David kept popping into my head. It was complicated.
And then Mrs. Grogan stripped naked in front of me.
My family lived outside the city limits of a small town in the Texas Hill Country. Our house sat off a winding gravel road about half a mile from the main road. Gerald Grogan and his wife, Brenda, lived about a half mile farther down the winding gravel road. He made a living selling insurance from a little rented office in town. Childless themselves, they had always been great to the few of us kids who lived in the area, and they were devoted and generous friends to our parents as well.
Their house sat on ten or twelve beautiful hill country acres, and Mr. Grogan hired me to do odd jobs that his work left him no time to do himself. My first task was to clear rocks from an area that sloped from their house down to a little stream that passed through their property. The slope was wild with tall grass and low-growing shrubs, and he wanted me to clear all the rocks and cut out the shrubs so he could mow the slope and have a clear view of the stream from his back patio.
My first day on the job, I woke early, restless with thoughts of Carol and, unfortunately, David. To work off my nervous energy, I walked rather than drove back to the Grogans' place. About half way, Mr. Grogan passed on his way to work. He waved. I waved back, then listened to the crunch of gravel beneath his tires as it faded farther away. Before long, though, I heard that crunch again, vague at first but progressively louder, progressively closer. The car that passed was unmistakable. Mr. Veck, another neighbor in our sparsely populated neighborhood, owned the only gold Cadillac anywhere in the county. That's why his behavior seemed so odd. He wore sunglasses and a cap pulled low over his face, as if to disguise himself, and when he passed he slid down in his seat so that his head was barely visible. As if I wouldn't recognize his car, I thought. Odd. Very odd.
When I arrived at the Grogans', his car sat in the driveway. Perhaps an hour later, as I dumped my fourth or fifth wheelbarrow full of rocks into a little gully Mr. Grogan had specified, Mr. Veck's gold Cadillac eased out of the driveway. Again, he wore the sunglasses and cap and slumped in his seat. I shook my head and rolled the wheelbarrow back to my spot on the rocky slope. Mrs. Grogan, wearing a knee-length silky robe, called to me from the back porch. When I reached the porch, raised about a foot higher than the ground because of the sloped land, I tilted my head back to look up at her. She was in her late thirties or early forties but still had the looks of a much younger woman. The other few boys in the neighborhood and I had often talked about her looks after some neighborhood gathering to which she had worn a shorter skirt than the other women or a V-neck blouse that revealed so much lovely cleavage.
The sun, just barely above the rooftop, silhouetted her and made a sort of halo around her strawberry-blond hair, combed, perhaps, with her fingers but still tousled. Sexy, I thought. Very sexy. She smiled and asked how the work was going. I said fine. She nodded, still smiling, and ran fingers through her hair.
"We were planning a surprise," she said and tilted her head in the direction Mr. Veck's car had disappeared. "A party for Gerald."
"Oh," I said, staring, I fear, at her breasts rather than her face.
"A surprise," she emphasized. "You'll help keep it a secret, won't you?"
Honestly, I suspected they had done more than plan a party and that the only surprise for Mr. Grogan would be if he knew what they'd been up to, but I wasn't about to breathe a word of it to him or anyone else. "Yes, ma'am," I said. I avoided eye contact. "I sure will."
She laid her palm against my cheek, the fingers long and soft and warm. "Thanks. You're a fine young man." I blushed and turned back toward my work.
I filled the wheelbarrow again and straightened, hands on hips, to catch my breath. I looked up the incline toward the house. The curtains of a plate glass window at one end of the house were open, and Mrs. Grogan stood at the foot of a bed slipping that robe off her shoulders. It fell to the floor, and she proceeded to peel a skimpy night gown off over her head. Although she faced away from me, the sight of all that woman flesh and that beautifully rounded ass virtually stopped my heart and my breath. And then, when she turned toward the window, interlaced her fingers behind her neck, and stretched, my bones went liquid and I barely managed to stay on my feet. I stood frozen in that spot, staring until she finished her stretch and disappeared off to the right, where I assumed the bathroom was.
When I finally forced myself back to rock gathering, I couldn't stop replaying my view of her, and then my imagination followed her into the shower. I could see her hair, wet and slicked back, rivulets of water running down her back and rolling gracefully over that still-tight butt, little glistening drops hanging momentarily on her nipples before dripping onto her flat stomach and then gathering in those lovely, mysterious curly hairs below, or running past the hair and down those long, slender legs.
I shook those images out of my head as best I could and tried to focus on rock gathering. But I still kept wondering why she had done it. Had she simply forgotten to pull the curtains closed? That seemed unlikely. I was pretty sure they'd been closed when I arrived that morning, though in truth I hadn't paid much attention. Had she provided me that little gift as a bribe, a way to keep me quiet about her meeting with Mr. Veck? Or had she shown me what I could have if I only asked?
