Robert Haydon Jones
and Tony Anthony

Tony Anthony
Petunia

Petunia – Naked
By Robert Haydon Jones

A while back, I wrote a short story, “Saint Shannon’s Salute”, about what happened when the police in Greenwich, Connecticut arrested a Medal of Honor recipient, as a Peeping Tom.  A patrolman had observed him lurking in the shadows outside his PTSD therapist’s home peering through her window as she lay naked on her bed with her husband.

The story was first published on-line on SPARK 7 and then in Recovery magazine. It triggered a lot of response – e-mails, snail-mail letters, faxes, phone calls (yes, four or five heavy-breathers – a surprisingly disconcerting first for Yours Truly) – hardly any of it about my story, per se.

Almost all of the comment was about the central scene in the story: A man peeping at a naked woman as she lay on her bed with her unsuspecting husband. Nakedness seems to have been the real trigger.

Most of the responses were from women. I got scores of jpegs and photos of bare naked ladies. Sent to me by the ladies themselves or by their husbands or boy friends. Would I please take a good look – and then write a story about them? I could write anything I wanted – evidently, the concept of allowing me to  “look” at them naked and then do whatever riff I pleased was deeply thrilling.

I responded to none of this – I told the callers thanks for the comment – and I told the heavy breathers to fuck off.  I trashed the e-mails and jpegs and shredded the letters and photos. I had mixed emotions. A writer likes to provoke response – but, as noted, I wasn’t sure if it was my story that had triggered this or simply the subject of nakedness.

About three weeks or so after the magazine was published, things quieted down. But every other day, I would get an e-mail from someone going by the tag: “Petunia”. Each e-mail had the same text: “I love your story about the Medal of Honor recipient and the naked therapist. It touches my core as it has never been touched before. Please look at the attached image and please write a story about me.”

Well, the images were of a comely, naked, woman in her early 40s. I got 20 of these emails over the next six weeks. I trashed the first four attachments, but from then on, I downloaded each attachment and saved it in a folder, marked, “Petunia”. The images were progressive in nature. From restrained, “classic nude” to splayed, in-your-face, “wide open” frontal assaults.

Well, although “Petunia” was using the “please” word — I bridled at the imperative of her message and the assaultive nature of the series of images of her nude body she had sent me. There was no way I would ever write a story about her.  I was sure about that.

I had known what I was doing when I wrote “Saint Shannon’s Salute.” It is based on real world experience. I knew the linchpin of the story is the raw, relentless, power of a woman’s naked body. But the responses from Petunia and the others about being seen naked — had startled me. They got me thinking hard about nakedness, nudity, exhibitionism, voyeurism, intimacy, love, sex, distance and memory.

I sleep naked, do you?

Do you cover up after sex?

How many people have you seen nude?

Did you ever see your parents naked?

Can you remember what your first lover looked like naked?

How many people have seen you nude?

Did you ever look at someone naked without them knowing it?

Do you look at porn?

Did you ever?

Do you have a favorite memory of a sexual encounter?

Do you fantasize about having sex with someone you know?

My paternal grandfather and one of my great uncles were both working artists. I have scores of their paintings – yet only two are of nude women – both rather formal studies that appear to have been done in workshop settings. My grandfather’s six sisters were artist’s models – and each married an artist.

I talked recently to two artists about nakedness. I asked a famous artist who is in his mid-70’s if he worked with nude models.  He told me that after his wife died about 20 years back, he only drew nudes in the company of other artists. “I don’t trust myself to be alone with a naked woman.”

His comment kicked in Andrew Wyeth and the Helga Pictures for me. Wyeth did 245 paintings and drawings of a neighbor’s housekeeper, Prussian-born, Helga Testorf, over a 14-year span.  It was a secret liaison. When Wyeth’s wife was  asked to comment on what she thought the Helga Pictures were about, she said, “Love.” Although she never did elaborate, and the Wyeths did not part – it was common knowledge that their relationship was sundered.

The nudes of Helga radiate sexuality…but I think that is because Helga naked is very, very, alluring in her rough-hewn way. She has the natural radiance of a Paleolithic Venus figurine.

