The Gulf Between Us
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Editor: Jerry W.
Fine Thin Line
I'd survived my first day at school. Both feet were seriously blistered, but I didn't walk out of my boots even once. Dragging them around on my feet wore me out. Once home, I retired the cowboy boots to John-Henry's closet, after putting a coat of black polish on them, which was our deal.
I thanked John-Henry and told him I wouldn't need them again.
Putting on my cutoffs as quick as I came in the door, I was on my way to Ivan's once the boots got what was coming to them. As I headed for the kitchen door, I heard a basketball bouncing at the side of the house. Ivan was shooting a basketball at a hoop that had no net.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey," he said.
He shot the ball from twenty-five feet away, following it to the hoop, making a layup, after the ball dropped through the hoop. Dribbling back to the end of the concrete, he turned, arching in another shot.
"Thanks," I said, having had all afternoon to think about it.
"For what," he asked, dribbling back toward me, abruptly turning to shoot.
He'd been at it a while. His tan skin was covered with sweat. It was a hot and humid afternoon.
Once again he dribbled toward the outer edges of the concrete. I moved under the basket and began tossing the ball back to him, once it dropped through the hoop. I couldn't hit the side of the house from ten feet away. I was amazed by his skill with the ball. He was good at everything he did.
"For saving my ass from the ox," I said. "I wanted you to know I appreciated it. You didn't have to do that, you know."
"Sure I did. He bothered you. If he bothers you again, get right in his face. Always call him Leslie. He hates it. We go way back, Leslie and me. He's all hot air. I've never seen him throw a punch. He thinks he's tough. He's only fat," Ivan said, stopping to shoot. "I knew him before he became a blimp."
The basketball went through the hoop and dropped at my feet.
"You're good," I said, tossing the ball back.
"You don't know the half of it. I don't take much seriously," Ivan explained for no reason. "This relaxes me. I need to relax after my daily dose of programming and indoctrination. We are the proletariat after all."
"We're pro what?"
"We're the worker bees, Clay. We're here to service the queen," he panted, turning to shoot, sounding serious about something.
"What queen?" I asked, lost in his allegory again. "Isn't that England?"
"School isn't so much to educate as it is to indoctrinate. Lord's Prayer, The Pledge, God Bless America, that old school spirit, what does it teach us, repeating it each day? Repetition makes an impression even on the dullest minds."
He dribbled in to make a layup, bumping me with his hip, before he laid the ball in the hoop.
"You don't like school?" I asked.
He shot from the farthest corner of the cement. The ball hit the hoop, bounced straight up, and dropped through the hoop. He jogged up, taking the ball from me.
"Come on. I need a soda. Thirsty, cowboy?"
"Sure," I said, watching the fine lines in his body as he walked in front of me.
His skin shined. He didn't have an ounce of fat on him. I wondered if he was good at everything or if he only did things he was good at? I wasn't good at anything. I had two left feet and my fingers were all thumbs. Ivan looked good no matter what he did. Why did he even notice a klutz like me?
"You ever had a cream soda?" he asked, getting two bottles of tan liquid out of the fridge. "Here. Try this. Tell me what you think."
Popping off the bottle caps, he handed me the cold soda, taking a long swig out of his.
"I hadn't thought of it in years. I found this at Piggly Wiggly last week. I remember how my grandfather enjoyed his cream soda. I like it more now than I did then. It's not too sweet or tangy."
I took a sip and then I took another. It was different. There was nothing about it I disliked. I liked Coke, as did most of my family. I rarely tried anything else. I decided cream soda was OK. Mine was half gone before we spoke again.
"My grandfather was from Lithuania. It's part of the Soviet Union. My father was born there."
"I know," I said. "You mentioned your grandfather before. That he was from there."
"A lot of the Soviet sailors are Lithuanian. Lithuanian men are well acquainted with the sea. My grandfather was from Vilnius. It opens onto the Baltic. He was a fisherman before the Soviets came to stay, after the Russian Revolution."
"The Soviet Union is Russia?" I asked, being clear on nothing, except they were the bad guys.
