The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
A Year Older
By the time the holidays rolled around the people in the conservancy house were braced for another year. The previous two years were nothing to write home about. I had great hope as the unknowns of 1970 approached.
There was the fear I'd never see Ivan again. I worried Ivan would die alone without me knowing where he was. I worried I'd die and he'd come home and find my room empty.
I worried I couldn't cut it as a marine biologist and Harry would give me the boot. I worried about Dylan and how I'd help him to grow up smart and strong. I feared I wasn't capable of raising my son to be a free spirit who thinks for himself and never follows others or believes what he's told.
There was plenty to keep my mind off my fears as the holidays closed in on us. Early in December Pop bagged the biggest Christmas tree the foyer had seen since the Olson family came to live in the conservancy house.
It was a Christmas to remember after a year we'd rather forget.
It was Dylan's first Christmas. We got in the Christmas spirit for him. He might not remember it but each year we'd put on a celebration he couldn't ignore. Being the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak year, we owed him that.
The lights and colorful decorations made Dylan giggle. The magnificent tree made him attempt to eat both of his fists at the same time.
It was obvious Dylan was immediately working on the physics of the situation. 'How'd that tree grow in the foyer during my naps?'
I explained Santa and the concept of magical thinking to him. He didn't seem to be buying it. He played along for our sake. Each new decoration got a giggle out of him.
Lucy found a set of twinkling red lights and installed them on the ceiling of Dylan's room. The stimulation had him looking on in wide eyed wonder. Christmas music drifting through the house filled Dylan's world with additional stimulation.
The weather sucked in December. I moved the rocking chairs from the porch onto the landing overlooking the Christmas tree outside my bedroom on the third floor. When Dylan woke in the middle of the night, I got his bottle, turned on the Christmas tree lights, rocking as he drank his milk and gazed at the bonanza of glitter below.
It was a charming time and he didn't know about his gifts yet.
I didn't let Ivan's absence annoy me at Christmas. He came home when I needed him and that's what was important that year. Since leaving after his long visit, he'd called every Sunday. I felt more secure in our relationship. Hearing his voice each week helped.
I believed Ivan would come home to stay by the end of 1970.
No matter what he learned from Boris' comrades, his brother was ten thousand miles away and lost in a war zone Ivan couldn't enter without a U.S. military uniform. I didn't think Ivan would join the military even to get to where Boris was lost.
There was something else I noticed when Ivan was leaving me again after staying so long. A physical pain accompanied Ivan's departure. It hurt in the middle of my chest.
I could have let it disable me, except for Dylan. No matter how seriously I hurt, I had to be there for my son.
Dylan made the Christmas of 1969 extraordinary. It wasn't just the Olsons either. People who never came to the conservancy house before came to celebrate.
New people came to see the tree and the baby. They brought gifts for the baby and placed them under the magnificent tree. Captains Popov and Tito both came to sip and sample Mama's Christmas treats.
Both of the seamen bounced Dylan on their substantial knees and both talked baby talk like pros. As with most things to do with Christmas, it made Dylan giggle and chew on one or both of his fists.
Captain Popov said I should come fishing with him at the earliest possible opportunity. I told him that I missed fishing but days off were at a premium, since I'd taken so much time off from work that year.
“Nicky sends greetings from Chile. He says, 'Tell Clay the fishing is good and the waters peaceful.”
“Is he coming home soon?” I asked, and Popov shrugged. “Who knows what Nicky will do. He's happy where he is.”
Mr. Aleksa sailed out of the cove shortly after the news about Boris came to the house next to the river. Hearing he was OK was OK. I was sure Ivan communicated with his father about his search. I didn't seek to get into the middle of a situation I didn't understand.
As fragmented as the Aleksa family was, the father and sons shared a love I wasn't capable of comprehending. The first time I met Boris the brothers Aleksa went to war with one another. It seemed like such a long time ago.
I'd seen Ivan lose control of himself twice in the six years I'd known him. Both times it was over Boris. I didn't understand their bond, but I knew it was real.
The employees and some of the board at the conservancy came to see the tree. They compared it to trees in the foyer at the turn of the century. The pictures of some of those trees hung on the walls at the conservancy. They were in black and white.
