The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
As we stood on the deck outside of Ivan's third floor bedroom, nothing needed to be said. Ivan looked enraptured by his view. I certainly was. The gulls dove on the logjam, big white clouds drifted high above us, and the green water stretched as far as we could see.
This would be where Ivan and I spent time when we were in the house. Being there made the world seem peaceful, not to mention more beautiful than any Hollywood set. I forgot all my cares and woes while I was there with Ivan. We always had something to talk about or something to do.
Tulsa began fading in my mind the day Ivan took me into his house, along with Cal, Russ, and Bart. Lonely days were gone and I was finally at home. I didn't know Ivan. He didn't know me, but I'd never been more comfortable with anyone.
"I've been keeping an eye on you guys for the last week. I was at my mother's in Tampa since school let out. If I don't do what she wants, she won't leave me alone all summer.
"My brother Boris is there with her. That makes it better. He lived here with me until last summer. She finally talked him into moving in with her. Bribed him to move in with her. I do what I want mostly, when I'm not out with my dad."
"Where's your dad?" I asked, knowing but not remembering.
"Pop took over my Grand Pop's fishing boat. He's gone fishing."
"You told me that. Sorry."
"Grand Pop fished until the day before he died. He went home not feeling well. He died in his sleep. He was a tough old man. Worked every day of his life since he was fourteen. Built this house mostly by himself. Some of the lines aren't perfectly straight, but he told me this house is built to withstand any storm.
"In hurricanes, I can lie here listening to the wind howling. This place creaks and moves with the wind, but it doesn't move much. I hear the wind but barely feel it inside.
"He was Lithuanian. All he wanted to do was fish. The Bolsheviks wanted to screw with him. So he came to America to fish."
"The Soviet Union is run by those guys."
"Your grandfather escaped from behind the Iron Curtain?"
"No, that came after World War II. He left before the war."
"Oh," I said, remembering hearing something about a war. "He died in his sleep. That's the way to go."
"That's what I was told. When he died, Dad moved us here. He was having a tough time of it, until he took over the fishing boat. He was a fisherman's son, but he couldn't be on the same boat with his father. They didn't see eye to eye.
"My mother hates the water, the sand, the silence. She was never happy in this house. Wouldn't come in this bedroom, because it was my grandfathers. I think she hated walking up the two flights of stairs. I think the water scared her.
"As quick as Boris and I decided to go swimming the first day, we left our clothes on the kitchen floor and ran to the gulf. My mother did like that either. It's the way we'd always done it. I was eight and Boris was ten, almost eleven.
"I don't remember my mother ever being on the beach. Before the end of the year we moved here, she drove off day and didn't come back. She moved to Tampa. That's two hours up the road, maybe two and a half.
"Boris and I were alone during the day and Dad began to come home at night. He'd be here from late at night to before daylight, when he'd go back out to fish. We slept in this bedroom and didn't know when Dad came in. We could have lived alone, except there was always food for us.
"While my mother was here, he'd go for two days and nights and come in for a night. He didn't have refrigeration at first. Had to come in after forty-eight hours. That's how long it took the ice to melt.
"We had school during the day, but we'd been staying here in the summer since I was too young to remember when. I hated when they came to get us. I loved being here with Grand Pop. He was one cool dude.
"You get the idea. Since I was eight, this is my home, except for when school lets out and my mother comes for me."
"That's pretty neat. I mean how you live here by yourself. I love it here too."
"I didn't say I lived by myself. Dad is home when he comes in. We go shopping, go for pizza, do father son things. It works for me."
"I bet it does," I said with envy.
"I miss Boris. He was my best friend all my life. He wanted me to go to Tampa too. I wasn't leaving Dad. My mother left us, and besides a big city didn't interest me. I thought Boris would come back after a few weeks. He never did.
"My mother fixed him up with the daughter of a woman she worked with. Boris found what he was looking for. Once he got a gander of the Tampa girls, he became a Tampa boy. Girls are fine, I guess. I like a lot of girls. I've never just liked one. Anyway, my mother moved and there was no one to tell me to put on my bathing suit. Not that I put it on while she told me to. Saves a lot of time dressing and undressing, you know."