"Russia is at the center of the Soviet Union. They took over Lithuania. It has ports opening onto the Baltic Sea. The Soviet navy anchors ships there. My grandfather was fished. The Soviets made fishing harder. The Soviets made life hard. He began planning his escape in the early 30s. He installed an extra fuel tank and began saving diesel fuel in it.
"What was the fuel for?"
"One day Pop Pop, my grandfather, sailed out to go fishing, like he did every day of his life. During the night my grandmother, father, and Aunt Catherine slipped aboard. They used the extra fuel to come to America, where I was born, Boris too. He's my brother. He lives with my mother in Tampa."
"I'm glad they came here," I said.
"Me too. I'd like to go to Lithuania one day. See where my people are from. Maybe fish there, because Aleksa's are fisherman. They've fished the Baltic since the beginning of time, until now."
"My family is from northern Europe. Sweden, maybe. No one talks about it. We're just Americans now. I don't know my father knows anything about the old country."
"I get we're American, Clay. My people had a culture and a history in Lithuania. I need to have some sense of it for me to have a better understanding of who I am. I have curiosity about my ancestors. The Soviet Union is new. They'll leave one day. My people lived and fished there long before the Soviets came. I want to learn about it and go there after the Soviets leave."
"You think they'll leave?" I asked.
"All empires die. The people go on."
"I don't think we have a history," I said, having never thought about it. "My father has only had this job a few weeks. I'm not sure what he did before we came here. He went to work every day. He had weekends off. Sometimes we went to Joplin. That's in Missouri. A couple hours from Tulsa."
"There's a tradition to the sea. My father couldn't fish with my grandfather. That's another story, but until he became a fisherman, he couldn't keep a regular job. Since Pop Pop died, Dad took over the fishing boat and we moved here. It undid my parents' marriage. My mother didn't last two months on the beach. One day she left and didn't come back. I was almost nine. Boris was eleven."
"Your mother didn't like the beach?" I asked.
"It wasn't the beach. It was the isolation. My mother likes a party, dancing, nice clothes. Tampa is a long way to commute. It's over two hours if you don't doddle. My mother doesn't doddle."
"You and Boris lived here alone?"
"Dad started coming in every night at first. Once Boris was twelve, he'd go over night twice a week. We had each other and we aren't the type to get into trouble. We'd have to work at it to find trouble around here," Ivan said.
"Your grandfather sounds neat," I said. "He came here in a boat, like Columbus?"
"No, Columbus went to the Caribbean to take whatever he could find of value back to Europe. Pop Pop came to breathe free. He is one of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses."
"He is!" I said, thinking I recognize the words, but I wondered what it meant. "He had courage to go against the Soviets."
"He wanted to fish and be left alone to live his life. The Soviets didn't want that. He left. I was here with him his last two summers. I hated Tampa. Too big, too fast, too far from Pop Pop. I love it here. Boris liked the beach in those days. When my mother moved back to Tampa, Boris was here with me until he turned sixteen. We're a lot a like," Ivan said with fondness in his voice.
"I think I have too many brothers to be like any of them. John-Henry is a man. Brian... well, Brian'll never be a man. Teddy is easy to get along with. He's always gone, working somewhere. Teddy has worked as far back as I have a memory. He's two years older than me, Brian three, and John-Henry is nearly five years older than me. Coleen was first born, Lucy last, and all boys in between. I'm not like any of them. We get along okay, I guess."
"Just me and Boris," Ivan said.
"How'd your grandfather and father get to Florida?" I asked. "America's big."
"One day my grandfather sailed out of the harbor and he kept going. He stopped in Iceland to trade fish for fuel, and he left for the United States. He landed in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was the only place on the sea he knew by name. He could fish there, while getting asylum for his family. The fisherman in Gloucester had a tight alliance. It wasn't easy to earn a living if you didn't join. My grandfather said he'd already been controlled by the Soviets. He'd go where he could fish on his own."
"He sounds like John Wayne," I said. "He wanted what he wanted and that's all there was to it."
"Except for him having a boat instead of a horse, that's probably about it. This was in the Great Depression here. Times were hard. He sailed to Maine first and then to Newfoundland. It was tough all over. My grandmother was sick and she died just before they got to Cape Hatteras. The fishing was good but the markets were limited to local fisherman. My Aunt Catherine met a local fisherman, fell in love, left her father's boat. She's still in North Carolina for all I know.
