The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Sunshine in the Rain
Ivan stopped talking. He had nothing to say. I would talk to him. He said nothing. I'd never seen anyone in so much pain. I wasn't sure where we were going but I held him and stayed beside him.
Two weeks after the news about Boris came to the beach, Mr. Aleksa wanted to go find his son. It seems Boris was an MIA. He wasn't KIA. The difference might have been semantics, but no one could prove Boris was dead of his wounds. He had been wounded in a firefight in northwestern Vietnam.
In a move that shocked me, Mrs. Aleksa brought a letter to the beach that came from the boy Ivan thought was in love with Boris. Boris brought him and another boy home to Tampa before they left for Vietnam.
“Thank you, Mother,” Ivan said, and they hugged.
“When you're ready, come to Tampa. Or call me. I'll come for you, Ivan.”
“Next week, Mother. I'll come next week. Clay will bring me.”
Ivan had spoken. He'd be going to Tampa next week. I'd be driving him. There was nothing said about when he might return. There was nothing else said. Ivan had nothing else to say.
We sat together watching the Gulf.
Later, when Ivan was ready for it, he handed me the letter.
“Do you mind reading it to me?” he asked. “It'll be easier if you read it.”
We stayed on the deck. I sat to his right and opened the letter. It was addressed to, and the letter began, “Dear Mrs. Aleksa.”
“You may remember me. Boris called me Big Boy. I came to your apartment with him after boot camp,” the boy explained.
The wording indicated he was writing about someone he had a special attachment to. Only someone deaf and blind would miss the affection he had from Boris. The letter took him some time to write. It was nine handwritten pages. Luckily he had good penmanship.
The letter told about the day they were out on patrol, engaged in a firefight, and they were eventually overrun by North Vietnamese troops in Quang Tri province, fewer than ten miles from the DMZ and fewer from Cambodia. The area was known to be hot, and I didn't think he meant the temperature.
Boris was wounded during the initial exchange of gunfire. It was estimated a third of the American force was killed or wounded in the first ten minutes. The writer of the letter tried to reach Boris to drag him to safety, where he could receive medical help. The NVA made a charge and overran the American position. He was wounded before he could reach Boris.
Boris had been wounded in the right shoulder and right arm. He could see Boris breathing but he was unconscious. The American force withdrew, regrouped, and retook the ground they'd lost, but Boris was never seen again. He wasn't among the bodies or the wounded taken out on helicopters.
The rest of the letter was about the writer's hospitalization and discussions he had with his buddies about what happened to Boris. No one could answer the question. Of all the wounded and dead from the firefight, Boris was the only missing man. Everyone else had been accounted for.
Several searches for Boris were unsuccessful. Some of Boris' buddies volunteered to go on an additional search, fearing he'd crawled off and was lying somewhere in the nearby bush. They had no success. Boris' company was reassigned out of the area.
Boris had officially become an MIA.
“He was wounded, probably seriously,” I said. “I didn't read anything that indicated his wounds were life threatening.”
“He's in Vietnam, Clay. Vietnam is life threatening,” Ivan said.
The letter offered hope that Boris wasn't dead. His whereabouts were a mystery. His friends thought he was alive.
Should a greater effort be made to find him by the people who sent Boris over there? Is there a responsibility to return a man to where he came from? Does a simple shoulder shrug suffice?
I had no answers to my questions. I doubted our government did either. The letter said that an effort was made to find Boris by the people who knew him. They left the area without making contact with Boris.
That had to be enough. It's all there was.
I took Ivan to Tampa the following week. He said nothing about when he'd return. He didn't have anything to say.
Mr. Aleksa left the slip at the marina on the Vilnius Two the day Ivan went to Tampa. He took Kenny and Arturo with him.
He didn't return.
It was confusing but I thought I understood. Mr. Aleksa's refuge was the sea. He'd retreated into it.
I suppose I was getting old and set in my ways. I didn't know when Ivan came home. Bringing those people home from Tampa with him, didn't help.
I had no interest in meeting a bunch of strangers or being in Ivan's house with them. They were living in the house next to the river. They were living in our house and sleeping in my bed.
When I found out Ivan was drinking, I wasn't about to tell him it was OK with me. It wasn't. I understood he was hurting and trying to numb the pain was natural, but putting a half dozen people in between us wasn't OK. With them drinking, it really wasn't OK.
I didn't like it and I wouldn't live that way. I wanted to be with Ivan. I wanted to be there for him, but I wasn't going to sacrifice my well being to allow him to act like a child.
I suppose they were hippies, flower children, kids who gave up on what society had to offer, especially its wars. I understood most kids felt that going to another man's country to kill the people living there wasn't their bag, even if that's how society worked.
