The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Sitting with Harry in his study, the conversation about my appearing before his committee, we somehow ended up talking about Ivan. It wasn't my favorite subject. His absences had grown in duration, and his returns home had gone from seldom to none.
Harry sipped the liquid in his glass and he studied me, measuring what he wanted to say against what he couldn't tell me. “You haven't figured out where you stand, have you, Clay?” Harry asked, intending to tell me.
I was all ears.
“From the time I first saw you come out of the Gulf, you were the future of this conservancy. Who I am, what I do, depends on what you do. You're still playing to my tune. You'll play a song of your own soon if you aren't already.”
“It's my hope you'll allow me to continue to be part of the Clayton Olson show. You're moving to center stage now. When I call you in front of my committee, you'll be introduced as an authority, an expert, a man who has Congressman Harry McCallister's ear,” he said.
“You'll tell your story. People will listen. They'll believe you. You're a man of science revealing your findings. Because you speak of repair and renewal, people will support you. Many will want to help you make their world a better place.”
“I'd like to believe all that's true, Harry. I don't see many people volunteering to quit throwing their garbage into the Gulf,” I said.
“Once your face is on the news and your voice of reason speaks to the people, you'll be a made man. People are going to seek you out to find out what they need to do to help, because there is nothing in it for you. You work for me, a politician, but people know I'm not in Washington trying to line my pockets or feather my nest. I can live a life of leisure on my beach if I want. Instead, I've become an advocate for our environment, which strengthens your position even further,” he said.
“You aren't wealthy or powerful but you care about the sea and the things in it. You'll make others care too. They'll feel your passion. With credits like Bill Payne in your portfolio, whatever you say will be accepted as truth,” he said, his words tapering off. “In a way, Clayton, you are wealthier and more powerful than I'll ever be, and you get to do it your way. You don't have the handicap of being a politician. Politicians are suspect, because so many put their own interests first.”
“You won't need me, Clay. I hope it won't change our friendship. I've done my best to meet your needs, but whether we continue being a team is up to you,” he said, stopping to take a drink.
“As you know, I have no hold on you. I've never tied you to the conservancy. I did my best to make it your home, but the only thing holding us together is our word. Whenever you decide you want to move on, I won't stand in your way. I feel lucky that you've stayed long enough to help make the conservancy viable again,” he said thoughtfully.
“My father, God rest his soul, hadn't kept up with the times. The conservancy wasn't conserving anything when I took over. I had no ability to put it on the map, until I saw you and heard your story.”
This had never crossed my mind. The idea that one day I'd know more than Harry about the environment never occurred to me. I was part of the conservancy. I was part of what Harry did. I was part of who he was. I wouldn't know how to go about it on my own.”
Everything I'd become, Harry made me. I'd never leave the conservancy, unless I decided to give up my work. I'd made that calculation before I got my degree.
I was loyal to Harry. He'd never given me a reason not to be.
“What's this got to do with Ivan? You've changed the subject on me. I'm not saying I don't appreciate your vote of confidence on my career, Harry, but you have information I need. I'd like to talk about that. As far as my work is concerned, I'm not interested in going anywhere. I'm happy here.”
Harry's steady gaze was on me. He had to be careful how he said what he intended to tell me.
“I'm trying to figure out a way to tell you without telling you more than you should know. In this instance, because it's you, Clay, I'm going to shoot from the hip. I'm asking you not to repeat what I'm about to say. I'm going to give it to you straight.”
“I can't imagine repeating anything you're going to tell me.”
“Ivan's worried about you. I told him that you are a successful scientist with an important job. Your importance increases while he is gone. You have the conservancy for a platform but I told him what I told you. You're about to go to the head of the class in environmental circles, because of how smart you are about the topic. He was quite impressed but not surprised. It made him smile when he heard it.”
“We don't talk much when he does stop to see me.”
“He's comfortable with me because he knows I'm close to you, Clay. He doesn't have anyone to talk to about you. He's worried you won't be there when he comes home.”
