The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
Driving the Boat
Ivan's father came home before Boris left. We went to J.K's. Kitchen. It was an informal family type restaurant. Many of the patrons were barefoot and jeans and t-shirts were fine. The food was good and the owner, a round happy man, stood at the table speaking the lingo with Mr. Aleksa.
It was different from the way they talked at the house. Boris added his two cents worth. Ivan and I were in the dark. The three of them were going full speed, enjoying the conversation.
"Russian," Ivan explained. "I can't speak it but I catch enough to know what's up. They're mostly talking food and fishing."
"Boris speaks Russian?" I asked, amazed anyone could.
"It's Dad's second language. He learned as a kid in Lithuania. Dad taught Boris when they were on the boat together. It's like Latin to me," Ivan explained.
"Like Latin?" I asked.
"Latin's known as the dead language," Ivan said. "I'll never need to learn Russian. If I go to Lithuania, I can speak well enough to be understood. I'd speak bad Russian. Pop Pop refused to speak Russian. It was a principle for him."
"Go to Lithuania?" I asked, startled by the idea.
"It's my culture, Clay. I'd like to see it. Meet my grandfather's people before they all die off."
We had our conversation and the more grownup folks had theirs. I recognized maybe two words they said. The three of them spoke Russian like they were in Russia. I ate some black bread loaded with butter and was happy I spoke English, albeit poorly if you went by the rules. I think most people did.
Before we left the restaurant Boris called his mother to let her know he was still alive. They talked for a few minutes and Boris handed the phone to Ivan.
"She wants to talk to you."
"Damn!" Ivan said, taking the phone, "Hello."
He listened but didn't speak, and then he hung up the phone. His face had gone from happy to grim. He didn't like what he heard.
"I've got to report to Tampa with Boris," Ivan said.
"When's Boris leaving?" I asked as if Boris wasn't standing there.
"Tomorrow," Ivan said. "He's taking me back with him."
Boris had stayed a week and now Ivan was going back with him. Mr. Aleksa wasn't going out to fish until the following week. They were still changing the boat back from the sport fishing trip and getting that equipment back where it belonged. Ivan and I wouldn't be expected to go out until the following Friday.
I told Mr. Aleksa that I'd be ready to go next week. I wanted him to know I wanted to be on the boat with or without Ivan. He smiled and nodded. I think it pleased him to know I was always ready to go out when he went.
Back at the house, Mr. Aleksa and his boys spoke their lingo, I'm sure it was Lithuanian this time. I decided they were talking about things that didn't concern me. Ivan didn't have much to say and he wasn't happy. Mr. Aleksa seemed to understand Ivan's feelings but it was how his mother operated and he should go for a couple of days..
I felt awkward. I knew that wasn't the intent. By the tone in his voice, and from the few words I picked up, Mr. Aleksa wasn't pleased about Ivan being ordered to Tampa. Boris shrugged and added to the conversation. The matter was settled and Ivan was going.
It meant up to a week without Ivan. That was never good. He had to be back by the time school started in two weeks.
When Ivan returned from Tampa, we had a week before school started. It gave us time to go with Pop to get haircuts and I needed new pants and shirts as my arms and legs were too long for last years clothes.
Returning to school was no big deal this time. We were prepared for it and it meant one less year before school was out forever. That thought made the days pass easier.
Ivan and I had two classes together and the same lunch period. It made the days go faster. We sat beside each other in history and English. I asked Mama pack an extra sandwich in case Ivan didn't like the cafeteria lunch.
Our school routine didn't change much. The weekend fishing trips continued for the rest of the year, until the holidays, when Mr. Aleksa put the boat into dry dock for repairs.
It was a good time to have a break from school and work, although Ivan spent several more days in Tampa, which kept me with my family Christmas Eve and on Christmas. Everyone made an appearance, Coleen for a couple of hours, and John-Henry brought Angela for dinner, after sleeping in his own bed the night before.
Now that my father and Mr. Aleksa talked face to face and on the radio, I couldn't stay alone at Ivan's house. It would have been unacceptable to my parents. I didn't mind being with my family at Christmas.
