The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
"When do I get to see inside your house?" Ivan asked.
"You come to dinner, Ivan. I can't keep telling my parents that you are thinking about it. Now that Brian has seen you, he'll talk about what he saw at the dinner table. Times up."
"You referring to my choice of under garments? I don't think he knew they were the bottoms to my mother's bathing suit, which, incidentally, she never wore. I'm limited here. It isn't like there is a Sears just across the river, and Frankly, your brother didn't look that smart, Clay."
"He's not. That's the problem. He will run his mouth. I'll show you the house but you need to agree to come to dinner and not wear your Mama's frilly things if it can be avoided. Times up, Ivan."
"You might be relieved to know that my mother didn't wear frilly things. What I want to see, and it's a subject of conversation around our fair beach, is where old man Broadmore hung himself. I've always been curious about that."
"Who did what, where?" I asked, set back by this little factoid.
"The fellow who had that house built. The fellow's money that created the conservancy, hung himself in the staircase of that old house. Tied a rope to the chandelier and vaulted off the second floor. The servants found him swinging there. My Grand Pop told me the story, so I know it's true."
"In my house?" I asked.
"That is the house owned by the conservancy?" Ivan asked/
"Broadmore owned it. He hung himself there. That's how the conservancy got created."
"You've got to be kidding me?" I said. "Tell me you're kidding me."
"He obviously took life a tad too seriously. All that money and he doesn't bother to spend it."
"When you come to dinner, which you've got to do this week, we won't be mentioning bodies hanging in our foyer. I doubt my mother or sisters would appreciate that little factoid."
"Whatever you say, Amos. but I bet your father knows all about it by now. He works for the conservancy."
"You're probably right. He hasn't said anything," but Pop wouldn't. "The specter of a body swinging from the chandelier is a bit gruesome."
"Wanting to see the place where he did it, is gruesome. A body hanging from you chandelier is downright untidy."
"O nce I've seen where the old boy hung himself, mums the word. I'm not completely totally warped, yet."
Ivan proved true to his word. He didn't take anything too seriously. He was quick with a joke and he found humor in everything. I had a lot of anger about everything and didn't see the humor as readily as my friend did.
He listened to me, which made me feel good. He spent a few minutes digging in his closet and came up with a pair of balled up jeans and put them on. We'd go to see where that guy hung himself, getting that out of the way. Brian had seen Ivan from a distance, this would be his closeup look.
By the time we went in the backdoor, the house was empty. I took him through to the staircase. For the first time I really looked at the chandelier. It was massive. There were no windows in that part of the house and the light switch turned on that chandelier. This was just beyond the front door and entrance hall.
"That's it. That's where he hung himself. You can feel the heavy vibes in here. Spooky, huh?" he said, staring up at where the rope had to be tied.
"Not until right now it wasn't," I said, not wanting to think about it.
"Makes you wonder what he was thinking," Ivan thought out loud.
"No," I said. "I it doesn't."
"Think about it. This guy is loaded. He's got more money than God. What was so bad he couldn't just buy a new car and fly off to Paris wouldn't cure."
"Wouldn't he need a plane for that?" I asked, using logic.
"You always buy a car when you're miserable. It's what I'd do," Ivan said.
"Maybe he was sick and decided a quick exit was easier," I said, using logic.
"Never thought of that. Thanks for the tour, Amos."
When we went out the backdoor to go to his house, he took off running. He dashed across the yard and onto the beach, turning toward his house. A few hundred yards up the beach he was strolling along like he didn't have a care in the world. He was carrying the jeans and had gone back to his natural state.
"How can you wear those things?" he asked, when I caught up. "My nut sack feels crushed. I can't stand being all bound up like that."
In Oklahoma all bound up was called, putting your pants on, but that was a can of worms I didn't want to open. Ivan was Ivan and I needed his friendship. I wasn't going to insist he do things like they were done in Oklahoma.
