The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 24


As February passed and March arrived, Harry returned to Washington to conduct business in the congress, after we campaigned the final two weekends in the month.

No more hard campaigning was scheduled until April. Everything went fine and I was becoming accustomed to being on stage. It wasn't so much something I liked as it was something I did. Knowing the end game, I did my best for Harry's sake.

I still wasn't thrilled about leaving Dylan and Ivan, even when it was for only a day and a half. It was at most a couple of weekends a month, until October, and then it would be constant until election day. I told Harry I was on board for whatever he needed me to do and the end result would be worth any inconvenience in my life.

Nothing suspicious or dangerous had been reported at the cove.

The Cove Dive, Surf, & Bait Shop was finished inside and out. It was a colorful addition to the cove. J.K.'s Jr. Kitchen was completed and most of the kitchen equipment was inside.

Popov was busy discussing the menu with J.K. They were after the best dishes to be prepared in advance, refrigerated, and heated quickly while maintaining quality and flavor.

Ivan preferred J.K. make the decisions on what food to offer. Ivan would run the shop and supervise the employees with Taggart as his right hand man, but J.K. had a reputation to protect. Most of what Ivan knew about food came from eating it but he wanted the best possible menu to serve the visitors to the cove.

On Ivan's birthday we got cleaned up and dressed in our most fashionable clothes. After a fine birthday lunch, without Mama revealing what would be served for dinner, Ivan, Dylan, and I headed for the Buick. I instructed Ivan to drive to Fort Myers where my birthday gift would be given to him. I had Ivan park around the corner from our destination.

We walked down the block and stopped in front of the photographic gallery.

"I know this place," Ivan said. "We've been here before. We came here to get our pictures taken on my eighteenth birthday. The picture on your nightstand."

My plan for Ivan's birthday developed while I was on dives. That weightless atmosphere allowed my mind to wander. It wandered to the last time we spent his birthday together. The plan was to adapt that birthday to his thirtieth birthday. Once I decided on the gift, I kept it to myself for quite a while.

I would duplicate the outing as closely as I could manage with one little exception. Actually, it was becoming a rather big exception. Dylan was growing fast.

When Dylan said, "I'm not a child," his size was on his side.

At the front door of the gallery, I told Ivan the details of the birthday gift I was giving him. He smiled.

"Sounds OK to me, babe. We aren't exactly teenagers any more."

"I'm nearly a teenager. Does that help, Daddy-O."

"It does," Ivan said, mussing Dylan's hair."

"Oh, Daddy-O!" Dylan fussed.

Our first stop was at the photographic studio to have our picture taken. Dylan was wide eyed. Before telling the man what we wanted, Dylan was giving him the third degree.

"How'd you get this effect? It's remarkable. None of my pictures look anything like this," Dylan said, showing us.

"That's done with a fish-eye lens. It's a special effect. Most special effects require a special lens to achieve."

He went over to a cabinet that required a key to open. It took a minute before he brought back a box with a red velvet interior. In the box was the lens.

"Wow!" Dylan said. "It causes a refraction of the light. It bends in a way where the center is totally focused and to either side there is a blurring of the image the farther you get from the center."

Dylan was fascinated by the effect the lens would create.

"How mush does a gizmo like this cost?" Dylan asked.

"This one was approximately two hundred and fifty dollars. We don't sell them but it's the best one for our purposes. Since most of our work is studio portraits, it's suited to get the effect you described at weddings, birthdays, special events like that."

Dylan looked at me lens again.

"Your birthday's coming soon. Sounds like that might be birthday and Christmas," I said.

Dylan didn't blink.

"How many lenses do you have in there?" Dylan asked.

"Forty or fifty. We can achieve most effects people want."

Dylan wasn't done yet and the photographer walked with him down the corridor to the studio where he'd take our picture. Dylan stopped every few feet to ask about a picture. He wanted to know how this one was done and how that one was done.

The photographer was a patient man. He described in detail how each photograph was taken. Dylan would stand and stare into the picture to imagine the technique the man described.