Our tree was in living color. They drank egg nog and ate treats.
Pop made a point of inviting men like Popov and Tito into his private space that was once a library. I'm sure the brandy came out and the egg nog got a kick. Pop rarely drank outside of the holidays. He knew how Mama felt about it and it wasn't something he needed.
I made a great effort not to picture Mr. Broadmore's feet tangling with the upper limbs of that great tree as he swung gracefully from the chandelier, where he'd hanged himself over a half century before.
I was grateful none of the visitors pointed out the spot to us. My imagination spent too much time picturing him hanging around.
I was hoping for a better year in 1970, but early on I created a problem for Harry's reelection plans. As usual, I went off half cocked. The world didn't work according to Clayton Olson's wishes. Once I shot my mouth off and got Harry involved, it was wait and see to see if I might get fired this time.
Twila was still nursing Dylan well into 1970. Pop or I would pick her up and then deliver her to Harry's on our way to work. I had to use Pop's truck because of the mud at Twila's. It was as wet and blustery that winter as I'd seen since coming to the beach.
I must have awakened from the trance I'd been in. That's when I became curious about where Twila asked to be let out. One day in February, after the rains subsided, I dropped Twila off at the usual spot. I decided today was the day I went to see where Twila went.
I started to leave like I was leaving, taking my time, I waited for Twila to go out of sight. I backed up and got out of the truck. I wanted to get a look at what was on the other side of the hill.
I was nineteen. Leaving well enough alone wasn't what I did, even when every particle in my body said I was heading for trouble.
Once I walked up the hill and saw what was on the other side, things were set into motion that I lacked the ability to stop. What I saw I couldn't keep to myself. I couldn't unsee it. I had to say something to someone I trusted.
There was no thought given to whose feathers I might ruffle.
One morning I asked Pop to take a ride with me. It took me nearly a week to get up the courage to drag Pop into my discovery. He was the wisest man I knew. I trusted him to set me straight and somehow help me to make sense of what I'd seen.
“I need to show you something,” I said, and he knew there was a powerful weight to whatever it was.
If I was over reacting, I knew Pop would tell me. If there was a reason for what I'd seen, he'd tell me that.
When I walked up the hill beside my father, I watched to see his reaction. I'd know just how far off base I was by how he reacted.
Pop stopped short as quick as the village below came into view. I wasn't sure what he was thinking. His hands went to his hips as his eyes swept from one side of the community to the other. There may have been 100 of the rundown shacks below us. It was an eyesore.
After less than a minute, Pop said, “Let's go.”
“Do you think Harry knows where Twila lives?” I asked, fearing he did and he accepted how one of his employees was living.
“Reginald would drive Twila. Reginald knows. I doubt Harry has been back here. He'd have no need to ride back here.”
“There's no electricity, Pop. No phones. What if there was a fire? What if Twila or one of her kids got sick.”
I was explaining the obvious to my father. He's seen what I saw and he didn't need me to describe the situation to him.
Pop was disturbed by what he'd seen and on our way back he told me a history he knew first hand. I'd heard the story before, but not from my father. Not from someone who lived through it.
“When I was young, way younger than you are now, there was trouble in Tulsa. The coloreds came into white Tulsa to get one of their citizens out of jail. He was a young man who was accused of... touching a white woman in an elevator.
“This is a great fear white men have about the Negro. The big black buck touching one of their women. The idea of it makes some white men crazy. It just makes others mean. I'm saying this so you'll know how what happened happened, Clay. It's not an excuse. There is no excuse for it. It's the way it was then.”
I listened, sensing I knew the story he was about to tell me.
“I lived there and I saw the results of what happened and I'm ashamed to tell you about it. The coloreds were certain of the man's innocence. He was a hard working young man who never caused trouble and they asked he be released from jail until the situation could be resolved,” Pop said. “Strange things often happen to colored men when they're in the custody of whites. They assured the sheriff he'd be available for whatever action was taken.”
I knew that was true from stories I'd heard in Florida.
