The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
I got lost looking into the gulf. It was mostly calm and beautiful. The waves were gentle swells, rising and falling in a rhythmic motion. They carried me and my imagination along. I knew Mexico was out there somewhere. I couldn't see it from where I sat.
I'd once read about pirates sailing the southern gulf waters. They terrorized shipping in the Caribbean. Ships laden with gold and jewels taken from the Indian people in the new world, sailed with their booty for the old world, where rich investors waited for the liberated goods.
The pirates waited too, intercepting what were obviously stolen goods. They took the ships and those responsible for the cargo. In another world the pirates could have been seen as the Caribbean coast guard, keeping stolen goods they recovered to pay expenses. It was search and seizures Middle Age style.
Didn't seem so bad to me. The Indians were out of luck but the real thieves didn't make a completely clean getaway on their 'Voyages of discovery.' It is how Indian property became pirate loot. While I saw these skirmishes as a round about justice of sorts.
The civilized folks didn't see it the way I did. They didn't like the idea of someone stealing their gold and jewels, and pirates were pursued. They sailed into the gulf, seeking safe haven, after raiding a ship or two.
Thievery was illegal when pirates did it.
I imagined the privateers sailing into the Gulf of Mexico, looking for a suitable place to hide their ill-gotten gold, until the heat was off. I pictured a pirate ship anchored near the logjam. A few men and the captain would row into the river. When they reached a spot they liked, one I might be able to find, they buried the treasure, returned to the ship, and sailed away.
Being caught with what was taken off Her Majesty's treasure ships got pirates hanged on the spot. If you buried the treasure, like I imagined my pirates doing, they took them back to the old world for trial, and then hanged them.
Why weren't the real thieves hanged? Laws confused me. If you're rich and you conspire to steal, it's business. If you're poor and steal, you're a pirate.
I wasn't accustomed to being by myself. It led to my mind taking trips I didn't plan. The water and the beach were rich with possibilities. Watching seabirds sail among the clouds made my imagination soar along with them.
No one at my house cared what I did once I was off babysitting duty. Mama checked to see if I might be getting too much sun, and released me to wander my beach. She knew I couldn't go far enough to get into trouble.
By the end of June I no longer turned pink or red. If I planned to be out in the afternoon sun for any length of time, I wore a tee-shirt and hat. Otherwise my skin was allowed to brown at its own pace.
I was off the river for a few days. Once Pop filled my tube with fresh air, I was ready to go again. I used the time to build up my courage. I got excited by the idea of meeting and keeping a friend. This was the day I'd do that.
While the beach was cool, up river was where the action was. Knowing that was a comfort of sorts. After three days off, I was ready to tackle the river again. The trip wore me out because of the increasing heat and humidity among the trees. It was time to make myself known to the boys at the swing.
Millie went halfway with me, once the after lunch journey began. As I rounded the bend, boys were dropping into the river two at a time. Laughing and splashing, they were having a lot of fun. I smiled and wanted to get up the riverbank and meet them. They looked bigger than the others.
These were older boys. Maybe the ones Steve was talking about when he was telling me about the girls. They were more wild than anyone else I'd seen at the swing. They swung in pairs. Naked bodies of all sizes forced together by the activity, and all the time laughter and a joy that went beyond the swing.
The next pair of boys hurried out on the tire, dropping on top of the first pair. This brought about yelling and screaming as they tried to drown each other. Where did fun end and stupidity start?
I had an uneasy feeling as I was already starting up the riverbank.
Boys cussed other boys by name and then two ore boys followed and the activity looked more competitive than need be. I counted seven as a bigger boy picked up a smaller boy from behind, holding the small boys back against his chest, holding him off the ground.
More laughing and cussing came, as the smaller boy's legs kicked the thin air. He was helpless. The lack of swim suits made this posture ill advised in my mind. I could see the hazard immediately.
The boy behind the smaller boy was particularly raunchy looking. He held tight, putting him down roughly. Then they swung together, trying to drown each other once they fell into the river. The smaller boy was evenly matched once they were in the water. The raunchy boy cussed and spit out the river he swallowed.