When we got to the studio, the large camera on a tripod got Dylan's attention.

"The tripod steadies the camera to get the best picture," Dylan said.

"It does. Essential for studio pictures. No need to risk running a picture with a sneeze or an itch. This camera is over a thousand dollars. It never leaves the studio. It's strictly for portraits like the one I'm about to take of you."

"You develop them yourself?"

"I do. Come next door. I'll show you.

We walked back into the hallway to a small room one door down. Their were negatives everywhere. Some were dangling with a clothespin holding them in a way that allowed them to dry. There was 35mm film, pans, chemicals, lights, and more than enough doodads.

Dylan hadn't asked any questions about the photographic lab on Sea Lab, but I knew what came next. He'd just been introduced to the world of developing film. Until then he was satisfied with me developing the film he shot.

A few weeks into his photography adventure, I introduced him to a role of black and white film. He wrinkled his nose. When he saw the results in black and white.

The trip to the photographic studio was a turning point in Dylan's photography. Seeing the quality of the detail in black and white pictures, he began asking for black and white film and his pictures were far more distinctive in black and white.

Dylan began working with light and shadow in a way he never had before. By changing the light, it changed the character of objects he photographed. I took Ivan to the shop to recreate a day that took place months before Boris was lost.

We left with Dylan better educated in what he could make his Nikkon camera do. Ivan had a sense about what Dylan would like. The camera was the best gift he could have given our son.

I never imagined when he opened that box at Christmas, and the expensive camera came as a surprise to me, that Dylan would become fascinated by the art of photography. The man at the gallery took Dylan farther down that road.

As I watched a door opening in Dylan's mind, whatever he wanted, within reason, I would provide. I wanted him to have enough experience in life to know what he wanted to do and what he wouldn't be caught dead doing.

Bill Payne once told me, 'Do what you love, Clay, and you'll never work a day in your life."

I knew it was true. I'd never done a day's work and I knew how blessed I was. I could provide whatever Dylan required. I was a man of means and I would spare no expense giving Dylan what he wanted or needed. That way he would find what was right for him.

Going back into that studio, I felt like Ivan's birthday would probably end up with Dylan being the biggest winner on our trip to Fort Myers.

With Dylan between us we stood in front of a similar backdrop to the one we stood in front of for the first picture. The photographer entertained us with stories and quips that made us laugh, smile, and appear serious. I picked the picture with the three of us smiling.

I looked at Ivan and he nodded his approval.

"Two of this one," I said.

I figured one for my bedroom and one for Ivan's bedroom. I hadn't figured on any more.

"I've got a picture of my mother and you over my bed. Shouldn't I get one too? I'll put it beside her picture?" Dylan said.

"Make that three copies. We'll pick out the frames when we return," I said.

The man changed the order from two to three copies of the picture.

"I like the one with us laughing," Dylan said.

"Two and one," the photographer asked before making any more changes.

"No, keep the three and add the one our son wants. I'll give one to my mother on her birthday. She doesn't have any pictures of the three of us together."

"Yes, sir," he said.

I gave him the money for the four pictures and I put a substantial down payment on four frames. We'd pick out what we wanted when we picked the pictures up.

We walked a block from the photographic studio and we stopped in front of the jewelry shop.

"We are recreating my eighteenth birthday," Ivan said.

"We are. You get to pick the ring. I picked last time," I said.

We looked for the identical ruby rings we once wore as teenagers. I had mine at home and I stopped wearing it when I was diving so often. As salty as the Gulf is, it wouldn't do gold any good. Ivan's ring was somewhere safe. He wasn't sure where it was safe.

We hadn't discussed taking Dylan along when we went to buy matching rings, but Dylan was with us and we decided we could explain it to him in a way that wouldn't bring up too many questions.

Underestimating my son was easy for me. I kept seeing my little boy when I looked at him. When I was ten, I could barely tie my own shoes and when I did, they refused to stay tied. It was a different world in Tulsa. I was a small fish in a big fish tank. Being childish was an art form for me and my friends.

