The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
Kenny was busy behind us, raking the fish he couldn't shovel into the holds. Ivan was on one side of the net. I was on the other. We began pulling it into the boat. It wasn't easy work. The weight of the net was enough to make me strain as the fish came out of the water.
Kenny joined us, grabbing hold of the net in the center. He took some of the weight off me. The fish spilled around Kenny onto the deck. He was stronger than he looked and he knew what he was doing. While watching him for helpful tips, I became more efficient at pulling the net.
There wasn't time to think. I had to concentrate on what I was doing. It required a good bit of my strength. The sweat rolled as the net emptied its contents onto the deck. The net folded up as the fish fell out. By the time we emptied it, I was ready for a break. My arms were tired, not to mention my aching back. I ended up sitting on the folded net, watching Kenny filling the holds with fish.
My back rested against the stern as I recovered the feeling in my arms and legs. It was intense but exhilarating. The net was in the boat about the time I was ready to give in to my exhaustion. I smiled about what I'd done. It was the first time I did something I classify as work.
That's when I discovered all the fish didn't make it into the holds. The fish in the nets weren't all fish and all fish weren't eatable. When Kenny came to one of these, it flew back into the gulf.
"What was that?" I asked, my attention leaving my aching muscles.
Forgetting my fatigue, my mind shifted into curiosity mode. I moved to get a closeup look at the strange creatures that never made it to anyone's dinner plate.
If I was hooked on the boat, the sea, the fresh air, those weird creatures sealed the deal. In mid toss, the next time Kenny had one in his hand, I grabber his wrist. At first, a bit put off by my interruption of his flow, he saw my interest and dropped the mystery creature on the deck.
"What is that?" I asked of the ugliest creature I'd ever seen.
Kenny looked at me for a full minute. Then he looked at my hand on his wrist, before looking down to where the thing landed. It took a second for him to look at the unidentified sea creature.
"It ain't no fish, dude. We fish. The rest goes back," he said.
My toe helped me to investigate the brown and black speckled crustacean. What was it? I wondered as my toe failed to reveal anything concrete.
With the boom net back in the water, Mr. Aleksa stood at the bridge entrance with a cup of coffee, while Kenny and I worked out the new routine for those creatures that routinely went back into the drink. When I looked up and saw Mr. Aleksa, he smile a benign smile. He showed no concern over my desire to add a step to Kenny's routine.
Returning to operate the boom and bring in the next net full of fish, Mr. Aleksa said, "Let Clay see anything you usually throw back. We may have a budding scientist on our crew."
"Right, boss," Kenny said.
He looked at me as if he was working out what he thoughts I wanted. From then on, anything due to go back into the gulf, was put in a pile for me to look over, after I finished my work. Work came first. I wasn't going to neglect it. We had lots of time, after the nets were pulled, to rest. That's when my toe went to work on the pile Kenny left for me.
Shortly after this conversation, the boom swung back over the deck, releasing another wriggling net full of fish on deck. Saying I didn't know there were so many fish would be stupid, but I'd never seen so many fish. We were nearly knee deep in those squirmy suckers.
Kenny stayed in motion, making those fish disappear as quickly as they hit the deck. He knew there would be more, as the net moved into position to be dropped back into the sea. It ran smoothly and except for Kenny, we were working an hour at a time.
"Good job, fisherman," Ivan said, sliding over beside me. "That's what we do. What do you think?"
"I think it's hard work," I said. "I like it. What's that," I said, nudging the unidentified swimming object with my toe to get it out of Kenny's way.
"You don't know what that is?" Ivan said facetiously.
He sounded serious to me.
"No. Why do you think I asked you?" I said. "You're smart. What is it?"
"You ever heard of the mysteries of the deep, dude."
"No," I said, sensing disappointment coming.
"That's one of those," Ivan said happily. "Weird sucker, aren't they?"
After getting our second wind, after our second soda, we stood at the starboard side of the boat. watching one of the trawlers only a few hundred yards away. It's booms were in constant motion, dropping fish onto the deck, swinging its nets back over the water, and another net on a separate boom, emptied onto its section of the boat.