Powerful countries overrunning weaker countries and when the people there objected, well, they need to learn their manners and who better to teach them than their overlords. I suppose there had always been hippies too, disapproving of the way of things.
I'd do anything for Ivan but I wouldn't watch him self-destructing. I wouldn't go along with it. I felt terrible about Boris. I cared for him. Both times I'd seen Ivan lose control of himself over the four years I'd known him, it was over Boris.
I wanted to love Ivan openly, but that wasn't allowed either. When he brought home an audience to witness our love, I was offended. I wasn't putting on a show for anyone, especially knowing how our love was seen by most people.
It wasn't going to happen no matter how many times Ivan asked me to make love with him. He smelled like liquor and no matter how much I loved him, that left me cold. It's why I think Ivan left me, even before he went in search of Boris. I didn't want to be left, but that was far more admirable than him spending his time drinking.
These may have been perfectly nice people, but they were in the house I called home, which meant I was no longer at home there. So, I'd left Ivan before he'd left to find Boris.
Why I felt the way I did, I can't say, but my feelings were as strong as any I'd had. I told Ivan to come see me when he quit drinking, which he did in early October and we spent two days making love before he told me his plan and then dropped Sunshine in my lap.
“When you get time, after you drop me at the bus station today,” he said, leaning on one elbow and looking at me in the first glimmer of morning light, “Go up to the house and get rid of Sunshine for me. She's decided she likes me. She came back to be with me the afternoon I came here. It'll be easier if you do it,” Ivan said, in the middle of the best sex we'd had in ages.
When he began kissing me again, I forgot about whatever it was he asked me to do for him. Something about a girl.
That's how I became responsible for Sunshine. I had no feelings about telling her no one was home and I was closing the house up for Ivan and she'd have to go.
Sunshine was one of the hippies and she couldn't stay alone in the house next to the river. It was in the middle of no where and Ivan had gone.
Going up there slipped my mind. It's not like I didn't have anything to do. I thought of it on the way back from Fort Myers, after leaving Ivan at the bus station, but my Tuesday were hectic and so it was Wednesday before I got around to it. How much harm could a girl do in a day?
Ivan was proud of himself. He'd stopped drinking and all the hippies were gone, except, he informed me at half time, one came back and would I take care of it for him.
How did you get rid of a girl who liked your lover without being a total jerk about it, even if she was in my house, and come to find out, in my bed?
As much as I knew and as fast as I was learning, this would be another instance to prove how little I knew about anything. My mind was made up and I was on my way to do what needed to be done. I could drive her somewhere. It wasn't like I was throwing her out on the street. There was no street. I'd walked that beach thousands of times. I didn't even think about Ivan being gone as I walked it again.
'Later gator. You got to go, Jo,' is how I saw it going, as I walked toward the house next to the river.
Mama was cooking dinner and hadn't said anything when I went out. I'd told her Ivan had gone to find Boris. She didn't know about the girl. I'd just slip her out of town before she found out.
I could do this. I didn't know why Ivan didn't do it himself.
I'd often wondered if there might be some kind of a design to my life. Not like Mama saw God's hand in everything. Like when I came to the beach in the first place and I discovered Ivan.
Ivan and I became close friends. Ivan's father was a fisherman. His father took me fishing with them. The sea creatures I encountered on the deck of his boat fascinated me. The fascination led me to Harry McCallister who decided my interest in the Gulf of Mexico could be put to work to take the conservancy where he wanted to take it.
Did everyone's life offer the opportunity to work in a field they loved? I didn't think so. Were the events that led me to where I was random occurrence, just the way it turned out for me. Was there a design in play all the time?
Now I worked where Pop worked. We left Tulsa because this was the only job he could find, after being laid off. It was this or stay in Tulsa and lose everything.
There was a straight line from Tulsa to the life I was living on the beach. It was as if this was where I was meant to be. My life began to take shape, and what I did at the conservancy wasn't so much work as it was doing something that fascinated me.
None of this was on my mind when I was on my way up the beach to toss out the last of Ivan's hangers-on. I was still angry that Ivan left me. It didn't help my disposition. The girl was in my house. I should be angry and she should leave.
I'd taken Ivan to the bus station the day before. Today I'd evict the girl and close up the house. I lived at the conservancy house now.
I'd be nice. I'd offer to get her back to where she came from or wherever she wanted to go. I could do that without giving it a second thought. I had no responsibility to do more. My mind was made up before the afternoon I walked up the beach to dispose of Sunshine.
