The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 6

Stormy Weather

Diving with Harold put my focus back where it belonged. The sight of that freighter sitting on the bottom of the Gulf, the reef that would slowly turn the ship into a home for thousands of species switched my mind back into marine biology mode.

For over a month I'd been locked out of that train of thought.

I could only imagine what that reef would look like next month, next year. I could only imagine unusual species that I'd never encountered before. With the freighter resting in deeper water than I'd been diving in before, I could feel the exhilaration that came with identifying the rarer species that made the freighter their home.

While my mind wandered from Bill Payne to Mrs. Foster's sixth grade class, to the three sites Harold showed me that day, I was becoming excited about my work again.

As a picture of the sunken ship came to mind, the winds began to recede. The stinging of the sand on my face and arms ceased. It was like standing in front of a big fan blowing in your face, wen someone turns it off. Gusts of wind came from the west, dying away, and then a gust came from the south. A rain squall started and stopped in the same instant.

The sound of the raging water changed too. I could hear the water now and separate it from the cacophony of howling wind and churning of the sea.

The Gulf changed from a writhing caldron and it was replaced by a rhythmic sequence of waves as familiar to me as the sea itself.

Rain squalls came and went. None lasted for more than a minute or two. The darkness gave way to a slight line of light to the south. Gale force winds became gusts. One gust blew out of the west and the next blew from the south.

I stayed close to Sunshine's monument to avoid being clocked in the head by some inadvertent flying object. It furnished a safe place along with a birdseye view of the Gulf during daylight. Over the years I did some of my best thinking there. As the storm pass, my thinking was mellow.

Sunshine always gave me the strength to do what was right.

"Clay, you know what to do. What you need to do is stiffen your back and get about doing it," she'd say.

Hearing her voice, I smiled. Sunshine died ten years before this September storm. It rained that day too.

Had Sunshine not crossed my path, I didn't know where I'd be. She brought me friendship when the love of my life left me. She took up the time I would have spent longing for Ivan. Not being able to stay, Sunshine left me with Dylan. That bundle of joy wasn't going to give me much time for pining.

Because of Sunshine and Dylan, I was there when Ivan came home. Had Sunshine not helped secure me to my beach, I'd have fallen to pieces and left the darkness that replaced Ivan in my life.

Sunshine had been a meteor streaking across the Olsons' sky. It burned out long before I was ready for her to leave me. She left me a son and more responsibility than I knew existed at the time.

I'm not sure I'd have made it without Dylan. At first, numb with weariness, I had difficulty putting two thoughts together. By the time the constant fatigue passed, the wonder that was my son drove me on. I wouldn't change a single minute of those years.

I needed to be strong to raise our son. I was still raising him ten years later. We'd made it and Dylan would have whatever future he picked for himself. With two fathers behind him, he was going to succeed by doing what he loved to do, whatever that might be. We'd allow him to dream and we'd make those dreams come true if we could.

I wanted to do the right thing now. I knew what it was. I needed to stiffen my back, forget my humiliating performance in Tampa, and go back to work at the conservancy laboratory.

I watched as mother nature did her thing. I hadn't seen a storm of any magnitude hit this close to home. Storms brushed us from time to time but this was the closest I'd been to a direct hit.

I didn't know what time it was. My stomach said it was dinner time. My family was probably at the table now. I contemplated returning home. I would certainly eat my fill, but watching the storm passing became too fascinating to leave until the spectacle ended.

I was soaked by the rain but the wind was drying my clothes. The clouds moved fast along highways in the sky. They were dark. They continued to hang low near the dune but there were signs of light in the night sky.

I'd been lost in my thoughts as another hour passed. My hunger rumbled in my stomach. It was more insistent this time. The worst had passed. The winds subsided. The rain showers moved on past the dune by the sea.

Far to the south the night sky was absent of clouds. The trailing edge of the storm was coming closer. Stars became visible to the south. It was fairly bright as the last of the clouds uncovered the night sky. This was worth the wait.

Behind the storm the sky was crystal clear.

There was moonlight but as of yet no moon. The wind was no more than a stiff breeze. Except for the waves washing against the shore, it was quiet. It was an entirely different dune from the one I found when I arrived at Sunshine's monument.

The storm had passed. It was a beautiful night.

I loved him but I hadn't forgiven him for leaving me.

"You need company, sailor," Ivan asked, appearing beside Sunshine's monument.

Was my mind playing tricks on me?

"Ivan! Are you really there?" I asked. "Or is this like so many nights while you were gone and I dreamed you up?"

Ivan felt his arm and his face.

"I seem to be real, but that's only one man's opinion."