“By the time the smoke cleared, literally, the colored section of Tulsa was burned to the ground. As I recall, over thirty died in the riot. The moral of the story, so it seemed to me at the time, coloreds don't come asking white folks for anything if they know what's good for them. Civil leaders came with hat in hand asking for fairness. What they got was a riot that burned them out.”
“Why is it like that, Pop?”
“I've never known any black people. Twila is the first black person who has been inside my home. I'm not prejudiced, Clay. It's the way it is because of men like those in Tulsa. They burned out the coloreds at the drop of a hat. They'd do the same to any white man who sided with the Negro. It's a powerful hatred that makes men that way and a powerful fear that keeps it from changing.”
“It makes no sense,” I said. “They're just people like us. We don't own that house. It's where we live because we work for the conservancy and take care of that house so it doesn't fall down.”
“The blacks in Tulsa were prosperous for the most part. The men who came to get the fellow out of jail were respected leaders of their community. I think poor white people were jealous that the blacks lived so well. When they had an excuse, they burned them out. That was pure hatred and it was done in a way that put the whites against the blacks. Anyone who thought they could make it better, got a rude awakening after the Tulsa riot.”
Pop grew silent. He seemed to be thinking over what he told me.
“I found out about it after we moved here,” I said. “Ivan told me what happened in Tulsa back in the 20s. I lived there and I never heard of it. I learned all about Tulsa but not a word on the race riot.”
“It's the way it was, Clay. I didn't question it. We didn't do business with coloreds. I never knew one. We've always been kept separated by the threat of violence. No one knows where the violence will come from, but you don't dare cross the color line if you know what's good for you.”
“Politicians,” I said. “That's who makes things the way they are.”
“Politicians,” Pop agreed. “Men who create trouble for reasons known only to them. It goes back a hundred years. I know you want me to do something, Clay, but I'm in no position to make waves. This is way bigger than your father. You're the next generation. If things change enough it'll be because people like you change them. At my age I can't afford to stand out. We do what we can for Twila. She's like family to us. That's what we are able to do as people.”
“I wanted to know if I was way off base, Pop,” I said. “I knew you'd tell me. I appreciate your being honest.”
Pop was a doer. If there was a problem, he went about solving it. He wanted to do something to help Twila and it was tricky business. If you did something, it could end up making matters worse.
“What you're thinking won't be popular, Clay. They fought the Civil War over this. The war ended. Hostilities never did. It was turned into a class issue.”
I didn't know there were places like where Twila lived. I no longer offered to take Twila to her door. I knew why she got out on the nice side of the hill. I was shamed by what was on the other side.
At this point in my life I felt like walking toward trouble was way easier than walking away from it. I had no appreciation for consequences. I saw need and something had to be done.
For years I wanted to tell Pop that I was like the black people. It had been made clear to me, no matter what, I was despised. The same people who hated black folks for being black hated gay folks for being gay. My sin was being able to love. Were haters capable of love?
I didn't believe the gay experience was equivalent to the black experience, but civil rights belonged to everyone. The key was equality. Who had the right to deny certain groups equal rights?
The biggest difference was gay people could hide being gay. We knew we were hated but they didn't know who we were. A black man was black no matter what. It was easy to see and the only thing the haters saw.
Ivan and I wouldn't be able to live together without being condemned by people who had their civil rights. We weren't free and we had no civil rights; not in a society that loves war and hates love.
When I looked at the world beyond my beach in 1970, it was inhabited by people who hated so much that they'd rather fight than work together to make the world a better place for everyone.
What makes so many people so mean?
When I found out how Twila lived, it brought my attention to her civil rights. I couldn't do anything to change the way things were, but I knew people who could do something. I didn't know what.
Change needed to start somewhere but I didn't know where to start. I knew Pop was thinking about it. It wasn't like Twila was a stranger. She had been in our house every day since shortly after Dylan was born. My son prospered because of Twila's breast milk.
In an election year, Harry wished the buck didn't stop with him but it did. I never claimed to have good judgment but Harry McCallister was the most powerful man I knew.
Harry was in Washington when I discovered where Twila lived. I needed to talk to him about what I'd seen on the other side of the hill. It wasn't a conversation I was looking forward to. I didn't know what Harry knew. It wasn't a conversation we could have on the phone. It could wait until he came home.
