The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
Brothers and Other Strangers
Standing on the deck of Ivan's house had us close enough to touch. We didn't of course, but seeing him up close, being close to him was easy. Being with someone I didn't know should have been weird, but it wasn't. I felt like I knew Ivan. It was like we knew each other.
I'd seen him. I'd admired him, but besides our similar ages, we didn't have anything in common but the beach. I was from far away and he lived on the beach for years. None of it mattered, except we were the only two kids our age around.
I wasn't sure what to say next and I didn't want to make a fool out of myself. Not running my mouth was probably a good idea for the time being. Admiring his view and being happy about being with him was plenty for me, but I didn't want him to think I was a dufus.
"Do you like fishing?" I asked, thinking with all that water, it was a good question.
"Fishing? Sure. Come up one day and we'll go. My house is full of fishing gear. I always get busy doing something else, but I can clean and cook fish. We got a freezer full of fish. I'll bring some along when I come to dinner."
"That would be cool. You've got to clean fish after you catch them?" I asked.
" They're living creatures. They've got innards got to come outward. If you don't want your fish tasting like fish doodoo, cleaning is recommended."
" You cook? I don't know I could coax water to boil." I said.
" I'd starve if I couldn't. Nothing fancy. Hot dogs, fish, hamburgers, fish, eggs and bacon. Fish. I can whip up a mean bowl of cereal. I'll show you one day."
" Very funny," I said.
" I try," he said.
I had a lot to think about on the way home from Ivan's. Being in the house before dinner was a hard and fast rule you didn't break. Mama took hours cooking each day, and we knew better than to be anything but enthusiastic. As usual, after six, she was busy as a bee when I closed the door behind me.
"Mama, am I fat?" I asked, stealing a pinch off the rump roast she'd just taken out of the over to cool.
" Fat? Clay, you aren't fat. Who gave you that idea?"
" Ivan is very thin. I mean, he's taller than me by some. I'm sure I weigh more than he does. Looking at him makes me feel fat. You sure I'm not fat?"
" There are different body types, dear. Fat is fat and you aren't fat. Since you've been here, I'm sure you've lost weight. You get more exercise here and you're growing up. I wouldn't worry about being fat."
" One day I'm going to walk to the end of this beach. I walked for two hours one day, and as far as I could see, there was more beach."
" Did you ask your friend if he'd like to come to dinner, Clay?"
" Yes, I did," I said.
" What did he say?" she asked.
" Nothing definite."
" Maybe his parents don't let him visit other boy's houses," she said, putting the potatoes and green beans next to the rump roast.
I took another pinch of the rump roast and mother slapped my hand predictably. I thought of Ivan standing naked a few feet from our house listening to John-Henry and Brian talking.
" No, I don't think it's that," I said. "I'll put these on the table, Mama."
Ivan hadn't answered me, but the idea of him showing up naked and sitting down at our table gave me cold chills. Thinking of him standing naked a few feet from our house made me queasy. I didn't want to lose my friend before we became friends. One thing for sure, the Olsons did not go naked.
It was his beach and we were new here, but we were talking about my parents approving of him. I didn't know how to head off the trouble I saw coming, but for the time being, keeping Ivan out of sight seemed right.
My brothers and my father did most of the talking at dinner. They usually said something about how their day went. John-Henry always saw a girl who deserved to be mentioned at dinner. He didn't go into detail because Mama would have told him to stuff a biscuit in it.
Brian, on the other hand, complained he never saw such women on the section of beach he patrolled for trash. John-Henry said that Brian wouldn't know a beautiful woman if he tripped over her. According to John-Henry, it took a real man to appreciate a fine woman.
" All right, John-Henry," mother said. "We don't need to discuss your libido at the dinner table."
Father began coughing.
Coleen laughed boldly, as only she could, thinking all her brothers were sex crazed morons.
Teddy wanted to know what libido was, as he made a puddle in the middle of his mashed potatoes with the gravy.
" When you're John-Henry's age, you'll know what it is," Mama said.
I went another route, unable to wait to grow up. I looked it up in the dictionary after dinner. John-Henry did talk about girls a lot. It was a preoccupation with him for a couple of years. He had girlfriends in Tulsa. He was forever coming in late and being grounded for it. He was too old to ground now.
