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Personal Essays

Shirtless Summer

Come summer, a line is drawn between guys who doff their tops and those dressed in jacket, tie, and sneer.

My mother was casual in her summer wear, though I don’t mean she went topless. I remember sitting at the table with her family in Kentucky when I was a boy. My mother wore the demure gowns appropriate to a Southern belle, even if she lived in coal country and didn’t sip mint juleps like a real belle. But all the menfolk, except my father and me, went shirtless. I thought nothing of it until I heard my father say one time that it did nothing for his appetite to see all those flabby, white, concave chests lined up at table like a tuberculosis ward. He also complained volubly about restaurants where, in his words, he was “put off his feed” by the display of big, dirty, bare feet everywhere.

Like Nixon, my dad was all for public decency and covering up. He never went out without a jacket in July unless he was on the golf course. A T-shirt to him was strictly underwear, and he had a particular fondness for vests and neckties, even in the hottest months, and well before air conditioning was common. I guess I picked up some of his prudery withoutreally wanting to, and it’s led to a yearly dilemma.

Every summer, as the thermometer creeps up to 90, I ask myself: Will this be the year that I finally break my personal taboo and go around my neighborhood in Cincinnati bare-chested like 95 percent of my fellow males aged 2 months to 85 years? Will I finally bid farewell to the last vestiges of a Puritanical modesty and submit my sagging teats and beer-barrel belly to an unprepared world? Share my overgrown outie, werewolf hirsuteness, and blinding, snow-white pallor with my fellow citizens of all ages and genders as I mow the lawn or even hike to the corner store for a six-pack, reserving a shirt for the office, bowling alley, and those few restaurants that still have standards?

It’s tempting, because the heat and humidity in the Ohio River Valley where I live approach the conditions of a Baghdad Laundromat in summer. A shirt, when I am gardening or sitting on a lawn chair and drinking iced tea, soon feels like a large, spiny porcupine holding me in a loving embrace, with its claws in my neck and its quills all down my spine.

Why not, I ask myself, be comfortable like Ole Joe, my next-door neighbor who thinks nothing of planting tomatoes or edging his yard in a state as near to nature as society permits? I am prepared to say Ole Joe wears a shirt for a total of 30 minutes each summer. I know, because from June to September I see his bare breasts and lily shoulders over my back fence every day. I have seen Joe topless more often than I have seen my wife that way. I have seen him ascend his roof by stepladder and paint his satellite dish bright green while half-naked. I have stared in astonishment to see his bare back curved over his driveway as he scrubs the pavement clean with a toothbrush. How did Ole Joe attain such a level of pagan ease, not to mention such an obsession for a spruced-up property?

In summer the Widow tans herself in her one-piece on her deck, and come fall she’s in the same getup, raking leaves.Then there is the Widow Woman next door to Ole Joe. She’s out in any weather, all seasons, clad in just a swimsuit. I am positive she never changes into anything else. In summer the Widow tans herself in her one-piece on her deck, and come fall she’s in the same getup, raking leaves. During winter you’ll find her out chopping wood for her Buck Stove in her bathing suit, plus flip-flops.

Where do Ole Joe and the Widow Woman get their wonderful nonchalance, their inspired lack of concern for the feelings of civilized others who may be gagging at the sight of their sunburnt wrinkles and shaking cellulite and altogether decrepit physiques?

I wish I knew. I’d love to get rid of the nagging sense of decency that’s in me. But it’s been a losing battle all my adult life. Always having to wear a shirt is just the beginning, you see. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never cheated on a woman until she cheated on me first, never plagiarized in college, never skinny-dipped with friends.

But this year I’m going to try like hell to shed my hang-up about shirts. Maybe I’ll succeed in a day or two, after I get the old outdoor grill fired up. It’ll be the perfect occasion. I grill as many meals as I can in summer, lunch and dinner and even breakfast, and after a few days a dense plume of smoke envelops my yard. This tangy, carcinogenic tower of smoke doesn’t budge an inch in wind or rain. You can smell it a mile off.

Anyway, my grill puts out lots of heat, to the point where I suspect it may be solely responsible for global warming. Sweaty and ash-covered, I can’t help thinking how pleasant it would be to grill shirtless. It would certainly be a lot more comfortable than having a suffocating, Python-like shirt swallow me whole, I’m thinking. And my male neighbors all barbecue shirtless, so why not me? In fact, my neighbors must think there’s something funny about me, unmanly even, that above the belt I’m always gussied up like a woman. And that’s the thing: No man in my neighborhood is self-conscious about going shirtless, no matter how horrible his appearance. I wouldn’t stand out if I were the Hunchback of Notre Dame, so why not?

And once I grill that first burger topless, what would be more natural than traipsing around the block sans shirt, as do many men and boys in my neighborhood? It would be my victory lap. If I can get got used to that, who knows—I may drive bare-chested over to the mall and buy my very first pair of short pants.