It seemed simple when I ran the plan through my head. It was a plan. I didn't always have a plan for what I'd do. I just did what I did.
I went into the house through the kitchen, opening the refrigerator to check its condition on my way upstairs. There was a turned over jar, no top, with two olives inside. There was an open empty jar of mayonnaise with a knife in it beside an open empty jar of peanut butter. There was a spoon in an empty jar of grape jelly.
This was my refrigerator and I recognized none of the contents. Who put peanut butter in the fridge? Who ate everything?
I took the stairs two at a time and came out in the bedroom. My bedroom, mine and Ivan's, and seated in the middle of our bed was Sunshine, eyes closed, and legs crossed. She did not move or open her eyes when I entered the room. She had to hear me.
“You're Sunshine?” I said, thinking she'd recognize her name.
She was the only girl in sight and Ivan said a girl was still at the house and he didn't know what to do with her, would I take her somewhere. I didn't know where but she couldn't stay there.
Her hair was the blond that doesn't come out of a bottle. It was several shades lighter than my hair, except I spent most of my days inside now. I was outside enough to keep the gold in my tan. There was no doubt Sunshine didn't go outside. She was paler than pale and this made her vivid blue eyes even more remarkable, when she opened them.
“I was hoping it was Ivan,” she said, as if she was expecting him. “He went to get his brother yesterday. I thought he was back,” she informed me.
“He went to Iowa,” I said.
“That's near Orlando?” she asked.
“No. It's between Illinois and Nebraska,” I explained. “Up North.”
“Oh, near Atlanta then?”
“No. Are you OK?” I asked, concerned for her state of mind and realizing there was nothing to eat in the house.
“Fine. Hungry. I ate the last bag of potato chips yesterday. I think it was yesterday. I used to like them, but when it's all you have, they aren't very good.”
“Would you like something to eat?” I asked as her eyes closed again.
“Yes, that'd be cool. They pigged out on the food and left me with chips when they split. I am hungry.”
“Why'd they split?” I asked, not sure Ivan told me everything.
Sunshine looked me over for a few seconds, deciding I was harmless.
“Dakota hit Ivan,” she said slowly, knowing there would be more questions.
“Why would a guy hit the guy giving him a place to stay?”
“Dakota's a hothead. He got mad and punched Ivan in the face.”
“And Ivan did what?”
“It was totally awesome. Ivan was flat on his back on the floor. He sprang up like a cat. Then Dakota was on the floor. Boom, boom, boom, you've never seen hands as quick as Ivan's. Dakota sure hadn't. Ivan could be a fighter. He told Dakota to get out of his house, and we left.”
“You went with him. How'd you end up back here?” I asked.
“I liked Ivan. I was afraid of Dakota. The fight started when Dakota hit me in front of Ivan. Ivan told him not to do it again and Dakota hit Ivan. When I got a chance, Dakota fell asleep the first night, I split back here. Ivan said he was leaving. He told me you'd be up to check on me. He said if I was really nice, you'd see I got something to eat.”
“Here I am. Come on,” I said. “You're in luck. My mother will have dinner ready soon. You can eat with us tonight. Then I'll take you somewhere that you'll be safe and get fed regularly,” I said, feeling bad I didn't come up the day Ivan left.
I held out my hand and Sunshine leaped for it. Maybe it was the idea I was taking her somewhere to eat, but I don't think so. I think Sunshine was frightened of being alone.
The top of her head didn't reach my shoulder. As we went down the stairs, she didn't let go of me, moving with me as we reached the kitchen and went out the back door. I'd go back later and close the house.
We walked down the beach without speaking. She had no trouble keeping up with me, but my legs were way longer than hers. She held onto my hand as we went into the kitchen of the conservancy house.
“Hey, Mama. I brought company for dinner. Do we have enough for one more? I don't think she's eaten this week.”
Mama swung around from the stove to take a look and she saw Sunshine for the first time. She saw her hand in my hand. I could see Mama's mind working on the image.
“My goodness, what a pretty girl, Clay. Did you get her out of the Gulf?”
“No, Ma'am. Ivan left her at his house. I told him I'd help her. She doesn't have anywhere to go, Mama,” I said, filling Mama in.
“My word! She does look like she could use a good meal,” Mama said. “She can't stay up there alone. What's your name, dear.”
I nudged Sunshine, figuring it was time she spoke for herself.
“Sunshine. My name is Sunshine. I don't want to be a bother. I thought Ivan would be back by now,” she said. “I am hungry though. That sure smells good.”
“Maybe he'll be back around Christmas time but I'm not sure he'll come home then,” I said. “He wasn't too definite about his plan.”
