The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
In the Wind
I came in one afternoon, after Ivan and I had come back from a dive. He headed upstairs for a shower to wash the salt off his body. I headed to the kitchen for sodas.
When I got to the kitchen, Mama was seated at the table, papers strewn out in front of her. She was shaking her head with a worried look on her face.
There was no doubt these papers had something to do with me. At a time when Mama was usually busy at the stove, here she was gazing at piles of paper. I knew a setup when I saw one.
“What's that?” I asked, doing my part as a dutiful son.
“Bills,” she said, worry in her voice. “I don't know where the money will come from, Clayton. We owe a lot of money.”
She just drew me in with one careful sentence.
“What bills?” I asked, having enough experience with bait to know when it was set out for me.
“The bills from Sunshine. Things Harry didn't pay concerning the funeral. Her hospital and doctor visits. Dylan's doctor's bills,” she said.
In other words my bills.
“How much, Mama?” I asked, knowing she knew to the penny.
“Over $1600. It's a lot of money, Clayton. Where do you suppose we'll get it?”
I was sitting across from her now. I had no sodas. That was when I remembered the envelope Popov gave me at the funeral. He indicated it would help.
I needed help. I could use rescuing. Of course I knew this wasn't about those bills. Mama and Pop wouldn't think twice before paying such bills, because I couldn't, but maybe I could this time.
Mama was careful not to mention Ivan. She didn't mention the money I took out of the jar on the fridge to give to Ivan before he left. That's what this was really about. If I hadn't given Ivan the money I'd made from working with his father, there would have been no mention of bills. I was almost certain I could put my hands on a nice chunk of change and solve this dilemma.
Mama said, 'You'll regret giving your money away one day,' after finding the jar on the fridge, with my fisherman's pay, empty.
This was the day.
“Wait a minute, Mama. Popov gave me an envelope the day we.... It's upstairs in my suit coat. I'm sure it's money.”
Mama looked surprised as I jumped up and left. It didn't go the way she planned. I hoped the envelope wasn't full of invitations to the annual fishing tournament. That would be no help at all.
I came back with the envelope. It was stuffed with twenty dollar bills. Three crisp new hundreds were in the back of the envelope. The hundreds were from Captain Popov, Captain Tito, and the third would be the one Mr. Aleksa told Popov to add to the envelope.
Seeing all that money made my heart flutter with gratitude. It wasn't simply being rescued from Mama, it meant a lot to know they cared. I hadn't seen much of the fisherman I once worked with but I was going to correct that. My life wasn't so busy I couldn't say thank you.
“Eleven hundred and twenty dollars,” Mama said, after counting it out. “That's almost twenty dollars a man.”
I got the jar off the fridge where I'd been stuffing my checks inside as they came. I'd forgotten to cash them. It had to be well over three hundred dollars. Harry kept paying me even when I hadn't been at work.
“You want it all to go toward the bills?” Mama asked, as if there may be some other point to this meeting.
“Yes,” I said.
Mama was more than a little surprised at how much money I could get my hands on in a pinch. I was surprised.
An object lesson was thwarted.
I wasn't going to let Mama make me feel bad about doing all I could for Ivan. She'd never understand why I did what I did.
Mama never got to say, 'I told you so.'
“We're a little over two hundred dollars short,” Mama said softly, trying to salvage something. “I'll make up the difference from my household account.”
“No, Mama. Sunshine was my wife. Dylan is my son. It's my debt. I'll pay it. I don't want you and Pop doing any more than you already do. You do enough for me. I know it isn't easy having a baby in the house. I appreciate all the help you give me. I get paid and I'll pay this off by the first of the year.”
I didn't sleep the night before Ivan left. We'd had Wednesday mostly to ourselves. No one at the conservancy house questioned my plans. After breakfast we drove to the farthest point on the island. There was a storm at sea and the waves ran high, the brisk wind blew from the northwest. The sky was a brilliant blue. The clouds were white and billowy.
