I couldn’t believe we were even having the conversation. The sign said, “No Swimming.” That’s enough for me, but they were posted along the bank so incrementally as to ensure wherever a person stood, the message was unavoidable. Yet, Carl had already stripped his shirt, revealing the sweater of hair beneath, and was unbuttoning his pants. Our masonry crew had a long laugh after I mentioned his “sweater” when he removed his shirt one hot, summer day.
“Ah, they just post signs like that for kids and pansies,” Carl said, “for liability purposes. All the lawsuits these days, you know. Look over there. I used to jump from that rope when I was a kid.”
Carl dropped his pants carelessly on his backpack, submerged in the tall vegetation. The rope, barely clinging to a branch of a dying tree, looked like it had been used by generations of wild dogs for strength training. Only the knot showed modest signs of fray. The rest appeared as a marvel of scattered hemp strings covertly holding each other together, something that would increase the credibility of a magician. Carl pinched his second sock and tossed it beside the other on his pants. Only a pair of boxer shorts separated him from nature’s intentions. I hadn’t shed a thread and silently wished for more protection. Perhaps I needed a yellow, rubber suit, like the ones I’d seen in movies like Outbreak.
“There’s a dead fish right there,” I said pointing at the edge of the dark, green water.
“Fish die all the time. I’ve seen a million dead fish in this lake. You gonna strip, or what?”
I stared at the bank, pretending to at least consider the idea. I wouldn’t jump into this water without the signs. A few lily pads floated among small, leafy plants. I could see fallen tree branches beneath the water surface and anticipating the slimy coating evoked a shiver. I don’t want my skin touching slimy whatever or feeling that soft mud devouring my toes with each step until we were deep enough to swim. Even if that rope could swing us until we dropped into deep water, we’d have to endure the mud and slime returning to the bank.
“No. No, it’s not for me. I think I’ll just head back and wait in the car.”
“You’re not going to at least stick around and watch?”
“The signs say no swimming. I’m not risking any trouble.”
“You don’t get into trouble for watching.”
“Yes, you do. It’s called aiding and abetting, or something like that.”
“Dude, it’s not stealing T.V.s, it’s swimming.”
“If you want to swim here, fine, but I’m going back to the car. We came up here to hike. I’m not swimming in a lake that could be contaminated with some toxic chemical, or brain eating amoeba, or whatever else.”
I adjusted my backpack and glanced at his clothes lying carelessly where he had dropped it so suddenly when he noticed the rope. A grasshopper sat on his sock. I turned away.
“Fine. If you’re leaving, then there’s no need for these.”
I turned back in time to see Carl dropping his boxer shorts to his ankles, stepping his left foot out, and kicking the sweat infested garment at me. I barely avoided the peril of capturing the toxicant with my face, but ingested an image that contaminated me for life.
As I trekked down the trail, I heard Carl’s voice echoing, “Oh my God, it’s holding my weight!” A few steps later, I was being chased by Carl’s holler, which sounded as if he were on the first descent of a roller coaster, followed by splashing water.
“Oh my God, the water feels so awesome!”
Despite a noticeably projected tone, Carl’s voice faded as I continued along the hiking trail. Thirty minutes later, I reached Carl’s car and placed my backpack in the trunk. I sat with the door open for a few minutes to let the air-conditioning ice the interior. I figured Carl would swim long enough to prove the signs didn’t scare him. Maybe half an hour. Another thirty minutes or so to dress and hike back to the car. We’d make it home in plenty of time to set up the tables and chairs for the cookout. I looked around the car for something to busy my mind. Inside the glove box I found a paperback copy of The Invisible Man and read through some of the underlined passages. After a while, I started glancing at the opening where the hiking trail exited the woods, or entered the parking lot, depending on how you look at things.
After two hours, I found myself staring at the opening. I toiled with the idea of calling for help, but I’d look foolish. The guys would razz me forever on the job site once Carl shared our adventure. Finally, I decided to hike back up the trail. Maybe Carl slipped. Fell. Maybe he just needed help getting back to the car and to a doctor to have his ankle examined and wrapped in a lime green cast. For some reason, I seemed to sweat more going up the trail without a backpack than I had with it. Before every bend and turn I imagined Carl would soon appear, lying on his back writhing in pain. I imagined that his projected voice might reappear. I hyper-listened. Sometimes I held my breath for a miserable few seconds. When I allowed myself to breathe again, my breath sounded like Harriers landing on a flight deck. Then, I saw a large boulder I didn’t recognize. I had passed the turn to the lake. I hurried in the opposite direction. Resolving to avoid further mistakes, I rushed along the path until I reached the signs. Carl’s backpack and clothes were gone. I jogged down the trail hoping to catch up quickly. Carl was not in the parking lot, not leaning against the car smoking a cigarette like I’d imagined. His backpack wasn’t propped up against my tire indicating he’d gone into the visitor center for a whiz or a deuce. In fact, no one has ever discovered exactly what happened to Carl. A few theories surfaced regarding alien abduction, lake monsters, and the Barneby Brothers who had just escaped from prison in Warren County. Hikers have claimed to see Carl trekking down the path naked with his clothes strapped to his backpack, often at similar times of the day. Local kids visit the place at night looking for “Naked Carl.” Authorities searched the lake where I last saw Carl but found nothing. After several uncomfortable months of sporadic interviews, I’m relieved to have been ruled out as a suspect.
Still, our masonry crew razzes me about making Carl disappear. When we get new masons or laborers, they hear about “Naked Carl” on the first day. When we file into the living room of a framed house, before the drywall and carpet and crown molding, eating our bologna sandwiches warmed with greenhouse effect, softening the cheese and warming the mayonnaise in our cars parked along the dirt lots, a new mason or laborer learns how I can make people disappear, if they don’t work hard.