"They tried the East Coast of Florida for a year, migrating here after fishing in the Keys for a year. They found the fish warehouse in the cove where we dock the boat now. There was no marina then. Pop Pop made a deal to bring his fish to the fish warehouse. One day he saw the house you're living in while on his way to unload at the warehouse. He was directed to the conservancy and made arrangements to buy the land next to the river. He built this house, and here we are," Ivan said happily.
"That's a great story," I said. "It must have been quite an adventure. Leaving his home to come here. That took guts. My father lost his job. He heard about the one here. It included the house. That sealed the deal. We had no choice."
"Sounds courageous to me, Clay. Your parents didn't know what would be here. They came halfway across the country to start over. Starting over is gutsy no matter how it happens."
"Yeah, I guess for them it did take guts. I was just a kid. I went with them," I explained.
"We were living in Tampa, when Pop Pop died. I'd spent the summer with him, until school started. He died in September. We moved here right after the funeral. My father loved it. He began fishing right away. My father was always a fisherman. It's in his blood. It's in my blood."
"You have history. I was born in Tulsa and we moved here in June. End of story."
"Short and sweet," Ivan said. "I bet you're leaving something out."
"How'd you learn all that?" I asked. "Who told you what happened to your family?"
"Pop Pop thought it was important for me to know our history, our culture. He taught me the language and told me what it was like before the Soviets came. Boris and I went out on the boat with Pop Pop. He taught us everything he knew about fishing, reading the stars, and finding fish. We can never get lost on a clear night," Ivan bragged.
"I liked it here right away," I said. "I was lonely though."
"Lonely?" Ivan said, turning to look at me. "You aren't alone any more."
He threw his arms around me and gave me the biggest hug I can remember. The image of Ivan hugging and kissing his father flashed into my brain. I'd never been kissed by anyone but by Mama. I didn't want it to change now. It was a big worry about nothing. It was totally cool.
"We're friends, Clay. I'm here for you no matter what," he said without doubt in his voice. "I wouldn't care even if you told me you were a Baptist."
The hug ended but he stood close, letting his arm rest on my shoulders as he turned his attention back to the gulf. It gave me a warm feeling. I felt like I belonged there.
"Like today," I said, suddenly seeing the ox in the cafeteria at school.
"You can handle Leslie without me," he said, knowing what I meant. "You haven't learned to own the ground you stand on," Ivan said. "You can't let a boy like Leslie muscle you. You can't back up. You need to get close to his face. Ask him what he wants. A bully wants you scared. If you don't act scared, it throws him off."
"What if he hits me?" I asked, thinking of how bad that would look.
"Hit him back, Clay. Stand your ground. A punch is no big deal. The fear of being punched is way greater than the punch. A bully doesn't want to fight you. He wants to see your fear. Don't let him see it. Face him and stand up for yourself. A bully feeds on fear. If he can't get what he wants from you, he'll look for easier prey."
"I've never hit anyone before. No one's ever hit me," I said. "I always had friends with me."
"When you hang with me, no one is going to bother you," he said. "I'm not easily intimidated by another kid and only rarely by an adult."
"Why doesn't anyone mess with you?" I asked.
"Hard to say. I'm not scared of anyone. Boris used to beat the hell out of me when we were little. The boy has a temper. After he learned to box, he taught me. We do all our fighting in the boxing ring now, but I'm not scared of him. If he knocks me down, I get up, and then I make him pay for it. I've got a temper too. I save it for Boris, because he gives me a run for my money."
"Do they know at school that you box?"
"They know Boris boxes. Most guys put two and two together. Until Boris moved to Tampa, he was my best friend. We were always together, except when I spent the summers with Pop Pop. Boris wanted to go home after a couple of weeks. I stayed with Pop Pop whenever I could. No one at school messed with Boris. They don't mess with me. I don't give them a reason to mess with me. You push me. I push back. The trouble makers don't want to be pushed back."
"Boris toughened you up," I observed. "You said he beat you up."
