The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
I got up the next morning excited, and perhaps a bit jealous over how well my family treated my friend. My thoughts were of Ivan and I wanted to see him.
"Come on up," Ivan said, as he leaned on the railing, watching me arrive.
He looked bored, until he saw me the day after he auditioned at my house. He had been watching the gulf. I'm certain he was waiting to see me. I went through the kitchen, up the stairs, and out onto the deck. He'd turned around so he was facing me when I came through the white linen curtains.
"You've come to tell me your parents have forbidden you to see me again?"
"Get real. You were a hit. Even Brian likes you. I'm not sure that's so hot for you. Brian doesn't like anyone."
"I'm glad that's over," Ivan said. "Your parents are nice, but I'd marry Lucy if she was a couple of years older. You've got one cute sister, Clay."
"I'm certain you aren't talking about Coleen. I picture her belonging to the shark family, when it comes to boys anyway," I said. "Any cute boy'll do."
"You think I'm cute?"
"No. You definitely are not cute, Ivan. I don't know of another boy I'd call handsome, but you're handsome as a boy gets."
"Thank you," he said.
He turned his head to look into my eyes. He slid his arm over my shoulders. A smile took over his face. I was warmed by it and him. We'd become friends. I didn't know how it happened. I liked being with Ivan and he liked me being with him. This created security we didn't get from anyone else.
"She's old and she's big enough to break me," he said of Coleen. "I prefer Lucy. She's going to go a long way in life."
"Me too. We get along. She likes me," I said. "No accounting for taste, but we've always been closer to each other than anyone else.
"I like you too," he said. "I'm glad you came up. I was worried they saw through my disguise. I had to work on that charm deal. You think they'll be up here to check on us?"
"No. I've never been in trouble, and you were perfect. You have a way with people. That's why I can't see what you see in me," I said. "You could have a dozen friends."
"I don't need a dozen friends. I need you to be my friend. We make a good team. I wasn't ready for your family to be so nice to me."
"They put up with my friends in Tulsa. They liked you," I said. "I wanted to be your friend the first time I saw you. I just felt like you were the guy for me. I have no idea why. I don't take to that many people."
"You aren't like everyone else, Clay. Too many people are like everyone else. Besides, you moved onto my beach. There is no one else," he said, smiling as sweetly as he said it. "It's a good thing we like each other."
"If that's not a vote of confidence, I don't think I've heard one. I'm still not sure I've heard one."
He smiled and looked out at the gulf. His arm stayed over my shoulders. No matter my doubts about what he saw in me, the arm sold me on the bond building between us. I was happy being there. I didn't think it could get any better.
"My father's at the fish warehouse. He'll be home in a few minutes."
"How do you know?" I asked. "You don't read minds?"
Ivan laughed before saying, "He's on the boat off-loading fish. Come here."
We passed the bed and the bookshelves and went to the closet. He opened the door to reveal a big radio. He switched a couple of switches, identified himself, and his father answered a minute later.
"What's up, Ivan. I'm a little busy. Over," his father answered.
"Can you stop and get me some Quaker Puffed Rice? I ran out. Over."
"Yeah, I can. We'll go shopping this afternoon. Let me get my job done and we can talk face to face. Vilnius Two Out."
"10-4," Ivan said. "Base out."
"Neato," I said. "Vilnius Two?"
"Grand Pop was Vilnius One. They were both born there."
"How far out can you talk to him?" I asked.
"Depends. I can pick him up two or three hours out. Maybe 50 or 60 miles. The antenna blew down a couple of years ago. We only have half an antenna right now. My father's been talking about taking me out with him now that I'm fourteen. I can ask him to take us this weekend. You can come if you want. Being out of sight of land is awesome. It's all water in all directions all of the time, after you head west for an hour."
"Cool!" I said, excited by the prospect of a new adventure. "I'll have to ask my parents. Pop said he thought it might be a good experience."
"Hey, you'll be with me. They'll let you go anywhere with me," he bragged.
