The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
Kenny took Boris a sandwich, as he waited for a fish to bite his bait. Nothing we caught so far could be considered big. It was routine to have forty pound fish and bigger in the fishing nets.
"We've put in enough time here. We're moving," Mr. Aleksa advised us.
The reels whirled as the line came in. We were underway much of the afternoon. The sun sank from high in the sky to much lower in the sky behind us. Our heading was south by southeast. We traveled at ten knots for four hours.
Arriving at a spot Mr. Aleksa liked, his sons let out their line. Then the engines were shut down. I calculating we were somewhere near the bottom of the Florida peninsula west of the Florida Keys.
With the sun lower in the western sky, the heat wasn't as intense, and we had found an offshore breeze. The water had more of a chop as tides and winds shifted at the end of the day.
We began to drift. I stayed glued to my seat behind where Ivan sat. I didn't cast my line again. By swiveling my seat I could watch the brothers Aleksa wait.
The gentle motion of the boat had me close to falling asleep. I didn't sleep the night before. While watching was more interesting than fishing, it did nothing to keep me awake.
Kenny stood in between the two stern seats, ready to serve either brother. Mr. Aleksa stood in the door to the bridge. No one had anything to say. It was all about what the fish did now.
We waited. We drifted. The light of day faded.
The clouds thickened as we drifted toward the south. The clear sky had filled with clouds until the sun was gone before it set. In August you couldn't usually buy a cool breeze. The humidity was sky high. Sweating was the order of the day. Even with the sun blocked completely, we sweat.
After an hour in the new spot, Boris unstrapped, leaned his rig against the stern, "Got to pee, Dad. Got to stretch my legs. I'm not accustomed to being still for so long."
He stood beside my seat and relieved himself with gusto. It was impossible to miss his process of elimination. I'd seen more and had a better view yesterday but I still didn't want to miss anything. He either didn't know or didn't care where my eyes were.
After getting relief, I watched him and Kenny stand near the galley door, eating the sandwiches they'd taken from Mama's picnic basket. They put their heads together, shoulders gently rubbing, as they spoke softly. One laughed and then the other one did.
It occurred to me that Boris touched base with all the boys, me, his own brother, and now Kenny was delighted to serve Boris. Their posture was more than friendly. These two knew each other and they looked comfortable together.
The jury was still out for me. Forget yesterday and I might like Boris. I suppose I did like him in a way that wasn't comfortable. I didn't trust Boris. He'd done nothing to show me I could. He knew Ivan and I were close friends, and yet he had no difficulty coming between us, or did Ivan and I do it ourselves? I didn't know anything, but I didn't like how casually he disregarded his brother and me.
I remembered Ivan telling me that Kenny was on the boat when Boris worked for his father, before his move to Tampa. I judged Kenny and Boris to be the same age.
Ivan remained seated with his back to me. His harness was on but hung loosely off his shoulders. The sweat beaded near where his hair stopped on his neck. The rivulets of sweat ran from his neck over his shoulders. Ivan didn't move a muscle while I watched him.
When I looked back to Kenny and Boris, they were facing each other and smiling. Boris' rig sat with its line stretched far beyond the boat's stern, where it disappeared into the water.
Mr. Aleksa spoke from the door of the bridge.
"Boris, you shouldn't leave your rod and reel for too long. You get something on your line and a two hundred dollar reel is lost overboard. Kenny, you know better than to distract the fishermen."
"Sorry, boss. Wasn't paying attention," Kenny said, dodging straight to the rod and reel as if it might leap overboard any second.
This was the strongest rebuke I'd heard come from Mr. Aleksa. It took Boris to get the dependable Kenny into trouble. I'm sure I didn't need to point this out to Mr. Aleksa.
Kenny wasn't the distraction.
After another hour or so, Mr. Aleksa was back in the bridge doorway saying, "May as well bring in your line. There's a place near here where we took two marlin out. Not to mention the biggest damn swordfish I ever seen. You remember that swordfish, Kenny?"