Brian hadn't been nearly as girl crazy. He was a year and a world behind John-Henry in most departments. Teddy had little to say about girls. If he'd discovered any, he was keeping it to himself. Teddy wasn't all that curious about anything but ways to make money. Feed him and give him a place to sleep, and he was happy as a clam.
" Dad, Ivan told me you need to cut the trees back on the north side of the house. He says we get storms and they were close enough that one might fall onto the house."
My father finished chewing and gave it some thought as he pictured that side of the house.
" Hurricanes," he said almost under his breath. "They haven't had a bad one lately. They have pictures of the damage hurricanes have done in the past. Maybe not as bad as a tornado but a hurricane covers more territory."
" He thinks those trees are close enough to fall on the house," I repeated.
" I'll look it over, son, and thank Ivan. He sounds like a thoughtful young man. I'd like to meet him, Clay."
" Very thoughtful," I said. "Of course he's been here for years."
" His father is a fisherman of note. So was his grandfather. The senior Mr. Aleksa built that house. It took him two years," Dad said. "Not many folks lived on the beach at the time he built. He was a fisherman and worked the whole time he was building it."
" How do you know so much about them?" I asked.
"The older commissioners at the conservancy knew the senior Mr. Aleksa. They know Ivan's father. He brings fresh fish to the conservancy. Nice fellow."
Each day, after Mama got home from work, I was on my way to Ivan's. A couple of times Mama had made food for me to take with me. The tuna salad and egg salad made great sandwiches. Ivan loved both.
"When you go to talk to that Manatee," Ivan said a few afternoons later.
"Millie," I interrupted.
"It's a manatee. You don't name wild creatures," Ivan said.
"She's Millie to me. You don't name them," I said.
"When you are down there, you hold onto the bank of the river like you're afraid you'll float away," Ivan said. "You ever think that thing might bump you, causing you to lose your grip, and you'll end up drowning."
"Millie wouldn't do that," I said.
"Millie doesn't know she's Millie and she's a manatee. They're big clumsy creatures. Bumping you is a possibility. A bump from a thousand pound manatee can certainly ruin your day," Ivan said. "What I'm saying is, I better teach you to swim and then you won't need to hold onto the shore."
"Would you?" I asked, glad that he brought it up.
"Yes, wouldn't look good to have my friend drowned. We'll have a lesson this afternoon. That'll give you more confidence in the water. In a few days you'll swim better than your manatee."
"Really?" I asked.
"No, but you'll know enough not to drowned."
My first lesson had him walking me out into waist deep water, where I mostly held onto his arm as he tried to get me to listen to his instructions.
"If you panic, stand up, Clay. In water this salty it is hard to sink. If you relax and listen to me, I'll teach you to float first. Your body will stay on top of the water without you doing anything but keeping your lungs full of air. If you relax."
"I'll take your word for it," I said.
"You can't sink. Trust me," he said, sounding certain.
I don't know how but I floated on the top of the water. It was calm and the swells were as gentle as they got. Feeling my body roll with the waves was relaxing. As long as Ivan kept his hand in the middle of my back, and I could feel him next to me, I was fine. I trusted Ivan even more now.
"That's it. Relax. Told you it was easy," he said, as I turned to look at him and sank like stone.
"Okay, relax. I've got you," he said.
I still didn't know how one hand could keep a hundred and ten pound boy from sinking, even after it did. It shouldn't be possible, but there I was floating along with the motion of the water. I think I could have fallen asleep.
Then when I turned my head to make sure Ivan was still there, he was standing maybe twenty feet away, as I bobbed like a cork. I promptly sank.
"Stand up, Clay," he said, shaking his head at my panic. "Just float. You can't sink if you relax."
"I just did," I said.
"You didn't either. You forgot what I told you and got scared.
"It felt like I was sinking," I explained.
"OK, you can float fine. The same is true on your stomach. By using your arms and legs to propel you, you don't float, you cut through the water."
Ivan showed me explaining what he was doing. Using my arms and legs was confusing. Trying to remember which arm and which leg, and when to breathe, and how to turn my head were all things I learned, one at a time. As soon as I was getting one step down, he added another step. It looked easy. When I tried to do it, get all the steps where they belonged, I sank.