Mr. Aleksa was increasingly unhappy about Ivan being forced to go to Tampa. He'd said it to me in plain English. It's the kind of thing he was likely to tell Pop, and with this knowledge, I slept in my own bed when Ivan wasn't in the house next to the river.
My wild child instincts didn't run so deep that I couldn't act normal at my house. The restrictions weren't harsh but once you roam free, the constraints of being at home worked against my wild child nature. Like Ivan's trips to Tampa. I did it to keep the peace.
Being myself wasn't as easy at my house. It was never more apparent than when I had to be at home for a few days in a row. At Christmas it was easier to be home. This year there was enough money to buy a tree that filled the foyer where old man Broadmore hanged himself.
All the presents went under the tree and on Christmas morning most of us were there to open presents. Lucy made the morning extra special. It no longer excited me but I loved to see how excited my little sister got over every gift she got.
Christmas dinner was also well attended by the family and a few guests who heard about Mama's meals. They came to see if they were as good as advertised.
No one went away disappointed.
Ivan and I were on his balcony when 1966 arrived. We kissed each other and brought in the New Year right. We'd come a long way, but we had a long way to go.
All that mattered was that we were together and we'd be closer than ever for the entire year.
Boris made the rounds on his eighteenth birthday. On the actual day his mother had a dinner and party for him in Tampa. Ivan went for his brother's birthday and brought him back with him for a dinner and party Mama planned for the day after his birthday.
Mr. Aleksa's came to Mama's party, which made it a unique experience. He sat at the table with us for dinner and in the den where we celebrated his son's landmark birthday. He proved to be a shy and retiring man in the midst of the Olson clan.
On a great occasion a good time was had by all. Ivan and Boris looked even more identical as Ivan matured. Boris was full of charm and he exuded the right amount of gracious humility. It was so Boris.
No one put two and two together at the time. We truly enjoyed the meal and the party afterward. Mother, finding out Boris loved cherries, fixed a cherry- chocolate cake that was spectacular. There was none left for Boris to take back to Tampa with him, but he ate the last two pieces after everyone was done.
At parties you hardly give a thought to the greater significance of something like an eighteenth birthday party. All it meant that day was cake, ice cream, well wishes, and a happy time meant to be enjoyed.
Ivan and I were soon turning sixteen. Even that didn't occur to us at the party for Boris. We were content to enjoy the moment and the mood.
Sixteen was also a landmark birthday and it began a sequence of events that made turning sixteen a most important event, but at the time Ivan turned sixteen it was another day and another nice party.
If not for Mr. Aleksa, nothing remarkable would have changed. He sensed change was at hand and he did what made him more comfortable with the two boys who lived in his house next to the river.
While sitting on Ivan's deck and marveling how little our world had changed in the nearly two years we'd known each other, Ivan realized that Boris had come of age, and while he could not yet legally drink or vote, he could be drafted and sent to war.
No one was thinking about his exposure to danger during the celebration of him growing a year older. We had military advisers in Vietnam, but they'd come under fire and some had been killed.
Now troops were being sent to protect the advisers.
Ivan was home after only one day in Tampa. That's all I cared about. My feelings for Boris had mellowed somewhat. It was nice to see him for the first time since the great upheaval late that summer. We hugged and he kissed me on the lips before he left for home. When he came to dinner at the Olson house, he'd hugged me without the kiss. Neither bothered me, and I didn't once think about him and Kenny standing naked in the galley of the Vilnius Two. It was progress.
When Ivan turned sixteen, it was no less amazing. Boris picked him up and took him for a party his mother gave and then the following day, Mama had a party for him. Boris returned to Tampa after the party, but both he and Mr. Aleksa were there. Our families had begun to mingle more completely.
Sixteen wasn't all that hot, once I thought about it. Like Boris had become exposed by his birthday, Ivan was immediately learning to drive his father's standard shift pickup truck.
It wasn't even Ivan's idea. Mr. Aleksa insisted Ivan learn to drive the vehicle and thus become mobile. Having my family a few minutes down the beach was all well and good, but Mr. Aleksa wanted Ivan to be able to drive in case of emergencies. He had nothing specific in mind, except feeling better about us being alone in the house.
There was no great need for mobility in my mind. The idea of Ivan being able to get in a vehicle and drive out of my life didn't appeal to me. Ivan had showed no interest in driving anywhere, but I still worried about losing the boy I loved.