"You sound pretty sure of yourself. My parents aren't that easy," I said. "Especially if I really want to go somewhere."
"You'll see. Tell them you're going with me. They'll say it's OK. We'll be with my father."
I would see. Ivan was right. It wasn't just Ivan's performance that convinced them that we would make good friends, but what did I know?
I wanted to go fishing. I'd go anywhere with Ivan, but being out of sight of land was a long way to go. Since first seeing the gulf, I'd wanted to see beyond the horizon. I didn't want to be too far from land however, which was a handicap.
We had sodas. We walked to the point so I could say hello to Millie. When we came back into the kitchen, Mr. Aleksa was putting boxes of Quaker Puff Rice on the table. We'd heard his pickup out front, and that brought us inside.
Ivan and his father kissed on the lips. I'd heard of Europeans being more affection toward each other, but it was my first father and son kiss. It was easy to see how fond of Ivan Mr. Aleksa was.
Ivan poured his father coffee and they stood talking about the coming fishing trip. It was like I wasn't there for the first few minutes.
"I'm Ivan's father," he said, reaching to shake my hand.
Sure glad the kiss deal didn't extend to Ivan's friends. He seemed cordial, was unshaven, and he looked tired.
"How long you home for, Dad?"
"I'll go out Friday night. The fish are running southwest of here. A storm went up the west coast of Mexico. The fishing trawlers are heading out Friday."
"How many boats are you running with?" Ivan asked.
"Six. Popov is having a tooth pulled tomorrow. He won't go out again this week. He's such a softy," Mr. Aleksa said.
"How about you take Clay and me out with you Friday. You've been promising to take me," Ivan said. "I want to go before school starts."
"By the sounds of it, we'll have plenty of work, son. You sure you want to go this trip?" Mr. Aleksa asked. "Clay may not be up to a weekend of working."
"Sure. I'd rather work than sit around. You up for a little work, Clay? I'll show you what to do. It takes strength and some stamina, but you'll like it. There's nothing like being in the middle of the gulf."
"I'd like that," I said, and I meant it.
I'd finally get to see what was out there. Finally hadn't taken that long. Seeing what was out there wasn't possible but I'd be out there where it was, and I'd see plenty. I didn't think Ivan would let me fall overboard.
"You can go, Ivan. You've got to wear something on the boat. You don't know how quickly you can lose your pecker to something sharp or hungry. We're traveling in a fleet. There's no way to know if one of those fellows might take a shine to a good looking young boy's flesh, after a few days at sea," Mr. Aleksa said.
"Yeah, I'll find something to wear. I may not like clothes, but I like unwanted attention even less. We'll be working and I'll dress accordingly, Dad. I'm not that crazy."
"That would be best, Ivan. When you're here swimming and on the beach, you dress the way you please. I have no objections."
"Glad we had this talk, Dad. I'm fine with that. I want to go with you more often. You said when I was fourteen you'd take me. I'll do it on your terms."
"Sounds like we have a deal. I know your grandfather encouraged you to think for yourself. Trouble you don't need can come with independence. I didn't own a swim suit until I came to America. We never wore suits back home, but it's different here. There is a great fear of nudity. What was done naturally at home can get you locked up here."
"Yeah, I've heard, Dad. No one comes here but Clay, and he doesn't care what I wear. Do you, Clay?"
"No," I said, no longer having an opinion.
I wasn't walking around with my business hanging out, but I didn't look like Ivan either. We were cool no matter what he wore. The idea of men looking at him worried me.
"I'll take you. I should meet Clay's parents so they know me," he said.
"Oh, they know you," Ivan said, smiling. "You're dependable."
"I am," Mr. Aleksa said quizzically. "Glad to hear it. I always mean to be."
"They had me over for dinner last night. Mr. Olson works for the conservancy. They apparently know all about us," Ivan said.
"They do? They're a bit high dollar for our taste. I know the people living in that house work for the conservancy. Glad you met them. I worry about you being home alone so much," he said. "I'll stop by the conservancy to speak to Mr. Olson in the morning. I'd like to meet Clay's father just so he knows who I am."