I had the same three friends for my entire life. We did the same things together. Our lives were predictable, until my father came home and told us his job ran out and we had no money to speak of. Hard times had come to the Olson family. The people who made the jobs were out of work too. There were none.
Pop spent a month looking for work, never letting on to his kids, and he found nothing paying enough to support his family. Then he told us bills were due and the money was running out fast.
A few days after preparing the family for the worst, he came home with the offer of a job and a house in Florida. We sold everything we couldn't carry, and we had enough money to get to our new home. When life went bad, we were helpless. The next thing we knew, we were on our way to a new world.
Florida was an incredible place to live. It's what allowed me to make the transition from a life I knew and liked to a lonely one on the best beach in the world. When I first saw Ivan, I was mesmerized. I'd never met a kid like him and I'd never meet another kid who came close.
I was alone. Then there was Ivan. The more I saw him, the more I liked him. There was nothing predictable about him. I didn't know what to expect, and it was fine with me. I was in a new world and my life had changed.
As we walked up the beach, I wondered if he'd decide we weren't suited to be friends. I couldn't believe he wanted to be friends with me. I'd make the most of it. School would start soon. There would be other kids. I no longer cared if they liked me or not. I wanted Ivan to like me. He wasn't a regular kid. That could have been what attracted me to him. What he saw in me, I didn't know.
He had come to my house to see why I hadn't been to his house. He was literally, the boy next door, even if his house was a mile away. Ivan kept me off balance. It didn't take much energy to adapt.
In his kitchen, while he got us sodas, he explained the plan.
"My mother wants me to go to some work related picnic tomorrow. She'll come and get me early. She'll take me straight to the barber, thinking she'll tame the wild child. She'll buy me a shirt and pair of slacks she likes, maybe shoes, so I'll look like her impressive youngest son. If it works for you, because that's the best I'll look until school starts, I'll come to dinner the day after tomorrow. I'll even wash my face so it goes with the haircut. They'll never suspect the truth."
"Cool," I said, not wanting to say anything to discourage him.
I'll look like my mother's son for fifteen minutes or so. Longer if I work at it. If we strike while the iron is hot, your parents will think I'm normal."
"The truth being ?" I knew I was treading on thin ice.
"I'm a mess. I try to respect my elders, Clay, and I'm not beyond using my mother's desire to impress her peers to make a good impression on your parents. If I can pull that off, and keep from acting like the wild child I truly am, we should be good to go. They'll allow us to be friends. What do you think, Amos? You know your parents better than I do. I hope so anyway. You think they'll buy it?"
I laughed. Ivan had thought it out. We had a plan. I'd have invited him over to dinner and prayed for the best. He saw the perfect time to make his entrance."
"Sounds cool," I said, as we headed upstairs with our sodas.
To be honest, I was sold as soon as he got to the words shirt and slacks. He never once said he'd wear the clothes, but he Might forget to take them off until after his visit. We had to move fast, because Brian was going to do his best to throw a monkey-wrench into the mix.
No one paid much attention to what Brian said, but the fear he'd mention Ivan's outfit, or lack of same, worried me. I didn't want to take any chances.
"Quit looking like your dog died, Amos. We'll pull this off. Trust me."
"Oh, I do," I said.
My parents had never told me who my friends should be. A bright, charming, well-dressed Ivan wouldn't hurt though. I had trouble seeing the naked kid beside me at the table, making a good impression.
"I don't know what will be for dinner, but with company coming, Mama will fix one of her specialties. I know you'll like it. She is a great cook."
It was then that Ivan put his arm over my shoulder the first time. My face was turned toward his face and he put his arm over my shoulder. I saw the expression on his face. His motion was tentative at first. His arm was barely there. He let it settle so the weight of it was more apparent as we looked at each other.
My friends and I almost never touched each other, if we weren't rough housing. We just didn't touch. Our hugs as we parted company for the last time were quick. Physical contact wasn't part of the program. As close as we were, we kept a distance between us. None of our families weren't big on touching.
