In 1985, my friend Dr. Mel Slott, who resembled the actor Telly Savalas as the TV character Kojak, and whose one private writing lesson changed my life, became the chair of the theater department at Eastern Illinois University in downstate Charleston. I took a train down for a weekend visit.
The irascible Mel asked if I wanted to play some basketball. Some friends of his, two professors and their three boys and a girl, loved to play B-ball. I was surprised, as I had never heard Mel mention a sport of any kind.
We hopped in his car and drove out of town, parking on the side of a highway along the Embarrass River. I wondered where the court was, and Mel, a reptilian grin on his face, pointed to the woods. We hiked about two miles along a path.
Mel stopped: “Do you want to take off your clothes?”
This out of the blue question was as potent as, say, “Do you want me to stab you repeatedly with a dull knife?”
He explained that the family lived naked in three caves along the river. Mel loved happenings like this. He loved embarrassing people, putting them on the spot. I said, no, I wouldn’t remove my clothes, and he shrugged and we walked on.
We came to a clearing. Three caves were on the south edge, and two tents had been set up in a grove of sassafras trees. The professors used the tents as offices, with typewriters and chairs. One taught English, the other was a professor of film studies. Cloth bags hung from trees along the bank, filled with goat cheese. A herd of goats wandered about. There was a basketball hoop and backboard nailed to a tree off to the side.
And out from the middle cave emerged the two professors, their teenaged daughter, the twin boys and an older teenaged boy. And yes, they were stark naked—save for tennis shoes.
We met in the middle of the clearing, the family hugging Mel and shaking my hand. If you know me, you know I wanted to escape, to be back in my modest Chicago apartment, free and clear of my latest girlfriend Lydia, who sold drugs.
We sat at a picnic table, eating goat cheese and greens, Mel telling the family that I was a playwright, some discussion about film, the kids talking about their schools. It was normal stuff—except the kids were naked, their parents were naked. Strangely, Mel and I were beset with no-see-ums and sweat bees and mosquitos. Not a critter bit the naked people.
I learned that they all wore clothes to work and school and about town. They all rode bicycles into town. To preserve food, they suspended bags in the river.
And then it was time for basketball. I was on the team with the twins and their dad. Mel (who never intended to remove his clothes) got the mom and teenaged girl and older brother.
I don’t recall a score. I do recall dribbling a basketball on the dirt ground, my back to the basket, the very hairy girl guarding me, me afraid to take a step lest I come in contact with Eve parts, my team’s penises flopping, the mother’s (she was from England) long and flat breasts bouncing like stretched rubber bands.
On Sunday night, Mel threw a dinner party. The now-clothed family rode to town on their bikes. The kids, who didn’t even have electricity, all flopped in front of the TV. Mel’s German girlfriend—they would break up this weekend—kept stating that she hated Germans. There was a writer visiting from one of the Slavic countries.
It became clear to me that the Slavic writer was in need of a green card, and that the purpose of the dinner party was to get me, Eugene Baldwin, newly divorced, to agree to marry the Slav.
The Slavic writer, bless her, had an extra tiny rounded head and bowl-cut hair on a normal body—not counting curvature of the spine. She looked across the table at me as if I were a specimen in a petri dish. She whispered something about a dowry.
Mel, who had sent my first play to a show biz lawyer in New York, who then offered the script to a director, who would direct my play Off Broadway, sat at the head of the table and smiled. The naked professors, now dressed in stiff, river-washed clothes, smiled. The German girlfriend smiled. The neutral children watched “Hogan’s Heroes” on the TV.
I didn’t smile. I blurted out something like I’d think it over. The Slavic writer nodded.
I lied. I imagined myself living alone in a cave on the Embarrass River, with no human contact for the rest of my life. Maybe some cats. A few goats. A year’s supply of ale stashed in bags in the river. Cheezits. No women. Well, I had been kissed by Brook Shields on the syndicated Joe Franklin TV talk show in NYC. So: Brook—yes.
Mel offered a toast. His German girlfriend said, “To Chermany—I hate Chermany.” The Slavic writer looked at me all the while running an index finger around the rim of her wine glass. The tune was “Get Me to the Church on Time.”