"Sure do. We got the marlin on two different trips, but we got a marlin and that swordfish on the same trip."
"That's right," Mr. Aleksa said. "We're heading there. Not far from the Gulf Stream. Those buggers get in the stream and cruise. That's a better spot to spend the night. This will be our last move of the day."
As the engines awoke, Ivan leaned his rig on the stern and joined Boris and Kenny near the galley entryway. They'd discovered the treats in the picnic basket, as evening appetites kicked in. My appetite remained unenthusiastic. It was too hot for me to eat, but I wanted a cold soda.
The picnic basket ended up on deck between Kenny and Boris as they picked through it to find what appealed to them.
"Wish there was a candy bar," Kenny said, rummaging. "I knew there was something I forgot to tell the skipper to buy me."
"This potato salad is good," Boris said. "I don't like potato salad. Your mother must be some cook, Clay."
"A lot like your mother, huh, Boris?"
The brothers got a belly laugh out of that joke.
Even with the engines at half throttle and the three of them cutting up, Mr. Aleksa could be heard, "Ivan!"
"Sorry, Daddy. It's the truth."
"Ivan!" Mr. Aleksa said.
"Yes, sir," Ivan said, feeling his father's displeasure with him.
"Any more potato salad?" Ivan asked. "I like your mother's potato salad."
"Hold up, Kenny," I said, and Kenny dropped what was in his hand, moving back from the picnic basket.
"This cake is like a candy bar. You'll like it," I said, handing it to Kenny. "Here's a potato salad. It's down to the right near the bottom. There's slaw and macaroni salad too."
"Cool," Ivan said, taking the container and a spoon I handed him.
"Any other requests? There's plenty of food. If you turn it upside down you won't be able to find anything. I know how Mama packs."
"Cool," Boris said. "Got more of that cake? Sounds good."
"Ten pieces enough?" I asked.
"One will do, thank you," Boris said, taking the cake.
"Can I have another potato salad? I love that stuff," Ivan said. I carried a container over to his seat.
"Thank you," he said, taking it and looking at my face for the first time since we'd left the harbor.
"You're welcome," I said.
"I'm going to get a root beer. You want a Coke?" Ivan asked, glancing toward my eyes for an instant before he looked down at his hands.
"Pepsi. Your daddy got a deal on Pepsi," I reminded him.
"Oh yeah. I heard that somewhere," Ivan said.
I didn't move. A minute later he handed me the Pepsi and took his seat to finish eating.
"Can I have a sip of your Pepsi? I forgot what it tastes like," he said, looking up from his potato salad.
"Do you think you deserve some of my Pepsi?" I asked, as if I expected him to say he was sorry and it would never happen again.
He looked away from my face again.
I held out the Pepsi so he could see it. He took a single swig and handed it back. He brightened ever so slightly, but he felt what I felt. There was a distance between us that hadn't been there bore.
"Your mother is a thoughtful lady," Ivan said to his food. "Not to mention a fantastic cook."
He didn't look up to tell me this.
"She's also responsible for me being on this fishing trip. I wasn't coming after what you had to say to me yesterday," I said without reservation or hesitation. "She told me to think about it. I was likely to lose something very special if I didn't come today."
He looked at me wide eyed but said nothing. I could see the wheels turning. My anger with him wanted to explode out of me. I didn't let it happen. Whatever came of this fishing trip, it would dictate how Ivan and I related to each other from then on.
I didn't want a friend who could turn on me the way he had.
I fell asleep on deck, leaning against the bridge, once we got to our overnight fishing spot. The water was a little rougher and the night cooled off enough for sleep to be possible.
Something woke me from a sound sleep. It was daylight. I'd heard something that alerted me. I didn't know what. Without being completely awake, I realized I'd heard a sound, but the deck was quiet. I listened carefully, eyes closed, still half asleep. I wanted to disregard the sound and fall back to sleep.
Then, with the cobwebs clearing, I heard the sound again.
Click! ...Click! ...Click!