Ivan's arm being over my shoulder, being touched like that, gave me a feeling of well-being, once I realized this was his way of telling me we were in it together. The question of whether or not we were friends was answered for me with his touch. I wasn't comfortable and I knew why, but I wasn't uncomfortable.
I could tell by the look on his face, he knew it was risky business. I didn't slip out from under his touch or pull away. It was a bold move. Ivan was a bold boy. He made no attempt to get closer. We didn't lock lips. He had long arms and there was a respectful distance between us, which was good when a naked boy touched you in a way that made you feel special. It was obvious how far from Oklahoma I was.
Shaking hands wasn't Ivan's style. A hug was a bit tricky. His puppy dog eyes were perfect. Could he read how insecure I was about wanting his friendship? Was this his way of reassuring me, before we sought the approval of my parents? Didn't his parents need to approve of me?
I was in a new world. Lord knows, I needed a friend. My doubts about Ivan wanting to be my friend were gone. He waited for a reaction and he smiled when I wasn't put off. I smiled because I was there. I felt good about not being alone. I'd never felt less alone. I never felt more like smiling.
Spending time together was the most important thing after that. Each day, after I got out of bed, as quick as I could get out of the house, I was on my way to Ivan's. We'd have something to do. We talked about the next day before I went home for dinner.
Why, out of all the guys who knew and admired Ivan, he picked me to be his closest friend, I never knew. Ivan was smart, handsome, and athletic. I was none of those things. I wasn't sure I was anything at all at fourteen. My life had started over and I couldn't be sure of anything, until that day on Ivan's deck. I was sure about him after that. That's all I cared about then.
My parents were glad to finally be meeting Ivan. Brian said that he saw him. He left it at that, once he mentioned the skinniest kid he'd ever seen. I held my breath, hoping he stopped talking about Ivan as soon as he mentioned him.
"Good he's coming to dinner. Someone should feed that kid."
I wanted Ivan to stand on his own without comments from the Peanut Gallery. I feared what might go wrong, but all was mellow at the Olson house.
Mama began preparing dinner when she came in from work the night Ivan said he'd come. She was frying chicken, mashing potatoes, and readying ears of corn for a dunk in boiling water. There were tomatoes ready to slice. Green beans were snapped and cooking. The yellow squash simmered with a slice of onions. Two strips of bacon were frying. Mother crumbled the bacon into the squash, once it came off the heat. By dinner time the flavors mingled completely.
The smells were heavenly and the sight of the biscuits ready to pop in the oven made my stomach growl. The kitchen was my favorite room in the gigantic house, except for my room.
I slid a chicken wing off the edge of the platter, heading for the door to wait for Ivan out back. The chicken was too hot. I was suddenly nervous and wished I'd grabbed a drumstick to go with the wing.
I never had a friend come over for an interview before. I was almost certain he'd wear clothes. Oh, I hoped he did. My heart was pounding and the chicken wing didn't do anything to calm me down. It made me want more chicken.
"You'll ruin your supper," Mama said, as I slipped back in for the drumstick and out again.
She was standing at the stove with her back turned to me. I'd have to check to see if she had rear view mirrors near the stove.
I sat on the top step, tapping my foot, fearing Ivan would be late if he showed up at all. It was almost seven and the food was ready when it was ready. There would be no waiting around for company to show up. My father and brothers worked all day. There would be a riot if they got a whiff of that chicken and Mama told them to wait until my friend showed up.
When I saw someone walking in the shadows, my heart leaped, and so did I. I couldn't be sure it was him, but his totally unruly hair was short and neatly trimmed. He not only wore clothes, he had on a pair of brown penny loafers that sparkled in the moonlight. He was wearing brown socks, chocolate slacks, and a shirt with brown, green, and blue running through it. It was beautiful. He was beautiful.
"Is this the Olson residence, my man?" he asked in a sophisticated voice.
I stood there with my mouth hanging open.
"What's up, Amos? You ain't never seen no gentlemen before? This is how I'd look if I lived with my mother. Now you know why I don't. I look like a dork."