"Mama cuts the legs out of my jeans once they got holes," I said.
"Yes, it is one way to do it," Ivan said, looking me over, as he put his forearms on the railing that wrapped around the porch.
He kept looking at me like he thought I might confess to some secret or at least give him the lowdown on who I was. I didn't have much to tell him. I lived in Tulsa and just moved to Florida. Not much happened in between.
"It's beautiful up here," I said. "It's peaceful. I have the same view. There's a porch and screen in the way of the gulf. I've got to go outside to really see it."
"I was out here the night you passed to go to the river. I figured it was time we met. You do live on my beach. I'm the only one your age for miles. I watched you hang the tube on the tree when you came back from the swing. I decided to have some fun with you. I was sure you'd put it back when you discovered it had been moved, but you didn't. So I moved it back to where I first found it."
"The swing?" I asked.
"You shouldn't go up there alone, Clay," Ivan warned.
"You go alone."
"It's my swing. Most of them are okay. Guys like Purdy are sadists. They'd watch you drown and bet on how many times you'd surface before you went down the last time."
"Sadist?" I asked.
"He thrives on causing pain to others," Ivan explained.
"Why aren't you afraid of him?" I asked. "You stood up to him. He's bigger than you, Ivan. He's a scary dude."
"The guys with Purdy went to school with Boris, until a year ago. Boris boxes. He learned to box in a gymnasium near my mothers apartment, when he stayed with her, after she moved there. He takes me there when I'm in Tampa. Those guys know better than to mess with Boris, and they know if they cause me grief, Boris will want to talk to them."
"You were right in his face, Ivan. You showed no fear," I said.
"I can take care of myself. Purdy is mean, but he's also scared of his own shadow. You know he's scared when he keeps making a lot of noise."
"What's that mean?" I asked.
"Purdy and my brother tangled. Purdy gave him some lip and Boris decked him. He's got a temper and a mean punch. That was a year ago. He did it in front of Purdy's best buds."
"What did Purdy do?" I asked.
"D idn't want to fight Boris. He's not as stupid as he looks. Just mean."
"That's funny. Boris is a tough guy?" I asked.
"He can take care of himself. He doesn't usually need to fight. People like him. He's got good friends," Ivan said.
"He's l ike you?" I asked.
"No, not like me. I'm alone because I don't like anyone. I'm a kid. Boris is a man. We resemble each other but he got the looks. I hold my own, but he was my best friend. The kids at school are lame. They're silly. I prefer more than silly."
"Why boxing? Isn't he afraid of getting his face beat up?"
"He was mesmerized by Cassius Clay in Rome in the 60 Olympics. Clay has a long reach and he glides around the ring like a dancer. Boris watched him whenever he was on television. The cameras loved him/ Boris copied his style."
"Clay beat Liston. He's the champion of the world," I said.
"He beat Liston in Miami. My mother took Boris to the fight."
"You're kidding me? He saw it?"
"No. It's what Boris and I talked about while I was in Tampa. It was only four months ago. The gymnasium was filled this time. Brashous Casius beat the 'Ugly bear' and became Mohammad Ali. He get your attention yet?"
"He's a good looking man," I said, picturing the 'Louisville Lip,' as Howard Cosell called him.
"I'm no match for Boris. He's bigger and stronger, probably faster. He's a boxer and I box. He hits me while I'm being dazzled by his moves."
I laughed at Ivan admiring his brother. I'd never been friends with mine.
"By this time next year you'll belong to the beach, like I belong to it. I see how you love being here already. It's why I let you in. You're different, Clay."
"I hope I'm here next year," I said. "I hope I'm here next week."
"Why wouldn't you be? Last man who took the conservancy job kept it for fifteen years. You'll see. Your father will like the pace of life on the beach. You'll finish growing up on my beach, Clay. Trust me. We might even finish together."
"I'd like that," I said. "I lived in Tulsa all my life."
"Is it as pretty in Tulsa as it is here, Clay?"
I laughed at the idea.