Carol and David. And now Mrs. Grogan and Mr. Grogan and Mr. Veck. My life felt more complicated by the minute.
To distract myself, I drove to town that evening to see who might be around. People often gathered at the Dairy Queen early in the evening until formulating a better plan or heading off to something already planned, so that's where I started. The place was pretty empty, so I ordered a burger and waited to see who might show. David Taylor walked through the door first. I waved to him, hoping he was meeting others and wouldn't stop to chat. No such luck. He grabbed a burger and headed straight to my booth. He had nothing much to do, he said, with Carol out of town. He sure did miss her, he said. It would be a long June without her; his family would leave for two weeks a day before her family returned. He sure loved her, he said, and had been thinking a lot about the future, had been seriously thinking about marrying her right after graduation next May. He'd have to postpone college, but he said she was worth it.
I felt sorry for the guy. There he was pining for his absent girlfriend, thinking about marriage, with no clue what she'd been up to the last few weeks, no clue that he sat there confiding in the guy she wanted to see while he was out of town. Just as Mr. Grogan had no clue Mr. Veck had paid a visit, or that his wife had stripped in full view of the boy who worked for him. Maybe I wouldn't call Carol after all. It didn't seem right. Or maybe I should just tell David. But that didn't seem right either. It would devastate him and probably ruin my chances with her. So all I said was, "Marriage. Wow. That's big."
The next morning, I walked to work again, saw Mr. Grogan and waved, listened to his tires crunch gravel, but, to my great relief, did not later hear the approach of other tires. Also to my great relief, the Grogans' bedroom curtains were fully closed. Mrs. Grogan never came out that day. I worked myself harder than I'd worked in my life, hoping to forget my complications. The rest of the week followed the same pattern: walk to work, wave to Mr. Grogan, check the window for a naked Mrs. Grogan, and then work myself to exhaustion. Mrs. Grogan might never strip for me again, but Carol's return grew closer every day, and I was certain that she could satisfy the cravings that her earlier actions and Mrs. Grogan's lovely flesh had intensified in me.
In the evenings, I'd go out. My parents wondered why I'd had no date so far and why I didn't stay home occasionally. I made up something about girls being out of town and about needing to get out after a hard day's work. They had always liked evenings when I stayed in, visited with them, maybe watched a little tv or played some cards. We got along fine, and I enjoyed those evenings as well, but that week I simply couldn't sit still. I'd head to town looking for something, anything to keep me occupied. And I'd always run into David Taylor somewhere. It made sense, I suppose. He was antsy, knocking around lonely, waiting for the day he could see Carol again. And I, too, was antsy, seeking distraction, waiting for the day I could see Carol again. In a town the size of ours, when you're looking to kill time, there are only so many places to kill it. So of course we would run into each other. I tried to steer conversation away from Carol and for the most part succeeded. And as soon as possible without seeming rude, I'd exit, making some excuse about somewhere I had to be.
On Monday morning, Mr. Veck returned. As before, he stayed about an hour, then drove off scrunched low in his seat. Before long, Mrs. Grogan opened the curtains and performed her nudie show. She stretched just as she had before, but she did not then head for the bathroom. Instead she went slowly about the business of making the bed, gathering up yesterday's clothes for the hamper, replacing a book on a small set of shelves near the bed. Several times she stopped to stretch, slowly, gracefully, beautifully. Finally she walked out of sight into the bathroom.
Maybe an hour after that she appeared on the patio and called to me. She wore a low cut red and white sun dress, its hem about three or four inches above her knees. She had pulled her clean, shimmering hair into a pony tail, and she smelled like roses or some other equally sweet bouquet.
"More party planning." She smiled down at me. I nodded. "You look exhausted," she said, sympathy and concern emanating from every word. "It's so hot today. Come up here. Come in and let me get you some ice water."
"Oh, no, ma'am. Thank you, but I'm fine."
"Nonsense," she said. She leaned from the edge of the patio to place a hand on my shoulder and pull me closer. "First of all, you get up here and come have some water. And second, don't call me ma'am." She grinned and laid that soft hand against my cheek. "I'm Brenda. You call me Brenda."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, oblivious to everything but the warmth of her hand on my cheek.
"Not ma'am," she reminded me. "Brenda."
"Yes, ma'am." I shook my head, blushed. "I mean Brenda." I stepped up onto the porch. She linked her arm around mine and led me through a side door into the kitchen. She pointed to a small table, and I sat. She filled a tall glass with ice, then with water, and set it in front of me. I drank, gulped really, draining nearly all of the water.
Standing across the table from me, she chuckled. "I knew you had to be thirsty." She bent at the waist, placed her palms on the table top. "Are you cooling down now?"
My view down the low-cut neckline of that sun dress made cooling down impossible, but I managed to nod. "Yes. Thank you."