Dylan was more adult than some of the adults. I don't know what accounted for it. I'd like to think it was my fine fathering. Realizing what a joke that was, I accepted I had a gifted son, and as Ivan and I tried to decide what to say if our son asked about matching rings,

Dylan seated himself on the floor in front of the wedding ring display case. We stood behind him as he examined each set of rings.

"This one," he said after ten minutes.

Ivan and I stood silent.

"Those are wedding rings," I said for no particular reason.

"This one," he said, pointing and looking over his shoulder at us.

"You aren't getting a ring, kiddo," I said.

"I'm not stupid, daddy. This one. These are identical. They're nice without being showy."

Ivan and I looked at each other. It was a bit in your face but he did come in with us. I liked the ring. When I looked at Ivan he nodded his approval. I was buying them so it was my turn to talk.

"The one our son picked out," I said, biting my tongue.

The man behind the counter followed Dylan's finger. He didn't look twice when he reached his hand in the case to take the box.

"Make sure I get the right ones. This one?"

He picked up the box.

"Yes, sir."

"Beautiful rings. It has eleven diamond chips set in platinum," he described. "Guaranteed to last a lifetime."

He smiled.

He turned the box so we could get a closer view.

"I want two of the man's style. How long before we can pick them up?" I asked. "We'll be back in Fort Myers a week from today."

"Come back to my work station. We'll get your sizes. The jeweler who will do the work isn't here today. He'll fit the rings and they should be ready on your trip back to town next week, if we have two of the style you want in stock," he said. "I'll give you my card so you can check before you come over."

He handed me his card.

"That works," I said.

He checked his stock and measured our ring fingers. We followed him back to the front counter.

"How much do I owe you?" I asked.

"Two hundred and twenty-four dollars each, plus tax, but we can give you our 'happy wedding day discount' we have in effect this week. Twenty-five percent off," he said, giving us his biggest smile..

Writing out the numbers on a sales slip, he handed it to me.

"Sounds like a good deal," I said, opening my wallet and counting out the cash.

"Congratulations," he said as we headed toward the door.

The three of us said, "Thank you" at the same time.

"You think he knew?" Ivan asked, following up with, "It's my birthday."

My lover was quick on his feet but our son was nobody's fool.

"I think he knew," I said. "I don't remember if it was the same guy as before," I said. "Twelve years is a long time."

"Me either," Ivan said. "It was the same guy who took our pictures before. I remembered him. He has a presence that's hard to miss."

"Happy thirtieth birthday, Ivan," I said.

"Yeah, Daddy-O, You're getting old," Dylan said.

"I'm getting old at the same rate you are, junior."

"We went to the movies that night," I said. "With Mama expecting us for your birthday dinner, no time for a movie."

"You've made me proud, honey bun. Thank you, and to think this time last year we weren't even on the same continent," he said.

"Don't remind me. This arrangement seems much nicer to me," I said.

As if one political campaign wasn't enough for one worn out marine biologist, in April I introduced my sister, Lucy Olson, to a local audience. She'd launched her run for the state legislature.

Harry didn't attend. He wanted Lucy to have the stage to herself. She was running for Harry's old seat in the Florida legislature.

Harry would make several campaign stops in our district, his congressional district. He would appear beside Lucy after I introduced them. It was how he showed his support for her candidacy.

My sister was smart enough to hold her own with the political class. She'd shine as a legislator and bring her knowledge to the table with her desire to assist the people who needed help.

Lucy taught for a few years after college, She wanted a first hand look at what the people in her district needed. When she spoke to the parents of her students, she asked them what they thought.

Several current members of the legislature came to campaign beside Lucy. They remembered Lucy's visit to the legislature when she put some older legislators in their place. The younger members asked her about running for the legislature. As a young dynamic woman, the younger members of the legislature saw her as the kind of fighter they wanted on their side. Lucy would fight for the people who would benefit from government assistance, while letting the powerful fend for themselves.