We kissed and held each other while we watched the natural forces in action.
We cried. We were about to lose the comfort of each other's arms. I didn't want to let go.
We walked hand in hand past an older couple strolling in the opposite direction. They paid no attention to our hands. We paid no attention to their hands.
We had lunch at the Pizza Palace and went to the marina to make one last dive together. Heading southwest, after leaving the cove, I anchored thirty miles south. It was a popular dive sight where a ship went down in a storm twenty years before.
With improving weather the wind was no longer a factor on the water and never under it. We were the only ones there on a cool Wednesday afternoon. Being weightless in underwater usually exhilarated me, but not with the weight I carried that day.
We took time to go through the biggest piece of wreckage where the reef was in charge. The ship's superstructure had been obscured by time.
Here, the reef furnished unique brightly colored sea creatures. I saw two different species of fish I'd never seen in the wild before that day, which did thrill me. It was another aspect of diving I liked. You never knew what you might see when you got into your gear.
I regretted not bringing my Nikon to document my find.
We'd filled the conservancy boat with fuel before leaving the marina. After using the air in our tanks, we headed slowly south with the sun high overhead and the coastline on our left.
I wished we could sail off into the sunset together.
As much a part of our lives as the Gulf was, no joy came from being on it that day. As we turned about to head home, I watched Ivan's thick brown mane blowing furiously in the wind.
There was nothing left to say. This was part of goodbye.
Mama had ham, biscuits, red eye gravy, green beans, sliced tomatoes, and potatoes with garlic cloves. She roasted the mixture to get a tasty outcome.
This was Ivan's favorite meal. It's how Mama said goodbye to a boy who was like one of her sons.
The dinner table was quiet.
Dylan started out with a piece of biscuit slathered in butter and he ended up asleep in my lap, unaware the table would be one person short tomorrow.
I'd cried a million tears that fall and I maintained an even keel, worrying about my son. My life and loves had caused my family a lot of pain. Ivan's departure was the latest disruption in what had been a very long year.
I'd cry in private now. Only Lucy truly knew how much Ivan's arrival meant to me and how much his departure hurt. She kept it between us and her presence was a great comfort to me.
I didn't try to sleep that night. We held each other and when he spoke I responded and the same was true of him. It was a posture I'd grown accustomed to again and would soon lose. I didn't want to miss a single second.
Before we went down to breakfast, we stood on the porch outside my bedroom and held each other. I cried. I'm sure Ivan cried too. We hated being separated again. Ivan had something to do. That's all there was to it. I'm sure we weren't the only lovers who were separated from time to time.
Pop said his goodbye's the night before, taking Ivan into the den for a glass of brandy. If Sunshine was like Pop's daughter, Ivan was like his son. There was a big difference. Ivan would be back.
Mama fixed more food than we generally ate at breakfast. She stood by the stove watching us pick at our food, keeping our coffee cups full. Lucy didn't appear. She tended to Dylan while crying over Ivan's departure. Pop left for work before we came downstairs.
On my way to school, I'd leave Ivan off on the side of the road where I turned toward Fort Myers.
We rode in silence. Ivan rested his head on my shoulder as I drove. He didn't want to leave me, but he couldn't stay.
“You don't know how much I hate leaving you,” he said, leaning on the car door on the passenger side of Teddy's Chevy, once he got out.
“Me too,” I said.
“You know I've got to find him?”
“I know. You find him and come home, you hear?”
“I will,” he said.
He jogged across the road I'd turn down to get to campus. He turned, putting out his thumb, walking backwards on the shoulder of the highway.
I watched my lover leave my life again. My heart was so heavy I thought it could end up in my churning stomach. I couldn't drive away with my eyes clouded with tears. I couldn't drive away as long as I could still see Ivan.
Luckily a truck with a huge tractor on a flatbed trailer behind it stopped for him. Ivan climbed inside.
I hoped his luck held.
I wiped my eyes and went to school.