They both laughed about it in the end, coming up the riverbank next to me. More boys dropped into the river, as I looked for an escape route. These guys were too rough for my taste. Charging into their play pen was ill advised. I didn't recognize a single face.
I backed toward my tube, ready to let it carry me away from here, but one of them honed in on me before I could make my getaway.
" Who invited you to my party, shrimpo?" a boy climbing the bank next to me asked.
I sat down in my tube, ready to escape, but he got a hold of my arm and yanked me straight up to where he lurked over me. His skin was cool and wet against my warm dry skin. His grip on me was too tight.
He reached around me and had my tube in his other big claw.
" Who are you," he demanded, looking down at my face.
" Clay," I said, not sure this hadn't become enemy territory.
"Hey, Clay, can we use your tube? Hey, you want to jump through this kid's tube?" he yelled.
" Let the little boy go, Purdy. You don't want to break him," a loud booming voice advised.
" Or something," Purdy said, smiling at me. "Did you say we could? Use your tube?"
He squeezed my arm and held me so his face and green teeth were in my face, as this crude guy smiled, scaring the hell out of me.
" I said yes," I said, and he eased his grip to let my body move off his.
He was tall, skinny, half hairy, and half bald, all at the same time.
Holding up the tube for all to see got a cheer out of what was now eight boys and my capture.
" We'll jump through the tube," Purdy said.
" Dude, we can't fit two at a time through that little hole," a bewildered boy said.
" It's the tight little holes that make for more fun," Purdy said, using my arm to pull me against him again.
No one needed to draw me a picture. His evil grin explained it.
There was louder laughter than the idea deserved, but I was probably prejudiced against his idea, and I began to squirm.
" Why not leave him alone and bring the tube over here so we can use it?"
" Harvey, you'll get a turn. You taking up for your boyfriend here?" Purdy asked. "There's someone you haven't been with?"
" Just thought we were going to swing."
" You thought too much, Harvey. Shut your trap. I'll rattle your cage when I need you."
Harvey was the smaller guy that had been horsing around while in line for the swing. He looked nicer, cleaner, than the rest of them, but younger. He was the brunt of the jokes as far as I could tell.
They hadn't started in on me yet. Purdy's tone had me looking for an escape route. I'd lost control of the tube. It was the only way I could get home. The swing had become ugly and I wouldn't be anxious to come back. Whatever it was that drew me here was ruined now.
Their idea proved to be easier said than done. As a boy was ready to swing, the boys in line gave him instructions on how to drop through the center of the tube. The boys aiming for the center hit all around the outer edge, bouncing skyward before hitting the water. The laughter over the failures was loud and unending. These bozos couldn't hit the broadside of a barn.
" Where'd you get that tube?" Purdy asked. after missing the center of the tube for the third time. "We're going to need it so we can practice. You don't mind do you, shrimpo? We could arm wrestle for it or bend you over a log to see what
you're hiding in them britches."
His voice was harsh and threatening. Other boys stopped to listen and watch me. Harvey stood off a few feet looking worried.
" It's how I get home," I said.
" It's not that far. You can swim for it. We need the tube," he said. "It was nice of you to bring it to us. Swim for it and you can keep those britches."
" I need the tube," I said firmly. "I can't swim."
The laughter echoed through the trees.
These boys weren't nice. They talked and acted mean. They'd honed in on me and I wasn't sure what to do. They were looking to have fun and fun to them was picking on me. If they didn't know I was scared, they were blind. My knees were shaking as Purdy pressed his flesh against mine.
"When I get mad, I get horny, and any little boy'll do," Purdy said. "You sure we can't keep the tube? Remember what happens when I get mad?
"Purdy, he's a kid," Harvey tried again. "You don't need to mess with him."
"Want to show him how to do it, Harvey. Don't worry, we'll still love you."
There was nervous laughter. Harvey turned red all over.
"Shut up, Purdy," Harvey said.
"Let him go," another boy interrupted.
"I want my tube. I want to go home," I said as boldly as I dared.
Purdy held me close and stared into my face like he was working on a mathematical equation. It was the moment of truth and if he tried anything, he'd have sore balls. It's the only thing I could think of to do to derail the line of thought he was considering.
" Let him alone, Purdy. You're always acting like a shithead."