Kenny and Mr. Aleksa moved on the deck. Ivan yawning in the seat next to Boris. Boris was strapped into his seat, waiting for his shot at catching a big fish. He was sitting rigid in his seat.
Every eye was on Boris. He literally sat on the edge of his seat. The harness was on his shoulders but the straps hung loose. I wanted to yell at him to pull his straps tight, but I didn't. He had plenty of advisers. I was a watcher.
Click! ...Click came right together.
I moved to my seat, swiveling it so I could see the reel that Boris held.
"Sit back son. Pull your harness tight. This fish is about to take the bait," Mr. Aleksa advised softly.
Kenny pulled the harness tight around Boris, checking the straps.
The click..., click, click, came even faster the next time.
Then a sudden shrill whirling sound followed, as line left the reel at an incredible rate of speed.
The fish had the bait and he was running with it. The question in my mind was did Boris have the fish or did the fish have him?
The reel was smoking a few minutes after the fish began to run. Kenny, apparently expecting this, stepped between the stern seats to spill fresh water on the reel to cool it off as the line left it.
Kenny knew his job all right. He'd seen a reel smoke before. I calculated friction created the heat that could set the reel, or the line, on fire.
Mr. Aleksa stood behind Boris' seat and put his hands on his son's shoulders as if to steady him.
"Relax, Boris," Mr. Aleksa said soothingly. "Let him run. He'll get tired. Don't put on more drag until he stops. Then we give him drag. We wear this fish out, Boris. Than you catch him."
"How much line have I got, Daddy?" Boris asked, sounding more like an uncertain little boy.
"Plenty. Don't worry about the line. This fish will stop to think in a minute. That's when we make it harder for him to run."
It was the longest damn minute in history. The line kept feeding out into the gulf. The gigantic reel was beginning to look empty. If he didn't stop to rest soon, there wouldn't be any line left.
As quickly as the piercing unwinding started, it stopped.
We all checked the reel for line. You could have heard a pin drop on deck. Every ear was tuned to the stunning absence of sound.
"Okay, put on a little drag, son. Get the tip of your rod up, and now we wait," Mr. Aleksa said.
If any of us knew what was coming, we'd have cut that line. The sun was starting to rise and the little bit of cool air we'd found overnight was gone. It was so still that there seemed to be no life beyond the boat.
"What do I have, Daddy?" Boris asked, taking a quick look over his shoulder at his father.
"Hard to say until he comes up. He's thinking now. He might take more line. He'll most likely come back toward us. Running hasn't worked. He's likely to try another tactic to throw that hook. The added drag will bring him up sooner."
Boris looked away from his father and back to the reel.
"How long, Daddy?" Boris asked, after ten minutes. "What's he doing?"
Mr. Aleksa stared at the water like he could see the fish.
"Last fish we caught here took six hours, boss?" Kenny said.
"Five or six. They don't just jump onto the boat. We wait for him, Boris. He's in charge for now. Take the line he gives you. Let him do the work. He's got extra drag now. Running against the drag wears him out that much faster and he won't do that for long. He should turn back toward us. When he does, you take the line he gives you, and, when you get back all your line, son, you'll catch this big fish."
Boris listened to his father. Kenny centered Boris' feet on the seat's bottom plate. It gave Boris leverage, once the fight began.
"You think he broke the line, Daddy?" Boris asked after five minutes.
"No," Mr. Aleksa said calmly. "Be ready. He'll talk to you in a minute. It's going to take all you have to land this fish, Boris. I've seen grown men break before they could land their big fish."
It was another one of Mr. Aleksa's endless minutes. In the meantime Ivan cranked in his line, leaning his rig against the stern. He swiveled his seat so he faced his brother.
Kenny stood to Boris' right, his hand on Boris' shoulder. Mr. Aleksa stood center deck, watching the water behind the boat. He looked like a man who had done this many times.
Tired of the seat I was in, I leaned on the bridge while sitting on top of the starboard side rail, using the boom for support. It gave me a clear view of Boris and Ivan. I had no interest in being in the middle of the fray. Keeping my distance was OK.