"I'm fine, Dad. Clay's up here all the time. I'd rather be here than anywhere in the world. It was a little lonely after Boris left me, but I adapted."
"Yeah, but you're fourteen and if people know you are here alone some times, there could be trouble, Ivan. America is a funny place. A boy as smart and as capable as you, can be taken away from me if someone doesn't like the idea my job requires me to be gone some nights."
"There's no one around, Dad. Clay's parents know about you and they have a high opinion of you and Grand Pop. No one is going to cause trouble."
"I certainly hope not. I worry they'd force you to live with your mother."
"The mother who deserted Boris and me when I wasn't nine yet? If I'm even a little crazy, I know where I got it from. It's dangerous for my mother and I to be in closed in spaces together."
"I'm telling you what can happen. How's Boris? I miss your brother," Mr. Aleksa admitted.
"In love again. I'm surprised he hasn't made you a grandfather," Ivan said. "Mother has his girlfriends living with them. That's where they want me to live? I'd be better off being raised by wolves."
"Heaven help the child," his father said. "Your mother should have left your brother here where he couldn't get into that kind of trouble. It was a lot easier leaving you when Boris was here."
"I'm fine, Dad. I live in a good house. I eat good food. I have fresh air and exercise every day. My father loves me. No kid ever had it better. I don't need a leash to keep me safe. I do have a brain that works most of the time."
"Unfortunately the laws aren't written with such things in mind, Ivan. The law would say you should live with your mother. If she thought she could handle you, she'd have come for you a long time ago."
"If that happened, I'd just come back here the first chance I got," Ivan said. "This is the best place in the world."
"Your brother isn't as smart as you, Ivan. Your mother has always favored Boris. He didn't know any better when she came for him."
"He's got the rest of his life to love on girls. He left me alone. I won't forget that very soon. He was fine here and she came and got him. She should be in jail. We're better off with you. You're a responsible adult. She may have given us birth but she's never been a mother to us."
"Don't talk about your mother that way. You'll show her some respect. She's the only mother you have, Ivan. Boris is too bold and too pretty for his own good. I'd feel better if I could keep an eye on him, but I can't. If I tried to get him back, she'd take you for spite. I don't want that to happen."
"You don't respect her," Ivan said. "Anyone who doesn't like this beach is crazy. It's nothing personal. It's a fact. I plan to live here for the rest of my life."
"I have my reasons," Mr. Aleksa said. "The worst thing she did was come to get my son. She left me years ago. It was for the best. Why didn't she let Boris grow up before she came for him?"
It was awkward hearing Ivan's story. They didn't hide their feelings or hold back on what they had to say. It furnished me a clearer picture of who Ivan was.
Ivan fixed his father eggs and bacon and we ate one of the boxes of Quaker Puffed Rice. Ivan took the fish his father brought to put it in the freezer. I tagged along and found the coolest spot on the beach. It was built into the back of the kitchen and was a flour to ceiling freezer that my family would have fit into.
"We'll bring part of what we catch this weekend home for your parents. It'll be plenty fresh, and it'll be fish you helped to catch. They'll get a kick out of that."
"Cool!" I said to Mr. Aleksa, hoping I'd do a good enough job to earn them.
It was a forty foot boat docked in the marina behind the fish warehouse, where Mr. Aleksa sold his catch. After warming up the engines, the lines were cast off by Kenny, the first mate, a quiet kid not much older than we were.
We left the dock late Friday afternoon. We'd be back Sunday in the morning, depending on the fishing, the weather, and how fast the refrigeration filled. There were seats on the bridge, where Mr. Aleksa controlled the boat. He stood looking out through the glass in the front of the bridge. It gave him a pretty good view of the water in front of him. The seats were for the spectators, like me.
Once we cleared the harbor, the radio crackled with information. Mr. Aleksa was adept at guiding the boat and talking. He was given compass headings that would take us to where the fishing fleet was going.