"I suppose he did. I didn't like him hitting me. I don't like it now. I hit back. Didn't do much good when I was a shrimp. I got in enough good licks growing up that he stopped beating on me."
"Staying with your grandfather toughened you up, I bet. He sounds tough," I said.
"He was tough enough to live life on his own terms. The Soviets tried to indoctrinate him. It only made him mad. He sailed right out of their reach. He encouraged me to find things I liked and not let anyone discourage. He told me, 'Talent and time create art, whether it's laying bricks or brain surgery. Life is about the art of living.' Fishing was his art."
"That's smart, but I still don't want to fight anyone," I said.
"Neither do I, Clay. The best way to avoid a fight is to be ready to fight if you need to."
When Ivan spoke, his steady black eyes were on my less convincing blue version. He spoke firmly and with confidence. I pictured him doing that dive. How he made his body twist and turn in midair. It took strength as well as grace. His physical skills were impressive.
"Like I said, Boris boxes. He taught me how to take care of myself. We've got these long arms, and he's built his arms up. When he knocks me down, and he still can, I get up. I don't stand there and match him punch for punch. He's stronger than me. That's his game. I get inside those long arms. I get into his body and jab him over and over again. He hates it when I do that. I don't care much for being knocked down, so I do something about it."
"I don't know if I could do that," I said, never having faced that kind of problem.
"You were halfway there with Leslie, Clay. You didn't back up. All you need to remember is to get even closer to someone like him. Get in his face so he feels threatened. It's not what he wants."
"I couldn't back up," I confessed. "I had two pounds of newspaper in each boot. I was afraid I'd fall down if I backed up."
Ivan laughed. I laughed. It felt good. The fear had left me, but I still didn't want to fight Leslie.
"You're not like everyone else, Clay. It's why I like you. You took a shot today. That's cool, but I like you the way you are, here on my beach. This is no place for a cowboy. At school, it's cool."
When Ivan first put his arm on my shoulders, it weighed a ton. Now I barely felt it. He didn't move it as we stood looking at the pleasant water. Had it been another boy, I'd have been made nervous being touched by another boy. With Ivan, I liked it. I liked being with him.
Neither of us spoke as we surveyed the water for activity. In the afternoon anything might rise out of the depths or fly overhead. We were excited by such sightings. I couldn't begin to imagine what was beyond the horizon. Watching the sun slip out of sight beyond the gulf was the best of all, and if there weren't too many clouds, we could see it most days. We were always on the deck at sunset. I had to be home fifteen minutes later. I wasn't allowed out after dark.
I didn't understand how we became best friends. I was just glad we did.
When I wasn't at school, or called to duty to babysit Lucy, I was at Ivan's. After dinner, when I took my plate to the kitchen, I began saying, "I'm going to Ivan's, Mama."
"Be home at nine," Mama would say. "You've got school tomorrow."
Everything was better in my life that fall. It was October when my father came in with a radio under his arm. He set it up in the hallway beside the dining room. John-Henry took the antenna up through the attic and onto the roof, where he secured it near the trapdoor. It could easily be reached and brought in during storms.
"I talked to Ivan's dad this afternoon. I took him over to the conservancy to show him the pictures of his father with their boat and the picture of his house, when it was first built. Nice fellow," Pop said, "He's going to instruct Ivan to keep their radio on while you're up there, which is most of the time these days. That way you can reach us without coming home to do it," Pop said. "He's delighted that Ivan has found a friend so close. I've assured him we'd be up there at a moments notice, should Ivan need help."
Everyone at the dinner table looked at Pop as he spoke and then they looked at me.
"He worries about Ivan being alone so much. With you two being as thick as thieves, we worry about both of you. This lets you be at Ivan's as much as you like, but you still are in contact with us. He calls Ivan each evening at a predetermined time to make sure all is well. Now we're a radio call away should something come up, or if we want to hear your voice to remind us what you sound like."
I failed to see what was in this for me. My freedom was at stake. I'd been given it and now it sounded like it was being taken away. Luckily I kept my mouth shut.