This wasn't a one lesson deal, even when we spent two hours at it the first afternoon. As the days passed, if I was at Ivan's, we'd go out in waist deep water and he'd go over the steps with me. It got easier but sorting out where each step went kept me busy.
I had no confidence that I was swimming even when he said I was. After starting to sink a couple of times, and having him close enough to grab, I realized he wouldn't let me drowned.
There was the knowledge that I could stand up and unsink. After doing it enough times, I felt awkward, but not like I was sinking. Figuring out how and when to breathe was tricky. I drank a lot of gulf water getting the hang of it, but not enough to drowned me.
It was a matter of practicing the technique and then I was able to propel myself without Ivan standing next to me. He still wasn't too far away. I was keeping myself on top of the water most of the time.
Being around all that water and knowing how to swim made it that much better. When I waded into the water I was able to do more than wade out again. Swimming turned out to be relaxing and fun. Learning to swim meant more time Ivan and I spent together. He loved to swim and I was now someone who was able to swim with him, if he wasn't in a hurry.
As I grew to enjoy swimming, I was humbled by Ivan's ability to glide through the water with no effort at all. For a hermit beachcomber bum, Ivan was as clever a boy as I'd known.
He still had to meet my parents and I still wasn't sure how to go about suggesting he wear clothes. He knew most stuff you needed to know to live there and telling him how to do something didn't appeal to me. Having my parents throw him out of the house didn't either.
By trying to duplicate the things he did, how he did them, I got better at the more physical aspects of the life we had. I felt better about myself because I did get better. By mid-summer that year Ivan had me climbing over the logjam to dive from the tip of the highest log, and racing him to shore. He didn't know we were racing, but I did.
Accepting Ivan did everything better than me made life easier. I did it my way and it was doing it that made the difference. Looking at the water, I had confidence the odds of it killing me were slim if I didn't act like a bozo. It gave me a greater appreciation for where I lived.
Babysitting began to cut into my time with Ivan. Even on days when relief didn't come until two or three in the afternoon, I'd be at Ivan's the first chance I got. I could usually find him on the deck sitting in one of the two wicker chairs reading.
I always asked what he was reading and he'd tell me. Putting a book mark in a suitable spot, he'd take it inside and put it on the table next to his bed. He read magazines that told him what was going on in the world. He'd show me the cover to let me know what it was. It was never anything I read, because I didn't
read anything when I wasn't in school.
The other activity he was super at, shooting baskets. One day when I came from babysitting, I heard the basketball bouncing at the corner of his house. Ivan told me he shot hoops to relax. He showed me how it was done, which shouldn't be confused with how to do it.
I felt particularly inept with a basketball in my hands. Not because I couldn't hit the hoop. I couldn't hit the backboard. I ended up under the basket, tossing the ball back to Ivan, after it went through the hoop, dropping at my feet.
No matter where he stopped on the concrete, he could turn and shoot the ball through the hoop. At times it hit the rim and bounced away, but the majority of time, it went through the hoop. I didn't mind throwing it back to him.
I couldn't wait to get to Ivan's each day, where we weren't hobbled by adult intervention. Mama noticed the growing number of lengthy absences after I made a new friend.
"What do you two do all day," she asked, checking the clock when I came in.
"Swim, play basketball, collect shells, and roam the beach. He doesn't have a television. He reads. I like watching the birds and wildlife around the river."
"Sounds like a smart kid," Mama said.
A week or ten days into the budding friendship, Mama decided to throw a monkey wrench into the deal, when she told me she was working all day for the next week, and I would need to be in the house for Lucy.
"Aw, Mom, I've got things to do."
"You do plenty of things. I need you to help a little. I'll be working full days this week and I've got you to babysit. Have Ivan come down here. We still have hopes of meeting him."
"Told you, he's imaginary," Brian said. "There is no Ivan. Has anyone at this table seen Ivan? No. See. Imaginary friend."
"Your brain is imaginary, Brian," I said.
"Mama!" Brian complained.
"You ask for it. Why are you surprised when you get what you ask for?" Mama explained for the umpteenth time.
"I've got things to do, places to go," I said, not wanting to spend less time with Ivan.