"You kidding me? There's nothing in Tulsa. It's where I was raised. There's no color. Nothing to get excited about. No mysteries."
"If this place doesn't excite you, you're probably not alive," Ivan lament.
"Why'd you take up for me, Ivan?" I asked, getting to what I wanted to ask.
"You were in over your head. I don't like seeing people picked on. I don't like Purdy. You were scared. You were at my swing. I felt responsible for you."
"Would he have hurt me, Ivan?"
"Yeah, he likes hurting weaker boys. Stay away from there. Boys I don't know go down there. Boris made the mistake of taking his friends there. I pick up beer cans all the time. I'm careful when I walk over there. Guys I know don't scare me, but I have no idea what guys I don't know might do."
"I was lonely. I wanted a friend. There is no place else."
"You come up on the wrong guys and Purdy'll seem like a choir boy."
I had to think about that.
"Thanks. I forgot to thank you when you told me to get out of there."
"Your welcome. Don't go back."
I knew all I needed to know about Ivan. If I liked him before, I really liked him now. I'd never liked a boy I didn't know before, but I liked him the first time I saw him.
"I don't know anyone here."
"You know me. You aren't alone any more. No one comes into my house I don't like. You're different, Clay. I knew that the first time I saw you. I figured we'd be friends, unless you know a reason why not. You do live on my beach."
Without help from me, my eyes went right to where his shorts would have been, if he was wearing shorts. His eyes followed mine to where his black pubic hair shinned, what there was of it. It was all the hair there was except on his head. I'd never hung out with a naked guy before?
I was embarrassed that he caught my eyes in a place where I shouldn't have looked, but did.
"No. No reason," I said, pulling my eyes back where they belonged.
"I had to go to my mothers. There was no point in introducing myself and say, 'I'll see you in a few weeks.' How lame can you get? Hi, bye. It's not me."
"Yeah," I said. "You're here now. I didn't mind waiting."
I had to talk about Ivan at dinner. I was delighted to know him. Everyone else had things to say at dinner. I'd been relatively quiet, since we'd come to Florida. I talked about Ivan's grandfather building the house next to the river and about his father being a fisherman. I bragged about his dive. I'd ask him to teach me once we became more familiar.
"Don't drown yourself, squirt," John-Henry said, trying to be helpful.
"You be careful, Clay. Don't do anything foolish showing off," Pop said, as he reached for the fried green tomatoes. "Where did you get the idea for these, Mother? Quite a taste treat."
"I picked up an issue of Southern Living at the market. I wondered who bought the green tomatoes in the bins, and there was the recipe. I'm working on cheese grits for tomorrow. I'm afraid I burnt tonight's version. I'll melt the cheese before adding it to the grits next time."
"You'll get the hang of it, Mother. Don't rush. I have a feeling we'll be here for a while."
"Ivan said you would," I said, wanting to get that out there to fish for a response that told me to begin getting comfortable here.
"What does Mr. Ivan know about my job?" Pop asked suspiciously.
"He said the last fellow that lived here and did your job was here for fifteen years. They treated him super. He left the conservancy to become the superintendent of maintenance for Hillsborough County schools. That's where Tampa is. Ivan said you'll like the pace of life on the beach."
"I'm impressed. Your friend sounds like a fine fellow. Mother, we'll need to invite Clay's friend to dinner. I'd like to get a look at Mr. Ivan."
"Me too," John-Henry said. "Sounds like a regular Einstein."
"How long have we been here? Clay finally made a friend? He's not imaginary is he, like those little creeps in Tulsa?" Brian shared.
"Clay's friends were perfect gentleman, Brian Norman Olson. Unlike you," Mama said.
"Mama!" Brian complained.
"Serves you right. You might try to be as pleasant to be around as Clay," Pop said.
"Don't worry, little brother, as soon as you get your foot out of your mouth, I've got a rawhide toy you can chew on," John-Henry said.
"Mama!" Brian complained.
"Would you like to have Ivan to dinner, Clay?" Mama asked.
"You kidding? He'll love your cooking. His mom and pop don't live together. She lives in Tampa with his brother," I said, coming short of blurting he lived mostly alone.
