The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 9

Deep Dive

As time passed it was easier for me to see which road to take. Ivan was home today. He was home yesterday. I expect him to be home tomorrow. Beyond that is another day.

Now when Ivan worked late, not making it home for dinner, Dylan let him hear about it. Our son wasn't too bashful to speak his mind when he thought Ivan was neglecting him. He'd been neglected too long to allow it any longer. Dylan knew his father was working hard and he knew what time he should be home.

Ivan knew where he stood with Dylan, when our son held his father's feet to the fire and informing him, "This is not OK with me. You need to be home for dinner. I need to see you at dinner. Excuses don't cut it, Daddy-O."

I said nothing. My son had the floor. Mama inspected her napkin. Pop looked admiringly at his grandson. Lucy smiled.

"I'll do better, junior. We've nearly got the walls up and there isn't enough light to work much past six. Some nights I go to my house to shower before dinner, and I fall asleep on my bed."

"We have showers and beds here. Come home instead of going to your house and I'll know you're OK."

Hearing Dylan say he worried about his father made me feel better for worrying about him. Dylan grew up while his father was gone. At times he needed to see him to know he was still at home.

Dinner went on the table at seven at the conservancy house.

I took the answer as a promise to his son.

Whether it was Dylan or me, if Ivan's long hours working on the cove ate too deeply into time we expected him to give us, he'd hear about it.

We didn't fear the issuance of boundaries would run Ivan off.

It was the end of October, and I was taking Ivan his lunch. I left my help with plenty to do.

With some rainy afternoons in the past week the new shop still had a ways to go before the walls were completed. A carpenter had been framing the spot where the window would go. It required more than a little reinforcement. The days remained warm to quite warm but the nights were pleasantly cool.

It was Wednesday and another day in paradise.

"I have something I want to show you," Ivan said, before I coughed up his lunch. "It's right behind Sea Lab."

He held the door open for me, pinching me as I passed..

"The shop looks nice, Ivan. You've really done a lot of fixing up. It no longer looks like a dump," I said.

"Thank you, I think," he said.

We went down the six steps and onto the dock, walking past Mr. Aleksa's empty slip two slips before Sea Lab. Ivan kept walking.

I stopped to examine the sign: Charter Fishing.

It was mounted at the end of the dock on sturdy poles. The sign itself was three feet by three feet. It could be read from the road. Ivan's boat was in front of the sign where he'd built his slip. It had his boat pointing toward the entrance of the cove.

"Come to the end of the dock," he said, stopping there.

He must have stood there when they installed the sign. His curly dark brown hair brushed the bottom.

"It's a nice sign, Ivan. Shouldn't it have a phone number?"

"I won't get a phone until we're in the new shop. The natural instinct would be to inquire inside the Bait Shop if they are interested in booking a charter."

"Oh," I said.

"You haven't seen the half of it. Come here," he said. "See."

He pointed to the stern of his boat as I moved forward. I was immediately aware of what he wanted me to see. I was delighted.

"What do you think?" he asked.

A name had been painted on the back of Ivan's boat: Daddy-O.

"It's beautiful," I said. "I'd hug you but we know how well that would go over in the heart of Dixie," I said.

"We do," he said.

Our shoulders touched.

"I'll consider myself hugged and being a gentlemen, I won't tell you what I'd like to consider next."

I checked out how the letters arched perfectly centered in a sweeping scarlet swash. It was quite well done.

"It just came back today. It's set up for fishing now. The galley and the bunks have been reinforced to hold up with a lot of use."

"It's really nice, Ivan. I hope the customers start lining up," I said. "Dylan will love the name."

"I thought so," he said. "I was going to call it The Dylan, but it didn't fit. Then I thought of Daddy-O. It's perfect."

"It is," I said.

On Thursday, after two weeks of pampering the help, I decided to do what I'd been putting off for weeks, dive on the sunken freighter. I'd scope out the site where I would spend a lot of time.

Before leaving them on their own, I said, "Once you finished your assigned work, I suggest you get books from the conservancy library to read. I wish to remind you, Rachael Carson is an author I want you to become familiar with. Once you start reading one of her books, you'll understand why."