“When it's over, Harry. When I walk away from this, I'll do it here at the Sanible Island Conservancy. I'll do it with you at my side. It's not about me. It isn't about you. It's about what we need to do to preserve the Gulf. There's one thing I'm certain about, I don't want to be anywhere else. This is my home. Ivan knows where to find me.”
“Which brings us back to Ivan. If you're going to be here, he plans to be up the beach,” Harry said. “He intends to come home. He intends to come back to you. That's what he told me.”
“He is far away. He's been far away for far too long. He rarely comes home. When he comes home, he can't wait to leave. That's the point. He has a lot of nerve telling you about us. He has no right to do that, Harry. If I wanted you to know, I'd tell you.”
“You are a smart man. I ain't no Ann Landers, but you're way off base. That's why he told me what he told me. He can't talk to you about this and now he's lost in the weeds over there.”
“What happened to all those people who were at dinner with us?”
Harry waved his hand as if he made them disappear.
“My campaign manager takes care of those people. He knows what they want to hear and that's what they hear. I didn't come home to meet with them, Clay. I came home to meet with you. It's been on my agenda for almost a year. I couldn't put it off any longer. They were here so I had a reason to invite you. I am a politician after all.”
“You knew we were going to talk about Ivan?”
“We had to talk about him. Ivan came to me with this. He isn't worried about Ivan. He's worried about Clay. It wasn't difficult to see Ivan was in a quandary over you. He doesn't know what to do.”
I hadn't tried to see our relationship from Ivan's viewpoint. I didn't think Ivan worried about anything but Boris.
“I'm listening. I'm not angry with you. You're trying to help.”
“If we both wake up dead in the morning, don't say I didn't warn you. I'll say it again, you repeat what I'm about to tell you to no one. For all I know they're listening to us right now.”
“Oh, no, I haven't lost my mind quite yet. I'll give you... certain details that will allow you to come to your own conclusions. There are things I know I can't speak about. It's a matter of national security. It's a matter of your security, not to mention mine. If you don't know enough to get into trouble, you won't get into trouble.”
“I'll agree with that. Give me what you've got, Harry.”
“It's what Ivan wants,” Harry said. “I'll try to explain the situation as best I can.”
“We did leave Vietnam, didn't we?”
“We have a presence. The presence is who Ivan crossed paths with over there. Remember my card? I wrote my private number in Washington on the back?”
“I remember the card.”
“Ivan tried to get into Vietnam,” Harry said. “He crossed paths with men left over from what was called the Phoenix program. It was a combination of military and civilian intelligence in Vietnam.”
“Sounds dangerous,” I said.
“I don't know what they do and all I know is that they were there when I went to congress and they're still there, although it's remnants of the program I mentioned,” he said. “When Ivan fell into their hands, he had the card on him. They found it. They called my private number shortly thereafter, which began a bit of intrigue. The FBI got involved, because when I picked up, the phone, no one spoke. Someone was there. I could hear him breathe. I yelled into the phone, 'I'm a United States Congressman and you just got your tit in a very big ringer, asshole,'” Harry said, taking another drink.
“I immediately called my chief of staff who reported it to the Metropolitan Police. My chief of staff was alarmed. He said, 'By not speaking and staying on the line, they were send you a message.' He perceived it to be a threat and they put a tap on my phone to see what turned up. They started checking my incoming calls. Do you know how fast a call from Southeast Asia to the Capitol of the United States jumps out at an investigator.”
“Threatening you?” I asked.
“I told my chief of staff about Ivan. He was the only one with my private number who could have been compromised. It was why I wanted Ivan to keep that card. I was sending a message if Ivan fell into the hands of the authorities. They'd immediately want to know what Ivan was doing with a congressman's private number in his pocket,” Harry said. “Common sense.”
“So those Phoenix people do answer to someone, don't they?” I asked.
“A man in the field, not necessarily the brightest bulb in the package, sees the card. He can't resist dialing the number to see if it is a congressman's number. He's leaving a trail a mile wide and two miles high, but he doesn't think about that. He is only thinking about the number on the back of that card. That's how I got involved in what Ivan is doing.”