" You got a big mouth, Ivan. One of these days," Purdy said, losing his grip on me and I squirmed free.
" One of these days. Purdy? I'm standing right here. You taking the day off. You were just shooting your mouth off. Picking on someone smaller again."
"It's none of your business, " Purdy said, less certain.
"Wrong again. I just made it my business. I don't like you. I don't like you picking on my friend. Now either step up or back off. Leave the kid alone," Ivan said in a low determined voice.
Ivan was as tall as Purdy but there wasn't as much of him. There was a two or three year age difference at least. Ivan stood a foot away from him and spoke directly into his face. He stood tall, his shoulders squared. Purdy was slumping with poor posture and he couldn't keep his eyes in Ivan's.
" I didn't know you two were going steady," Purdy said, and we were in the center of the older boys.
I felt exposed as Ivan stood right next to me, eyeballing Purdy, our shoulders touching, and the older boys waited, for what, I didn't know.
" Go put your tube under the swing," Ivan told me. "You hold it steady and I'm going to dive through the center. That is what the tube's for, right?"
" You're crazy. You think you can dive through that thing?" Purdy said. "I'll kiss your ass if you can dive through that thing."
" Will you use tongue?" Ivan asked in a low sexy voice. "I'd like that, Purdy."
Everyone cracked up but Purdy and me. I was still scared shitless. Ass jokes weren't all that funny to me at the moment.
" Ivan's going to dive. He's going to dive through the tube," Harvey shouted in case one of the squirrels downstream hadn't heard.
I went down the bank with the tube and swam to where the boys dropped into the river. I remembered how Ivan swung higher and farther, and so I moved farther out.
As the boys watched Ivan, I thought I could just float away, but Ivan asked me to do something, and since he'd saved my ass for the time being, I'd do what he asked, and with Purdy in mind, I'd make sure he didn't miss.
The boys watched as Ivan held the tire back away from the tree, taking three quick steps, he launched himself into space. As the tire swung up, Ivan let go, flipping over in mid-air. When he came down, he passed right through the
center of the tube.
It amazed me. I saw it up close. It was magnificent and so was he.
When he surfaced next to me, he said softly, as he spit tiny bits of water from his mouth, "Go back home," he said, taking a breathe. "You don't want to fuck with these guys." Breathe. "Take your tube and float home, Clay. I'll keep them busy."
" Sure," I said, feeling the current pulling me toward the gulf as soon as he swam to the riverbank.
Ivan scampered up the bank. The older boys were patting his back and telling him what a great dive he'd made. Except for Purdy, who wanted my tube. His eyes were on me as I began floating more swiftly toward the bend in the river. He was looking right at me and it never occurred to him I was getting away, until I was almost to where the river bent.
" Hey, where you going? Don't let him get away with that tube," Purdy yelled, starting for the riverbank, he ran right into Ivan, who sidestepped in front of him.
"He needs to see a man about a dog," Ivan said. "Besides, Purdy, y ou've have a date with my ass."
" Don't push me Ivan," Purdy said, his voice carrying down river.
" Don't worry, Purdy. I wouldn't touch you on a bet," Ivan said.
There was laughter that faded behind me as the river carried me along. I wondered if they'd fight. My bet was on Ivan. He looked tougher than Purdy, but Ivan didn't scare me.
Ivan and Purdy were standing face to face with the other boys standing around the last time I saw them. I felt bad leaving Ivan there. I did what he told me to do. It didn't feel like they were going to do anything but insult each other, but I'd have tried to help if Ivan needed me.
Why wasn't Ivan scared of the older boys. I was. Purdy was scary. There was something about the way the other boys treated him. He was well liked.
I was satisfied with my afternoon. I came face to face with meaner boys and survived. I came face to face with Ivan and once again I had nothing to show for it. He took up for me. I wasn't sure that was how to make a friend. Did he see me as a weakling, unable to take care of myself?
I'd never roamed alone before. I'd never run into a gang of older boys before.
Ivan did do the dive I wanted to learn. Doing it one better this time. I made certain he couldn't miss, moving the tube just enough to be sure Ivan passed through the center. We made a cool team. We could take his dive on the road.
I'd never known another boy like him.