There hadn't been much free time up until now and being aware of what was being written in the field was important. I told them I should be back before they went home, but it wasn't a sure thing if I wanted to do everything I needed to do.

Make the dive. Get home in time for lunch. Take Ivan his late lunch.

I leaned in the door of the Bait shop to tell Ivan the plan. Then I walked to Sea Lab.

At eight thirty-five I passed out of the cove and into the Gulf.

Standing on the second step of the ladder, I fell backward into the Gulf. Holding my face mask in place, I rolled over and began my descent.

Expectations ran through me like an electrical charge. I'd waited for Jack and Randi to adapt to their new responsibilities. Now I could spend the day away knowing they were equipped to work without me being there. Diving on the sunken freighter Harold showed me was my job today.

I didn't rush on a dive day. It was a good way to end up in trouble. I followed a routine Bill Payne introduced me to on my first dive. It kept me out of trouble.

I was anxious to dive alone on the sunken freighter. It had been on my mind since Harold showed it to me. Waiting made my return to the shipwreck more rewarding.

It was my compulsion to get back underway and I didn't fight it. I took a water sample near the surface. As I got deeper down, I took my second water sample before the freighter came into sight and my mind would become married to the vision. This was going to become a special place for me to visit.

I knew where to look for the target of this dive. When I first saw it, it became clear how far away I was when I caught sight of the entire freighter sitting upright on the floor of the Gulf below me. It settled on the bottom in a single piece fifty years ago, and I fought the feeling I was in the bottom of an aquarium.

Entering the water excited me. This was a strange world I was familiar with. It was like my body and the water were of the same molecules. I felt it on my first dive. I felt a peculiar oneness with the sea. I continued to be fascinated by sea creatures.

When I was in the Gulf, I felt at home. On my first dive I understood this was my element. I had no fear of being underwater. I looked forward to it. There was too much to see and do to let fear into the equation.

I felt a supernatural aspect to the sunken freighter I was seeing. It was a mystery sitting on the bottom of the Gulf and I had come to unlock the mystery of its current role as host to a vast variety of sea creatures.

Not diving was far more difficult than this. I was relaxed as I moved closer to the shipwreck. Knowing what I was about to see, my heart still skipped a beat once I saw it.

A magnificent reef covered the main deck, obscuring the man-made structures on and above that deck. It wasn't so much a ship as it was a reef when I looked down on it.

It struck me odd that the body of the ship, the thing that told you this was a ship, was almost free of the reef that dominated the rest of the ship above the main deck. It was clearly a boat. The reef was just now peeking over the sides, stretching down from the main deck. This reef was ready to consume the rest of the freighter and I knew it took fifty years to get to this point.

My reef, the Spanish shipwreck of centuries ago, was hardly a ship at all. It was a reef that replaced the decaying ship. It slowly took the place of the wooden ship. There was never anything spooky, supernatural about it. This was nature at work.

What once had been an instrument of war and destruction, gave way to an original beauty worthy of any museum or cathedral.

I didn't bring my camera or I'd be clicking away on my latest project. There had to be a plan first. I needed to see the entire site from above, with it at eye level, and below, where I could look up at the deck to see how far away the coral was. I worked my way around the shipwreck, suspended just below the main deck.

I'd take note of any promising vantage points I might be able to observe the reef from without interacting with it. I wanted to find as many spot as possible where I had a view of the reef and the sea creatures, but I wasn't so close I was interacting with either.

As great a find as the sunken freighter was, it offered few places where I wasn't using part of the reef or very close to the reef to do my work. Seeing the reef but not interacting with it was preferred.

On the flat Gulf bottom the sea creatures would see me coming and see where I went. At least in the beginning, they'd avoid me. Then they'd become curious about me. Once I'd visited a few times, respecting their space, representing no threat to them, I'd bring my cameras to document the different shapes, sizes, and colors. From those pictures I'd identify as many species as my knowledge allowed.