"You've been asking to spend the night at Ivan's. Your mother and I aren't comfortable with you two being up there alone. This will allow you to do that so we aren't worried about you. It also takes a considerable amount of worry off Mr. Aleksa. We try to get you and you don't answer, John-Henry will be on his way up there to check on you. So the radio stays on while you're up there. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," I said, seeing the proposition more favorably.
"Yes, and that's only on the weekend, young man," Mama said. "Ask Ivan to come to dinner tomorrow night. We're having ham, squash, tomatoes, and biscuits. I think he favors those."
"He loves your ham, Mama. I won't need to do much talking. I love your ham."
A little buttering up never hurt, but it was true.
"There won't be any convincing. Ivan's father will tell him to come for dinner tomorrow. We'll lay out the rules to him in order for you to stay over night. We won't bother you if it isn't important. You're going on fifteen now, and when Teddy was fifteen, he was Lord knows where every day, looking for work. Having you at the house next door isn't a problem," Pop said.
I agreed instantly to the terms. I wasn't happy they'd have communications with me at all times. I loved the freedom of being out of contact with my family. After nearly fifteen years, not being at my house was a real summer vacation. It lasted all year around.
As happy as I acted to make this deal, I was immediately looking for a way to fudge on it.
Brian decided to help as only a lamebrain brother could.
"The boy stands out beside his house and shoots baskets, naked!" Brian blurted with alarm in his voice.
'Oh no,' I thought, my face almost ending up in my mashed potatoes. 'He's going to screw everything up. I won't be able to see Ivan at all.'
Once more I stayed silent, praying for help. John-Henry came to the rescue, seeing through Brian's unusual concern.
"You're telling us you stand up there watching a naked boy, Brian? It's Florida. Everyone goes naked," John-Henry said, disputing Brian's version.
"He shoots baskets when he comes out of the water," I said, making it up as I went along. "He takes off his wet trunks to let them dry and he shoots baskets. It relaxes him. There's no one around."
What the two had to do with each other, I didn't know, but I liked the way it sounded.
"What trunks?" Brian asked. "I see him come out of the water buck naked."
"A lot like when you come out of the water when we swim after dinner," John-Henry said in rebuttal. "It's Florida Brian. Wake up. We all swim naked when there's no reason to wear a suit."
"That's a nice excuse, but people need to be more modest, not less," Mama observed.
"Don't worry, Mama. I doubt he comes to dinner naked," Coleen said, sounding disappointed.
This was not going too well. My friendship with Ivan was suddenly in jeopardy. Mama would cast a deciding vote if she felt obliged to.
"You certain do watch Ivan a lot, Brian. You a little sweet on him?" John-Henry said.
"I just said what I saw," Brian said with a Puritanical air in his voice.
"There's a section of beach at the tip of the island. When I drive down to pick up trash, a half dozen women are out there sunbathing naked. It's not once in a while. It's every time I go there."
"What?" Brian said. "I never saw no naked ladies. You're making that up."
"Why do you think I always volunteered for that section of beach?" John-Henry said. "A good way to run those fine ladies off is to send you down there to drool on them.."
"You're a skunk, you know that, John-Henry," Brian blurted. "We should alternate that beach from now on. Why do you get to look at naked women and I get to look at Ivan's naked butt?"
"I get to watch naked ladies sunbathe, shorty. You haven't got beyond playing with yourself."
"Don't call me that," Brian yelped.
"John-Henry Olson, what are you doing looking at naked women?" Mama asked. "We didn't raise you to be a heathen. Those women are heathens."
"Mama, if you didn't think I noticed the difference between men and women, I figured that out when I was nine. Women are way more interesting if you ask me, but that's only my opinion. Brian's obviously found Ivan nice to look at. I'll stick to women, but he's my brother, and I love him anyway. I'd warn Ivan if I were you, Clay. Hard to tell what's on Brian's mind."
'Go John-Henry,' I thought.
This wasn't going as badly as it could have.
"I was just saying he shoots baskets naked," Brian explained. "As skinny as he is, no one wants to see his skinny butt."
"If it's so skinny, why do you keep looking at it?" John-Henry asked. "Must be love."
"It's Florida," Pop said. "John-Henry isn't the only one to run up on naked folks on the beach. Can't say I approve, but who am I to tell the locals how to dress?"