She returned to the sink with the glass and began filling it again. I looked around the kitchen so as not to keep staring at her. A couple of pans leaned upside down in the dish drain, their handles pointing toward a wicker basket filled with apples and bananas. A coffee maker sat by the stove, the carafe, filled with water, placed next to it. On the other side of the stove were some floor-to-ceiling cabinets and then the entrance to a laundry room. The laundry room was dim, but I could still make out a framed picture hanging on the wall above the dryer.
Mrs. Grogan set my water on the table. "You like that drawing?" she asked. She glided across the floor and flicked on a light in the laundry room. The frame contained a black-and-white drawing of a woman without hair or skin. It fascinated me, but repulsed me a little, too. "That's me," Mrs. Grogan said.
I looked at her and then back at the drawing. I'd seen such drawings, usually in color, in my biology textbook. This one appeared just as intricate and detailed. The shading highlighted the smooth curve of muscle and tendon and little pockets of fat.
Mrs. Grogan walked back to the table and sat in an end chair. "Not exactly the sort of thing you hang in the living room," she said. "But I like it, so I hung it where only I would have to look at it."
"It seems accurate," I said, unsure how else to respond.
"A boy from middle school used me as a model when I was in high school," she explained. "I didn't even know it. But apparently he showed the drawings around. A friend of mine who had a brother in middle school got hold of that one and gave it to me." Her elbow on the table, she leaned her cheek on her palm and gazed at the drawing. "It fascinates me. I call it 'Brenda without Skin.' Do you like it?"
"Yes." I sipped my water.
She laughed. "You're very polite. But you're a teenage boy. I imagine you'd be far more interested in 'Brenda with Skin' than 'Brenda without Skin.'"
"Yes, ma'am," I blurted, then, realizing my mistake, quickly said, "I mean, no, ma'am." I pushed my chair back and stood up. "I better get back to work."
She laughed again, a sincere laugh with a broad smile. She, too, stood up, then moved next to me and put her arm around my shoulders as I stepped toward the door. "Listen," she said, "you don't have to work so hard. Come visit with me again, will you?"
I opened the door. "Yes, ma'am."
"Brenda," she said.
"Yes," I said. "Brenda."
She tightened the pressure of her arm on my shoulders. "Some morning, before you start work, come in and have coffee with me, or one of my sweet rolls."
"Okay." I eased out of her grasp. "Thanks for the water." I went back to work.
Mrs. Grogan's naked antics, the touch of her hand on my cheek or her arm around my shoulders, and, especially, her invitation to have one of her sweet rolls seemed as definite—more definite, even—than Carol's observation that she'd be alone looking for something to do. My concentration was so wrecked that I missed the wheelbarrow with several rocks I tried to toss into it and once crushed a finger between two rocks.
On my walk home that afternoon, I re-visualized that drawing of Brenda without skin, the muscles and tendons, imagined the perfect ways in which they tightened and slackened as she so gracefully stretched, fully in her skin, in front of that plate glass window. I was fairly certain that Mr. Veck knew exactly what her muscles could do for him as they lay in bed together, and I imagined what it would be like for me to lie with her skin to skin. I had no business, I knew, daydreaming about an adult, married woman. So I turned my thoughts to Carol and her lovely muscles, though in truth, as long as she had David Taylor I had no business thinking of her either.
That night, hoping to avoid David, I skipped the usual hang-outs, choosing instead to ease along winding back roads, thinking and thinking and thinking. Somewhere out on River Road, my front right tire picked up a nail, and my spare was flat. I locked the car and began my hike to town but had gotten no more than thirty or forty yards before a car approached from behind and pulled to a stop as it came alongside me. None other than David Taylor stuck his head out the window. Having found no one to kill time with, he'd had about the same idea I'd had. He'd been meandering the back roads, just thinking, he said. We loaded my spare into his trunk, aired it up in town, and returned to my car. Despite my protests, he stayed to help me change the tire. Carol would be home on Friday, and I needed some time with her more than ever. But this guy, this really nice steady boyfriend of hers, wasn't making it easy. Unwitting as his actions had been, he was torturing me, complicating everything, tying my life in knots—as if Mrs. Grogan hadn't done a good enough job of that already.
Every day for the rest of the week, I thought about her invitation, and I thought about Carol's return on Friday. I likely didn't have the guts to knock on the Grogans' door pretending to want breakfast. But worked up as I was, I'd definitely call Carol, David Taylor be damned.
So call her I did. The results were different than I expected. David's parents had postponed their departure a couple of days. They'd be leaving Sunday. "I'll be with him tonight," she said, "and tomorrow night."
"But listen, I'm glad you called. Really glad." She paused as if for a response, but I had none. After a brief silence, she said, "Call me again, okay? Sunday night, maybe."