The deck was alive with fish. Eight men shoveled the knee deep catch into the holds. One thing was for certain, they had a lot more deck than we did. Their nets always seemed to be full. I wondered why fishing boats stayed out for days on end. Unless I was missing something, these boats, including ours, would be so full of fish by morning's end, there would be no where to put them.
Because he was catching so many fish with the boom net, Mr. Aleksa told us not to drop the stern net again. The holds were half filled in a couple of hours. At this rate, the boom net would fill the holds in a couple more hours.
"This is a lot of fish," Ivan told me. "We don't catch half this many ordinarily in three days of fishing. On average, in three days, we half fill our holds."
"Why are there so many?" I asked, looking to Ivan for answers.
"Because we are where a lot of fish are today."
"I'm sure glad I have you to keep me informed," I said.
Ivan smiled and shrugged.
Boris, his brother, had been going with his father since he was fourteen. Ivan went on the boat but didn't work. His father let him learn the trade without practicing it. Exposure made Ivan more passionate about being a fisherman.
Once Kenny understood my fascination with creatures there was no use for, he kicked them into a pile for me to examine, after the work was done. If he knew what it was, he'd tell me before he threw these unidentified swimming objects back into the gulf. I did get a good look at some pretty unusual life forms. I've never stopped trying to identify some of what I saw on my earliest fishing trips.
Once I developed a technique and learned to use my legs more effectively, the work was easier. The more I worked on the fishing boat, the stronger I got. My body in Tulsa had no lines in it. Everything was kind of rounded off. The summer I was fourteen, I began to mature. My body changed.
By summer's end pulling nets was no big deal. Ivan and I could easily pull in the stern net by ourselves. This freed Kenny to do any number of other things to help Mr. Aleksa. Ivan and I were literally pulling our weight on board the Vilnius Two. Once we were done, there was always a pile of creatures waiting for me.
I enjoyed using my muscles. Seeing the fish we caught gave me a sense of accomplishment. The net jerked, pulled, yanked, and was a living organism. We worked like a well-oiled machine. Then the real excitement grew with each new creature I saw.
That first morning on the boat, the radio crackled as Mr. Aleksa operated the boom, ready to set the net back into the water.
"Kenny, let out the net for me. I'll see who that is," Mr. Aleksa said.
We followed him onto the bridge to listen. What I heard made the mystery of the sea run deeper.
"Vilnius Two, over."
"Fifteen minute, Nicky. We drive fish your way. We catch more fish, we sink boat," the happy captain explained, laughing heartily at this good fortune.
"10-4. I'll have my net ready. I'm filling fast too, Andrei. Vilnius Two out."
"Gorky out," the other captain said.
"He's Russian," Ivan said. "Let's get a soda and watch them coming," Ivan said. "Those suckers are huge. They'll leave a big wake. You need to hold onto something, once the boat starts rocking."
I didn't understand what we would see, but the soda sounded good. I was tired, thirsty, hot, and it wasn't mid morning yet. I didn't know if I could make it for three days.
The boom came in as we stood on the starboard side, watching the three trawlers sailing toward each other. There were three boats our size and they were off our bow a few hundred yards apart. We were all catching tons of fish.
When the three trawlers turned toward the Vilnius Two, I began to worry. If the trawlers looked big a few hundred yards away, they looked huge closeup, and they got too close for my taste.
"What are they doing?" I asked, once the bow of these boats began obscuring everything else.
"They're driving the fish toward us. Their holds are full. They're making sure we fill ours. They'll cut away in a few seconds," Mr. Aleksa predicted. "We pulled our net so it didn't become tangled. Well drop it as quick as they turn away. It'll fill with fish before you can say, 'Dale Robertson."
They were close enough to count the squirming fish on their decks, once they turned away. Our boat rocked substantially. The fisherman on the trawlers were up to their knees in fish. The holds filled, they'd stay on the deck.
Little did I know we'd look the same way once we turned toward home, after Mr. Aleksa operated the boom for another two hours. Kenny would declare the holds full. He was hardly able to get the covers back in place. We were wading in the fish on deck. I figured we'd had a good day. Mr. Aleksa was very happy.
I was too tired to smile at the end of my first fishing trip.