I'd worried about that since we'd met.
As time passed and my sixteenth birthday was at hand, the reason for Ivan learning to drive and get his license became apparent. Our last trip out before school ended, Mr. Aleksa slipped off his perch where he operated the boom net. He fell hard onto the deck and did not move.
"Don't move me," he insisted as Ivan and I left the stern net to go to assist him.
"Pull the net, get the fish in the holds, and have an ambulance meet us at the fish warehouse. Call before we start back in."
Mr. Aleksa's voice was strained and pained.
The first thing Ivan did was radio Captain Popov for help.
"Dad fell off the boom. He's seriously hurt. I'm calling for an ambulance to meet us at the fish warehouse."
"Your nets?" Popov asked, assessing the situation.
"In the water. He wants us to pull them and get the fish in the holds before we return to port," Ivan said.
"Hold tight, Ivan. I'm coming to you. I see you on my port side. Give me five minutes."
The transmission ended and five minutes later Popov brought the trawler close enough to the Vilnius Two for four burly fisherman to leap onto our deck. They immediately went to work pulling the stern nets. In twenty minutes the fish were being scooped into the holds.
Popov eased along side, hooking the two boats together before making the leap himself.
"Nicky, what am I going to do with you? How bad is it, my friend?"
"Bad. I can hardly breathe. Have an ambulance meet us."
"Will do, Nicky. No point in me following you in. These boys are fine fisherman. They'll get you home. Ivan, turn the boat in that direction," Popov pointed. "Check your compass and keep that heading. You'll sail right into the mouth of the cove in two and a half hours. Get a blanket for your father and something to put under his head. Don't move him until the doctors look at him. You radio me when you reach the cove."
"Yes, sir," Ivan said, and in another five minutes the trawler was moving away and we were turning in the direction Popov indicated.
We couldn't move too fast or it caused Mr. Aleksa more pain. It was nearly three hours before we entered the cove. Ivan eased the boat next to the dock and a half dozen warehouse employees were there to catch the line and make sure the boat was situated for the stretcher to take Mr. Aleksa off the boat.
Popov had called and talked to someone in charge at the warehouse, and he'd made sure there was going to be no delay getting Mr. Aleksa the help he needed.
Kenny took charge of unloading the fish and getting the boat docked where it belonged afterward.
The closest hospital was in Fort Myers. It took forever to get there and then we sat for two hours to get word on Mr. Aleksa's condition. When we did see him, he was in traction and had a cast on one leg that was broken in the fall.
The doctor told Ivan that he would likely be out of commission for two months or more. When we got to the house next to the river, Popov was sitting at the kitchen table waiting to hear the news. Ivan gave him the story as told to him by the doctors.
Popov listened carefully and didn't speak until Ivan was finished.
"We'll keep the boat working," Ivan said. "School's out Wednesday next week. We'll take the boat out six days a week. That's what Dad would do if he didn't come in to attend to us each week."
"You'll be following me. I know where the fishing grounds are and when the fish run. You stick with me and we'll see to it your father has no worries except for healing."
"Yes, sir. I'd appreciate that. Kenny knows the operation but I don't think he's prepared to drive the boat. Dad's taught me and with a little practice, I'll get good at it."
"No worry. We'll do fine. I'll make sure you're treated fair. You didn't wait for the payoff for your fish. I picked it up for you," Popov said, dropping a roll of bills onto the table. "I had the boat refueled and you're ready to go. Here's the invoice. I paid it out of today's earnings. I'll be back for you Wednesday afternoon. Then, we'll go out and return together. I'll keep you safe, Ivan."
"Thanks!" Ivan said. "The best thing I can do is work the boat for Dad."
I wasn't comfortable in Popov's presence. He was a no nonsense kind of a guy, but I had a question I could keep contained.
"How did you know we'd hit the cove if we went into the direction you indicated?" I asked. "You didn't even check and we ran right into the cove."
Popov laughed heartily. He patted my back as he stood to leave.
"You sail as long as I've sailed, you always know where you are and you always know where home is. You'll see. No trick. You know."
"That's amazing," I said, and he laughed again.