“He's a determined young man. He's smart. If he can do anything for his brother, he will,” Mama said. “Now we'll need to do something for Sunshine. What a lovely name. Clayton, my sewing room on the third floor? Go up and put my sewing basket and yarn in the closet. There's a day bed in there. She can sleep there for the time being. She can't stay at the Aleksa's alone. I won't allow it.”
“Yes, ma'am,” I said, not seeing this turn of events coming. Mama had spoken.
The idea of getting rid of Sunshine that day was left at the kitchen door. Mama wasn't going to allow that either. Mama's sewing room was right next to my bedroom. Did she realize that?
“Would you like to take a shower? It'll be an hour before dinner is on the table,” Mama said. “You have plenty of time for a shower. Take her upstairs with you and show her the bathroom, Clay. Get her a towel and some soap. She shouldn't use that stuff you use. Get her a bar of soap out of my bathroom closet.”
“Yes, ma'am,” I said. “Come on, Sunshine. We'll get you squared away. It'll be a few minutes until dinner time.”
I took a banana off the counter and handed it to Sunshine. As I stepped toward the door to the dining room, Sunshine was still attached to my hand. This factoid Mama hadn't missed. She looked at the hands before looking at her face. Mama was seeing something I couldn't see, but I was just cleaning up after Ivan.
“Where's your room?” Sunshine asked as I showed her Mama's sewing room.
She put the banana skin in my hand.
“Right next door. That door goes to my room,” I said, pointing to the door. “It's locked and there are no keys to any of the inside doors in the house, but I'm right next door if you need anything. I'll run down and get a bar of Mama's soap for you,” I said, dodging out of the room.
When I brought the soap and a towel back for her, Sunshine was gone. The door between my room and Mama's sewing room was wide open. When I went through the open door, Sunshine was looking at the shells on top of my dresser.
“You collect shells? I love shells,” she said. “These are beautiful.”
“They mostly came from the mouth of the river next to Ivan's house,” I said. “I collected them when we first moved here.”
“There's a river next to Ivan's house?” she asked surprised.
“Yeah, you can't miss it. Didn't you go swimming?” I asked.
“No. I can't swim. I'm afraid of water,” she said.
“Afraid of water! Do you want a life jacket for your shower?” I asked, not even thinking about what I'd said.
Sunshine laughed. She had a beautiful smile and she absolutely beamed when she took my hand again. She was looking into my face, more studying it like she wanted to remember it.
“What's going on in here?” Lucy asked. “My brother trying to have his way with you? He's a real lady's man.”
“Oh, no. Clay's sweet. I'm Sunshine,” Sunshine said, letting go of my hand.
“Yes, you are. What a nice smile,” Lucy said. “I'm Lucy. You two dating? Who got the door open. Don't let me interrupt you guys. Mama said I should make sure you are comfortable.”
“We just met,” Sunshine said. “Dakota, the guy who was taking care of me, showed me how to pick locks. Clay said there was no key and the door couldn't be opened. I used my hair pin and opened it.”
“We won't mention you being able to pick locks to Mama,” I said. “We'll do a lot better if she doesn't know that little factoid. We won't pick any more locks while you're here, OK.”
“Sure. I thought I was helping. I'm sorry.”
“Don't mind him, Sunshine. He's not accustomed to having a pretty girl in his room. He's right about the lock picking talent of yours. Mama would definitely not approve.”
“OK! That's cool. No more lock picking.”
“So, now that you've let yourself into my brother's bedroom, what's next?” Lucy asked. “I'm taking notes for when I work my way into my boyfriend's room.”
“A shower,” Sunshine said. “I'd like a shower before dinner.”
“Where were you before my brother lured you into his bedroom, Sunshine?” Lucy asked.
Sunshine giggled once she realized she shouldn't take Lucy seriously.
“I was at Ivan's. He left. Clay came to help me. Your mother is going to let me sleep in her sewing room. You're all so nice.”
“Yes, and Mama will be a lot more comfortable if you close that door and don't bother to mention to her that it has been unlocked. A pretty girl having access to her youngest son might not be Mama's cup of tea, not until after the marriage. That'll keep things nicer,” Lucy said. “Where's your suitcase?”
“Don't have one. What you see is what you get. I don't have much. My parents put me out when I turned eighteen. Said it was time I made my own way in the world. It's not very easy being on your own. Not easy for me anyway.”
“Tell me about it. And you made your way here. Smart girl. I'm growing like a weed, and that's Mama's description of what's happening, not mine. The clothes I wore last year, when I was about your size, are almost new, but I didn't stop growing last year. I've outgrown them. I've got some things you might like. I love shades of blue and green. You'd make some of those things look better than they ever looked on me for the fifteen minutes they fit.”
