The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
My old friends didn't run through my dreams that night. Ivan did, until I became aware of someone in my bedroom as the early morning light took hold.
"What?" I said, knowing better than to get smart with Brian.
"He's been out there since I got up. Just standing there looking at the back of our house. He's got to be yours. I don't know anyone that skinny."
"Who?" I said, sensing a joke coming.
"Tall, skinny, freaky looking, dude; skimpy bathing suit from when he was maybe nine. You think he's a burglar waiting for us to leave?"
"Dark hair?" I asked, swinging my legs over the side of the bed. It was eight-thirty eight according to the old clock on the wall.
"Yeah, black hair. Kind of wild looking. How do you figure someone got that tall without gaining any weight?" Brian reasoned. "You better go down. He's watching me watch him. If he's a burglar, tell him we don't got nothing to steal."
"What are you doing home? Shouldn't you be working?" I said, as I considered his presence in my double doors that led to the porch.
"Pop's got a meeting. He'll come get us when it's over. I'm used to getting up. I couldn't sleep. Good thing too. No telling what he might steal."
I moved up beside Brian. The yard was still in shade, but there he was standing on the beach, looking at me looking at him. I waved.
"That's Ivan. He's my friend," I said. "Thanks for getting me up, Brian."
"Figured he was yours. I hope he's nothing like those weirdos you played with back home."
"Shut up. He's not a burglar. I was grounded. He's come to see where I've been," I said, with only a hunch to go on.
"Skinny as a rail and I've seen fatter rails. You think we should feed him?"
I pulled my shorts on over my boxers and headed for the porch and the stairs that ran down the side of the house, crossing the backyard to the beach. I was doing double time, stepping on sand-spurs, which made me hop in circles trying to get those suckers out of my tender feet.
What did he want? Why was he here? He stood fastened to one spot, watching my progress. My sand-spur dance amused him.
"Hey, Clay. How's it hanging?" Ivan asked.
"It's hanging fine. I would have called but you don't have a phone. I was grounded. What are you doing down here?" I said, checking out the tiny red suit.
"Nice to see you, too, dude. I was just passing by and I remembered your address. You were at my house every day last week and I haven't seen hide nor hair of you since. I wondered you drowned. I feel a certain responsibility for you. I taught you to swim and all."
"I was grounded. I'd have come up to tell you, but I was grounded."
"Bummer, dude. What did you do?"
"Mouthed off," I said, rubbing my foot to get the final sticker out of it.
"You haven't learned to kick back yet? It don't pay to piss off your parents, dude. You only make it harder on yourself."
"I know that. I just lost my head. I didn't expect to see you down here. I was going to your house and go swimming with you when I got up," I said. "Where'd you get that swimming suit?"
"It's my mothers bottoms for something she bought and never wore. I swam at first light. Then I figured I'd walk down here to see if you were OK. I put this thing on so you didn't have a coronary. I don't usually wear lady things. Not good for my image."
"Doesn't leave much to the imagination," I said.
"It's not to stop anyone from imagining anything they like. I figure if I'm going to be seen by adult type folks, I need to hide my business, not wanting them to get the wrong idea. You think this suit gives anyone the wrong idea?"
"It may hide your business, but not much else," I said. "Good thing you aren't hairy or too big."
"I'm plenty big. Too big is in the eye of the beholder. I'll take it off if you want. I only wore it for you," he said, sounding serious. "I'm sure my mother didn't buy it with me in mind."
"That's okay. I like it. Red's your color and my brother's watching us. No point in letting his imagination get the best of him. I want my parents to meet you before my brothers start spreading rumors."
"I'll take your word for it," Ivan said unconvinced. "You're up at my house every day and then you disappear. I thought I might have pissed you off."
"No. You're fine. We're fine," I said, surprised my absence concerned him.
"You going to invite me in?" Ivan asked. "I've been looking at that house for years and I've never been inside."
"No, my brothers are home."
"Which one is the muscle head?" Ivan asked.
"The muscle head is Brian. He thinks you're a burglar. He told me you were here."
"I love him too. What, he a bouncer?"
"A football player. He lifted weights at school. It's what football players do."
"Can't wait to meet them. He sounds adorable."