"When I come to this country, your grandfather taught me where the fish were and how to bargain. I did that for your father and now I'll do it for his son."
"I feel like I'm in good hands," Ivan said, and Popov patted his back.
Popov was a man of his word. Once school was out, his trawler was anchored beside the Vilnius Two, waiting for us to come to work. We steamed out of the cove on Wednesday afternoon and returned late on Monday.
We'd taken care of our nets ninety percent of the time, but twice, when we were into some major schools of fish, Popov sent us an extra hand to help. By Monday evening, when we got to the fish warehouse, our holds were three quarters full.
Popov ordered us to the dock first, positioning his boat behind ours. He went into the fish warehouse after inspecting our holds. He intended to do the bargaining. Ivan had no objections. When the holds were empty, Popov came back with a handful of twenty dollar bills. He put them in Ivan's hand.
"You boys tell Nicky that you're in good hands and we brought you back with a boatload of fish," Popov said, laughing as he waved Ivan away from the dock and waved his boat into place.
As quick as we reached the house, the radio was crackling.
"Jesus, we just left the boat. Who's that?" Ivan said, as we raced up to check the radio.
"Dinner's about to go on the table," Pop said. "You two get down here. Mama isn't taking no for an answer tonight."
Actually, we were starved and so tired we hadn't bothered to stop by the store. We were going to the hospital Tuesday and we'd shop on the way home. We were due back on the boat Wednesday morning to follow Popov out on the next journey into the gulf.
Neither Ivan or I did any preparation. We were too tired to spend a lot of time primping.
Mama was waiting when we came in the back door.
"My men are home from the sea," she said, and she indicated we should follow her.
When I followed Ivan into the dining room, it was decorated with a big Happy 16 banner hung from the ceiling. I'd missed my birthday on Saturday, but Mama never forgot such things.
"I didn't even remember I turned sixteen," I said.
"You were engaged in a good endeavor," Pop said. "Your dad is fine, Ivan. I saw him Sunday. He's still in a lot of pain but they say he should be fine once his ribs heal."
"Thank you. We're going over tomorrow," Ivan said. "We forgot to shop for food. You don't know how welcome one of your meals is, Mrs. Olson."
"Nothing is too good for my working men," Mama said, beginning to move the food onto the table.
I was falling asleep by the time we got to cake and ice cream. Seeing our condition, Pop drove us around to the house next to the river. I was sleeping by the time we got to Ivan's. It only took ten minutes to get there by road.
There was no mention of my driver's license. I didn't need one as far as I was concerned, although Ivan let me drive to or from the grocery store when we went. It was cool, once I mastered the clutch. Ivan reminded me how important it was for both of us to be able to drive, which included the boat, once we'd gotten accustomed to our new role, being in charge of the Vilnius Two. I learned the controls of the boat and how to operate the nautical gear so I knew where we were and where we were going.
Kenny was Kenny. There were no objections to us bypassing him and taking over the controls of the boat he'd worked on for years. I don't think he wanted that responsibility, although Ivan knew Kenny could do anything we did and probably do it better. He had nothing to say about it. We'd done what needed to be done and so did he.
Working six days a week made the summer fly. Mr. Aleksa came home and stayed there until mid-August, when he was able to regain control of the boat.
The first day home he sat at the kitchen table, his cast propped up on one of the chairs. Ivan put a stack of bills, all marked paid in full, on the table next to his father's arm.
"That's everything we spent, including food, Kenny's cigarettes, and soda. Mrs. Olson fed us while we were on the boat. She packed a basket for us each week."
"Your mother is a marvelous woman," Mr. Aleksa said. "I'd like to pay her for the food you consumed while working the boat."
"Don't you even mention it if you value your life. Mama wouldn't have it any other way. Pop either," I said. "At times like these we all pull together."
"Yes, I'm sure, but they are such good people."
Ivan then brought out the metal box from the freezer, where Mr. Aleksa kept his extra cash. When he flipped it open, his eyes widened as big as saucers.
"What's all this?"
"Well, to tell the truth, Dad, Popov did all the bargaining. We stuck with him and he went into the warehouse while they off loaded our fish. This is all that money except for those bills. I didn't ask any questions. It seemed like he was giving me a lot of money," Ivan said.