It was a new day. Campaigning for Lucy was easier than going full tilt with Harry. Lucy stayed within a couple of hours of the house. We could make two or three stops on the way home for dinner. Campaigning for Lucy meant sleeping in my own bed. It also meant mingling in the crowd to chat before and after an event.

Ivan finished the Cove Dive, Surf, & Bait Shop in April. Right after the final shelves were stocked, Ivan began grading the area west of the boat ramp for the cove beach.

Harry knew a contractor, one of his supporters, who was opening a new housing development a dozen miles away. He would soon finish grading the streets if the weather held. He would let Ivan use the grader for the cost of transporting it. Harry offered a discounted list of services he talked over with Ivan and there would be free passes for the people living in his new development. They could come and use the cove beach and have access to a dining experience at J.K.'s. "I told them about your fishing boat and the shop where his residents could buy whatever they needed for an outing at the beach."

"Harry," Ivan said. "Before you offer free passes to the beach, shouldn't we have a beach?"

"That's what the grader is for. I got you a grader and good advertisement for your business. When's the grand opening?"

"Grand opening," Ivan said.

"You are offering a vacation paradise for vacationers. You need a grand opening to allow them to get a good look at what you have to offer, Ivan."

Ivan laughed when he told me about the conversation.

"He's a good man to know," Ivan said.

"To vote for too," I said.

"I guess I better register to vote. If politicians really wanted us to vote, we'd register to vote in our senior year of high school. When are we better informed than when we graduate?" Ivan asked. "There should be a mandatory government class for seniors. It would make sure that kids soon to be eighteen know what's going on."

"I'll mention that to Lucy. Registering to vote before you leave high school. Then you are registered until you leave the state," I said. "None of this, 'I don't like the cut of your jib, so you can't vote.'"

It took the first day for Ivan to be able to use the grader with ease. By the second day large sections of undergrowth began to disappear and the beach began to appear.

The removal of the jungle west of the boat ramp left a speckled colored dirt and brown sand on what was to be the cove beach. It was ugly as beaches go but better than the jungle it replaced. That in itself was quite an improvement. The wide open spaces made the cove look larger than before. The campsites with fire pits were large enough for each site to feel like a camper had a private beach.

I made sure I was there when the grading began. I brought fresh lemons and let J.K.'s people make lemonade by the gallon. Each time Ivan returned to the boat ramp end of the world, I refilled his glass with lemonade. Taggart and Kramer drank their share.

It was in the nineties every day that week. I sure hoped the summer wasn't that hot.

In spite of it all the cove was at peace. Kramer was still working for Ivan. Popov was still on shore when his fleet went to sea. I saw him from time to time but he rarely came over. He always seemed to be on his way somewhere.

If Carlos Santiago was in the area, no one we knew had seen him. The watch continued. Once it was routine, I didn't even notice the cars moving in and our of the driveways, but it was difficult to miss the boat parked out back of the house.

I figured it was closing on the time when someone said, 'That guy is long gone. He no longer seems to be a threat.'

I knew the time would come. I didn't know how I felt about it. Maybe was gone and in some other state or country.

Maybe he wasn't.

Popov left footprints on the cove beach, which told us he was alive and well and keeping his eyes on things. He'd gone to see his dredger operator operating. His introduction to the southwestern Florida operations manager took him to the source.

"Mr. Operations manager, how much are you charging Captain Popov to be carrying off sand for you."

"Captain, you can have all the sand you want. Leaves less for the state of Florida to pay someone to haul it away."

Harry's contractor, seeing the result of Ivan's labor with the road grader, put two of his dump trucks on hauling one load of sand a day from where it was dredged to dump on the cove beach.

This schedule allowed Ivan to spread the sand evenly for the length of the beach. As more sand came, the ugly speckled soil was buried deeper in the hopes it would stay buried.

Ivan was going great guns and he'd be ready for the May 1, "Come to the Cove" grand Opening.