It took me until the following Monday to regain my equilibrium.
I didn't forget the day Mama gave me a good look at what I owed doctors and hospitals. I didn't forget the envelope in my jacket pocket Popov gave me either.
I owed more than a thank you to the fishing fleet in the cove.
I took Dylan down to the marina to meet the fishing fleet the next time the boats returned to the cove.
I shook every hand, meeting the men I once fished with on the dock before they went home. I thanked Popov and Tito for their kindness, asking Popov to thank Mr. Aleksa and tell him I missed fishing with him.
Dylan was surprisingly happy over being at the Marina at the Cove. He giggled and smiled for the fishermen. Each had his own family and it was good to see my son interacting well with strangers.
They called me by name, ruffled my hair, and asked me to go fishing with them again. It was all quite rewarding. I was reluctant to come to meet the fleet, not knowing where I stood with the fishermen after this long. The visit went well and Dylan was a star.
My next trip was to J.K.'s Kitchen. I wanted to have a luncheon for the fishermen when the fleet was in next time. The owner gave me a price of $3.25 per head for a top notch meal.
Along with Mama, Pop, Lucy, and me, we were talking a month's pay. I didn't think they'd charge Dylan.
Popov called me the next afternoon.
“Clayton, you are good boy. I'm talking to J.K. and he's telling me you plan to feed poor fishermen. I'm telling J.K, this is fine, but we'll furnish fish, crabs, and scallops. You student and Popov get fish plenty cheap. Allow me this and we do lunch next week.”
“Popov, you're too kind to me. It's a fine arrangement. I'll talk to J.K. and see which days you're in the cove next week,” I said, knowing better than to argue.
“Is done,” Popov said laughing.
Harry came home the night before the luncheon. Naturally he couldn't resist a chance to meet with so many constituents that were usually out of reach all at one time.
Next year was an election year and Harry insisted on kicking in half the cost as payment to me for getting the cove's fishermen all in one place at the same time.
I couldn't tell Harry no either.
A good time was had by all, especially Dylan.
I renewed friendships and we did a lot of catching up.
We took over the restaurant at lunchtime and it stretched into the evening before the kitchen started to empty out.
J. K.'s biggest customers were fishermen, so having a celebration for them was right up his alley. The fishermen were right at home.
The men from the fishing fleet brought the entertainment, singing, dancing, and playing instruments to add to the flavor of the sea. The celebration was a success.
I think Harry shook every hand.
I'd been a boy fisherman. It was one of the best times of my life. So much had happened since I left Mr. Aleksa's boat, I didn't think about the fishing fleet or my place in it much.
I wasn't about to allow that to happen again. We worked on the same Gulf every day and our livelihood depended on the sea. I wanted to keep this connection so I could make sure there would always be fish to sustain my friends.
The amount of feeling I still had for men I'd hardly seen in years surprised me. Popov had asked me to go out with him on his boat several times since I fished with Mr. Aleksa, but there wasn't the time.
Now I couldn't go out as long as Dylan required so much care. Popov understood. We'd leave it for a time when my life wasn't so full of responsibility.
I wanted to go out to maintain a relationship with the fishermen. I began to see it as part of my continuing education and part of my job. I did miss the excitement of being in the fishing fleet.
When I first came to Florida, I remembered sitting on the beach and imagining my place in the Gulf. It was pure excitement even before I set foot on the sea.
I was Captain Kidd, Lord Nelson, and John Paul Jones all rolled into one amazing little boy. The sea was never easy or boring but it called to me from the first time I saw it.
My future was going to be on the sea.
It was true that one day I'd be able to name my price and travel around the world, following in Bill Payne's footsteps. That wasn't why Harry sent me to school. It wasn't why I became a marine biologist. My job was to protect the Gulf of Mexico and the creatures in it. I couldn't do it by traveling around the world.