In his hand Ivan carried a large package he handed over to me.
"Fresh fish Dad brought me for the lady of the house. These suckers were swimming in the gulf last night. I'd have picked some posies on my way, but there ain't none to steal between my house and yours. Will I pass muster, Amos?"
"The fish is fine. You look terrific. Thanks," I said relieved.
"They don't smell nothing like posies, but what's a boy to do? You look like you halfway expected me to come strolling up with my tally-whacker swinging in the breeze, Amos."
"However you showed up is fine with me, Ivan," I said. "Dinner's almost ready."
"Good! I'm starved," Ivan said, looking way more mature than usual.
There were no worries he might not pass the smell test. None of us ever looked as good as Ivan looked that night. Maybe Coleen when she had her eye on a new boy she wanted to impress.
Ivan was the perfect gentlemen. He smiled politely as I introduced him to my parents. Coleen kept staring at the tall handsome stranger. John-Henry asked about fishing. I sat silent and smiled. Ivan was a hit at the Olson house.
Was I relieved.
Ivan told John-Henry not to buy any equipment, the bottom floor of his house was devoted to storing fishing gear, past and present. His grandfather, and now his father, kept up with the newest and best equipment.
"I know about your grandfather," Pop said. "He was from Lithuania and the finest fisherman in these parts. There's a photograph of him at the conservancy headquarters with him standing behind his boat with the biggest damn fish I've ever seen. Not a lot of fish that size in Oklahoma."
"I never knew that," Ivan said, sounding pleased to have learned about the picture. "He died when I was eight years-old. My father took over his business. He's out right now. He'll be home tomorrow. He has new refrigeration, which allows him to stay out longer these days."
"Your father has a fine reputation too," Pop said. "Not as well known as your grandfather, but everyone likes your father. He's known as a dependable fellow."
"Thank you," Ivan said. "He likes his work. He loves the gulf. He's kept me off the boat for the most part, but I'm talking to him about going out with him a couple of times a month."
The food moved around the table on a human conveyer belt that was my family. Ivan was the best mannered person at the table. He was polite and cordial.
I kept watching him to see if he might put his elbow in his mashed potatoes or fumble an ear of corn, just to prove he was human, but Ivan was the regal boy I'd seen do that dive the first time I saw him. There was no sign of the wild child who lived up the beach.
It was established that Ivan's parents were separated and his mother lived in Tampa with his brother, Boris. My father checked on Ivan's family when it began looking like we'd become friends. There was no resistance to Ivan. He was a fine young man from a fine hard working local family.
"How old's your brother?" Coleen asked, still watching Ivan closely.
"Is he as pretty as you?" Coleen asked.
"Coleen!" Mama said, handing her the corn. "Pass the corn to your father."
This was Mama's way of telling my sister to stuff a sock in it.
"We're twins," Ivan said, sounding serious.
This was news to me. He hadn't told me that. If he was fourteen and Boris was sixteen, it must have been a difficult birth.
"When my mother refused to live on the beach, she moved to Tampa. Last year, five years after... moving, she came for us. Boris went with her. I stayed with my father. I can't be a fisherman in Tampa. My life is her on this beach. Boris discovered there were girls in Tampa and there weren't any on the beach."
"There are girls on the beach now," Coleen said, chewing on her fork.
"Coleen!" Mama said. "You're nineteen years old. Act your age, dear. Let the boys grow up before you get any big ideas," Mama said.
"Ouch!" John-Henry yelped. "Cut by your own mother."
"Mother!" Coleen objected.
"Thank you for bringing us fish, Ivan. Thank your father for us," Mama said. "In spite of the way it may sound, most of us are housebroken."
"We'll have to have you down again soon," Pop said. "We haven't done much socializing since we've moved here. I'd like to meet your father."
"That's kind of you," Ivan said. "I'm not used to getting such wonderful food. Dad had the fish cut in fillets. It doesn't take a lot of cooking and it's so fresh it might jump into the frying pan."
