The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
The House by the River
I'd found boys close enough to my age to qualify as friends. I needed to go back to close the deal. I feared I'd make a fool out of myself. I feared being laughed at and seen as unsuitable for friendship. I feared a lot of things.
I was fourteen and sure I couldn't make it until I was eighteen without friends. I had good friends and I wanted good friends. This thought made me the saddest. I wasn't going to meet guys like Calvin, Russ, and Bart in this place. Ivan was still on my mind. I felt we could be friends. I didn't see why not, but why would a boy like Ivan want anything to do with me? He didn't know I was alive.
Once I knew where to find guys, waiting for the right time was cool. I wanted to be ready when I showed up at the swing this time. I'd introduce myself and find the boys who were most like me. I wasn't getting my hopes up. I'd take it slow and easy and accept the result.
There was always Millie.
As we sat devouring the meal Mama spent the afternoon preparing, my father and brothers talked about work. It was still new and each day something exciting seemed to happen. My brothers liked the new world we'd been dropped into, and in particular they liked the local girls. Since most of the work my brothers did involved keeping the beaches clean, they often ran into girls.
I'd yet to find girls to be the most important feature in life. While I knew girls I liked, it had nothing to do with why my brothers liked girls. My only motive was in seeing what they thought about a particular thing.
My friends furnished me with all the opinions I could ever use, but girls were smarter and actually thought things over, which gave what they had to say more value. It gave me more to go on than the wild ideas of boys my age. I could predict my friends. I didn't know what the girls I was friendly with might say.
" How'd the inner tube work out?" Pop asked, when the chatter died down.
"Great, Pop . Thanks. It works fine. I made a paddle out of a board from the wood pile."
"You didn't ask for a paddle. I left it for you to work out. How far did you get?" he asked.
" I'd say a mile. There's a rope swing and boys up there. I didn't go any farther than that today. I've been wanting to meet boys my age."
"Boys? Shouldn't you be scoping out chicks at your age," Coleen said.
"No, I shouldn't. I'd be afraid they'd turn out to be like you, Coleen."
Milk shot out of Lucy's nose as she coughed loudly. I patted her back.
"Thanks, I think," Lucy said, regaining control of her milk.
"Be careful. You can't swim, Clayton. I don't want you going in that river," Mama said, always wanting to protect me from myself.
" Mother," Pop said with an unusual challenge in his voice. "The boy's fourteen. Leave him be. He'll be fine. We didn't raise idiots. I've talked to him."
"Don't forget Brian, Pop," John-Henry said.
"Mama!" Brian complained.
"John-Henry," Mama said in her calming voice.
" I've already been in the river, Mama. It's no big deal. The current is pretty swift near the gulf but I stay away from there," I said for clarity if not for honesty.
" Boys?" Coleen asked, perking up. "Are they shrimps, ...like you, Clayton, or are theu ...big boys there?"
" Big, Coleen," I said, knowing how to get her going. "Seventeen, eighteen at least. They were diving in the river. Some must be football players. Big muscles. Broad shoulders. Big boys."
" Don't get any ideas, young lady," Mama warned.
" No," Pop said. "Don't be doing that. If they're a mile up river, they're out of reach for you, sweetheart. The gravy is outstanding tonight, Mother."
" Thank you, Mr. Olson," Mama said, pleased by the compliment.
" He's pulling your leg, Coleen," Lucy said. "Clay isn't going to be hanging around no boring football players. You should know that much."
Lucy caught on when no one else did. She was the only one that listened to what I said. My baby sister knew when I was pulling someone's leg and Coleen's leg was perfect for pulling.
My brothers packed it away, while my appetite was still in Tulsa. Mama was a great cook. I'd had a good appetite until now, but food didn't appeal to me nearly as much as it once did. I rarely turned down dessert, but we all have to drown our sorrows somehow. Tonight it was banana budding on Manila Wafers. If I was ever going to drown something, banana pudding was the way to go.
Florida was cool enough but it would have been way cooler if my friends were here. They could sleep in my room and we'd rule the beach. Imagining us being together didn't do much for my appetite or my disposition.
Another day passed before I stood at the river with my tube again. My courage had never run higher. Today I'd make a friend. I wondered if anyone would be at the swing. It was summer. Teens had time on their hands. Odds were someone might find his way to the river to cool off.
I tossed the tube in the water, looking around to see if Millie was nearby. I was later than usual, and my one friend couldn't wait. The sweat rolled as the humid afternoon closed in on the river. As hot as it was, it was faster getting to the bend in the river, but I knew where I was going this time.