"Are there always this many fish?" I asked.
"No way. I've never seen this many fish," Ivan said.
"You're our good luck charm, Clay. We'll return to the fish warehouse today to off-load," Mr. Aleksa said.
"It's exciting," I said.
"Gets your heart pounding, that's for certain," Ivan said.
We sat on top of the bridge to avoid sitting on the fish. I felt good. In a few weeks it was so routine I hardly thought about the fish we caught. I was looking forward to the next trip about the time we were docking with our holds empty.
There was nothing I didn't like about being on the Vilnius Two.
Maybe the smell of my fellow fisherman got to me, but when the nets were in, Ivan and I started washing our fishy cutoffs in the galley, drying them on top of the bridge, while we took a refreshing swim, once the engines went silent.
We swam each morning at the house, after getting up. Our swims off the boat became routine, after the nets had been secured. We got Kenny to wash the cutoff jeans he looked like he was poured into when he was our age. He'd probably grown up in those suckers. They'd have stood on their own, I'm sure.
Laying on top of the bridge to catch the rays6 to let our cutoffs dry a little longer, became another reward for our labor. It had to be done before noon, when the sun became torturous. Fishing was like having our own yacht, sailing the Gulf of Mexico on our summer vacation, if you didn't count the work. We had it good.
After filling up with fish on that first trip, Kenny sat with his back against the bulkhead, looking exhausted. His head drooped forward as he fought off sleep. Mr. Aleksa leaned against the rigging, watching the net disappear into the water. He wanted one more net full before he turned the boat toward home.
"Coffee in the galley," Mr. Aleksa yelled as he headed for the bridge.
I was too tired to get up. I'd get coffee later. Ivan sat right beside me. He'd worked way harder than me, but he knew what he was doing. He looked beat.
"We'll have to protect you when we go in," Mr. Aleksa said seriously, as he looked on top of the bridge at me.
"Why's that?" I asked, not liking the sound of it.
"Fisherman are superstitious, Clay. They'll be looking for a way to explain our good fortune. When they find out you're the only new thing about this trip, they'll want to keep you as a good luck charm. Old fisherman custom."
"I'd like to avoid that if I could," I said.
"The fish don't run like this too often. We've caught a month's worth of fish today. Not bad for little more than half days work," Mr. Aleksa said.
I'd never been so tired. I couldn't make a living doing that every day, but by the next time I got to go, I couldn't wait to get back out there. I found my way to the bunks as we sailed home. The drone of the engines and the motion of the boat put me right to sleep.
The trawlers had been off-loaded and were at anchor when we were back in the harbor. It took fifteen minutes for another boat to finish off-loading, and we moved into position to turn our catch over to the fish warehouse.
After all the fish were gone, Kenny hooked a hose to a dockside faucet. He began washing down the deck. Mr. Aleksa went into the warehouse as soon as a man standing with him estimated what was in the holds and on the deck. He apparently trusted Kenny to get the rest of the fish off the boat. I watched Ivan to see if there was more for us to do, but the fish warehouse had taken over.
If I remember correctly the minimum wage at the time, more than I was worth, was a buck twenty-five. When Ivan's father came back, he handed each of his deck hands a crisp twenty dollar bill. I hadn't come to take the man's money. I had a ball on the boat. Getting paid for that seemed wrong.
"I don't want this," I told Ivan, not confident enough to say it to Mr. Aleksa. "It's wrong taking money for having fun."
"You work for me, you take your pay," Ivan said gruffly. "That's what he'll tell you. Just put it in your pocket and don't make waves. He's never caught so many fish in one day. He's not sure you weren't the charm that made it happen."
"It isn't like this all the time?" I asked again.
"I've gone out for days and we didn't half fill half the holds. This kind of catch is rare."
After scrubbing the deck, Kenny hung the hose on a hook over his head at the back of the bridge. He stripped out of his cutoffs and took out a bar of soap. He took advantage of the running water warmed by the midday sun.
I wasn't sure about Kenny. He seemed to live in a world of his own. He was harmless and yet oblivious to the dozen people who walked passed, looking at the naked boy taking a shower. It's the only way Kenny got to shower. A lot of what Kenny did was done for the convenience of it.