The unwinding sound started anew after maybe fifteen minutes, but it didn't last long. The drag did what Mr. Aleksa said it would do. The fish didn't like it. The running produced the clicking sound. As the fish felt the extra drag, he slowed and then stopped.
"What's he doing, Daddy. He stopped again."
"Keep your tip up and start reeling in your line. He's coming back this way now."
Sure enough, as Boris cranked in line, it was effortless. Kenny coached Boris into a rhythm for cranking in the line.
"Drag?" Kenny asked Mr. Aleksa.
"One click up. We don't want him breaking the line if he decided to run again. He likes this better than having the drag on him, but he can change directions and start running again in an instant."
I could hear Boris breathing hard from twenty feet away. His father and Kenny were breathing hard too. Ivan looked relaxed but he didn't take his eyes off his brother. The heat was on in more ways than one.
An occasional squawk from a seagull broke into the quiet. The loudest noise was our breathing and the sound of Boris cranking his reel as he added line back to it.
Boris continued cranking in line for at least as long as the fish's original run. He stopped to catch his breath from time to time, and then he began cranking again. There was nothing to be said. This was how you played a big fish, or how he played you, depending on the outcome.
As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the heat increased. We all sweat without needing to move. Boris was soaked. His t-shirt was sopping wet and his sweat wet the deck around his seat, after an hour of big game fishing.
"How much longer, Daddy?" Boris asked, almost panting.
I suspected we'd reached the two hour mark.
"As long as he gives you line, take it. He's not done running yet, Boris. We are maybe half way home. He takes line. You take line. It's his turn. Get as much line as he gives you, or until you feel him. Then he's going to fight you. That's when the work begins."
"The work?" Boris said, sounding exhausted.
It was hot.
Kenny left Boris' side for the first time. He came back with an orange Tru Ade, handing it to Boris.
"Yuk! You know I drink root beer," Boris complained.
"Forgot. It's been a while, Boris," Kenny explained.
"I'll get one," Ivan said, jumping up and heading into the galley.
When he returned, he handed me a Pepsi, he had a root beer for himself and one for Boris, who almost drank it dry before going back to cranking on the reel.
Boris came up short five minutes later.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Tell me what you feel," Mr. Aleksa said. "You're the man with the fish."
"I feel like he stopped. He's right on the end of my line. I feel his weight pulling against the line."
"Lift your rod smoothly and keep cranking. You and the fish just met each other. He'll run in a minute but crank him in as much as you can. He isn't going to like that. The hook has got his attention now."
Boris lifted the tip of the rod twice, cranking in a half dozen turns of the reel each time, and then he stopped.
"He's too heavy, Daddy. I can't crank him in any farther. He's not moving as far as I can tell."
"That's fine. He knows he's caught now. He still has some tricks, but he's going to jump soon. That's when we know what you've got."
Mr. Aleksa sounded confident. Boris looked beat. I was tired from just watching. Boris did begin to crank on the line again. This time the effort took all his strength. It didn't take long for him to need a rest.
After a few minutes, Boris dipped the tip of the rod, cranking the reel a half dozen more times. Then he stopped again.
The fish might have been right there, but that was a long way from the boat.
"He's going to come up to see if he can't throw the hook. Just wait for him to do that, Boris. You still have a ways to go. You don't want to wear yourself out in the first couple of hours."
As long as his minutes were, I didn't want to live through too many of Mr. Aleksa's hours. There was nothing to do but wait.
The sun moved higher and the heat of the day increased. There was no breeze. The water stayed still. The Vilnius Two drifted.
"It's all the line he's going to give up," Boris said. "I still feel him. What do I do, Daddy?"
"You're doing fine, son. He's resting. Keep lifting your rod and winding in line. You'll force him to come up that way. He'll take off soon," Mr. Aleksa said. "Then we'll get a look at him. He'll come up to look around soon."
I took off my wet shirt as the heat started getting to me. It was going to be a long day, and the fight hadn't started yet. They were just toying with each other so far. Round one was a draw.
By the time the fish began to run again, Boris had rested, re-hydrated, and looked better prepared for a fight.