Everyone laughed. Ivan smiled. I sat silent and wondered who all these polite people were. Ivan wasn't the only one on his best behavior.
John-Henry sat in the living room and talked fishing with Ivan. Lucy sat on Ivan's lap and told Ivan he smelled good. Coleen was too big for Ivan's lap, or she'd have given it a go. Teddy asked Ivan about the school. Brian looked like he wanted to flex for Ivan. I prayed he didn't. Ivan had already seen plenty of my muscle head brother.
Mama brought Ivan a cup of banana pudding, saying to the rest of us, "Yours is on the table. Don't make a mess."
"Thank you. Your cooking is even better than Clay said it would be. I've rarely had chicken as juicy. Everything was so good. Thank you for inviting me."
"S ince your mom isn't there to fix your meals, you're welcome to come down when you'd like. There's always plenty," Mama said. "Clay's friend Russell ate at our house more than he ate at his own house. He was a quiet boy too."
"Yes, and one day I would like to meet your father. I'd like to talk to him about fishing," Pop said. "We're in Florida now. I'm told I need to be less serious and fishing is a fine way to relax. I'm looking forward to trying it."
"Yes, sir. It's quite relaxing when done for enjoyment. It can add variety to the dinner table. When I go out with my father, Clay wants to go. We'll catch fish for you. My father goes out a lot this time of year."
"Do y ou have a boat?" Brian asked, surprising me.
"It's a flat bottom twelve foot. I drag it down to the water. It's paddle powered but it gets me to where the fish are. I'm contemplating making a raft. I want to try that when the gulf is quiet."
"I wouldn't want Clay to go too far out," Mama said. "He can't swim. I worry about him being around so much water. It's hard to keep a boy out of the water."
"You didn't tell them?" Ivan asked, sounding surprised.
"No. Didn't think about it. Ivan taught me to swim. No chance of me sinking like a stone," I said, quoting Dylan for Ivan.
"Can you teach me?" Brian asked. "I can't swim a stroke. Is it hard."
"Sure. I'm always in the water first thing in the morning. Come on up and in a couple of days you'll be swimming like a fish."
"Just teach me enough to swim like a person would be good," Brian said.
"How do you do fishing around here?" John-Henry asked, ignoring Brian. "Catch many?"
"I don't go often. I go with my father once in a while. That's fishing! The gulf is full of fish. Some days fishing is good and some days it isn't."
"I'd like that," I said. "I'd like to see what's out there."
"I'll ask Dad to take us with him if your parents are OK with the idea."
"Sounds like a marvelous experience to me," Pop said.
"I'll talk to you more about fishing," John-Henry said.
"I heard the story about y our grandfather building that house in the 30s?" Pop said. "A picture of this house taken off shore about twenty years ago shows your grandfather's house. That picture is hanging at the conservancy too."
"I'd love to see it," Ivan said. "I didn't know my grandfather was that well remembered. He was a happy old man. I stayed with him as often as I could when I was little. I love the beach. I got that from him, I think. I know my father is glad I'm here. He likes having me in the house with him, when he comes in."
"It does grow on you," Pop said. "One afternoon at lunch time, I'll come home and pick you boys up. I haven't shown Clay where I work yet. He left his friends behind in Tulsa. He wasn't happy about it. I'm glad he's found a good friend, Ivan. It's something that worried me until right now."
"Clay's cool," Ivan said. "We get along."
"You boys can come down to see the pictures. Some of the conservancy people will want to meet you, Ivan. I'm sure they have stories about your grandfather you'd like to hear."
"I like hearing stories about Grand Pop," Ivan said. "He was good to me. He taught me to be independent. He taught me to find things in life I loved doing."
"Will you take me fishing?" Brian asked, looking right past me.
"Brian, you're just imagining Ivan is Clay's friend. You wouldn't want to ask favors of Clay's imaginary friend," John-Henry said, never missing a chance to take a poke at Brian.
Everyone laughed but Brian.
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