I was happy as a lark floating back to the gulf. I was lucky not to get my ass kicked, or worse. Like the first time, there was more than I could process and little I understood. It was difficult to remember the details of what happened.
I'd been around the local boys. It was something I needed to do for better or for worse. It would be easier now, but meeting Ivan face to face was super cool. If I knew how to thank him, I'd bring up the idea of being his friend. I'm certain he couldn't wait to be friends with the Winnie he saved from getting his butt worn out by those creeps.
I was tired when I got to the gulf. Each time, at the swing, I was excited and didn't notice much else. Fatigue set in on my way back. The heat became more apparent as breathing was made difficult. I didn't need the paddle coming home. The river did the work.
I could have lost the tube, but I didn't, and I hung it on a branch of a tree just inside the forest. No one was ever around and it would be safe for my next trip. I had no urge to return to the swing.
While thoughts of Ivan were fresh, the tough boys created a risk I didn't need. I had to go there to see Ivan, and I wanted to know Steve and Hermie better. Maybe once I started school, things would fall into place. Contact was made with local boys. I wouldn't be a stranger when I started school.
In Tulsa my friends and I avoided older boys. At times our brothers headed off the trouble older boys were bent on causing us. Older brothers did come in handy at times, but we knew better than to get into the business of older boys. That was never made more clear to me than the day Ivan rescued me from them.
As troublesome as the older Tulsa boys could be, the naked Florida version were more tasteless in the danger they intended to deliver to younger boys.
The daydream of being caught alone at the swing by them gave me chills. Purdy wasn't nice and he had bad breathe.
The next few days I busied myself filtering my fingers through the sand in the mouth of the river to collect the most beautiful tiny shells. I placed them in my bedroom window, arranging the larger shells on the ends and smaller shells in the middle. The afternoon sun made the brilliant colors glitter like gold.
I hadn't seriously considered going on the river again. Leaving well enough alone for the time being, was a good idea. I enjoyed the beach, and the point that looked out on the logjam. I was most content there, when it wasn't too hot.
Before heading home, I thought to check on the tube. When I looked, it wasn't hanging on the branch where I hung it. It hung on the branch of the next tree and on the opposite side from where I left it.
I knew this because the paddle was where I left it under the tree where I hung the tube. It had been moved. What sense did that make? I looked around to see if anything else had changed, but I couldn't tell.
Babysitting the next morning got me to the river after lunch. The afternoons brought about the likely possibility of thunderstorms drifting in off the gulf. The thunderheads boiled up, darkening the sky, and before the lightning began, I was running for home. I knew from Tulsa, lightning was serious business.
These were things I adapted to by July. As quick as Mama came home at lunch, I was on my way to the river in the hopes of finding something new and exciting.
That day I thought about Ivan being at the swing that day. I had no idea how far he had to go to get there, but I figured he'd be there. I wouldn't. It wasn't worth it to me any more. As much as I wanted to meet Ivan, and talk to him, it wasn't worth the risk of running into trouble. I wasn't going to ask for it.
While sitting in the shadows under the palms, taking a break from the sun, I leaned back to check the inner tube. It was back on the original branch where I originally put it. I jumped up to identify it as my tube, but I didn't need to look.
Once again mystified, I looked at the river, than I turned to look at the faded gray house looming beside me. What was going on?
Someone was visiting my beach and he'd left his calling card. Once again I saw nothing to indicate who the culprit might be. I was made uneasy by the discovery. I went back to where I'd fashioned my spot in the shade, alternately dozing and watching the logjam for new birds, while I cooled off.
When I closed my eyes, it was easy to become lost in my imagination about what or who had been to that river in years past. I got lost in my daydreams, but then I couldn't certain if I was daydreaming or not. Being alone ignited my imagination to create wild daydreams, not to mention my nightmares.
When I was becoming aware of my surroundings, or maybe daydreaming, I saw a naked boy standing next to the river on my point.
How did he get there?
I couldn't be sure he was there. I wasn't sure I was there. Blinking, or maybe not, depending on if I was awake or not, I tried to focus, or maybe not. I was daydreaming, wasn't I? Was I? He looked real to me.
He wasn't there a second before, and yet, here he was. He must have arrived while I was dozing. Did everyone go naked in Florida?