Then there was what I didn't see. There was the mystery around the shipwreck. There was a feeling here I never got at my reef. There was the presence of the crew and the ship's captain. Seeing the ship as a ship made a difference. I always did my best to respect the sea creatures I came in contact with. I did a lot of backing away from activities I might stumble upon.

I could see the life and respect it. Give it its space, but what of the men who went to the bottom with the shipwreck? What state were they in. Were they resigned to their fate before the ship they sailed settled here?

Were one two or more sailors able to find pockets of air and were they alive to take the ride down to what they must have known was their grave.

Being there, seeing it the way I needed to see it for the first time. I was here as an observer. I was an investigator of details without any details on the ship. Where was it from? Where was it bound? Who sailed on her when it left its final port of call?

I was back in the game and I looked for places where I could get the best pictures of the life there. Once they got used to the strange looking creature visiting their secluded spot, most species would be as curious about me as I was about them. That's the way it usually went.

Then there were the creatures that would never get close to anything that looked like me in SCUBA gear. The reclusive residents of the reef were hardest to identify or photograph. They were hardest to document and the highlight of any dive was when you identified one.

For now I'd observe, get the lay of the land, so to speak. Each reef had its own dynamics. No two reefs were alike.

Then there was the mystery of the men who died here. This gave me the feeling that the spirits of the men who went down with the ship were here still. It gave me a deep appreciation for the reef that was their marker. It was their only grave and it represented the graves of all the men who had gone to sea and never returned.

I was home for a late lunch after diving on the sunken freighter. Mama was in the midst of dinner preparations. If I hadn't been hungry already, the smells in Mama's kitchen would have had my taste buds watering.

Before I was finished eating Mama put out a bag with two hot buttered biscuits on top. I'd watched her put four fat pieces of fried chicken in the bag, along with a container of potato salad, and a healthy slice of last night's apple pie. She didn't need to tell me it was for Ivan and I needed to take it to the marina. This was our routine.

Ivan raved over Mama's fried chicken. We all broke into smiles when Mama put a platter full of her fried chicken on the dinner table.

Ivan also said, "Mama, your biscuits could float away on a soft breeze.' It was the kind of compliment Mama never forgot.

The bag must have weighed two pounds and I knew Ivan would hand me one of those fat pieces of chicken.

I saw myself as marine biologist giganticus one day.

How could I be hungry? I just ate lunch.

Mama fed me and then made sure I left the house with the bag I would deliver to Ivan. I was always looking for a reason to visit Ivan. I left Randi and Jack reading Rachel Carson as their assignment. So I had time for Ivan. If I was honest, Mama's cooking was one of the main reasons Ivan stayed so close to me when we were boys. For the most part, Ivan was raising himself when I discovered him. He ate stuff that came out of a can or mostly ready to eat. With Mr. Aleksa being out in the Gulf fishing most days, Ivan found the invitation to eat at the Olsons' table irresistible.

While I drove, I had time to think about details like that. It took no more than five minutes to be parking in the lot at the cove. I grabbed the bag and headed for the Bait Shop.

"Hey, hot stuff," Ivan said when the bell over the door rang.

"Nice bell," I said.

"Thanks. It sounds like the bell in Bell, Book, and Candle."

"Yes," I said, no longer thinking about the bell.

I set the bag on the counter and moved away from the new and clean window to run my hands down the front of Ivan's shirt as I stood behind him.

When he turned to face me, I planted the kiss I'd been saving for him since that morning. He gave me one too.

Ivan was working on making the old Bait Shop new again. Once the Cove Dive, Surf, & Bait Shop was finished, he would transfer his displays and the products he had in stock to the new shop.

This was where he was each day. Taggart came after school and they laid bricks until daylight ran out. By early November the days were growing shorter and Ivan was home in time for dinner by then. The time for brick laying and the daylight ran out earlier each day.

This change satisfied both Dylan and me even if it pushed back the completion date on the new shop.

"I smell fried chicken, Ivan," I teased.

"Oh, man, I'd walk a country mile for your Mama's fried chicken."

"And biscuits," I said to tantalize him away from his desk.

Ivan was standing at the desk next to the compressor he used to fill SCUBA tanks. He put his pencil down and came to the counter to take the feast out of the brown paper bag.