I could do it on behalf of the Sanibel Island Conservancy and Congressman Harry McCallister, who would become a senator. That meant Harry could name his price too, but that wasn't how you got the people's business done. Money wouldn't save the Gulf.
As November was passing, I was deep in my studies and the business of furnishing the conservancy laboratory with the most up-to-date information I could find. There wasn't much free time in my schedule. This gave time an incredible knack for passing me by.
If I should appear to be daydreaming, or malingering while at work, I'd find myself emptying trash cans out at the end of the island. It was surprisingly crowded that time of year.
There were two forces that anchored me to the here and now, Dylan and Mama. When I became sure I was no longer connected to anything in particular, one of the two would yank me back to reality.
Then there were the times they both yanked.
Congressman Harry McCallister would become instrumental in guiding the newly created Environmental Protection Agency from the halls of congress during the rest of the Richard Nixon administration.
We were positioned to do what he said we were going to do when I first met Harry. Clean water made for strange bedfellows. Having the ear of the President meant getting things done. Harry intended to keep the water clean. When Harry was home, it excited me to hear him talk about our plans.
It was a challenge if you wanted to stay ahead of the polluters. As I began my education, powerful forces worked to stop laws forcing them to be responsible for mess they made from being passed.
Harry said passing such laws was hard. Politicians were friends with people who owned businesses that made a lot more money when they didn't need to clean up after themselves.
It wasn't even a close call for me. If I made a mess, I’d better clean up after myself, but Harry said corporations weren't held to the same standards people were held to.
Why not? Didn't people run corporations?
I didn't understand but I'd learn pretty fast. If we wanted clean water we'd need to fight for it. We were opposed by people who were getting rich by leaving a mess for the rest of us to clean up.
Getting excited by the idea of preserving the beauty of a place I loved was easy. I enjoyed learning all there was to know about my environment.
I would sound alarms and seek solutions. I'd do my best to be a voice of reason. Under the circumstances, it wasn't easy, because I would deal with so many fools who weren't able to draw a straight line from the health of the environment to their own health.
On the longest day of my life, I picked Twila up before dawn. She nursed Dylan and I took her to Harry's before going to school.
I didn't mind driving to Fort Myers. It relaxed me and made me forget how little sleep I got. Tuesdays and Thursdays were my longest days because of school.
After finishing my three classes, I was wide awake. History and English each gave me something I enjoyed, not to mention the credits that got me closer to graduation. We were studying new material, finally finishing what I studied before leaving school in the spring.
At one o'clock I grabbed a burger, drove to Madison High, picked up Lucy, taking her to work with me. We'd be there until six if I wasn't able to slip away earlier. It took that long for Lucy to clean up the mess I'd made since her last visit to the conservancy lab.
Lucy labeled specimens legibly, translated my notes into English, and did my filing, while Bill Payne was conducting a class in my lab. He came most Tuesdays and Thursdays to conduct his class for four.
Bill gave us a detailed description of an aspect in a marine biologist's life. He gave us great detail. Finishing about five, he told us what we'd be doing in the weeks ahead and why.
I admit in the last half hour of class, I began struggling to stay awake. The thought that went through my mind at that instant, 'Great, maybe I can get home in time for a catnap and a shower before dinner. Of course this defied logic. I couldn't remember a Tuesday or a Thursday when I had time for a nap or a shower.
Bill gave no thought at all to my need to nap. After class he wanted to see my latest notes and any new specimens I might have collected on the dives I did without him.
Did I mention what a big help Lucy was? Not only did she straighten out everything that people would ask to see, but she listened to our classes and she retained much of it. She heard Bill's request and began pulling out the just filed notes.
She put them on the desk as Bill entered.
“Hi, Lucy. Learn anything from our talk?”
“I did,” Lucy said. “I enjoy your lecture style. My teachers are a little dull. I like your passion, Dr. Payne.”
“Thank you, Lucy. I'm just Bill.”
Luckily he took interest in a new specimen I'd collected.
“Are you certain of your identification on this, Clay?”