Hearing the yelling and the screams, I once more stopped where the brush furnished me cover. I was going to the swing today. I wanted to see who was there first. There was no telling if it would be the same boys or different ones.
I'd wait for the time to be right before paddling into view, letting first contact run its course. A line of boys waited to use the rope swing. They joked and laughed as one boy after another dropped into the water. I examined the faces for Ivan's. He wasn't there but I recognized two faces from my first visit. That made
me feel better about approaching them.
I paddled up. A branch stuck out of the bank where I hung the tube, sticking the paddle in the mud below the tube. I scampered up the bank a few feet from the line of boys. A boy dropped into the river with a big splash. The five other boys turned to look at me. The laughter and good times stopped dead. I smiled. It was too late to run.
" Hi," I said cheerfully, waving my arm.
" Hi," came a weak response, as they kept an eyes on me.
" I saw you guys going off into the river. That looks like fun," I said, doing my best to sell it. "I was here once before. It's a good spot."
My confession didn't move anyone to speak. The boy in the river came out, stopping a little behind me, where he inspected my mode of transportation.
" I saw a kid who swung out on that tire, hung up in the air, turned upside down, and dove into the river without leaving a ripple in the water. What a dive!"
" Ivan," several voices mumbled to one another.
" You know Ivan?" a boy asked.
" I saw him do that dive. I want him to show me how to do that. Does he come here often?" I asked more boldly than I intended.
" Ivan? Sure," one of the familiar boys said, stepping out of line and coming over. "He stays with his mother this time of year. When he stops by his house, he comes by. He comes all the time when he's home. He's the best diver around. No one but him can do that dive."
" The best everything," another boy said. "Boy can play some basketball."
" Yeah," a boy agreed. "He's deadly with a basketball."
" Ivan's the man," the boy next to me said. " I'm Steve."
" I'm Clay," I said loud enough for everyone to hear.
Steve shook my hand as the line began to move again. A boy came up the bank as Steve stood beside me.
" I'm Hermie," the second boy said, also shaking my hand, but giving me the once over.
" You're new?" Steve asked.
" Yeah, we just moved here. I live down on the beach."
" Cool. Where you from?" Steve asked, sounding friendly.
" Tulsa," I said.
" Wow! You a cowboy?" Hermie calculated. "Clay's a cowboy."
" Hey, we got us a cowboy," another boy yelled to a guy in the river. "That your horse, cowboy?"
Everyone laughed when someone held up the tube for clarity. Part of the line broke away to cone toward us.
" You a cowboy?" a boy asked, coming over to me. "I'm Louis. My old man's from Texas. I don't think he knows which end of a horse is up though."
Boys laughed at the comment. Being from Tulsa had never gotten me noticed before, but everyone was from Tulsa back home. I shook hands with everyone who came over. They surrounded me wanting details on Tulsa.
It was the beach boys meet the cowboy. I had been to the rodeo every fall and I knew which end of a horse was up, but I was no cowboy. I didn't tell them that. I wasn't anything when I showed up there. Being a cowboy became a good thing to be, even when my friends and I stayed away from cowboy gear.
I was from somewhere else, while none of them had been out of Florida. It was five or six hundred miles from where we were to get out of Florida, so you really had to want to drive a long way to leave that part of the Sunshine State.
Coming from the middle of the country was like a world traveler had floated up to their swing. Being identified as a cowboy created interest and that led to conversation. Right away there was something to talk about.
All my fear and apprehension seemed foolish. My traveling was confined to coming to Florida from Oklahoma, but I left that part out. Why disappoint them. I told them about cowboys, rodeos, and the oilfields that had begun to run dry.
Steve squat down beside me to watch the tire swing. He told me about Florida, the school I'd go to, and what it was like. We were in the same grade, but he looked older, more mature. He talked like a cool guy, and he asked questions.
No one suggested I swing. They were busy arguing whose turn it was. I waited to see if Ivan showed up, as I enjoyed having someone to talk to. After ten minutes or so, I felt comfortable enough to ask the sixty-four dollar question.
" Why is everyone naked. Is there a swim suit shortage in Florida?"
"Swimming suits? It's Florida, man. We don't wear suits where we swim. Cowboys bashful, are they?"
" There's no water in Oklahoma. We don't wear swim suits either. We don't do much swimming. Seeing guys running around naked isn't what I'm used to. It made me curious is all."
" I've never owned a suit. When I was small and with my family on the gulf, none of the kids wore suits. I never knew anything else."
Steve wasn't sitting on the dirt like I was. He squat down beside me so his butt didn't get in the dirt. It was surprisingly easy to get past the fact he was naked. Four boys were naked, one wore boxers, and one wore a bathing suit. No one seemed preoccupied with who wore what.