I stood across from him after I looked at the desk and the map of the cove he was drawing as ideas came to him. It changed each day.

"Busy?" I asked, standing at the counter with my hands on the bag as he left the desk where he kept the plans.

"No. It's Thursday. We don't get much business on Thursday. I'm working on my plans for the cove. I've added some touches," he said, leaving the desk to come see a man about fried chicken.

I let him take the back and empty it on the counter.

"Fire pits and picnic tables bordering the beach," I said, seeing what had been added to the plans as soon as he took the bait and went to get the fried chicken.

"Yes, but don't expect any answers out of me while I'm smelling your Mama's fried chicken."

He fondled the chicken, sniffing at the fragrance it offered.

"I see no signs of a beach and you have fire pits?"

"Don't be a bummer. I need to plan to rent a grader to create the beach from the far side of the boat ramp to the finger of land separating the cove from the Gulf," he said.

He closed his eyes after taking a bite.

"OK," I said. "You'll clear the undergrowth with the grader?"

"This may become a bottleneck," Ivan said. "Renting a grader will require finding a place that will rent one to someone like me. The biggest hitch will be how to get it here so I can clear the jungle out of the way of my beach. I've got to find a place closer than Fort Myers. The cost of getting it here and taking it back is prohibitive and it won't fit in the trunk of the Buick."

"No. I think not," I said. "Maybe where they're doing grading nearby. Building new housing developments is going great guns to the north and east of us. Makes sense a construction company might have one on a building site they don't use often. It's there for when they need it."

"See why I let you hang around?" Ivan said. "I'd never have come up with that. I can plan my empire and lack basic mind function to get it done. We'll drive around and see what's up one weekend. You can show me where the new building is going on."

"OK. I'm game," I said. "Now all you need to do is convince Dylan to go riding around in the Buick," I said.

Ivan laughed.

"Here, with the road close to the beach, I'll clear all the brush, but as I clear a twenty foot wide swath to the end of the cove, the road gets farther from the campsites as you get farther from the new shop. It'll make for more rustic campsites the closer campers gets to the Gulf. This will appeal to more adventures campers."

"I like the sound of it," I said.

"It's on my plans now. Popov has approved everything you see," he said.

"The beach will be fifteen feet wide. I'll extend the parking lot half the way to the end of the cove. That way they can park fairly close to their campsite. The people closest to the boat ramp will have parking just above their space. They'll be closer to the conveniences we offer."

"You want them bringing their food and not eating at JK's?"

"I imagine some folks don't have a lot of money to spend. Eating out a couple of times a day is expensive, even with JK's food being moderately priced. I'll think about it but I think fixing hot dogs, burgers, and such is part of camping out if you plan to stay a week. We'll offer J.K.'s easier to fix food at J.K.'s Junior Kitchen, which is what this shop will become once the new shop opens."

"People on the beach will like having fast food close at hand," I said.

"You're staring at my chicken," Ivan said. "Take a piece. I can't eat all this. I see that wanton look in your eye."

"That look has nothing to do with chicken," I said, picking up a fat thigh and biting into it.

"Glad that wasn't my thigh," he said, nibbling on a breast.

"I want you to go diving with me, Ivan," I said.

"You usually just tell me when we're going," he said. "What about Dylan?"

"It's a deep dive. He's not equipped to do a deep dive. It'll be a few years before he's mature enough," I said. "This is a new place. Harold showed me. It's a deep dive on a sunken freighter. I want you to see it. It's where I'll be doing a lot of diving soon."

"In case you haven't noticed, our kid is more mature than I am," Ivan said.

"Mature, as in he has a buttoned down mind. Emotionally and physically, he's not mature enough to be put into a deep diving situation. In an emergency, he isn't going to react fast enough. It's not a question of maturity. It's a question of being ready. He isn't."

"No, not when you put it that way. Give me the time. I'll be there, honey bun. Wouldn't miss a chance to go with you on Sea Lab. I've loved that boat since the first time I saw it. I'd been gone all those years and you'd made the big time. A success in your career and that boat left no doubt about it. You're no ordinary marine biologist, cutie pie. I, on the other hand, spent ten years wandering."