"How'd you find me?" I asked. "I didn't tell anyone I was coming here."

"Mama and Dylan," he said. "It's they who convince me I should come looking for you, but it didn't take much convincing."

"You came out in a storm? That wasn't smart," I said, sounding ridiculous.

"My thoughts exactly when I came looking for you," he said.

"Why did you come looking? You didn't think I'd find my way home?"

"It's a long story, sweet pea. I came looking for you because I can. It all started over dinner. A dinner you failed to attend, might I add. Tag and I decided working in a storm wasn't wise. I showed up at your house but you didn't. That's when your father told us a tale about his youngest son," Ivan said. "You might be acquainted with the guy."

"My father? He rarely says much at the table. Must be serious," I said. "Am I in hot water with Pop?"

"I'd say far from it, Clay. It was a good story to hear, but more than that, I could tell your father enjoyed telling it."

"You know everything about me, Ivan. What could my father possibly say that's news to you? Do you remember what he said?"

"I do. You know me and my memory. When I hear something important, I remember it. You'll like it. Coming from your father, and I don't know I've ever known a better man them him, it's high praise."

"If you're telling me you do remember, this is when you tell me to impress me with that memory of yours," I said, rubbing my neck.

"I'm getting there," he said with a smile. "It's a good story but not something I can just blurt out to you."

"Sit down and tell me what he said. I'm getting a stiff neck looking up at you."

"I would. If I sit beside you I'll only have one thing on my mind, cutie pie, and it ain't your father's story. Sitting beside you, I could even forget my own name, but I'll never forget yours."

His voice was deep and lusty.

"You want to stand there and tell me? Suit yourself. Lately, all my father says is, 'When are you going back to work?' He hasn't called me a lazy loafer yet but it's only a matter of time."

"You know I've never been up here. Why haven't you shown this to me?" He asked, his hand planted on the obelisk.

"It has nothing to do with you, Ivan. This is private. It's Dylan's spot and it's a spot where I feel safe. I just needed to be here tonight. My life is a mess and I've got to do something about it."

"I am Dylan's biological father. Sunshine was his mother."

I don't know if he could see my face but I glared at him. I wasn't interested in discussing Dylan's biology.

"Sunshine is Dylan's mother and don't start this. You didn't know her. You left her for me to take care of," I said. "She died because she believed delivering your child would be the best thing she ever did. So don't start with me, Ivan Aleksa."

"This isn't what I had in mind when I went looking for you," he said.

"I was a stupid kid. I did a stupid thing. I didn't know Sunshine because she came in when I was on my way out. She needed someone to look after her. You were the only one I trusted to do that. You're a better man than me, Clay. You've always been better than me. You sell yourself short. I know better. Your father knows better."

"It's a sore spot, OK? Sunshine reminds me that you left me. I thought once you came home, I'd put it behind me. It's not as easy as I thought it would be. Wanting you. Having you. Being with you doesn't erase the memory of the ten years you were gone."

"I understand. I'm doing my best, Clay. I see by this stone how much you loved Sunshine. She was a sweet girl."

"This is the first thing I totally bought on my own. As soon as I saw it, it's what I wanted to go here. That stone was meant to go in this spot."

"While I was over there ...Southeast Asia, it was like the wild west. Because men are the way men are, it was a dog eat dog place. Among the dogs, the villain, the tyrants, were regular people. They wanted to live their lives, work, take care of their families, and be together. About like it is here," Ivan said.

"The people were gentle, kind, polite, and they couldn't do enough for you. They reminded me of you. The goodness in those people reminded me of you, Clay. You've got more goodness in you than most people do. You always say that the first time you saw me I flew," he said, looking at me. "Once I knew you, you made me want to soar. I wanted to go higher than I'd ever gone."

"I can't undo the things I've done but I can be a better man, because I want you to know my goodness the same way I know yours. I didn't like being away, caught in an insane time warp, unable to go home but dreaming of when I could go home," he said. "Go home to you."

"Knowing men who cared about nothing, loved no one, and would destroy everything in their quest for power was a disturbing sight," Ivan said.

"Because of you, because of how much I missed you, I went to seek out the gentle peasants who reminded me of a better world. They reminded me how much I wanted to get back to that world and to you. That idea kept me sane. You kept me sane in an insane place."

"I didn't know that, Ivan. You haven't talked about those years. I do want to know about them because it's about you. I'm glad you told me about the peasants."

"People are just people everywhere. It's the ones who want more and more of everything who create the trouble. It's always the same people who can never get enough."