"Okay," I managed. "Sunday night."
After the past two weeks, two more days should have seemed like nothing. Instead, they seemed to stretch like eternity before me. And so I spent a sleepless night working up the courage to knock on Mrs. Grogan's—Brenda's—door and ask for one of her sweet rolls in the morning.
I walked. I waved to Mr. Grogan as he headed for work. And I told myself I couldn't go through with it. But the plans I had made overnight carried my feet forward, straight to her door. I knocked. I waited maybe fifteen seconds. I knocked again. Waited again. She was probably still sleeping. I turned away, disappointment and relief flooding me simultaneously. The door opened.
"Good morning," she said, and she sounded happy to see me.
She stood on the threshold, one hand on the door knob, the other on the opposite jamb. My breath caught in my throat. She wore a silky, peach-colored nightgown that revealed perfect impressions of her nipples and didn't even reach mid-thigh. Clearly, though, she hadn't been sleeping. Her hair, as silky as the night gown, fell neatly brushed over her bare shoulders. She smelled, again, of roses. I was drowning in that smell, and lost in the sight of all her softness.
"I wanted," I said but then trailed off, thinking I sounded too demanding. "I mean, I was wondering . . . thinking . . . about your sweet rolls."
I suppose I expected her lovely smile, but instead she frowned. "Oh, sweetie, I'm sorry, but I have plans."
I was an idiot. Of course she had plans. She would always have plans. Her invitation had been simple politeness, like all invitations that specified not a time but that vague sometime. My cheeks burned.
I looked away from her, down at my shoes. "Okay," I managed. "I'm sorry to have bothered you."
"No," she said, and her hands clutched either side of my face. "No, no, you didn't bother me." She tilted my head until my eyes met hers. Then her hands dropped from my face and clutched my hands. She squeezed them reassuringly. "I wanted you to come. I still do. Promise me. Promise you'll come another time." Words failed me, so I just nodded and stumbled away toward the tool shed.
By then I had cleared most of the rocks and had started in on the bushes. I fumbled in the shed for some long-handled clippers and a hatchet. Those innuendos, I wondered, was she aware of them? Were they intentional? And is another time any more definite than sometime? I attacked those bushes with a vengeance, clipping swiftly through the small stalks and hacking the thicker ones furiously with the hatchet. When Mr. Veck arrived, my attacks struck more viciously. But when Mr. Grogan arrived, I froze. I glanced up at the bedroom window, wondered if I had time to warn them, wondered if I even should. Soon, I heard a loud voice, Mr. Grogan's, I assumed, and a moment later, Mr. Veck's. I wasn't sure, but I thought I also heard crying. That would surely be Mrs. Grogan.
When the room fell quiet, I thought it best to take my tools back to the shed and disappear. The driveway was in clear view of the shed. By the time I threw the tools in and closed the door, Mr. Veck slumped into view, naked as Mrs. Grogan had been in front of the plate glass window. Mr. Grogan walked behind him, a shotgun in his hands, its barrel just inches from Mr. Veck's back. Mr. Veck begged for his clothes, but Mr. Grogan shoved the gun barrel against his back and pushed him toward his car. After the car roared out of the driveway, Mr. Grogan stood watching the dust cloud it left behind. His arms hung limp at his sides. He dropped the shotgun and then crumpled to the ground himself, legs crossed beneath him. He pushed his face into his upraised hands and wept—sobbed, really—as I had never heard a man sob in my life. I wanted to do something, to say something that would help. But I knew nothing would help. I avoided the driveway and walked instead down the slope to the creek, where I angled toward the fence line. I rolled under the barbed wire and scrambled up onto the gravel road.
My mother wondered why I came home so early. I said Mr. Grogan had changed his mind, didn't need my help after all. She asked if anything was wrong. I said no. She'd know about the Grogans soon enough, and I didn't want to talk about them, not then, not ever.
Sunday morning I slept late and then spent the afternoon helping my dad replace some rotted house siding. We tried conversation, but he could tell my mind was elsewhere and didn't pry, speaking only to provide instructions about the work at hand. Later that afternoon, I sat outside alone, staring into a thick copse of oaks behind our house. I imagined Carol Mayfield sitting at her house, maybe watching tv, waiting for me to call. I imagined David Taylor, on vacation with his family, not enjoying it much, wishing he were back home with Carol. I imagined Mrs. Grogan naked, imagined all her beautiful skin and the muscles beneath her skin. I imagined the ruckus at Mr. Veck's house when he came home naked. And I imagined Mr. Grogan sitting in his driveway sobbing.
Inside, I pulled the phone book from its drawer. I turned to Carol Taylor's number, even though I had committed it to memory two weeks before. I stared at that number for a long time, then closed the book and slipped it back into the drawer. Not tonight, I thought. Maybe sometime. But not tonight.