"Believe me, you won't miss much if we go to your house. They're okay as brothers go, but they're barely housebroken. They don't like my friends."
"How many you got? I thought I was the lucky first friend in Florida."
"You are. They didn't like my friends in Tulsa," I explained. "They don't like me. It's nothing personal."
"What was wrong with them?" Ivan asked.
"Nothing?" I objected. "They were my age is all."
"Good. I ought to pass then. I'm more likable than the average fourteen year old, but I'll fake it like I'm not if you want?"
"You're crazy," I said, laughing at his bragging.
"Probably ," Ivan said. "I figure you don't know many folks, since you told me you didn't, so I decided I'd stop to say hello. See if maybe you wanted to come out and play. You know, act like we're friends or something."
"I did walk up there Friday. You weren't home," I said. "Then I got grounded and couldn't come up. I think I was angry because you weren't home and I shot my mouth off."
"You went into my house when I wasn't there, dude?"
"Yeah, you always tell me to come on upstairs. I went to see if you were in bed or in the kitchen. Not like I didn't do it every day last week."
"Yeah, I do say come on up, but I'm home when I say that."
"Sorry," I said. "Another case of me not thinking. I wanted to see you."
"It's cool. I'm pulling your leg. It's easy to pull. You Sooners don't kid a lot, do you? Every time I'm joking, you take me seriously."
"I don't always know what you're talking about," I said.
"Just remember things in Florida are laid back, Clay. It's because there isn't a lot to take seriously here. People are too serious in general. Leads to heart attacks, you know."
"It does? " I said, feeling like I wasn't keeping up.
"That is an opinion you don't have to take seriously, dude."
"Oh," I said. "I don't always know how to take you, Ivan."
We ended up at his house. He led the way into the kitchen.
"Want a bowl of Sugar Crisp? There might be a box of Wheaties if you don't like Sugar Crisp. I like Sugar Crisp."
"Sugar Crisp is fine," I said. "How'd you know I didn't have breakfast?"
"Good guess. You didn't comb your hair. You're usually neat. I figured you pulled on your clothes to run down to intercept me before your brothers got a good look at me."
"Brian got a very good look at you," I said. "He's harmless, but I want my parents to meet you before he starts talking about you. His views are warped and he particularly dislikes my friends."
"You're all blond?" Ivan inquired, as he considered the cereal.
"Lucy has red hair. Mama said her hair was red until she was in her twenties, and then it turned blond. I wonder if my hair might turn red? "
"Brian lifts weights? He looks like it," Ivan said. "What's he do."
"He roams the beach at Sanibel and picks up trash," I said.
"I don't go there much. They keep it clean. Makes it nice, but too many flatlanders are coming here and leaving their garbage. I don't know what they're thinking. You don't leave your trash on a perfect beach. I don't anyway."
"They create a job for my brothers. I guess I should be grateful we aren't living in our car," I said.
"I see them as typical selfish a'holes. Folks who demand access to beautiful places but feel no obligation to help keep it clean," Ivan said.
"Those bozos visit Tulsa too," I said.
"Say when," Ivan said, as he poured my cereal bowl full to overflowing.
"That's plenty. My stomach hasn't gotten up yet," I said, as he poured milk on top and a third of the cereal dropped out of the bowl onto the table.
"That's why I swim first," Ivan said. "By the time I get to my cereal bowl, I'm starved," he said. "Nothing like fresh air and exercise to build an appetite. Let's go up to my room. I like eating on the deck. I feel trapped down here."
We carried the bowls up the stairs and stood looking out at the calm green sea. I watched Millie swimming against the flow of the water.
"Is something wrong, Clay?" Ivan asked, setting his bowl to one side once he emptied it. "Why the long face? It's time to let go of Tulsa, dude. I don't want to sound mean, but you aren't in Tulsa any more, Clyde."
"I've been thinking about my friends. I miss them a lot. While I was grounded, I thought about the things we did together. We were together all the time for as far back as I can remember."
"You guys going to move back to where you came from?"
"Tulsa," I reminded him.
"You going to move back there?" Ivan persisted.
"No, I think we're here for good. Dad likes the job. The money isn't what he wants, but Mama's working and he's got my brothers helping him."