“Yes. I used the conservancy books to identify it.”
“It's not native to these waters. People buy a species not native to these waters and when it's not what they expected, they dump it in the Gulf. It's a fresh water fish from northwestern Asia. You saw more of these?”
“Be careful when you dive alone?. It's not a good practice.”
I knew that but the freedom of being alone and going where men rarely went was why I loved being under water. I didn't want company. Not the company of most people anyway.
“Well, I'm running late. Keep up the good work. Wednesday next week you can show me where you found that specimen,” he said.
“You're on,” I said.
“You ready, Luce? I'm beat,” I said, putting my head on my desk.
“Let me file these things and we can go,” she said.
It wasn't even six. A little nap was looking good.
“Clay!” Harry said. “I've been trying to get over here all day. I want to see your latest notes. We haven't talked since the luncheon.”
“No, we haven't,” I said, jerking myself to attention for my boss.
“I think this is what you want,” Lucy said, having the notes in her hand when Harry appeared.
“Hi, Lucy. Helping your brother out in his lab?” Harry asked.
“Yes, sir. I like filing and looking at his notes. I get to hear Dr. Payne on most Tuesdays and Thursdays. I look forward to that.”
“Oh, yes, this is Bill's day. I hope I'm not keeping you from homework.” Harry said. “I don't have long.”
“No, I'll do homework this weekend,” I said, not remembering what the homework was.
“Let me go get a cup of your father's coffee. I've been going since eight this morning and I need something to perk me up.”
“Me too,” I said, as Harry went out.
I put my head down again.
“There goes the shower,” Lucy said.
“Don't remind me,” I said. “This day will end soon, won't it?”
I heard Harry come back in the lab with his coffee and I sat up as straight as I could manage.
Harry gulped coffee and slid the notes around on my desk.
“I'm sorry, Clay. I forgot I've got to meet a donor for cocktails at seven. It's already after six and I've got to freshen up before going to the Gulf Club. I leave in the morning. This will need to wait until my next trip home. I'll come in for Thanksgiving, but only for the family get together. It may be Christmas before we can meet again.”
“OK, Harry,” I said, watching him leave.
I sat down and my head made a noise when it collided with my desk.
“Just leave me here, Luce. I'm too tired to move.”
“No way, Jose'. Your son is waiting for you. Let's go. I can file these in two minutes. We'll be home in time for you to get a nap before dinner's on the table. I'll entertain Dylan if he allows it.”
“You're better with him than I am, Lucy. He always likes being with you.”
“Nice try, Clayton. You know once he sees you, he won't always settle for second best. He knows who you are.”
“Who thought up kids anyway?” I asked. “Why couldn't they be born at nine or ten? Eat solid food and no longer poop their pants.”
“You realize how hard that would be on mothers?”
“You have a point. Ready to go?” I asked, standing up.
On the way home I couldn't make up my mind whether to lie down for ten minutes or take a shower before dinner, which was closing in on us. It was a lot closer to dinner time than before Harry showed up.
My longest day ever turned out to be the day Dylan picked to be a perfect butt-head. I was sure I heard him crying as I headed for the stairs and the shower. Mama was in the midst of fixing dinner. I'd jump in and out of the shower and then take Dylan.
The way I figured, if everything went right, Dylan might lie down with me and be content with that. He was getting better and not fussing as much.
I took the steps two at a time and as I hit the landing on the second floor, Mama hit the foyer. She had a familiar bundle attached to her hip and a spatula in her hand. She aimed it at me but she didn't shoot.
“You come back here, young man. Take your child,” Mama ordered in no uncertain terms. “I've had all the screaming I plan to take for one day. It's your turn, Buster Brown.”
I mistakenly thought I'd explain my plan to Mama.
“But Mama,” is as far as I got with explaining my plan.
It was my second mistake. I was about to hear about the first one. Mama picked this day to unload on me. She was loaded for bear and I was about to get both barrels.