Ivan watched me watching Kenny.
"No running water where we dock. Plenty of water in the tanks for drinking, but this is his only chance to get the fish smell off," Ivan said. "The sun shines on the water pipes all day. It's warm water."
It was Florida, I guess. Mr. Aleksa returned from the galley and helped us watch Kenny shower. Kenny wouldn't have cut it in Oklahoma, but we weren't in Oklahoma. Kenny disappeared in the soap suds. I'd shower at the house. Kenny leaned to take a drag off his Marlboro, a sip of Tru Ade, and went back to moving the soap around on his tall body.
"Where does he go?" I asked Ivan.
"He stays on the boat," Ivan said. "No one knows where he came from. Dad found him hanging around the fish warehouse one morning, scrounging for food. Dad took him to breakfast. After concluding he was harmless, he hired him to keep the deck clean. He told him he could sleep on the boat when he was in port if he wanted. He did. When he did a good job, Dad started taking him fishing with him. That was over two years ago. He can do most anything Dad can do now, almost as well."
"He doesn't say much," I said.
"Good worker though," Ivan said.
Too soon it was time for the first day of school. I'd picked out my yellow and brown cowboy shirt with snaps in the place of buttons. I got out my newest pair of jeans and borrowed John-Henry's cowboy boots and Brian's black cowboy hat. Since my feet were size nine and John-Henry's were size thirteen, I wrapped my feet in newspaper before inserting them into the boots. It worked fine after the third try, which is how many times I added newspaper to do the job. It would be okay for a day, and by that time I'd have established my cowboy legend."
My mother didn't see it the same way I did, when I went downstairs for breakfast.
The box of Sugar Crisp and a bowl were next to my place at the table. Lucy ate with me. She ate Krinkles. My mother came and sat down with her coffee.
"How is it you have on John-Henry's boots this morning, Clayton?" she asked, proving again she didn't miss anything.
"I met some local kids. They think I'm a cowboy because I'm from Oklahoma. I figured being a cowboy is better than being a dud. I'm going for it, Mama."
Mother looked me over, noticing the hat beside me. She considered my logic. I knew I was in trouble and I hadn't made it to the car yet.
"The shirt looks nice. When's the last time you wore it?"
"Day after Christmas last year," I said between spooning Sugar Crisp into my face. "It was from Santa Clause, remember?"
While some boys at school in Tulsa were cowboys through and through, I wasn't. It was limiting to walk around in cowboy hats and boots. My friends and I had no interest in keeping up all that gear. The closest I'd been to a horse was at the Memorial Day Parade when dozens of horses and riders passed where we sat on the curb. John-Henry took me to a rodeo once.
By the time I'd finished my cereal my mother was behind my chair, doing a complete inspection of my outfit. She used her hand to smooth what was left of my hair after my ready-to-go-to-school scalping. She stood back and tried to be motherly without sounding bossy.
"While Brian's hat will look nice on you, except for his head being two sizes bigger than yours, you won't be allowed to wear it in school. If you put it down, someone is going to take it. Leave the hat here where it's safe. You know jeans aren't allowed in school. I won't be able to come and get you when they call me to come and take you home to get properly dressed. Your brown slacks go great with that shirt. The biggest question I have for you, Clay, John-Henry has the biggest feet this side of Oklahoma. You, on the other hand, have normal size feet. How are you going to keep your feet in his boots?"
"Newspaper," I said. "I wrapped my feet in newspaper until the boots fit. They're fine. Really, Mama. They fit and all."
"Let me see your feet," she said, having trouble with the concept.
I worked my right foot out of the boot.
"Won't the newspaper compact as you walk? Your feet will have an awful lot of room. Marvin Clayton Olson, you can't go to school like that," she insisted. "You're going to ruin your feet, not to mention John-Henry's boots."
"Mama! If I don't have anything on that points to the fact I'm a cowboy, how is anyone going to get the picture? It's all I got without the jeans and the hat. The shirts just a shirt. Please," I pleaded.
"Leave the hat. Put on the brown slacks. Wear the boots, but when I get home from work, I'm inspecting your feet, young man. Any sign of blisters and the boots stay home from now on. Are you getting the picture?"