The fliers went out and ads were placed in local papers and a couple of monthly magazines touting Florida as the place to vacation and live the carefree life the weather and natural resources provided.

Harry, ever the businessman, mentioned the conservancy, the Gulf, the cove, and the cove's beach in our late April campaigning.

When I sailed Sea Lab into the cove, I no longer recognized it. If the Fish Warehouse wasn't directly ahead and unchanged, the cove was entirely different from the year before. The year Ivan returned.

The white sand made the cove sparkle. The Cove Dive, Surf, and Bait Shop stood out in the middle of the hill beside the cove beach and J.K.'s Jr. Kitchen stood like a bookend facing the new shop and the beach. Sidewalks connected the two shops to the parking lot and the six stairs that took you to the dock.

While Ivan waited for the sand, he used the grader to smooth a pathway from the end of the cove beach to the Gulf of Mexico. This made it easier to walk from the beach to the Gulf.

I had become thrilled by Ivan's creation. I'd known the same old cove for fifteen years. Ivan turned it into a jewel. A family or an individual could come for a day or a week. If they planned smartly, they wouldn't need to leave for the duration of their stay.

As Ivan was creating the beach, at the top of each campsite Taggart and Kramer were building the fire pits. Tagggart's brick work made the next identical to the last.

Kramer wandered a lot, alternately assisting Taggart and walking near where Ivan was working. He wore long pants now. You wanted denim if you were going to get near the undergrowth.

Where ever Carlos Santiago was, he wasn't at the cove, which suited me fine. It had been four months since the last event at the cove. It was beginning to look like we were safe.

I felt safe. I felt absolutely giddy when I arrived at the cove and looked around. I'd vacation here if I didn't live on the Gulf five minutes away. I'd enjoy coming here just to feel what I felt when I took it all in. Someone should have thought of this years ago.

On two Saturdays in a row Dylan was allowed to come to the cove. We had relaxed and whatever danger there was seemed remote to me after moths of quiet peaceful days.

Dylan sat with Ivan in the grader as he smoothed out the newest truckloads of sand each afternoon late in April. Everything was done but the fire pits and adding more sand for the beach. The only thing Ivan had to do was say, 'Enough sand.'

Before the first campsite a hundred feet down the beach from the boat ramp, Ivan graded a large open section of beach. This was the public beach. People could come and spend the day and have their own spot without anyone being crowded. This small section of the 4000 feet of beach created a picturesque beach beside the boat ramp and the Cove, Dive, Surf, & Bait Shop. From the cove entrance it looked impressive.

At the far end of the campsites, Ivan graded a similar sized beach where anyone could feel comfortable. That beach was a short walk from the Gulf.

I don't know if Ivan was still carrying his gun. I didn't want to know and I didn't ask. With Kramer close at hand, I wasn't worried.

With opening day being extended to a week and on the Saturday the grand opening ended, there would be free hot dogs, balloons, and ice cream from 9a.m. To 3 p.m.

Ivan was ready to show people his shop, his boat, and his cove. Rumor had it that Popov would be in attendance.

Popov was using J.K.'s sloop to search for Big Carlos. If the gangster was on his boat anywhere within a few dozen miles of the cove, Popov would have found him.

Popov would take the day off to attend the grand opening.

"...And if you come to the cove, it's a mile and a quarter southeast of the conservancy, you can meet the local people, enjoy local seafood, and walk the cove beach to the Gulf if you like. It's a special place and a way for people to escape their fast-paced lives and enjoy life. Come to the cove, you'll enjoy it. I promise you," Harry said, ending each campaign stop that way in April.

In spite of the advertising in the weeks before the official opening, being off the beaten path, we expected mostly locals to come see what Ivan had built.

It was exciting and getting outside opinions was good. We saw what Ivan was building every step of the way. We saw it when we thought it came to a halt in December, but it was only a short time before Ivan began working on it again.

It was finished now and no one expected it to turn out so well.