The nice thing about cutoffs, I could sit on the dirt and as soon as I hit the water, they were clean. I thought the same should be true of someone's bare butt.
" Some guys wear something, but sooner or later everyone ends up naked. It's not like we don't come with the same undercarriage. Admittedly, some of us come with more undercarriage than others, but it's no big thing. Once you see a bunch of naked boys, each bunch of naked boys looks just like that."
" You don't feel self-conscious?" I asked, feeling self conscious.
" Nah. There's a freedom that I feel. Nothing to make me feel bound up. Try it. You'll like it. No one here cares. Once you swim naked, you never go back."
"I'll take your word for it. Girls don't come here?" I asked, going beyond other boys seeing me naked.
" Sure they do. It's where the boys are. Didn't you hear the song? The girls are looking for the boys, dude."
" They are? Not so much in Tulsa," I said. "Not guys my age anyway."
" Hell, they can't wait to get naked. In spite of what your mother told you, girls are way bolder than boys. They're usually show up when the older boys come to swing. You don't want to see that."
" Why not?" I asked, trying to picture it.
" Big hairy guys with more dick than brains. You don't want to be around them when girls come down. It's like they get an idea in their heads and someone is going to help them out if they don't get any."
" Guys bother you?"
" Not me. I'm fine. I'm fifteen. Guys like you should be careful."
" I will. They don't come down when just you guys are here, the girls?"
" Yeah, sure! They want what they want. I have no problems helping them out. They like what I have. It's as cool as it gets. They check for the mature guys."
" I don't mind wearing a suit," I explained, wondering about how bold he said he was.
" I bet. My grandmother has a suit just like yours."
" Girls come here and swim naked?" I asked, seeking clarification and ignoring the grandmother remark.
" They come here to get naked. They come here to find boys. This is Florida, man. None of the guys I know are bashful."
I had nothing to hide but walking around naked would bother me. Other boys running around naked didn't have a negative impact on me. I didn't know how to react at first, but it that's how it was done here, who was I to object?
through me off at firsts, but I wasn't losing a friend over it. If my friends and I came upon these boys in Tulsa, we'd have gone the other way, but I wasn't in Tulsa. I'd never been that interested in what other kids wore.
We may have the same stuff, but I wanted to keep mine to myself. Unexpected rises weren't something I could rule out. It may have been no big thing here, but I wasn't from here. While naked friends would have been a deal killer back home, it was merely a different taste in fashion here, and it was every man for himself.
Friendship wasn't as hard to come by as I imagined it would be. None of the boys had two heads or wanted me to perform acrobatics to qualify. Being from Oklahoma was enough to get their attention. I'd ride that as far as it would take me. I didn't realize that where I came from would figure into making friends where I ended up. I didn't mind.
Florida was okay. I didn't feel as lonely but I still wasn't certain how the friendship deal would work. Paddling up river to see my new friends wasn't easy in the July heat, but if it was how to meet guys, I was willing to make the trip. It wasn't the same as having friends on my block.
At fourteen I was full of curiosity and confusion. Being in the same place my entire life furnished me with an identity. I knew who I was and where I belonged. In Florida I was learning to be a beach boy. It wasn't as easy on me as it sounds.
Steve, Hermie, and Louis were immediately curious about me.. They saw Roy Rogers and John Wayne when they said cowboy. I did too, but who was I to argue with success?
" How do you guys get here?" I asked, as Steve came back from swinging a couple of times.
" Bailey's got a van. He drops us. He'll come down when he's ready to go."
" Bailey?" I asked, wondering about a guy old enough to have wheels.
" He's a junior at our school. Cool dude. Likes guys our age. We drive around with him on weekends. He's been known to have beer. Not everyone rates when it comes to the beer."
" Beer! Do you rate?" I asked.
" I'm in ninth grade, like you, but I was held back in fifth grade. I'm the oldest guy here. I get shotgun in the van and I can have beer if I want. Frankly I don't like the taste. I take it so Bailey thinks I'm cool, you know?"
" Where do you live?" I asked. "How far to come here?"
" I'm from over by school. Half of these guys live just outside of town in a trailer park behind the A&P. We walk to school together. Nice of them to build it so close to the trailer park. The others are spread out, like you. It's maybe ten miles from here. We come here because of the swing. We have places near the gulf where we hang on weekends. Party. No grownups," Steve said.
" Except Bailey."
" He just turned seventeen. Not exactly an adult. Bailey isn't that mature. He's cool around us. The older guys pick on him. Call him a pansy. I mean he's more like us than he's like guys his age. He's not a creep or pushy. He's cool. You'll see. I'll make sure you meet Bailey."