“I'm confused. What do they want with Ivan. He's nobody.”
“At the time I gave him the card, I was thinking Ivan might get arrested with the anti war folks. It worked just as well once he went over there,” Harry said.
“That's how you and Ivan got together?”
“That's how. As soon as they reported to their handlers that they called a congressman's number, it got back here to the appropriate agency head. When someone makes a mess, it must be cleaned up. Inquiries were made, creating a necessity for me to be informed about the mysterious phone call,” he said.
“Two days later a call came into my office asking me to clear my schedule to meet with the director of an agency that shall remain unnamed. The FBI came charging in, bugged all the phones, and bugged my private office. Two agents took up positions in an adjoining office. These boys like nothing better than to get something on one of the bosses.”
“I got a call from the director at two o'clock. He asked me to meet him on the point at Haines Point. Alone! He knows what happens when a mysterious call comes in to a congressman's private lines. The FBI would be all over it immediately. He knows not to hang his ass out but at the same time he needed to clear the air with me.”
“What was it about?” I asked, unable to keep up.
“Ivan Aleksa. I was to be dropped off at a spot in plain view of the point. The road was closed. Construction barricades blocked access by vehicles. I walked to where he stood,” Harry said. “He knew I knew the rules. It was polite.”
“Ivan is mixed up with our government? I can't imagine anything more humiliating for him. He's not a company man.”
“He asked questions. I answered them. He wanted to know what Ivan was doing with my private number. I explained about Boris. I knew Ivan to be a resourceful young man. He was determined to bring his brother home. He laughed and shook his head at Ivan's audacity. Then he said something odd. 'He doesn't know how close he is.' I didn't follow up. He'd given me something I didn't expect. It wasn't an accident,” Harry said.
“'He's a foolish boy,' he told me with contempt in his voice. I said, ''He's a foolish boy who made it to Vietnam on his own. Had you not intercepted him, he might have tracked his brother down by now.' This got a long thoughtful look out of him. 'My people want to use this Aleksa fellow,' he said. 'If you have no objections. My man in charge called your office without checking for instructions first. I must apologize. Help these days isn't what it once was. He's a good boy but too curious. My people are in a position where this Aleksa fellow could be useful. We need someone to listen to the chatter now that most of our people have been pulled out. Nothing difficult or dangerous, just a convenient pair of ears.'”
I thought about what Harry said. Ivan told me he'd be out of touch for two years. At least I knew he was telling me the truth. Harry corroborated what Ivan said. I felt relieved and at the same time the entire affair disturbed me.
“That was it?” I asked.
“I asked him, 'What's in it for Mr. Aleksa if he cooperates?' He said, 'There will be a nice salary. He won't go to jail.' I gave him a long look and he almost blushed. He knew exactly what I was going to say. 'If he's useful, and his missing brother can be located, my people will see to it they are reunited if it's possible.' That's all there was to it. I shook his hand and walked away.
“When I looked back over my shoulder, no one was there. I think he came by boat and left the same way. I didn't think to look for a boat, but he just disappeared. By the time I reached the barricades, a work crew was taking them away.”
“Like in the movies,” I said.
“Just like James Bond. Every angle had been considered.”
I was accustomed to Ivan not telling me anything. I'd learned more in fifteen minutes with Harry than I'd learned from Ivan in seven years. I liked none of it, but I trusted Harry and he wasn't worried.
“So they were checking Ivan out? Why? They had his ass.”
“Sloppy. I'd never have met the head man if he didn't need to clean up the mess. He knew the FBI was on it. A phone call like that to a high ranking government official sets off alarms. It's always viewed as a threat. It needed to be cleaned up.”
“And...? You saw Ivan? You said you talked to him.”
“I got a call from over there. I won't go into details. They explained the call and said that Ivan was guilty of violating several laws concerning illegally entering a war zone. I asked him if he hadn't received a phone call from his boss who explained who I was and told him that I was more than a little familiar with laws governing my constituents.”