“Clothes?” Sunshine said, sounding surprised.
“Come on. You can pick something out for after your shower. Unless you and Clay were going to,” Lucy said. “He is helpful that way.”
Sunshine giggled again. She got Lucy right off. They were holding hands as Lucy led Sunshine to her room and the closet with the clothes that no longer fit her.
The house had grown quiet. The only Olson kids still at home were Lucy and me. Sunshine was small but she had the ability to fill the house with her presence. She added something to the Olson house that made the Olsons smile. Sunshine fit in right off.
I'd never met a nicer girl and that's why I gave up the idea of disposing of Sunshine.
“This must be the best meal I've ever had,” Sunshine said, working on her second serving of chicken and dumplings, green beans, and yellow squash.
“When did you eat last, sweety?” Mama asked, already concerned about how thin Sunshine was.
“Oh, I had potato chips yesterday. I don't eat much, but I don't get food like this either. It's really good. Thank you.”
“The fridge is empty up there,” I said, rarely thinking before speaking.
“You didn't mention this why, Clayton?” Mam asked me. “When has that icebox ever been empty when I had anything to do with it?”
“I... don't know. It never was when I lived there. I was dealing with Ivan, Mama,” I defended. “I wasn't thinking about what was in the fridge. What was Ivan eating?”
“You weren't dealing with anything,” Mama said. “You were letting this child go hungry. I'm surprised at you. That's not like you.”
“No it isn't,” I said, having no defense for not seeing to it Ivan's friends didn't starve.
What were they eating? Then I remembered the beer and booze.
`“It's OK. I was fine. Ivan was nice to me. I didn't know he went to... Iowa? I thought he was going to get his brother and come back. That's what he said when he left. I've got to go get my brother. My friend Clay will come up to help you get situated.”
“Ivan just left Sunshine up there?” Pop asked, usually passing on such conversations, deferring to Mama's judgment. “Boy needs to have his head examined.”
“She came back just before he left. He went to see one of the boys who was with Boris when he was wounded. He asked me to take care of her,” I said, trying to make it sound better than it was. “I didn't know there wasn't any food up there.”
Mama glared at me and Pop looked over top of the chicken and dumplings as he dished up another helping. I had gotten myself into the Olson doghouse by being a perfect butt head. I was sorry now. I didn't know Sunshine was such a nice girl. They were all drunk when I was up there.
“You took Ivan to the bus station yesterday,” Pop continued with his line of thinking.
“Uh huh!” I answered, knowing he wasn't finished with me yet.
“Let me see if I understand this, son. You left this child up there by herself until this afternoon. Why was that?” Pop said with no pleasure in his voice.
“I guess I did,” I said. “I wasn't thinking.”
“Clay's sweet,” Sunshine made her move to defend me, sensing she'd somehow created the discord. “Ivan told me he was his best friend.”
“Sweet if a bit late,” Pop said. “You'll stay here with us until you have a place to go, Sunshine. We have plenty of room and plenty of food. If you want anything, just ask.”
“Yes, and there are a thousand things we can do,” Lucy said, having seen the possibilities coming from Sunshine's arrival.
“That outfit looks like it was made for you, Sunshine. We'll go through the clothes of things Lucy's outgrown. She's growing like a weed,” Mama said. “I can alter anything you like that doesn't fit.”
“Like a rose or maybe like an orchid would sound better, Mama,” Lucy said. “Don't give away anything I have on. She's sweet, but no one is that sweet. Don't be giving her my bedroom either.”
Sunshine giggled, knowing Lucy too well already. Mama wasn't so sure but she finally found the humor in it and laughed. She was gushing over the new arrival in the Olson family.
Lucy took the heat off me. This was one of Lucy's best things. It always had been. She made a habit of getting me out of hot water. She was quick and knew what to say to take the heat off me if things turned against me.
I had trouble getting my brain into gear under pressure and then the gear might be reverse. Lucy never missed a trick. She was fast on her feet and was able to rise to most challenges. She had a knack for knowing what to say in a pinch.
My parents weren't strict and they'd never been hard on me. There were a few things that got them angry. I didn't always know what those things were, until I was on the wrong end of an inquiry. Mostly I didn't intend to be a butt head, but I wasn't always successful. Pop made it clear that Sunshine would be staying with us. He may have gotten the idea from Mama.
Sunshine had begun to brighten our lives.
No one could replace Ivan but Sunshine helped keep my mind off his absence. The day I walked up the beach to get rid of her, was the day I actually began to grow up. My life had been broadened.