All of the Helga Pictures pulse with another kind of naked power: Human intimacy. That’s what Wyeth’s wife saw. Helga outdoors leaning on a snowy tree in her Loden coat is just as wide open and available to Wyeth as she is kneeling naked on the bed aiming her upturned breasts straight at him like the double barrels of a shotgun.

By the way, I think the most sexual painting Andrew Wyeth ever did is of a man. He is in his mid-twenties and he is as nude as a dude can be. He has made eye contact with us and appears to be expecting us to be just as seriously impressed with his phallus as he is.

Just yesterday I talked with another successful artist about Wyeth and Helga and about doing nudes. Matthew is in his late forties. His soft impressionistic landscapes are wildly popular. He has suddenly become immensely rich. Matthew and his third wife have just purchased a home near me for about ten million dollars. Matthew has informed me that Wyeth did Helga like a landscape. I have kept silent but I do not think that Matthew has really looked all that carefully at the Helga Pictures. Wyeth is the one who has been done. By Helga and the bare-ass young man. Each in their own quite discrete way.

Matthew also told me that he still enjoys going to workshop with other artists. So, he often draws nudes from life.  But he stops his drawings at the waist. He says, “I am afraid that the lust thing will overwhelm me.”

Overwhelm is a serious word about a serious consequence. “Down goes Frazier!”

PTSD is about a serious consequence. And sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. In your Loden coat or in your altogether.

Petunia, I have decided on a compromise. I won’t write a story about you naked  – but I will give you this piece I did at Cary Tennis’s writer’s workshop at the Marconi Center about six months back.

We had 10 minutes to write. Every three minutes, we were given a prompt:
The window opened
The door closed
The bowl is not empty

Petunia, here for your consideration and pleasure is what I wrote:

The window opened. Charlie and I jumped back – it was mischief night on Halloween and we had hit the house next door hard with eggs – at 13, we were getting too old to be safe from the police.

We worked our way around so we stayed covered in shadow. We looked in the window and saw a beautiful lady starting to take her clothes off.

I told Charlie, let’s get out of here – but he held me back. Look, he said, look. She was about 35 – red hair – she was taking her shirt off and bra and then her skirt and then her panties – it was beyond thrilling — it was like an electric shock. She stepped into the shower and the door closed.

My life had changed forever. I loved her. I loved her then and I will love her always. (It amazes me women rarely know how beautiful they are!) But I stayed away from her window. I stayed away from her window. I stayed away.

A year later, on the kid Halloween, I went back to her house with my little brother. He grabbed his candy but I stayed back. She stepped to the door and looked at me. “Come on”, she said. “The bowl isn’t empty. Help yourself.”

.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted June 30, 2010 at 7:40 pm | #

    Good on you Bob A nicely delineated story. Empty bowls call for a bowl movement

  2. sean beaudoin
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 4:29 am | #

    I like this one too, Bob. The distance from the model is always a concern, until there is no distance. The photograph has movement that feel very un-model like.

  3. Ed Lambertson
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 12:49 pm | #

    Like it or not the story “stirs-up” long forgotten feelings that remind me that I’m still alive. Good work!

  4. Matthew Levine
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 4:34 pm | #

    When driving or walking past a scene that strikes me, sometimes a lasting lust for that fullness of perception forces me to return to paint it. When I’m painting, the entire time I am trying to capture and convey that essence of attraction I have for an object (landscape, still life, person). Wyeth caught it just about every time out. You caught it here, too, Bob.

  5. Dave Monroe
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 8:44 pm | #

    A story about a story, and a story within a story — very evocative story telling, and a very evocative subject; lust, nudity, nakedness, openness, hiding, and all the angles (almost like a Cubist painting) of game playing and taboo making people go through over most primal urge, and our most creative act, sex. Nice stuff…

  6. Posted August 19, 2010 at 3:20 am | #

    Easy to follow the thread of your story. Love the bowl of red cherries at the end!

  7. Charles L. DeFanti
    Posted September 7, 2010 at 2:06 pm | #

    Well, it took me a while to get past the illustration (which reminded me of the video I attached above. Turns out it complements your narrative, too). The story has the wild kick of all good short fiction — here with the metaphysical link between PTSD and erotic shock. (You even introduced me to a new idiom: “And sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. In your Loden coat or in your altogether.” “In your altogether” never before crossed my pathway).

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