"Or not," John-Henry said. "Brian only brought it up to cause trouble for Clay. He's jealous because he can't make friends. You don't fool anyone, shorty. We ain't in Tulsa no more. Leave Clay and Ivan alone or you'll need to deal with me. You don't want that."
"John Olson, I bet you and I have a discussion about you running up on naked folks,'" Mama said with great displeasure in her voice.
"You tell them, Mama. If God wanted us to run around naked, we'd be born that way."
"Coleen Olson, I bet you aren't too old to have your mouth washed out," Mama retorted.
My initial fear over Brian's off-hand remark had released a torrent of support for Ivan. What Ivan was doing was the least of it, when nudity became an issue at my house. I smiled and enjoyed the rhubarb. When the heated discussion cooled, Pop put it into perspective.
"Mother, I have a job to do. This is one of the many strange goings on, going on, on Sanibel. Believe me when I say, I only have eyes for you, my lovely. When would I have time for anyone else?"
"John!" Mama said, breaking out into full blush. "The kids."
"Mother, if our children don't know how much I love you by now, well, I do love you, and all the naked ladies in Florida won't change it."
We applauded Pop's confession and Mama's stunning reversal. It was Florida. She'd clearly capitulated under a barrage of marvelous words from her husband turned poet. I wondered if Pop listened to Dylan on the radio in his truck.
"You're worried about people being naked on a beach? I don't pay much attention, because I'm there to do my job. At work I was told right off, 'Be discreet, John. You aren't in the morality police business. The folks on the island come here for privacy. You see to it you don't bother them.'
"If that doesn't put a man in his place, well, I ignore what I see. John-Henry is of an age he isn't able to ignore it. Our sons are fast becoming men. We've taught them to be gentlemen. We've got to go with that, Mother. We've done our job and we've got to trust our children."
"I don't want to ignore it. I want to see naked women," Brian said with his usual disregard for decorum.
"You'd be like the dog catching a car he chased, Brian. You wouldn't know what to do with it," Coleen said coolly, and Mama's mouth dropped open.
"Mama!" Brian protested, knowing he'd been cut deep.
"Coleen, don't talk about your brother's short comings that way," Mama said.
"You told me to always tell the truth, Mother," Coleen said. "I take pride in it around here."
"Ouch!" John-Henry said. "Put down by your own mother. That hurts."
Everyone laughed including Mama.
Well, Brian didn't laugh. The joke was on him whether or not he realized it. He'd managed to take the heat off of Ivan and me. His nudity had worried me from the first moment I saw him.
"It wasn't that funny," Brian complained in a rare response to being put down.
We all laughed again. It was pretty funny.
"It's not fair I get to look at Ivan's skinny butt and John-Henry is out there with naked woman," Brian said.
"Stop looking at Ivan's butt would be my advice, little brother," John-Henry said. "We'll all feel better if you do."
"Ivan, isn't skinny, Brian. He's built thin. There may be a fine line between thin and skinny, but Ivan is not skinny. He's quite a handsome and well put together young man," Mama said, defending Ivan in the matter.
"You should look so good," Coleen said.
"Mama," Brian said, sounding like a broken record.
"You ask for it," Teddy said amazed at how often Brian put his foot in his mouth.
"Yeah," Lucy said. "Ivan's cute. You leave him and Clay alone. I'm with John-Henry."
I listened to my family discuss my friend's nudity. By the time they were done, I was holding back a belly laugh. It was all out in the open. No one but Brian had an issue with it, and his objection was strange to say the least.
My family wasn't given to in-depth conversation, especially at the dinner table, where getting enough food required your full attention. In Tulsa things were just there and life was nothing to write home about. We knew what was going on and little that went on required comment.
Florida was a different world. My family was beginning to notice and talk about it. Nudity would once have gotten instant rejection. It wouldn't have been talked over. Mama would have shut it down with an almighty admonition, 'God is listening.'"
If that's all God had to do, he must have been one really bored sucker.
The radio communication created times when I didn't go home at all. This allowed Ivan and me to grow closer with a reduction in outside interference.
I loved the freedom Florida gave me. I never wanted to live anywhere else.
I'd never need another friend.