Hermie came to squat before Steve got back in line. One boy at a time stopped to listen on the way back to the swing. I tried not to sound stupid.
" You come with Bailey too?" I asked Hermie, when everyone else was gone.
" Yeah, he lives next door to me at the trailer park. He used to babysit me when I was little. Cool guy. He taught me about everything. He'd give me the shirt off his back. When his parents are away, he has parties at his house. I mean par-ty, dude. All these guys and more from the trailer park. We'd get drunk, get naked, raise hell. A wonder we all aren't locked up. Bailey's okay."
" Steve too?" I asked.
" Steve's his number one. He gets to sit shotgun. He's the oldest besides Bailey. They hang out at night. I'm youngest. Just thirteen, but I know what's going on."
Steve looked like the oldest and Hermie didn't look that young. He had rosy cheeks and his skin was fairly white for Florida. He sounded fairly bold for his age.
" Lots of kids live in the trailer park?" I asked.
" All but two of these dudes. Half the school lives at Madison. That's the trailer park. It's cool. Lots of new trailers this year. New people come here when times are tough. I don't know why. There's nothing here. We make our own fun. New kids can be a lot of fun."
Steve had stopped to listen on a trip up the bank to ask when I was coming back. I told him I'd be back the next day. He wasn't sure Bailey would be coming out this way tomorrow.
" Hey, Hermie, don't be telling tales out of school. Clay don't want to hear about our drunken parties, and you know Bailey says to keep to ourselves."
" Clay's cool. We'll invite him to one of Bailey's parties. Everyone else goes."
" Maybe," Steve said. "Don't be telling where all our bodies are buried. Clay looks like a nice boy."
I took that opportunity to say I had to go, knowing I'd been gone long enough. I didn't want to overdo it the first time we met.
I'd succeeded in finding boys my own age. What came next wasn't clear. It was their turf, and I'd tread lightly, not saying too much, while listening to them. I would return to the swing the next day. I wanted my face known, and when Ivan showed up, I wanted to be here to tell him we were going to be friends.
Steve waved as I reached my undercover bush and went out of sight. Hermie came up and stood beside him, waving too. The sound of the boys dropping into the river accompanied my departure. I could still hear them yelling and hitting the water a few hundred yards down river. Sound really carried there.
I felt relaxed with them after a few minutes. How cool was that?
Millie was waiting for me the next day. I put down the tube and went to say hello. She gazed up at me, staying in place as I slipped into the water next to her. She nuzzled up to me, blowing bubbles with her nose. She made me laugh. Millie needed a shave. She was big and gentle. We stayed there for a few minutes, letting the river wash over us.
Then it was time to go up river again. Steve and his friends wouldn't be there but I was curious to see who might be there today. By being seen and seeing local boys, I figured I would do better once I got to school. Millie swam behind the tube.
I was becoming more efficient with my paddling motion and picked up the pace. She was satisfied to stay behind me and then beside me. She took the lead once we were closing in on the swing. Once more she waited at the bend in the river. She has waited for me in the same spot as she did the first time. Did she remember me? Did she remember I stopped at the bend in the river to spy on the boys at the swing? She wasn't afraid of me. She wanted nothing to do with the boys dropping into her river. She's less agitated this time.
I listened as I paddled right around the bend to see who was there. There was no one to spy on this time. Millie stayed next to the tube, until I climbed the bank to get a closer look at the swing. She lingered near where the boys dropped into the water, examining the area.
The rope hung limp. Someone crawled out on the thick limb, wrapped the rope around it four or five times, before tying the tire to it. It was eight or ten feet out on the limb. How'd they bring the rope over to the riverbank to grab the tire?
I looked around the trunk of the tree and found a long thin branch with a smaller branch near the end of it. I took it to the swing side of the tree and extended it out and snagged the rope.
'How cool was that?'
It was all figured out ahead of time. I wondered who first went out on the limb to secure the rope. Did he tie a tire to it, or did the tire come later?
Once I considered the swing, I walked the path as it meandered around, up and down small hills, before I hear the cars on the highway. It was the only highway that ran north and south. It was the one we came in on the day we arrived at our house.
A bridge crossing the river was a hundred yards north. I didn't realize how far south I'd walked following the path. Who made paths to go all over God's little acre? Why not make a path that went straight to where you were going? I remembered how the roads bent and curved all over the place. If highway builders couldn't make a straight road, I guess path makers didn't need to.
If I walked south on the highway, I'd come to the drive that led to our driveway that led to the house.