"I know it couldn't have been easy, Ivan. I'm sorry you had to see such thing and know such people, but there is always goodness. The shame is there seem to be less of it each day," I said. "You are home. We are together with our son. It doesn't get better than that. I know that. I know you know that. Let's not dredge up the worst of our times. I want to hear the story about those years, when you're ready, but let me figure out where I'm going from here first."

"This isn't why I came to find you. It's not what I came to say."

"Ivan, I know that story. I know that you left Sunshine ...with me. I could take care of her to a point. She is special to me in a way you can't understand, and she's Dylan's mother. Had she not come along, had Dylan not been born, I doubt I'd be here. I'd have mourned you for a long time, and one day I'd have moved on because this place was ours together and being here reminded me of you. Sunshine made sure I would never leave the beach, which meant I would never be able to leave you."

"Seeing this," Ivan said, looking at the obelisk, "Speaks of Sunshine being loved. I didn't know her, Clay, but she is Dylan's mother and she loved you. It's all I need to know about her to know I would have liked her. Had she not been there for you, we wouldn't be here. I owe her a debt of gratitude. I didn't know you'd wait. I sure didn't know you were raising my son. Life can be peculiar. All our random energies colliding on our beach for a split second in time and here we are all these years later. Sunshine has forever bound us together. Sunshine, you, and Dylan are tied together, and I'm forever tied to all of you. It's not the way I saw it going when I asked you to take care of Sunshine. How could I know it would turn out to be the stuff novels are written about."

"Believe it or not, Mama set it up so it turned out this way. For years she didn't know Dylan wasn't my son. Mama has a way of letting you know when you're on her shit list. She let me know every day. Then, when it was obvious who Dylan's father was, Mama told me I was a good man. She was foolish for judging me so harshly."

"Your Mama's a pistol," Ivan said.

"Yes, she is. She's never aimed her God at me since she realized I wasn't Dylan's father and I hadn't fathered him before Sunshine and I were married. She put two and two together and she knew it was my love for you that had me loving Dylan so dearly. He was part of you long before you came home," I said.

"Sunshine left us but she left me the greatest gift of all," I said. "She left me her son, your son. She told me who the father was just before she died. She knew that would bond me to him with an everlasting love. Those were the final words she spoke, "Ivan is Dylan's father." I never asked her who the father was. It didn't matter. I would have loved Dylan because I loved her."

"That's an amazing story," Ivan said. "Sunshine was an amazing woman. The story I came to tell you isn't even close to as amazing. Not to me anyway, but you need to hear it."

"You said my father told a story."

"As I was saying, your father told us a story. As a matter of fact, it was a story about you. There was no mention of what he wanted you to do. It wasn't that kind of story. It was a story about his marine biologist son."

"I want to hear this. Pop isn't the chatty type."

"Your mother made broccoli casserole, yams, pork chops, and kale. You missed a lovely meal. I ate your share and you don't know what you missed."

"Don't remind me. I'm hungry but I needed to do this more than I needed to eat. I'd put it off long enough. That's about me and my work too. Sometimes I wonder how I got here from being that dumb kid who moved here from Tulsa. Once I met you, Ivan, my life changed course and it's never been the same."

"I'll take that as a compliment. After we sat down and before we'd loaded our plates, your father asked where you were," Ivan said. "He knew right off you weren't at the table."

Ivan sat close beside me.

"He left a few hours ago. He needed to think," Mama said. "It sounded serious but I didn't like him going out in a storm."

"Dylan and Ivan are here. Those are two things he thinks about a lot," Lucy said.

"That wasn't it," Mama said. "Before that Harold, from the coast guard, came to the house to get Clay. After they drank coffee and ate biscuits for a while, they said they were going diving. It was when he came home that he said he needed to go somewhere to think. He apparently thinks his room is Grand Central Station."

Pop laughed.

"When I need to think, I go to talk to my mother," Dylan said. "It's on the big dune next to his lab. You can see the obelisk from his office window. I like to look at it when I'm at Daddy's lab."

"That's how I came to look here first," Ivan said. "And last as it turns out, but not before I ate for the two of us. I did that right after your father told us the story in which you were featured."

"My father told a story? Let's keep that thought. It was about me. I'm easy enough to recognize, Ivan. I won't tell who told me."

"Yes you are and everyone listened, especially me, because I knew you'd want to hear about it. Bill Payne was here Monday. You didn't tell me that. You usually talk about things like that."

"You haven't been around. I only see you at the Bait Shop. Bill Payne rarely comes to mind when I'm within sniffing distance of you," I said.