Later in February, Harry stood as I entered his office. He met me halfway to the door with a warm hug.
He always acted happy to see me.
We made small talk and it felt awkward. I tried to sound upbeat about school and work, but Harry sensed an undercurrent of uneasiness in my posture. He was sure this wasn't the conversation I came to have.
“Why the long face, Clayton? What do you need from your congressman today?” Harry said, having an astute sense of me.
I still wasn't sure where to start.
“Any major discoveries to share? I'll drop by the lab tomorrow. We'll look at your latest notes since my last visit. You look uncomfortable today. You're making me nervous. My boat didn't sink did it?”
“There is something I don't know how to talk about,” I said, and that was no lie.
Harry was puzzled by my reluctance to say what was on my mind.
“You spit it out, Clay. How long have we known each other? When you have something to say to me, you say it. You know I respect your opinion. What do you need?”
“Twila!” I said, giving him something to go on.
“And how is Twila?”
“Fine,” I said. “Do you know where she lives by any chance?”
“Sure. The colored section a couple of miles out of town.”
“Eight miles,” I said. “Have you ever been there?”
“Clay, my chauffeur takes Twila home. They're his people. Reginald's the man to talk to if you have questions about it. He lived out there until my father hired him as a driver and moved him into the quarters over the garage. He'll know what you want to know.”
“No, Harry, I'm talking to you,” I said, and that startled him.
I hadn't said it as respectfully as I meant to. I needed an answer now.
“Clay, I feel like I'm in front of a subcommittee hearing. Let's get to the point. I have a busy day ahead of me. Donors to see and a speech to give and I only have it half written.”
“I want to show you something. It'll take an hour. When it's convenient. I'm here all day today and in the afternoon tomorrow. It's important.”
“I have a lunch with donors. It's election time. I'll be free for an hour around two, Clayton. Will that do?”
That afternoon I drove Harry to Twila's. I'd telegraphed where we were going, but he didn't object. He didn't like it either, but he would allow me to say my piece.
When I turned off the highway, Harry spoke.
“I knew this is where we were going,” he said.
“I would never be disrespectful to you, Congressman, but there's something I need to know about you if we're going to do the things you told me about. This road is a bit rough but I can't turn back now.”
That was an understatement.
Harry looked to see who he was with. Until now I'd listened and done what he told me. He knew everything about me. It was time I found out about him.
Harry knew he wouldn't like what I had to say but he came with me, which meant a lot. He was giving me all the rope I wanted.
“I've passed here a thousand times. As a kid, I knew where the coloreds lived. The ones I knew were at my house. They came to my world. We give coloreds employment. We leave it at that. They have their ways, we have ours, Clayton. It's always been that way.”
“There's still something I need to know about you, Congressman,” I said. “I don't mind telling you that I'm scared shitless about what I'm going to find out, Harry, but I've got to know.”
Harry was getting uncomfortable. Our relationship had been good. I stuck to the plan. Harry was there when I needed him. Now we'd come to a crossroad and I needed more.
I stopped and cut off the engine and got out, walking up the hill. Harry walked behind me. When I stopped, Harry stopped next to me.
I don't know what he saw. How does a man who has more money than God see a worn out slum? How could I know anything about what he felt. I took him to see what I saw. I took him to see it from my point of view. He couldn't see it the way I saw it.
“This is what you wanted to show me?” he asked, looking at the shacks.
His face showed shock but only for an instant.
“Yes, sir,” I said, feeling uncommonly foolish.
“I see,” he said, saying nothing about what he saw.
Do rich people want to know where poor people live?
With Pop it was all right there. We were the same person. We lived the same lives in the same places. Harry didn't know us any more than we knew him. We came from different worlds. I wasn't smart enough to consider that until we stood on that hill.
We saw the face Harry showed us, nothing more, and he showed me nothing now. He was a United States Congressman. He saw and knew things that would probably make me wet my pants. I was a boy who saw something that disturbed him so much he had to do something. I'd done it and I'd wait to suffer the consequences.