The Bait Shop had warmed up. Ivan didn't usually show vulnerability, not even when we were boys.

"I had to ask myself, why would a guy like you want anything to do with a jerk off like me?"

I looked deep into his eyes.

"Because I love you," I said.

"I have no right to take your love, Clay. I lost my right to expect you to still love me. I hoped you could. I prayed you would, but I didn't expect it. You're the best thing in my life. You've been the best thing in my life since we met. I have no excuse for leaving you. Had I known what I was facing, I'd never have left our beach."

Ivan was rarely that serious and it made me squirm.

"Let's leave it alone," I said. "Let's be here and experience now."

"The story is about that. It's about choices and the journey. I will tell the story but it won't be easy for you to hear," he said.

"The unknown is far more dangerous than the knowing," I said.

He nibbled his chicken. I held my thigh bone.

The sun shined in through the new bigger cleaner glass window.

"I like the idea of you and me, you know, like just the two of us go diving together."

"It wouldn't be as much fun going separately," I said.

"I can lock the door and we can practice deep diving in the back of the shop," Ivan said. "Taggart is going for mortar mix after school."

"I'd love nothing more, but I took the Sea Lab out this morning and I didn't do a proper inspection. I just wanted to get going," I said. "I've got to spend the next hour or two checking her out and then I've got to go back to the conservancy to reassure my employees that I am really back to work and it wasn't their imagination."

"How are the troops at the conservancy doing these days? Harry sure is good to you."

"You telling me. They're treading water until I get back," I said. "I assigned Rachel Carson for them to read. Keep them out of mischief while I'm gone out on my double lunch hour."

"I see where she would be appropriate reading," Ivan said. "Excellent writer. I'm sure she died way too young. We need more brilliant minds like hers."

"I've got to get going," I said. "Sea Lab awaits."

Ivan smiled.

"What?" I asked.

"Nothing. Remember the first time I was on the Sea Lab? It just flashed into my mind. I didn't tell you how impressed I was. I knew you'd made it when I saw that boat."

I didn't slap him hard but I slapped him nonetheless.

Ivan looked stunned.

"What's that for?" he said, rubbing his cheek. "You said you loved me."

"That's for putting that damn ice cold soda in the middle of my bare back," I said. "I remember the first time you were on Sea Lab. You didn't have time to tell me you were impressed. All you had in mind was checking out the deck. You made me feel cheap."

"Never cheap, my love," he said, rubbing his cheek. "Irresistible! When I'm that close to you, you're absolutely irresistible."

Ivan smiled.

"You are always ready with the right answer," I said.

"It was a nice deck. I didn't know there was a carpeted salon a few feet away," he said with a smirk. "I did find my brand of root beer in the galley though. I found that interesting."

"Dylan's brand," I said. "You were in too big a hurry to find a soft spot for what you had in mind to find the salon," I said.

I never told him how seeing him made me feel, after he was out of my life for four years.

"You remember what I was wearing?" He asked.

"You knew you couldn't face me any other way. The fact you are the most beautiful man I know gave you an unfair advantage. In the nude you're irresistible, me anyway," I said. "You took advantage of that fact, buster."

"You are cute when you're angry, Clayton," he said.

"I'm cute all the time, buster," I said.

"You telling me."

"This is a lot of fun but I need to finish with Sea Lab and get her secured for the night."

"Want me to come along? We can recreate my first visit to Sea Lab."

"And what if a customer comes while you're lollygagging?"

"He'll have to get his own boyfriend," Ivan said, keeping his chin carefully out of range.

I had apprehensions. Being with Ivan meant I was on top of the world. Even as good as he made me feel, I had a persistent niggle that seemed like a warning. It said go slow. It said nothing is forever.

I brushed it off as nonsense.

Ivan was home. He showed no sign that anything might make him leave Dylan and me.

Then I remembered how quickly he was gone after getting the news about Boris. He was an impetuous youth. We were grown men now. Our lives were far too involved to walk away from them.

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