As I sorted through the possibilities of what I was seeing. I knew all the time who the naked boy was. I daydreamed him up often. The body was unmistakably Ivan's. It had to be a dream. I'd been dreaming about Ivan since I first saw him. I had no desire to wake up. I liked to daydreams about him.
He was going to be my friend. I'd made up my mind.
I didn't have to see his face to know him. I couldn't be sure where he came from, but there he was, filling my fanciful mind. I shouldn't do anything to disturb this apparition, just in case it was all in my head.
He knelt to wash something in the water. He stood and held whatever it was up to take a better look. He looked tall and he had perfect posture. Ivan's nudity gave him a certain dignity none of the boys at the swing could muster.
Most of the boys at the swing looked awkwardly naked, proud, yet ill at ease because of it. I related to the clumsiness of their nudity. I'd feel rather overexposed standing naked in front of a group of boys. It was a challenge they took, wanting to appear bold, while looking uneasy by showing it off.
While Ivan was all straight up and down, I was more rounded. I wasn't fat. I had no shape I could identify. Any muscle was well disguised. Ivan's muscles were obvious. He wasn't big but he looked tightly put together. His long arms and legs were perfectly formed, like he was a sculpture come to life. His was graceful. When he knelt, bent, held up the shell, his motions had purpose.
His body was golden brown. It was the perfect tan. I was getting tan, but it was uneven, depending on where it was. My legs were still fairly white. Compared with Ivan, I was white as the sand.
As my mind wandered around the vague morality surrounding nakedness, I failed to see Ivan standing in the shade with me. He'd given up his activities next to the river and now he stood in front of me. How'd he get there?
" Clay!" he said impatiently. "You forget your name?"
Do daydreams talk? I couldn't remember.
" Come on. You want to get in out of the sun, don't you? I have soda if you're thirsty. No one's home but me. You're safe," he said. "Are you thirsty?"
" Sure," I said, jumping up to follow the apparition come to life.
He started toward the house a hundred feet or so from where I was camped in the shade. The ground went uphill as we walked. I walked faster to keep up. His long legs made for long easy strides. He had no hair on the back of his legs. I couldn't see the back of mine.
His pubic hair was no more than mine. This made me think we were the same age. I couldn't see my butt but I had a perfect view of Ivan's, as I followed him to the house. I hoped mine looked that good, unless Purdy was looking at it.
I still wasn't sure this wasn't a daydream. By applying what I'd seen of Ivan to enhancements I imagined, I could dream this, and he was doing exactly what I'd imagine him doing.
We walked toward the faded gray house. We were always going up hill. The ground the house was on had been elevated above the beach by a considerable amount. I couldn't see the extent of the rise until we reached the house.
We went up three steps to go into the house by way of the kitchen door. The first step was two cinder blocks set side by side. The next two steps were wooden. They creaked under our weight. The fourth step put us in the kitchen.
The kitchen was large and the floor was tile. There was a table and wooden chairs that matched. They looked handmade and expertly designed. Everything but the table and chairs sat on platforms, making the sink, fridge, stove, and even the closet look like a giant lived there. While Ivan was tall, he wasn't that tall, but he could reach everything without standing on a chair. I wasn't sure I could.
" You live here?" I asked.
" No, I broke in to steal their sodas. Orange, Pepsi, or root beer?" he asked. "I'm fond of root beer. I get tired of it now and then. I switch between orange and Pepsi, unless I have Pop get something different when he comes in. He's a
fisherman. He's out in the gulf on his boat."
" Pepsi. You're Ivan," I said, still trying to determine if it was a dream or not.
" You're Clay," he said. "But shouldn't we do it the other way? I'm Ivan."
" I know who you are. You saved my butt and my tube. Did you move my tube?" I asked, sounding like Mr. District Attorney on television.
" I didn't like where you hung it. Then I decided it looked okay where it was, so I put it back. I'm fussy about where people hang their stuff."
" You're playing with my head," I said, putting pieces together.
" And you don't even look excited," he said. "I'm heartbroken."
" Now you sound more like Purdy," I said a bit put off. "Why did you do it?"