A week after Ivan's birthday, we returned to Fort Myers. The picture turned out beautifully and we each picked a frame for our picture. Dylan's would hang next to the picture of Sunshine and me. Mine would sit beside the original picture of Ivan and me on the nightstand next to my bed. Ivan's went on his nightstand next to his bed.

The rings were even more beautiful than I remembered. We each tried ours on to check the fit before putting them back in the box. This was more than a friendship ring. This was more than I'd ever imagined. As grand as I believed it would be, the ring was much more. It went beyond the feeling and the hopes. This was real. Our love was real, and while forever was a long time, I accepted our love could last as long as the rings lasted. I could handle that. I was up for that.

We sat on Ivan's deck that night.

I slipped Ivan's ring on his finger.

He slipped my ring on my finger.

"I love you, Clay. We've been down some hard road. At times I worried I'd never see you again. As miserable as that was, this makes up for it. It's more than I dreamed was possible."

"No matter how rough the road, Ivan, we know our love can endure. I didn't know I could fall in love with you again, but the truth is, I never stopped loving you. I never stopped wanting you. This is my dream come true. If we could be married, I'd marry you."

We hugged. We kissed.

We made love.

One afternoon before dinner, Pop was home early. Ivan was done with the beach and merely needed to finish stocking as orders arrived from wholesalers. He did want to put a shine on the Daddy-O to show her off on opening day.

Pop was home early, which always gave me pause. I didn't think I was in trouble, but I wasn't sure. Nothing I'd done would cause Pop to come home before closing time at the conservancy.

"Clay, Ivan, come into the den with me," Pop said.

We followed my father into the den and he closed the door behind us. He didn't wait. He immediately went to the brandy. He set out three glasses. He filled each to the brim.

My father stepped in front of Ivan, offering him the tray. Ivan took a glass of brandy. My father moved to stand in front of me. I took one glass of brandy. He went to put the tray back in its place, taking the final glass for himself.

He sat facing us.

"This isn't easy for me. I'm from a different time. The role of men was far more strictly defined. Coming here from Tulsa was a shock to the system for a man accustomed to the quick pace of life."

Pop made no effort to sip from his brandy and we followed his lead. Holding that brandy, I was worried I might spill it. My father wasn't a man who said much about anything. He said what he thought and he said no more. This was not that.

"The rings," he said. "This is a conversation your Mama is better suited to have with you. But there is her God. We have seen Mama is no longer in lockstep with her God. There are things she can't do because of him. She realizes it's her doing while she doesn't know how to do anything else."

The rings was the topic. What came next was anyone's guess.

"I've never taken my wedding ring off. When I was sick and lost so much weight, your mother put a piece of tissue around the inside of the ring so it wouldn't fall off. I would no more have taken that ring off and set it beside me on the nightstand than I'd have tried to fly out the window," he said.

"Seeing those rings, and here's where I'm going to have trouble. I know what those rings mean. Mother and I talked the night you came to the table with them. In a different time, maybe in a different world, we'd celebrate what those rings mean and the fact you love each other enough to want them. I wish things were different. I wish things were easier. Clay, you're my youngest son and Ivan is like my son. Mother and I want you to be happy, no matter what anyone else might say. No matter what ridiculousness is spouted that keeps you from expressing your love openly. We've known you love each other since you were boys. You aren't boys any more and you've put on those rings and your father hopes you never take them off. We hope you are happy, and that's my toast to my sons. To your happiness," Pop said, lifting his glass and tossing the brandy back into his throat.

Ivan did likewise.

I gritted my teeth and tossed back my brandy. It furnished my gullet with a delicate warmth. It hadn't been that bad.

Later Ivan described the same sensation to me. It had made him high but it passed by the time we were at the table.

We were all there and except for the sounds of the silverware, there was little talking. At a point when the pace slowed, I said what I had to say.

Lifting my water glass, I said, "To the best parents in the world. Thank you, Mama. Thank you, Pop. I love you very much."

Toasting my parents with water might not be seen as proper but I did a lot of things that weren't considered proper.

I suppose that's why I lived life my way and let the chips fall where they may.

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