"He goes out with other fishermen. They coordinate so they'll end up in the same place. The trawlers are loaded with equipment to locate the fish. My father sticks close to them. They have a general idea where the best fishing is."
"Cool," I said.
"I haven't been going out much. Kenny's OK, but he begins to worry when either Boris or I come along. He needs the job."
Kenny Cooper was a good sized red headed boy, maybe sixteen. If he was worried, he didn't show it. He sat with his legs dangling over the bow of the boat as we headed southwest. Wherever we ended up. He'd get there first.
Kenny incessantly smoked Marlboro cigarettes. He wore no shirt and a pair of jeans he'd cut off well above the knee to cover the essentials. His skin glowed red, like mine did when I first got to Florida, but he'd been working on the boat for a couple of years.
"Ivan," Kenny said, the first time we met, after he cast off the lines.
"Kenny. How's it hanging?" Ivan asked.
"Not quite to my knee yet, but you'll know when it does."
"Can't wait," Ivan said. "You still living on the boat?"
"Nowhere else to go," he said. "I like the boat. No one fucks with me here. Your old man is nice to me."
"Yeah, privacy and quiet," Ivan said. "This is Clay. We're here for adventure. We won't get in your way. He's never been out before."
"A landlubber. You'll love the gulf, Clay. Nothing like it in this world. Nothing but the water, the sky, fresh air, and the birds," Kenny said like he might recite poetry. "Just be careful of the birds."
"And hopefully fish," Ivan added. "They'll bomb you if they get a chance."
Kenny laughed and shook his head.
"Hopefully fish," Kenny said. "Lots of fish and lots of pay for your Daddy. So he can afford to keep me in Marlboros and Tru Ade for another week."
"What do you do with all your money, Kenny?" Ivan asked.
"Bank it. Your Daddy got me a bank account right off. I got a bankbook with my name on it and all. He gives me cash to buy my cigarettes and pop. He takes my bankbook with him to the bank. He brings it back with an entry for that week's deposit. I'm going to buy me my own boat one day."
"Cool," Ivan said, and Kenny wandered away. We ended up back on the bridge with his father, after I got a tour of the boat.
I watched Kenny sitting on the bow. He more rode it than sat on it. The water was calm and it was fairly smooth.
After a while watching his father, Ivan nudged me and took me down into the bowels of the boat. He showed me where the crew quarters were before going to the galley for soda. The engines were loud below deck. Ivan said they were Detroit Diesel Marine Engines. There were two.
"What's Kenny's story?" I asked. "He looks at home here."
"He hung around the warehouse. My father gave him a job when he was our age. Might have run away or he doesn't have a home. He gave Dad his name and that's about it. He's a harder worker than me. I don't mind the work but he's good at it. I think he likes it," he said. "He lives on the boat."
"What about school?" I asked.
"Kenny? No school. He hardly leaves the boat. He's running from something or afraid of someone out there. Dad decided he couldn't let him live under that warehouse. Dad wants to see to it that he grows up on his own terms. He's a good guy. Dad couldn't afford a full time first mate. Kenny works out fine."
"Your Dad sounds cool," I said.
"He's a good man. He works hard. He doesn't ask for much. That's why I want to be at the house. I make it easier on him. He likes me being there, but he misses Boris. I think the first son is always the favorite."
"I like you being there too," I said, giving him one of my best smiles.
Ivan put his arm across my shoulders and smiled back.
We moved in a southwesterly direction. The area in front of the boat stayed well lit, even as the land behind us darkened and disappeared. At one point, as we sat in the stern of the boat, Ivan pointed out what he said was the rigging of one of the fishing trawlers. It was a shadow on the horizon off the port side. It was hard for me to tell what it was.
The sound and the motion were hypnotic as we sailed into the night. Ivan got a bag with sandwiches and we ate one apiece. He took both his father and Kenny a sandwich. We moved steadily deeper into the gulf. I wasn't sure when we lost contact with land and it wasn't anything I thought about again.