"You'll be here all day for the rest of the week," Dad said without needing to raise his voice to give me the picture. "Don't argue with your mother. Consider yourself restricted to the house until I tell you different. Am I clear?"
"He's going to think I've deserted him, Dad."
"He's in the next house. I'm sure if he's concerned, he can walk all the way down here and see you, Clayton. You have responsibilities here. There is no point arguing."
"I'm supposed to get off at two o'clock the last two days of this week. I'll come home to relieve you so you can play with your friend," Teddy offered.
"Cool," I said. "He'll think I've lost interest in being his friend by then."
Teddy had gone to work at the Wynn Dixie as a bag boy. John-Henry and Brian were Dad's help in keeping the beaches clean.
I went to my room after dinner, having become the antisocial angry young man at the Olson house. Just as Ivan and I were sealing the friendship deal, my parents get in the way. They didn't understand me or my need to develop one friendship.
I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, not even bothering to put on the latest Johnny Cash album John-Henry bought and left in my room once he'd heard it. I wasn't in the mood for music. My life had gone way off key.
I was angry a lot back then. My friend was up the beach and I was on babysitting duty. It was a breeze babysitting in Tulsa. My friends came over and we played cards and board games with Lucy. Ivan couldn't come over the way he dressed, or didn't dress. I cringed when I thought he might come looking for me.
Ivan hadn't come near my house, except when he was lurking out among the trees. I was strangely appreciative of that fact, but I missed the only friend I had and I'd left his house an hour before.
How long did it take to become unfriendly? I was sure you had to see each other once in a while to keep a friendship on track.
Ever since being torn out of Tulsa, my life had been ruined. Just as I had something to do and someone to do it with. Getting grounded for presenting my case too emphatically at the table was stupid. Maybe my parents weren't ruining my life, but they weren't making it easy on me.
I could call Ivan if he had a phone, and smoke signals were out. There was the whole burn down the beach thing. There was nothing to do but wait my parents out and go to Ivan's the first chance I got.
I thought about Russ coming over at daybreak on my last day in Tulsa. He was waiting in the living room when I came down stairs. He had the longest face I'd ever seen. We both knew our lifelong friendship was at an end. We were no longer going to see each other every day. We might never see each other again. As hard as it was on me, it was harder on him. Russ depended on me a lot.
"Why didn't you come up stairs?" I asked.
"I didn't want to wake you up. You ready to go?"
"Yeah," I answered haplessly. "As ready as I'll ever be."
It went downhill from there. His eyes were red and he sniffed, wiping his nose on his sleeve. Russ wasn't that sensitive. Cal, yes, but Russ never showed emotion before. I hadn't given any thought to how my friends would take my absence. They had each other. I had no one. Just their being together would remind them I was missing. I wouldn't have a constant reminder. I'd just be alone. I didn't know which was worse, and seeing Russ reminded me it wasn't happening to just me.
"Cut it out, Russ. It's not that bad."
"Yeah, it is. I've never done anything without you," he said sadly.
"Barbara, Nancy, Roseann? Let me count the girls, Russ."
"They're girls," he protested. "It's not the same as a best friend."
"Yeah, and a lot more interesting than me lately."
"Girls require upkeep. You never did," he said, following me back upstairs.
"Thanks. I always knew you cared, Russ."
"You know what I mean," he said. "We're a team. Girls aren't part of that."
"Where's Cal and Bart? I figured they'd come over early," I said.
"Sleeping. They don't want a long goodbye."
" Yeah, I know the feeling," I said.
"It won't be the same without you. I could always depend on you. I was the first one here every day," Russ said, forgetting Bart was always first.
"Well, one of your girlfriends will give you your cereal and toast."
"Cut it out, Clay. You know I get along best with you. We're best friends. Cal and Bart are our friends. We were friends first. We lived here before they did."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. Cal will look out for you. It's not my job any more. You've got each other if you stick together, Russ."
"I wish I could go with you. With four brothers, my parents wouldn't miss me until Christmas, when they'd have presents leftover."
"Maybe you can come visit. We're going to live on a beach. Too bad I don't know how to swim."
"That would be great. I've never been out of Oklahoma," Russ said with enthusiasm.
"We'll keep in touch. Your parents might let you come visit for a few weeks one summer. One more in our house won't be noticed. You're always here now."