"Quit thinking about what was. Times they are a changing for everyone, man. You've got to groove to your new life now. It's tomorrow, Clay. Yesterday has come and gone. You can let it eat at you or let it go."
"What's that mean?"'
"Wait a minute. I want you to listen to something special," Ivan said, going into his bedroom.
After he turned on the record player, I heard the needle find the record. I couldn't tell if the record was scratchy or if the singer was.
"What's that?" I asked, when Ivan came back onto the deck.
The singer wheezed and scratched his way through some strange lyrics. I did catch the, 'better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone,' and thought it applied to me, but the rest of it was vague. The voice could pass for country but maybe not. It was new to me.
"Can we talk yet?" I asked, as the singer sand, 'He lived on the outside of town, Hollis Brown" began droning from the record player.
"Sure," Ivan said.
"I better start swimming or I'll sink like a stone," I said. "That for me."
"It's an allegory. It's a story about the way things are changing. "Come gather 'round people wherever you roam and admit the waters around you have grown," Ivan sang.
"I don't get it. Does that mean here? Lots of water. Does water grow?"
"Well, you had to roam to get here, didn't you? And there is a lot of water, but no, that's the first verse that wants us to think about where we are and what's up. It's not drowning in water. It's drowning in obstacles put in place to keep the people off balance, confused, so we don't know what's really going on."
"I'll take your word for it," I said. "Why not just say it the way you did. I think I understand what you said."
"Dylan writes songs that make people think," Ivan said.
"Johnny Cash writes songs too. I think about those," I replied.
"Probably," Ivan said. "But Dylan is different. He is an advocate for the young. His message is for us to open our eyes and ears to what's going on."
"Sounds like he could be country," I said. "Not the lyrics though. I don't get the lyrics. Not much swimming in country music, you know."
"You will. We'll all get Dylan one day. He speaks to us, Clay. He's speaking to you. Your entire life has changed, hasn't it."
"Yeah, but what's it got to do with 'standing in the doorway and blocking the hall,' dude?"
"Everything, dude. Don't you get it? It's symbolic and not to be taken literally. That's how my music teacher put it. He called Dylan a muse. His words we come to mean more to us in time. We need to listen to him. He's a profit."
"I reckon if you say so. What do you mean by literal for instance in this instance?"
"The literal meaning is the meaning as it's written. When it's said to demonstrate something other than the obvious, you can't take it literally. There is a deeper meaning. Men standing in doorways or blocking halls are doing it to hide something. Dylan believes the power structure is self-serving. We aren't allowed to see or know what's really happening. People standing in the way of truth and progress would be the symbolic meaning."
"How do you know?" I asked, trying to get to where Ivan was. "What if it means what it says?"
"It makes no sense if you don't analyze the words. Our music teacher had a discussion on it. We don't know what Dylan is thinking, but we can analyze what he's saying. There is a lot of talk about what certain lines mean. He's been putting out records for a couple of years. Dylan doesn't explain his lyrics. He claims it's music and nothing more. That's how I know there's more to it than meets the eye. Dylan is talking to us, dude."
"Because he says there is nothing mysterious in his lyrics," I said. "You think there is?"
"Partly, but when you read the lyrics, it becomes obvious there is a meaning to the way he uses his words. " Better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone?" Ivan sang. " If you don't start doing something to learn about what's going on, it will be too late to do anything about it. We won't be able to do anything to rescue ourselves. Drowning is serious business. It's a metaphor."
"It is ?" I asked, afraid I'd sound stupid no matter what I said..
"We need to keep an eye on our leaders. We're the people and they're not representing us. We should find out what they're up to and why."
"I'll take your word for it," I said, not seeing the words the way he did.
"What can we do about it? They're the leaders."
"Be aware of it?" Ivan said. "Democracy means the people get the last say."
"We're kids. What can we do?"
"We'll grow up. Dylan makes me think about his lyrics. That's a good thing. A lot of people are talking about him. I heard about him from other people. His music is different. It's not about puppy love and high school dances. If ' The Times They Are A-changin ' doesn't describe your life, Clay, I don't know what does. Dylan is speaking to you, dude."