" Purdy doesn't have a heart. You were safe with him. He couldn't get excited on a bet."
" I've seen you at the swing twice. Everyone knows you," I said, thinking a change of topics was in order.
" No, there are two people in Tampa who don't know me yet. Give me time."
" You're funny," I said, smiling at his sarcasm.
Ivan raised his arms to looked at each hairless armpit.
" I am. I don't feel funny. I'll try anything once."
" Yes, you are," I said, laughing at his antics.
He smiled as if he was pleased with himself. It made me feel good, when I stopped taking him seriously.
Ivan put ice in two glasses, opening the closet beside the fridge. Piled inside were cases and cases of soft drinks and as many cases of beer beside the soda. He reached over his head and grabbed a Pepsi and he knew where to get a root beer, using a church key on a string nailed to the doorjamb to open them. He turned his back to pour each glass full.
" So, how's it hanging, Clay?" Ivan asked.
" What?" I asked, still unclear on the level of the conversation.
" It. Life. Are the times a changin' for you?"
" I moved from Tulsa to here. That's a change. Seeing people walk around naked is a pretty big change. Don't you think you're upsetting people? I mean don't people object to seeing your tally-whacker on full display?"
Ivan took a long drink of root beer. I thought of the cases of beer in the closet and wondered why he hadn't offered me one. They were obviously there for the taking. I would have said no but we were fourteen and access to alcohol was something to which we were all supposed to aspire.
" What music do you listen to?" he asked.
" Music? Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff, Johnny Horton," I said. "Western music."
"N o Dylan in Tulsa?"
" Dylan who?"
" Actually Robert Zimmerman, but he calls himself Bob Dylan. We call him Dylan, the people who groove to his sound," Ivan said.
" Grove?" I asked, wanting to understand. "Why does everything you say sound sexual."
"Because that's what's on your mind? Grove as in g et his music. 'Times They Are A Changin', that's Dylan. It's not so much music as it is prophecy? His lyrics."
" They are?...It is? I get lost easy. It's religious music? God and I aren't speaking at the moment."
" My mother got my brother Boris into clothes a couple of years ago. Before that we both swam el natural and once my mother left us and moved to Tampa, we just had no reason to put on our clothes. Then we outgrew them.
" It's not like the water isn't just out our backdoor. I was eight and my brother was ten, almost eleven, when we moved here. We never had bathing suits. Before we moved here, in the summers we stayed here with my grandfather. It's his house. He swam naked and we did to. No one cared, especially not Boris or me."
" Your grandfather swam naked?" I asked, still worried by the concept.
I'd seen everyone in my family naked at one time or another, but it wasn't something that happened often. My brothers were most likely to roam around
after a bath before getting clothes on. It was no big deal.
Naked people worried me. Ivan sensed my discomfort, but he didn't put on pants. There were naked boys at the swing, but I wasn't from here, and guys like Purdy being naked made me nervous. I wasn't wearing enough to feel safe.
" We didn't always live here. My grandfather built this place in the 30s. He died when I was eight. My grandfather was a fisherman and he wanted to build a house on the Gulf of Mexico, where he could stay when he wasn't fishing. This is that house. He built it his way. It will withstand any storm."
"Storm?" I asked. "Like thunderstorms?"
" Come on upstairs. I'll show you his room. It's my room now. The view is awesome, dude," he said, opening a door next to the closet.
There was a staircase behind the door. It skipped the second floor and went directly to the third floor and the master bedroom that filled the top of the house. In the middle of the bedroom was a huge bed and just beyond the bed were two sliding glass doors opened to the outdoor deck I'd looked at from the beach.
" Come on," he said, passing through white linen drapes.
It didn't quite take my breathe away, but Ivan's view was spectacular. I woke up to the gulf outside my double doors each morning, but the porch, and the screen were in front of it. It was like looking at a picture in a frame.
The unobstructed view, the color, the contrast between sky and sea was as beautiful as anything I'd ever seen, and from that height, I got a new perspective, with the horizon looking lower than the deck.
" Clay, meet my gulf. Gulf, Clay," Ivan said, leaning his forearms on the gray railing that surrounded the gray deck that was connected to the faded gray house. "I believe you're acquainted with my beach."
Was I ever.
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