"Keep an eye out two hundred yards or so. That's where he is," Mr. Aleksa said. "He'll only be out of the water a few seconds, but you don't want to miss it.
I watched the horizon for any sign of a jumping fish. The increased drag made each run shorter and then Boris claimed back the line. The fish was fighting a losing battle. I wasn't sure I shouldn't root for the fish.
"Once he figures out he can't unhook himself, he'll come up. It's been over two hours and we haven't seen him yet," Mr. Aleksa explained to me as I stood behind the man with the fish on the line. I felt stiff from lack of motion. There was no where to go.
"Give me a sip of that," Boris said to Kenny.
Kenny handed over his orange Tru Ade. Boris took a couple of swigs, made a face, and handed it back. You need to switch brands.
Only Mr. Aleksa kept his shirt on. The tan shorts Ivan wore looked like he'd just come out of the water. Sweat rolled down his chest and off his shoulders. He stayed in the seat beside his brother.
The fish wasn't baking in the sun, but that was his only advantage. Boris' shoulders had slumped from expending so much energy trying to get back his line. The weight was on Boris' well developed arms and shoulders. He looked tired.
After the latest run of two or three minutes, we all watched the horizon. No one wanted to miss the fish rising out of the sea to fly. The one thing I was sure of, he couldn't fly for long.
Sea birds circled, watching the battle. Boris dipped his rod, winding up line, and stopped, pulling the tip of the rod back up with some effort. He got back a minimum amount of line.
"That's it. Work him, Boris. He's coming up any minute."
"It's gone," Boris said alarmed, cranking in line as easy as you pleased. "I broke the line. He's gone," Boris yelled.
"He's there," Mr. Aleksa reassured him. "Stay with him, son. He's coming up. He's just about run out of tricks, this smart fish of yours. You've got him now."
Ivan offered Boris his root beer. Boris drank it straight down.
"Thanks!" Boris said, taking a half sandwich from Kenny. "I've got to piss like a race horse. This damn thing needs to hurry up."
"No shame in peeing yourself, boy," Mr. Aleksa said. "Don't leave the fish."
"He's moving, Daddy," Boris said alarmed. "I feel him pulling on the line, but he isn't taking any. What's he up to?"
Boris was cranking furiously. All residence ceased. The rod rested on the stern of the boat as he brought in more and more line.
"The lines broke. He was there and now I've got all this line."
"He's coming up," Mr. Aleksa warned. "Get as much line as he'll give you. He'll run once he jumps. The real fight is about to begin."
I stared to where I thought the fish was. That's when I saw it coming straight out of the water. it arched its back when it was ten feet in the air, and dove for the bottom. Boris kept winding the line. The fish was a couple of hundred yards from the boat.
"Must be eight foot," Ivan said. "That's a big fish!"
"Ten," Kenny said. "That's a ten foot marlin."
"Four to five hundred pounds, I'd guess. You've got yourself a marlin, Boris," Mr. Aleksa said proudly. "It's been a little over three hours. The last one we caught out here took six hours."
"Six hours!" Boris cried in anguish. "I don't know I can last, Daddy. I'm beat now. My arms ache. I got to piss."
"It's your fish. It's up to you to catch him," Mr. Aleksa ordained. "They don't make trophies out of them because they're easy to catch, Boris."
"My arms feel like they're asleep," Boris said. "I can't do this, Daddy. I got to piss."
I don't know I could have done it, but I wasn't a fisherman's son.
"Get up. I'll catch him for you," Ivan said to Boris. "If you're too tired, let me do it. I'll bring that sucker in. Let me, Dad."
Boris was already unstrapping and getting out of the seat. Kenny used the container of water to wash away the sweat and dirt before Ivan sat down and slipped into the harness.
Mr. Aleksa shrugged his indifference to the switch. He retired to the bridge, leaving his sons to deal with the marlin.
I figured it to be between nine and ten when Ivan tightened the harness, taking up the fight.
It could have been later. I was no longer sure what time it was.
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