"Crystal clear," I said, heading upstairs for a redress before she could think of something else.
Between the boots and all that newspaper, my feet weighed a ton. I, however, was several inches taller with the boots on. I liked that. There was a chance my feet would grow into John-Henry's boots. My head was never going to grow into Brian's hat.
I didn't get a glance of Ivan until lunch on the first day. He brought his tray over to sit beside me. I had a tuna sandwich and one peanut butter and Welch's Concord grape jelly sandwich and a banana. Ivan had something that looked like it might be spaghetti with a big hunk of bread. I offered him half of my tuna sandwich. It tasted way better than that stuff looked. I was never so happy to have a mother who knew how to cook.
"Hey, cowboy, what's up? Anyone sitting here?" he asked, looking me over before sitting down.
"Not much. The girls seem to like it. I'm taller in my brother's cowboy boots," I said. "Girls have never noticed me before."
"Is that what those are. They look like those clown shoes they wear at the circus. Do you realize how big those suckers are, Clay? I won't ask how you got your size feet in that size boot."
"Newspaper, my man," I said. "If I fall off my boots, I've got something to read until the meat wagon comes. They really look that big?" I worried.
Ivan laughed and spit out some spaghetti.
"Well, if you need something to read, I can lend you a book, and you won't need to break your leg. I've been here a little over three hours and I'm bored stiff. Is it today's paper?" He asked.
"Isn't it nice seeing your friends again?" I asked, remember how I felt on the first day of school in Tulsa.
Ivan ate some spaghetti. Just when I figured he wasn't answering, he said, "These people aren't my friends, Clay. We occupy the same space six hours each day. I like the beach, the silence, and the water. Going to school is something I have to do."
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked. "You might want to think about it."
"Me," he said. "I want to be me. I'll fish with my Dad. I'll live on the beach. I'm where I want to be, Clay. I don't need anything they are selling here. This is about indoctrination and regimentation. Get you ready to join the proletariat."
"The people who keep the wheels on the establishment wagon. Labor, Clay. You're being trained to do your duty to the great unwashed," he said in a voice that sounded like he might be serious.
"I don't know what I want to do, but it doesn't sound like I want to do that," I said.
"Me either. You are sent to school to learn to be a conformist, be obedient, and get you all charged up about contributing to a nine to five world. You may dig a ditch or be an employee in an office where the beans are counted."
"The beans? I don't think that's what I want. I don't like beans that much."
"Of course you don't. No one does. That's why you need to be programmed to do it. One must learn the secrets to be able to count the beans. No thank you. I'm not meant to be indoors. No fresh air. I can have a life I love, avoid the a'holes, which is hard work these days, or I can sit still to be programmed to sit still. What do you think I should do?"
"I thought we were friends," I said. "You sound hostile."
"You're not like them, Clay. You're like me, except for those clown boots. We're free as birds, you and me, when we're on my beach. Do you think you're cut out to work indoors? No, you aren't. We've got it as good as it gets. You can live with me and share my beach. The a'holes can keep the beans and their offices."
"Okay," I said. "Sounds good. I never favored beans much. My mother might be a problem with having a beach bum for a son. The idea will grow on her. She accepts Brian okay, and no one knows what he is."
Ivan put his hand on my shoulder and grinned at me. I wanted his approval more than I wanted an education. This was the first time we were together the first day of school, and I'd thought about him all morning. My life was better when I was with him. I'd known that for as long as I'd known him.
"I want to fish, breathe fresh sea air, and live free. I will read books and learn everything I can about the world in which I live," Ivan said. "No indoctrination please. I refuse to be regimented for the amusement and benefit of the oligarchs."
"Ollie who? I don't know him."
The bells began ringing. Ivan shoveled in the spaghetti like it was real food. I cringed. I'd bring an extra sandwich for him tomorrow. Maybe tuna. Mama made great tuna fish sandwiches.
"Sorry students, we'll have to continue this discussion tomorrow," Ivan said, sounding like a teacher. "We'll have to do this again soon. See yeah."