I was sure I paddled at least a mile to get to the swing. I'd walked at least a mile from the swing to the highway. There were no houses and barely enough room on the shoulder to park a car or a van. No more cars came by as I stood thinking about the location.
Any idea people lived within walking distance of my house was forgotten. An empty swing was of no interest, and I floated back to the gulf.
Mama was always on the watch for signs of mischief, although I'd managed to maintain a reliable reputation in Tulsa. There wasn't any mischief to get into. At fourteen I was able to go out for three or four hours without raising a red flag. If Mama came home for lunch and stayed at the house, and I didn't come back for hours, she'd question me. I didn't want to have to explain what I was up to.
The less I mentioned the river, or water in general, the better off I was. I knew the routine and I knew how to keep out of hot water with Mama. I was the last boy she could mother. My freedom, my quest for friends, was a private affair. I didn't want Mama asking to meet my new friends.
I knew from conversations my parents had, they didn't think much of people in trailer parks. They were low class places where poor folks lived too close together and were too familiar. Steve and Hermie were nice to me. I didn't care how close they lived to each other or how familiar they got. They were friends.
Mama knew better than I did that I'd have to go a long way to find mischief. A boy whose best friend was a manatee wasn't at risk. Millie was a safe companion, unlikely to lead me astray.
It sounded like the girls who came to the swing could lead the boys anywhere they liked. I knew what Steve meant. It wasn't unlike what half the fourteen and fifteen year old boys I'd ever known said, mistaking illusion for reality.
Few girls were interested in scrawny teens who weren't that particular about who got them where they thought they wanted to go. Steve could be one of those boys who acted on such enticement. I sensed a certain amount of knowledge that went with his bravado.
Hermie was another story. Bailey was like a guy I knew in Tulsa. Bob was friendly too. Maybe twenty and too friendly with thirteen year old boys. I heard he had parties and beer. Russ told me he was cool. Hermie said that about Bailey. I never asked Russ how cool, but I didn't need to. I didn't ask Hermie how cool Bailey was, but I'd heard similar stories before.
I did know about the game I'd yet to join. This time I wasn't scared. It led to complications that took over your life. My brothers were perfect example of boys who got silly around girls. John-Henry was close to grown, but he hung onto his girlfriend so tightly, it was a wonder he got anything done.
I wasn't ready to be that close to anyone. I didn't know why I should. I knew the mechanics of sex without having any desire to get into the game. Like with so much of my life that summer, I didn't know what it meant.
I accepted my feelings about sex. What Steve, Hermie, or even Russ did, was none of my business. I didn't know that until the day I met Steve and Hermie.
My brothers went out in the eventing to explore their habitat. John-Henry drove the station wagon. I didn't go because they didn't ask me, but being in the house with my brothers was too confining for me. Being in the wagon with them assured we'd have a major disagreement by the time we returned to the house. My brothers treated me like a kid and I'd outgrown it. They were working men contributing to the upkeep of the house and due a certain amount of respect, but with their extended ability to roam, they'd get into trouble before long. They always did and that kept the heat off me.
I didn't take being excluded from their activities too hard. With the advantages came disadvantages and being too friendly with my brothers never turned out well for me. It was more fun for me to be set free on my beach.
In Tulsa we were under someone's gaze most of the time, especially around our neighborhood. It wasn't unusual for Mama to say, 'Mrs. Colebrook called me. What were you boys doing over at her house this afternoon?'
I knew this was her way of telling me we were being watched. Even at school or at some athletic event, Mama knew what I did and who I did it with. We knew our neighbors, and worse, they knew us. We had to get pretty far afoot to be in a place where no one knew us, but we had no urge to go there.
Now after dinner I could jump up and go out and not say where I was going. At best I could walk a mile or so down the beach, or I'd more likely end up at the river. I was fascinated by what took place there. It was made better by the symphony of night sounds with lightning bug accompaniment. I did my best thinking on my point next to the river. On clear nights I could reach the stars.
The house next to the river had a single light on inside the first week in July. I also went to the river to see if anyone was home. The light hadn't been on before and I was curious, but not curious enough to peek in the window. I feared looking in and finding someone looking out.
No one came out to tell me to get away from their river and off their beach.
Someone turned that light on. It was on the top floor and not bright enough to silhouette someone moving inside beyond the big deck in front of that room. Whoever lived there had a better view of the gulf than I had from my room.
I wondered if they were watching me watching their house?
I'd only been to the river twice at night before. I suppose lights could have been left on before. Because I didn't notice them didn't mean they weren't on. One thing for certain, that old deserted house wasn't deserted after all.
I examined it on my way back down the beach, hesitating to watch where the light was on, but I couldn't see anything.
Maybe they'd been on vacation and came home.
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