"Popov!" Mr. Aleksa said. "He fished with your grandfather. He adored your Pop Pop. When I took the boat, he showed me the ropes. He's a wonderful man."
"He did the same for us, Dad. When we hit an extra large catch, he sent a man or two over to help us with the nets. He stayed close every time we went out," Ivan said. "I didn't worry because I knew he was right there if we hit a snag."
"This is way too much. Kenny?"
"All he wanted was money for cigarettes and soda. We left him what food was left in the basket and he didn't ask for anything else. He was worried about keeping the boat on a profitable basis."
"You and Clay didn't take your pay," Mr. Aleksa said. "This is way more money than you could have made in six weeks."
"It wasn't about pay," I said. "I wanted to be sure the boat was working for you and the bills were paid."
"All well and good, Clay, and I thank you for your loyalty, but a man works for me, he takes his pay. I'll figure out what I owe you, but I can't repay your value to me at a time like this. You'll have to take my thanks for that."
"Yes, sir. I did what I needed to do, Mr. Aleksa."
"It wasn't about pay for me. This is my responsibility when you can't answer the call, Dad. This is our boat and when you can't fish any longer, I'll be going out. Pay isn't an issue or something I worry about."
Mr. Aleksa listened and looked at the box full of twenty dollar bills. I could see the emotion on his face. He was a quiet man who didn't give much away, but as proud as he was, he was moved by our devotion to him.
During the following week, which was the week before he returned to the boat and Ivan and I returned to school, Mr. Aleksa handed me an envelope.
"After the bills were paid, and I figured out the coming expenses, I calculated what you'd earned since June, Clay. Once again I want you to know the pay has nothing to do with your value to me. This is strictly a business calculation. I trust you won't argue with me on it."
"No, sir. I won't argue," I said, putting the envelope in my back pocket, before making my trip to the bank on top of the fridge.
"What is that?" Mama asked, as I put the jar on the kitchen table and rolled up the bills in the envelope to fit into it.
"My pay for the summer," I said. "I didn't want it but Mr. Aleksa wasn't going to allow me to give it to him."
"It's a kind thought, Clayton, but when a man works, he should be paid. How much did you earned?"
"I don't know. Too much!" I said. "I'd do it for free. I'd pay him to go out on the Vilnius Two. It's an adventure, Mama."
Mama took the jar from me and set it back on the table to count the latest deposit. She straightened out the roll and took the bills off one at a time.
"Twenty-five twenty dollar bills. Five hundred dollars," she said.
"Way too much," I said.
"You've got over a thousand dollars with this money."
"Cool," I said, having only spent money out of the jar at Christmas that year and for Ivan's birthday present.
As school began again, I felt even older than before. My classmates seemed like kids. Time had flown by that summer and it aged me in a way I didn't feel I'd aged before.
Mr. Aleksa gave us September off. We started going out on Fridays in October. Our new school routine was established and I had caught up on my sleep. I felt like I was missing something when I wasn't going out to fish each week.
Ivan and I spent all the time we could together. Even after school started, I slept at Ivan's. Nothing was said about it. My concession became that I slept at the conservancy house when Ivan was in Tampa. I didn't mind that. I was with Ivan at all other times. There was a certain advantage to being called a working man.
It was difficult to consider life changing at a time when it was just the way I wanted it. As fast as we were growing up, I was sure it meant more independence. Ivan and I grew closer each day. The summer of responsibility aged us in a confidence kind of way. We'd both be ready to work the boat when Mr. Aleksa wanted to retire.
We were charging toward seventeen. There were no visible obstacles to slow us, if you didn't count the frequency of Ivan's trips to Tampa. His mother wanted him in Tampa more often. Boris brought him back after a few days in most instances. Each reunion was grand.
He was almost seventeen and his mother wasn't in the driver's seat anymore. When Ivan went to Tampa, he stayed until he was ready to come home, and he came home. We were working men and we were due some respect.
I could even quit school if I wanted a donnybrook with my parents, but I didn't. We were too close not to graduate, and school was no more than a minor inconvenience.
We'd come of age in the gulf over the summer. We'd matured far beyond our years, while keeping the Vilnius Two making a profit. Ivan and I were together most of the time.
Our lives were good and we intended to keep them that way.
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