My Tulsa friends were always at my house, frequently eating with us. Thinking about them made me homesick. The beach was full of adventure and opportunities for fun. My friends would love it. We could have a ball together.
Mama came home early from work the following day and I was on my way out of the door and on the way to Ivan's.
Ivan was leaning on the railing, looking at the gulf, when I came into sight. He smiled right off and waved, which made me feel good. He acted glad to see me. I was glad to see him.
"Come on up. You know the way. Doors open," he said.
"You go swimming?" I asked, as I stepped onto the deck beside him.
"Yeah, when I get up," he said. "Gets the blood flowing."
"What time was that?" I asked, wondering how late I was.
"I don't know. I don't have a clock," Ivan said. "I swim at first light."
"How do you know what time it is?" I asked, not wanting him to be late.
"Clay, look around you? Do you think about what you say?"
"Why are you asking me that?" I asked confused.
"I don't need a clock. I eat when I'm hungry. I sleep when I'm tired. I swim when I wake up, and I do whatever suits me regardless of what time it is, if I'm not working with my father."
"Mama wants you to come to dinner," I explained.
"I don't know Mama. I hardly know you. Do you know what time it is?"
"Shouldn't you go home and check?"
"No!" I said, thinking he was trying to get rid of me.
"Do you know where I live?"
"I'm here aren't I?" I said, having no idea where we were going.
"When and if, and that's a big if, I decide to take your mother up on her offer of a free meal, you come and get me when it's time to eat. Okay?"
"I can do that," I said.
"Good. I won't have to buy a clock now."
"So you'll come to dinner?"
"Want to check me for tattoos, smell of booze, that vacant stare, or to see if I'm a bumpkin?"
"My friends in Tulsa ate at my house a lot. I think its like that. I don't make friends with bumpkins," I said, hoping I wasn't one.
He turned his head like he had a habit of doing, looking at me like he didn't know me. Then he smiled a pleasant smile. His eyes twinkled.
"No, I don't think you do," he said, still smiling.
"Mama is the best cook ever, dude. You won't be sorry. I bet it beats Swanson's frozen chicken dinners."
"Morton's," he said. "I'll get to meet John-Henry, Brian, and Coleen, and your parents. Makes me feel guilty for not having a houseful of people to introduce you to."
"How do you know their names? You missed Lucy and Teddy by the way."
"My God, it's worse than I thought. You think all I have time to do is stand outside your house checking to see if I have all the names?"
"You knew who I was. You knew my name, come to think of it. How did you know my name?"
"That's been five, six days ago. You just getting around to me knowing your name, Clay?"
"You know my brothers' and sisters' names."
"You know my brother's name. Seems fair," Ivan explained.
"You told me your brothers' name. I never mentioned mine."
"No, I don't recall you did. Pretty smart of me huh?"
"How did you know my name? How do you know so much about us?"
"You knew me," he said smugly. "I saw the light of recognition in your eyes. You knew who I was, Clay. That horse rides in both directions, cowboy."
"I saw you do that dive one time before Purdy was there," I said.
"I'm pretty observant. I was at the swing a week or so before Purdy. Mother dropped me here while she visited a girlfriend. You weren't there. I knew everyone at the swing that day. They were all from school."
"Shows what you know. I was in a bush fifty feet from the swing," I said.
"A bush? You're pulling my leg?" he said, giving me a long careful look.
"I didn't know anyone. I heard the commotion. There was a bush on the riverbank. I peeked to see what was going on, and I saw this guy do the most incredible dive," I said excitedly. "I almost let go of my bush in fact."
"Me," he said, still staring at me with the most beautiful smile.
"You saw him too?" I asked, sounding serious. "I wanted to be that guy's friend the first time I saw him."
"You are my friend. You're a hoot, you know, cowboy?"
"I told you mine. Now you get to explain yourself. Fess up, Ivan. You been spying on us?"
"Want a soda?" Ivan asked. "I'm thirsty."
"Sure," I said.
We left the deck, bringing the drinks back up.