" Yeah, that would be cool. You can introduce me to the girls," Russ said.
" Yeah, Russ, all I'll have to do is get you dates. You're hopeless."
" I know. Once I go out with a girl, they ignore me. I'm nice, aren't I?"
" You need to get to first base before you try to hit a homer, Russ."
" You think that's it? Could be. Girls are funny."
" Lots of boys around," I said to get a rise out of him.
" Boys? Girls might be weird, but I'm not," he said. "Not yet, anyway."
I smiled, drifting back from Tulsa. The memories were crystal clear to me. Florida may have been beautiful, but I was never lonely there.
I'd have been okay if I hadn't run my mouth too much. I knew better. My family had real difficulties, my complaints were small potatoes. Mama had little say over her schedule. I was and would be the built in babysitter. Why did we have to move anyway?
In Tulsa it was predictable. Cal and Bart came the last hour, looking quite sad. Each had a hug to give me. Cal cried. I knew he would. That started Russ crying again. Bart and I fought back tears, looking at each other but afraid to speak for fear of losing control. What was there to say?
Then my father said it was time to get into the car, and my family and I drove away from my friends and everything I knew. As we left the curb, I watched them disappear in the back window of the station wagon. Russ hugged Cal and they cried as they watched me driving out of sight and out of their lives. We thought we'd see each other again. We pledged we would, but we never did.
I didn't expect to make friends like that again. I no longer wanted close friends. The pain involved in giving up my friends was as bad as pain gets. It's the way it was as the story of my life turned the page to write the next chapter.
The anger over leaving Tulsa stayed with me, until I let go of it at the dinner table. When my developing friendship with Ivan was waylaid by my selfishness, I feared getting too close to him. I feared not being able to get close enough.
None of us liked moving away from Tulsa. It was better than ending up on the street. How embarrassing would that be in a place where everyone knew who we were? The people we knew would have said, "So sad about the Olsons."
These were my thoughts during the days my mouth got me grounded. One night as I sulked in my room, Dad came to my bedroom on his way to bed, knocking softly on my door.
He wanted to talk. I was still mad at him, but I knew better than to show him any disrespect. He'd ground me until I was twenty-one. He usually allowed me to stew in my own juices for a few days before ending my punishment.
" You've had plenty of time to think," he said from the foot of my bed. "No one was excited about moving, Clay. We're a family and families stick together. "You can go back to doing what you like, after your mother gets home from work tomorrow. That doesn't mean you can be late for dinner, and you need to be in by dark if we allow you to go out after dinner. Otherwise you can do as you like."
He looked away from me, taking an uncharacteristic deep breath.
" I'm sorry I wasn't able to stay in Tulsa, son. It was no picnic for any of us. This is the best I can do right now. You'll have to be satisfied with it."
" I'm sorry, Dad. I'm sorry I mouthed off. I know no one wanted to move."
" I'm glad you don't blame me, but you need to apologize to your mother. She is working hard to keep us fed and babysitting Lucy is a big help to her. We depend on you, Clay. We depend on each other."
" I know. My mouth gets in the way of my brain sometimes. It's not like I want to cause trouble," I said. "I can't help it, Dad."
" I do remember what it's like being a boy, Clay. Running your mouth when you shouldn't is part of growing up and feeling your oats. Your mother thinks you think we failed you. We didn't set out to ruin your life, son. Things happen. A family sticks together in good times and bad. We'll be fine if we stick together."
" I'll apologize to Mama. I'm sorry I shot my mouth off."
At dinner the next night I apologized to Mama and everyone at the table for my outburst. I'd already decided that I'd stay in that day and wait until the next morning to go to see Ivan and explain things.
Mama smiled and said, "It's water under the bridge, dear. Eat your beets."
I ate them with a smile. I never got beets. Who eats beets?
Mama then announced to the family that she'd enrolled Lucy in Vacation Bible School. She'd take her on her way to work in the morning and pick her up on her way home at lunchtime, when she was off for the rest of the day.
Lucy was turning ten and was delighted to be going to where she'd have other girls her age to play with. Mama rarely went back to work after lunchtime, and my days would belong to me.
I would head to Ivan's as soon as I got up the next morning.
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