I wasn't sorry I took him to Twila's, but it wasn't a smart move. We drove back to the conservancy. Harry did not speak until I parked the conservancy truck in its parking space.
“What do you want, Clay? I've seen what you wanted me to see. I've got two days, then I'll be in Washington until May, except for a visit or two to meet with donors. What is it you want from me?”
How did I get off the spot I put myself on?
“People shouldn't live like that, Harry. Twila nurses my son. She lives in a dump. She works for you, Harry. She keeps your house clean. You are a United States Congressman. Do something!”
I found myself fighting back tears but we didn't look at each other.
I'd up the ante by raising my voice to my boss. I didn't intend to but emotion being what it is, that's how it came out. I was embarrassed by my outburst. I wasn't in a position to ask Congressman Harry McCallister for anything.
It's the best I could do right then.
“That's it?” he asked without emotion.
“Yes, sir,” I said sadly, unable to look at him.
I felt the cool breeze when he opened the door to get out.
I heard the thin ice cracking under me as he walked away.
I didn't see Harry again while he was home. No order to clean out my desk came. I didn't know what I wanted from Harry. If I hadn't walked up that hill, I'd still be as dumb as ever and not waiting for the hammer to fall.
Life was way easier before I knew how the other half lived.
How could life be so unfair and why couldn't I leave well enough alone? It had been that way forever. What did I expect Harry to do?
That night I gave Dylan a bottle before dinner, hoping he'd sleep until we finished eating. It no longer worked as well as it once did but it was worth a try.
My son was having none of it. He fussed once I put him in his crib and I decided to take him to the table with me. He didn't cry if I held onto him. He didn't like being put down.
I wasn't spending enough time with him and this is how he got the attention he wanted. There was something about seeing the Olsons in one spot that pleased Dylan. We were the people in his universe and he intended to keep an eye on us.
When we weren't within easy reach when he wanted us, he didn't hesitate demonstrating his displeasure in a way that never failed to get our attention. He was learning how to get what he wanted once he began sleeping less during the day.
Half sitting and half leaning against me, he observed the goings on at the table. I fed him a piece of buttered biscuit, heavy on the butter. Giving up the hold on his bottle, he giggled when he tasted the rich creamy substance.
Dylan clapped his hands, sending his bottle rolling onto the floor. He giggled some more, reaching for the rest of my biscuit.
My son was a showboat and everyone laughed.
It was then Pop gave me indigestion.
“I talked to Harry, Clay,” Pop said, reaching for his own biscuit. “About what you showed me.”
“Ouch!” I said. “He'll think we're piling on. I showed him today.”
“He mentioned that. You took him there, Clay?” Pop asked startled. “I don't mind telling you, it's not how I was going to handle it. Harry isn't a man who appreciates having his sensibilities tested.”
“He's a U.S. Congressman. He can do something, Pop. Someone has to do something,” I insisted with no ideas of my own.
“About what?” Mama asked, being in the dark on such things.
“Take it from me, Mama, you don't want to know,” Lucy said.
I told Lucy about it as soon as I came back from seeing Twila's. She was as horrified as I was but she didn't want to see it.
“He going to fire me?” I asked.
“I knew from his reaction that it was a bad time. You might say I tugged the tiger's whiskers and backed off. You put your entire head in the damn tigers mouth, Clay. I admire your courage, but what were you thinking? He's your boss for Christ sake. He's my boss,” Pop said.
“John,” Mama corrected, still in the dark.
“Sorry, Mother. I am not happy with your son. I should have headed this off. When Clay gets his mind made up, he's difficult to stop. It's a work matter. I've been busy and didn't talk to him before he went to Harry with a problem. That's all.”
“He going to fire me?” I asked again.
“He's not happy. I didn't get the impression firing you was on his mind. He was busy with donors and conservancy business. My advice is leave it be, Clay. He's leaving tomorrow. Keep your head down and I think you'll survive. I'm fine. He isn't mad at me. Probably thinks you put me up to it. I didn't argue the point. I need my job.”
I was embarrassed all over again. Pop could read situations a lot better than I could.
What was I thinking?
I had no ability to do anything but run my mouth.
One day I'd be paid for what came out of my mouth. Right now it still got me in trouble.