“Don't you but Mama me, Marvin Clayton Olson.”
She knew I hated that name.
“You made your bed. Now you get to lie in it.”
Maybe it wasn't so bad. She was talking my language.
“Come down those stairs and take your son. I've had enough for one day. Your son hasn't stopped screaming since Twila left. I've got dinner to finish.”
I sheepishly returned to the bottom of the stairs. Dylan wailed when he saw me and reached his arms out for me.
Mama was right. He was my baby and my responsibility. I needed to stop depending on others so much.
“It's OK. Daddy's home. I won't leave you,” I assured him as I took him off Mama's hip.
The room went suddenly silent. Oh, sweet silence.
Dylan looked up out of big watery brown eyes, gave me a tiny smile, stopping in mid-wail. He grabbed two handfuls of my shirt, turned toward my chest, and he fell asleep.
Crying sure wears a guy out.
“I don't believe it. That child hasn't shut up since Twila left.”
“It's my smell,” I explained, remembering what Twila told me.
“Your smell?” Mama said as if she thought I might be daft.
“It's a long story, Mama. I've got him now. I'm sorry he was such a handful. I know it's hard on you. Thank you, Mama. You're a big help.”
A lot of grandmothers weren't so eager to give up so much time to their children's children. Mama was a trooper and she rarely complained, when it came to Dylan anyway.
We hadn't reached the true cause of Mama's outburst yet. I should have known it wasn't as simply as Dylan acting up or Mama having a bad day. I must admit I was shocked when she told me what we were really talking about.
“Hard on me? It was hard on Sunshine. You don't know how hard. You don't know how easy you have it, young man,” Mama objected.
I felt objected to.
“I'll put a bottle on and have Lucy bring it up to you. I've got dinner to finish, but don't you think this means I'm finished with you.”
Mama's God had to have a hand in this for her to be so wound up. He was always putting ideas in her head. Didn't he have someone else he could bother?
Lucy stood silent, letting Mama get her anger out of her system. She knew the program as well as I did and as far back as I could remember, when I was in over my head, Lucy came riding to the rescue.
Mama didn't move. She stood with a foot in the foyer and a foot in the dining room, looking back, not sure she was done with me.
It was Lucy's turn to speak.
Life in the Olson house would never be the same.
“Mama, it's not Clay's fault Sunshine died,” My sister began. “She knew the risk and she decided to have Dylan. Clay didn't know about the treatments. I told him after Sunshine died.
“Mama, you need to respect Sunshine's decision and stop blaming Clay for something he had nothing to do with. He's doing the best he can.”
Lucy's tone softened in the middle of her speech. She wasn't done yet, and I didn't realize Mama blamed me for Sunshine's death.
“We need to help Clay. We need to help each other, Mama. It's what a family does. We all miss Sunshine and we owe it to her to do our best for Dylan. Clay works hard. He doesn't need criticism. He needs our help. Leave him be now. Let it go. Being angry with each other won't bring Sunshine back.”
I watched Mama's mouth slowly open. The hand without the spatula covered the hole. She was done now.
Lucy knew the truth about Sunshine and me. She didn't understand my reluctance to set Mama straight about my life. As much as Lucy knew, I knew more, and there were things it was best Mama didn't know. Her God was always lurking and I wasn't sure if it came down to a choice between me and him that she'd pick me.
Lucy hugged Mama and said, “I think dinner's burning.”
Mama yelped and disappeared into the dining room.
Lucy was growing into a young woman and she'd only just begun speaking her mind. In May of the coming year, Lucy stepped up in a way I never did. I didn't have a grasp on my place in the world that my sister did. She saw things in a larger context than I could and she refused to remain silent about the bad things she saw.
In a million years I wouldn't know how to handle Mama. With one reasonable speech Lucy disarmed her.
My mother unloaded her spatula and it was the last time she gave me a piece of her mind.
In time Mama went back to being proud of her youngest son, but not in time for me to get a shower that day.