Sitting and doing nothing sure tired me out. Ivan took me down to the crew quarters where the bunks were stacked one on top of the other in the bow of the boat. I remember Ivan pointing at one and the next thing I knew I was waking up to a racket I couldn't identify.
It was still dark below deck, but as I came out onto the stern of the boat, there was rigging up over my head and a whining sound was coming from a small engine controlling the boom where the net was hung.
Over the stern of the boat hung another net that spread out behind the boat. Ivan's father controlled the levers on the boom as it was left to unfold as the boat moved slowly forward. Kenny and Ivan were feeding the net into the gulf off the back of the boat.
Ivan had on thick gloves and he moved like he'd done this before. Looking off to the port side, I saw rigging against the morning sky. It was attached to the biggest damn boat I'd ever seen. It was three or four times the size of our boat.
The rigging on the trawler was swinging a net out over the water, dropping it a fair distance from the boat. Men scurried around on deck. It wasn't light enough to see much details, but there was no doubt these men knew what they were doing and wasted no time doing it.
On another trawler about the same size as the first, one of the nets was opening to spill fish straight onto the deck. Then the net swung back over the starboard side, dropping it back into the water. It was fast and impressive.
What I saw in the few minutes I watched, repeated itself before I looked away. Nets went in and came out of the water at a fairly regular clip. It didn't look very hard the way they did it.
The boom on our boat was tiny compared to the industrial size suckers on the big boats. The engine for the boom struggled as the boom strained under the weight of the net. I couldn't begin to estimate how many fish were in the net. It was chocked full of fish.
"Here," Ivan said. "Come help me so Kenny can pull the covers off the refrigeration. Those holds are where the fish end up. Look at all the fish!"
Ivan tossed me a pair of gloves like the ones he wore. Kenny had on a pair as he went along the deck, yanking up the sections covers to reveal the holds that went down six or eight feet. The boom swung the net over the center of the deck, raining squirming fish down as Kenny leaned out of the way.
Kenny used a big rake to push the fish into the holds. In no time the fish were in the holds and the boom was dropping the net back into the water.
The net I watched Ivan and Kenny dropping over the stern of the boat was ready to come back out. It had only been in the water a few minutes. What was going on? Why did it take three days of fishing to fill the holds if so many fish were coming out of the gulf? I was amazed by it all.
"Pull like this," Ivan said, showing me to grab the cross sections of net to pull it onto the boat. It was heavy. I needed to put plenty of muscle into it. Kenny came over, getting in the middle of the net, taking a lot of the weight off me. Fish of all sizes began swimming out of the net onto the deck.
It took leverage and balance to get the net into the boat. I caught the hang of it watching Kenny, who was in the middle of the storm. The fish cascaded around his ankles and up to his knees as we kept pulling until the entire net was emptied onto the deck.
Kenny left the net to get the rake. In five more minutes the fish disappeared into the refrigeration units, and we were putting the net back into the water, as I heard the engine on the boom beginning to strain to lift the newest load of fish..
"How much fish can we put on the boat before it sinks?" I asked Ivan.
"Not a lot more. I've never seen so many fish. It's like the gulf is filled to the brim. It's not usually this easy," Ivan told me.
"This is easy?" I asked, as my arms were already aching.
"So many fish. It's like they're jumping into the nets. We usually catch a few hundred pound at a time and it takes a couple of hours of leaving the nets out to catch that many."
Obviously something had changed. We got a rest once the net was back in the water, but Mr. Aleksa kept using the boom. Each time the net went in, he almost immediately began to bring it back up.
"Ivan, pull the net one more time. Then fold it back into it's holder. No point in wearing you boys out. I'm filling my net every time I drop it. Those holds will be filled in no time at this rate."
"Yes, sir, Captain," Ivan answered.
"Then I'll let you swab the decks," Mr. Aleksa replied happily.
"Oh no, Cap'n," Ivan said.
"Better you than me," Kenny said.
I didn't want to tell anyone I was having fun. I mean my arms and back were aching, but I'd never worked before and if this was work, I didn't mind.
These were good people and I was lucky enough to find them on the beach where I lived.
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