"Anyway, John-Henry and Brian stand out there bullshitting after dinner. You know John-Henry smokes out there?"
"He doesn't. Mama would skin him if she saw him with a cigarette."
"Yeah, well, you tell John-Henry that he needs to pick up the butts he isn't smoking. He needs to make sure they're completely cold. If he doesn't, he'll burn this beach down as dry as it is this time of year."
"You spy on us?" I asked, not liking the sounds of it.
"I walk in my woods and I can't help if I hear stuff. I hadn't left for my mother's when you guys came. I wanted to see my new neighbors."
"Neighbors! It's a mile from your house to my house, remember? You walk down there naked? To my house? Where my mother and sisters live?"
"Cool your tool, Amos. They're safe. They can't see me. The path doesn't go all the way to the house. It just goes to within a few feet of coming out. I can pretty much hear everything if I don't breathe too loud.
"You guys moved onto my beach. You think I'm not going to check and see if you're Communist agents up to no good? You can't be too careful these days."
"Your name is Ivan and your brother is Boris, and you're worried about the Olsons being Commies?"
"Not worried. It's something to do, Amos." Ivan said. "Like walking to the swing to take a couple of dives and see who's hanging out."
"You walk through that jungle naked?"
"What jungle? There's a path at the front corner of my house. It goes right to the swing. Grand Pop put the swing up. I walk over a couple of times a week. It's a five minute walk on the path."
"It's well worn after years of use. What took you so long, Amos?"
"So long?" I asked without understand the question.
"If you're a Sooner, seems like you didn't get here 'til later."
"Very funny, Roscoe," I said, impressed that he knew Sooners were from Oklahoma. "Everyone likes you, Ivan."
"I'm a likable guy. I don't like many people my age. Boris is the only friend I had growing up. I got used to being around someone older and smarter than me. When I saw you at the swing, you had that deer in the headlights look. You obviously needed someone to bail you out. I figured we might make good friends, if you weren't too weird."
"What a guy," I said. "I sure am lucky."
"While I think about it, tell your father to cut those trees back on this side of your house. We get a wicked storm through here, one of those trees is going to end up in your house. So you see, my going down there to spy on you guys allows me to save you a lot of grief later on. Think of me as your grounds inspector."
"Our naked grounds inspector," I said.
"I don't get much pay," he said.
"You're a funny guy," I said. "I'll tell my father you said so. There are storms beyond the afternoon thunder storms?"
"Hurricanes. That's what all the shutters on the older houses are for. We've only had one bad one since I've been here, but Grand Pop told me he's been through a couple of serious storms. We might not get a bad one for years. We might get one tomorrow," Ivan said solemnly. "If you need help getting your shutters up, let me know. I can show you how the shutters work."
"Tomorrow? Like in the morning?"
"Whenever the conditions are right. My old man knows when they're coming this way. He comes in when one is brewing. The Coast Guard alerts the boats within radio range. Tell them which way to go to steer clear of the blow."
"I knew this place was too good to be true," I said.
"They last a couple of days. It's wind and rain."
"A couple of days. What happens until they're gone?" I asked.
"You hunker down, stay away from the water. Stay indoors if you're smart."
"Great," I said. "Sounds lovely. Before I die I do want to learn that dive," I said. "I've never seen anyone dive like that. Better get that said before we get blown away."
" Probably isn't the best idea to flatter me too much, Clay. I'm already pretty amazing. I might get stuck-up if you fill my head with sweet nothings."
"I wanted to meet you but you disappeared before I got to talk to you. That's why I kept going up there."
"You were going to forgo your bush to meet me? Now I'm really flattered."
"I was. Then you were gone. I didn't think I'd see you again. Funny when you think about it. All the time you live next to the river I sit beside everyday."
"Yeah, you could have just knocked on my door," Ivan said.
"Why didn't I think of that?"
"I was standing on the deck when you were looking at my room the other night. I wasn't ready to talk to anyone yet. It's like that after I've been at my mother's. I need to decompress. Then, when I was ready, there you were, and here we are."
"Yes I am," I said.
"I'm glad," he said.
"Me too," I said.
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