"You think so?" I asked.
"Your father lost his job. He took a job here because there was no work there. You left where you lived and relocated. You met moi, and your entire life has changed. Hasn't it?"
"M oi who?"
"Moi m e," Ivan said. "It's French, and I'm as much change as anyone needs."
"Why not say me?" I asked.
"Do you take everything so seriously?" Ivan asked, sounding worried.
"I suppose I do," I said.
"You need to lighten up, dude. Life's about learning. Life's about meeting people who teach you things you don't know. Life is a great exploration we get to direct ourselves.
"You need to let go of Tulsa and be in Florida. It's where you are, dude. You can't go back. Be here. It's where I am. How cool is that, man?"
Ivan made me think all right, but I didn't understand most of what he was talking about. Dylan was okay, I guess, but I liked Johnny Cash. He didn't sing in code and make you think about his lyrics.
"Everyone had different favorite things. Ivan didn't insist I think like him, but he did want me to think about things I hadn't thought about. He was explaining how he thought. I knew I thought. I didn't pay much attention to it. I had plenty of time to decide what to think about " Times they are A-changin ."
If I forgot about Tulsa, wasn't I forgetting my entire past? I got that life had changed for me. I don't think Dylan knew anything about it.
Dylan needed to say what was on his mind. Maybe I'd understand then. I listened to music for fun, not as a school project. Now I would think about the words Dylan sang, because Ivan did. I'd go along with him to keep up with him.
My parents were still asking for me to invite Ivan to dinner. I did once, but I didn't know what he'd look like when he showed up at my house. I couldn't tell him he had to wear clothes, but I'd be the one who got the short end of the stick if he showed up without any, or in his mother's underwear.
At his house it was fine. I didn't care. My shock over seeing someone naked had worn off. Yes, it still worried me, but as long as we were at his house, it wasn't up to me to tell him what to wear. Why I thought about it at all was weird. I wanted Ivan as a friend and I'd take him as is.
How in the world would I explain that to my parents? I might need to forget Tulsa, but no one went naked in Tulsa, and I doubt my parents were going to overlook that little factoid.
Ivan was likely to have enough common sense, having as much to lose as me in the friendship department, never crossed my mind. No matter how smart I knew he was, I was fourteen and conditioned to see any threat as a possibility to be consider. If Ivan wasn't always naked, I wouldn't have worried at all.
In my defense, I'd been raised elsewhere. I didn't need to think about the way things were. They just were that way. No thinking was required. The idea I would have to start thinking now was going to take some work.
Why didn't Dylan mind his own business anyway?
I usually came home from Ivan's in time for Mama and Lucy to get home. Mama ate lunch, leaving a platter of sandwiches and snacks behind, if she needed to go back out again. I was on call to stay with Lucy when necessary.
I stayed out of Mama's way when her time was limited. After playing with girls her age at Bible School, Lucy was ready to give her big brother a run for his money playing rummy or Monopoly. I played with a smile. I wasn't about to complain again.
Dylan might call that a loss of my ability to express myself.
Lucy and I were the only two kids who got along. She was too young to think of insulting me. I was responsible for her and I took that seriously. I didn't tell her what to do or boss her around, and she didn't beat me too badly at rummy.
She didn't require much supervision. We both liked cards and boardgames and that gave us something to do when we were together. Lucy had become too smart for me to snooker any longer, so she won the games half the time, and when that bored her, she went off to read or play with her dolls.
As long as Ivan was up the beach, there was hope. I think we were both in the same boat, even if we were from different planets. I felt we'd close the gap between us. I'd listen to Dylan and let him take me fishing. Ivan knew everything about Florida and I wanted to learn.
After dinner one night I was listening to Johnny Cash. John-Henry hadn't bought any albums since before we left Tulsa, but there were quite a few he already had and brought with us. Listening made me homesick again.
I thought of Russ sitting on my bed, listening to the music with me. Russ was always at my house. He had more brothers than I did. I wondered if they treated him mean. He was away from home.
Since I felt good about listening to Johnny Cash, and I felt bad thinking about my friends in Tulsa, I stopped thinking about them. When they came to mind, I pushed them out, letting Johnny Cash take me away from there.
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