Ivan stood and grabbed his tray, heading for the door. I got up and ran into a brick wall.
"Watch it," a big voice advised. "What the hell are you dressed for. You some kind of pansy punk cowboy? You boys still cornhole each other when you ain't got no cows?"
I hadn't readied a reply for that particular question. Things had gone pretty well so far, but the immovable object didn't move, and I needed to gain some weight if I intended to move him.
"Horse got your tongue?" the boy said, shoving me backward, which wasn't a good idea with my feet now having far more room than they needed inside John-Henry's boots.
His audience, which seemed to travel with him, laughed at my loss of balance. Very funny. For my next act I'll fall down. He was taller than me even with my boots on, and with all that newspaper, balancing myself was tricky.
I didn't think it wise to back up, but several of his buddies were now so close I could feel them breathing on my neck, while they laughed.
Great! They'd surrounded me on two sides. Backing up from a bully was never good. I readied myself to get a face full of his fingers. He looked like he was out for blood. Mine.
"Take a seat, Leslie. I'm coming through here," Ivan said from behind me. "Clear the way, you ox. You ever thought of a diet for your condition? You are a slob, Leslie. Coming through here."
I was more shocked by what Ivan said than I was by his reappearance at just the right time.
"Don't call me that name," the ox growled. "My names is Les."
"It's going to be a lot less, Leslie, if you don't get out of my way," Ivan demanded, pushing me past the road block.
Much to my surprise, Leslie moved enough to let us pass. What had just happened?
"Thanks," I said, as I looked back at the bigger boy sitting at the table I'd deserted.
I couldn't tell if he had been coming or going when I met him.
"I'm going to be late and I'm not about to take any crap from the idiot class today," Ivan said. "Was he giving you trouble, Clay? You can't let a guy like that bully you."
"No, we'd just... met," I said. "I think he was stuck between the tables."
Ivan laughed, patted my back, and disappeared for the second time in two minutes.
'Who was that masked man?' I asked myself.
Ivan never stopped impressing me. He didn't let anything stymy him.
It was my only confrontation that day. Several boys asked me where I was from. The girls who talked to me giggled a lot and acted surprised by my cowboy way. Without the boots, most of the girls were taller than I was. I tried not to let being short bother me, but it did.
I was fourteen. Would I ever grow up?
Saying I was from Oklahoma got me the status I sought. No one knew where Oklahoma was. Why would they? No one was from Oklahoma. They understood the way I was dressed, because Roy Rogers and John Wayne were from out there somewhere, although I never saw them.
I smiled, acting like the friendless kid in the world. I didn't want to give anyone a reason to dislike me. Guys like Leslie didn't need a reason. They hated everyone, including themselves. Making everyone miserable was their calling.
I'd been gone from Oklahoma for long enough to begin forgetting what it was like being there. Ask me in ten years what was memorable about our beach home, I'd give you ten things I loved, starting with Ivan. I didn't remember what about Oklahoma appealed to me. It's where life began for me. It's where I lived until the month I turned fourteen.
In a single summer, three months, Florida had become my home. Comparing Oklahoma and Florida wasn't fair. I'm sure people living in Oklahoma liked it fine. I liked it fine when it was all I knew. It's funny how ignorance can make you content with a pretty unremarkable place.
Standing on our beach, looking out at the Gulf of Mexico, was seeing one of the natural wonders of the world. If everyone in Oklahoma could see it, they'd move here too, and Florida would sink into the sea once it filled up with Oklahomans.
While I had more friends in Oklahoma, none was as close to me as Ivan. None of them was going to teach me anything. We were exact copies of each other with small variations. We were copies of all the boys in Tulsa. We thought the same. None of us stood out from the crowd. Ivan stood out from everyone and everyone noticed him.
Even in the early days of our friendship, I knew Ivan was different from anyone I'd known before. He wasn't predictable. He had a complex mind of his own. I could never be sure of what he'd say or do. When I did something he didn't like, he said so. He made me think about stuff, when I hardly thought about anything. He made me feel better about who I was. He made me believe I could do more than follow the crowd. He made me want to do more than follow the crowd.
My life had never been better, if you didn't consider Leslie, and I didn't.
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