"I see your point. You don't need to remind me that. Your father took the floor as soon as we sat down. We established you weren't in the house and your mother didn't like you being out in a storm. He, your father, mentioned Bill Payne and you were in his study on Monday. He said, 'I've been working next to my son for over ten years. I watched him going to school and coming to work at the conservancy after school. I never knew that much about the details of what he did. My job is to keep things running so Clay can do what he does and the people at the conservancy can support what Clay and Harry do. I know Harry because he treats me like I'm his friend. I know Bill Payne because he came to the conservancy to teach Clay in the conservancy laboratory for several years while Clay was going to school. Bill always stopped to talk to me for a few minutes when he was on his way out. I liked the man but I didn't know what he did, except he taught Clay and a couple of other boys to be a marine biologist. I could hear them talking because the conservancy lab was in the back of my workshop at the time,'" Ivan said.

"'I heard Bill teaching and I know Clay was curious about anything to do with the Gulf. Clay was always at work, when he wasn't in school in Fort Myers, or taking care of Dylan. I've never given him credit for how he managed to get it all done back then. It wasn't an easy road my son went down. It isn't one I'd have recommended, but for my own reasons, I'm glad he took that road. He's good and thorough at what he does,' your father said," Ivan said.

"'Bill Payne had some things to ask Clay. They talked shop while I listened. 'Here's what we found. What do you think, Clay?'"

"'I don't mind telling you, Clay did think. Now I know why Harry speaks so highly about my son. I sat and listened to Bill and Clay exchange ideas and theories. I didn't know how smart Clay is. I mean it wasn't the seasoned old pro toying with one of his former students. It was equals offering their thoughts about certain conditions. I can tell you, I've never been so impressed. I've been at Clay about what he needs to do. It's how I was raised. A man needs to work to prove his worth. I guess it's a cultural thing. I regret having thought I should give Clay advice about what he should do. Whatever my son does is OK by me. He's a good son, a fine father, and let me tell you, he knows his business. A man as important as Bill Payne came to Clay for help. What more could a father ask,' he said?" Ivan said.

"My father said that about me?" I asked.

"He did. You want me to repeat it so you know I remembered it word for word? He was talking about the man I love. I'm not likely to forget," Ivan said. "Might earn me a kiss when I tell you the story."

"I'd bet on it," I said. "He wouldn't have said it if I was at the table," I said.

"You weren't at the table but I thought the same thing. Lucy heard it too. She'll give you her version soon. I don't know that Dylan was surprised by his grandfather saying how smart his daddy is. I wasn't surprised. You like me. That's pretty smart."

The moon was high in the sky. It was shining in the northwestern sky, once the clouds uncovered it.

Ivan snuggled up against me. He took my hand.

The clouds had moved far to the northwest.

I kissed Ivan and he kissed me.

"I never knew kissing someone who is all wet could be that nice," he said.

"Banana pudding," I said. "You have banana pudding on your breath."

"I left that part out because I didn't want to upset you. I know it's your favorite dessert. This time she fixed it with the Vanilla Wafers," he said.

"You didn't bring any for me?" I asked teasingly.

"It's best when it's cold. I didn't know how long it would take to find you. Once I saw the Chevy, I knew you'd be here."

It was bright enough to see Ivan's smile.

He wore a white tee-shirt and jeans. He had on his penny loafers, no socks. Even in the moonlight, his muscular torso was apparent through a tee-shirt that hugged his chest.

Ivan became a man out of sight. I hadn't been able to watch him finish growing up. I was glad to be able to see the results. If I wasn't in love with Ivan already, I'd fall in love with him.

I'd grown from a lanky boy to a well-adjusted grown man, until Ivan returned home. I let things get out of control after that. It felt like life was giving me a good shake to see if I was tough enough.

I'd been away from my work long enough. I could still go home for lunch and take Ivan's lunch to him at the Bait Shop before I went back to work for the afternoon. We'd be together every night. I would support Ivan's dream as he created it. We'd be together to watch our son grow. I thought it would be a good life to have.

"I think I need to go back to the conservancy. I need to do what I do best, Ivan. I'd like to stay with you and help you with the cove. There are things that need to be done. Things I've been trained to do," I said. "Things Harry pays me very well to do."

"You save the Gulf, babe. I'll build the cove. You'll have that to fall back on when you want to do something different for a while. Everyone gets tired of the grind from time to time. Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere."

I squeezed Ivan's hand. He leaned his cheek against mine. We kissed.

He put his arm around me as we looked into the Gulf of Mexico and listened to the waves gently washing onto the shore.

"I love you, Ivan," I said, as he kept his face against mine.

The sky was dark, the moon was high, and there were a billion stars overhead. The storm had passed and tomorrow would be a beautiful day.

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