“Don't they read the paper? The war's over, Harry. What's going on over there and who the hell do they think they are? Ivan's an American citizen.”
“I can't tell you what I don't know. I've told you too much already. You do remember when Ivan came home last summer? That's what the director's man in Southeast Asia gave up for calling my number a second time. Ivan wouldn't have been allowed to come home otherwise.”
“He didn't say anyone knew he was home but me,” I said. “I never told anyone he was home. He came in the middle of the night and he left at dawn. I haven't heard from him since. He told me a version of what you just told me.”
“He was in Washington first. I was told that Ivan agreed to do work for the man who'd called me. I didn't want to get into the middle of whatever was going on, but what I could do was ask that Ivan appear in my office before they put him to work. He should check with his boss if he was thinking of refusing me. I wanted to know Ivan was doing the work willingly. I wanted Ivan to know I had his back. He wouldn't go to jail if he refused to work for them. I wanted to see they hadn't physically abused him. They told me they'd have to call back. When they did, Ivan was already on a military flight back to the States. He was in my office the following afternoon.”
“It's basically what he told me, leaving out the stop in Washington,” I said.
“I wanted the people who intercepted Ivan to know a U.S. Congressman was watching over him. I let them know I didn't approve of him being over there but I understood why he went. It wasn't to cause trouble for our government.”
“Thank you, Harry,” I said, suddenly drained.
“It's while we were flying here from Washington, which is how Ivan got to your house, Ivan became quite emotional. He'd been through an ordeal. They'd treated him roughly at first. He said he thought he was hurting you. By coming home he kept upsetting your life and I'm taking him to your door,” Harry said. “He didn't want to cause you more pain but he couldn't stay away from you. I may not know much about love, Clay, but if that boy isn't in love with you, I'll resign my seat in congress. He's tormented by being away from you.”
“He comes in the middle of the night and leaves before dawn,” I said. “He could at least stay to talk to me.”
“He tries not to come home. He thinks he's upsetting your life. He leaves that way so he doesn't upset everyone in the house. It hurts him being there, knowing he has to leave.”
“He chooses to leave, Harry,” I said. “He could come home.”
“You believe that?”
“No. I know he loves Boris. I know he intends to find him. It hurts, Harry and there's nothing I can do about it.”
“He knows you still love him but he doesn't know if you know how much he loves you. It's an impossible situation. I'm helpless to do anything but tell you what I know and hope it helps.”
“Go on,” I said, wanting to hear more and not knowing if there was more.
“He's getting closer to Boris, Clay. If you told me he had a shot in hell at finding his brother five years ago, I'd have laughed in your face. Now Ivan is close. I don't know how close. The people over there know more than they say. I hear in their voices, they think Boris is alive and still in Southeast Asia,” Harry said.
“I think they admire Ivan for going to get his brother. If they can help him, I think they intend to do that.”
“Thanks, Harry. I think I'll head home. I'm exhausted,” I said, going to the door.
“Clay, I may not be Ann Landers, but if someone loved me the way Ivan loves you, I'd wait for how ever long it took. He's going to come home to you. He will keep his promise.”
Harry smiled back.
It made me feel good to think Ivan would come home to me.
To say my first meeting with Harry in a year was enlightening wouldn't describe it. What he did was give me an opportunity to hit the reset on my feelings toward Ivan.
Harry also gave me another reason to be angry with my lover. I didn't need more of those. My anger with Ivan was close to the surface. It came from having so much to do and I had to do it alone.
I'd gone to Harry's thinking he would give me a pep talk on my pending appearance in Washington. Instead, he told me that my testimony would be my declaration on the Gulf of Mexico in particular and the environment in general.
What I said would be my professional opinion as a marine biologist, which didn't take much preparation. I'd been in, on, and under the Gulf for over ten years and I'd been developing a story that changed as I learned more about what I was talking about.
I came away from Harry's with a new perspective on my relationship with Ivan. I didn't own him. I only loved him. Because I loved him, I waited for him. Harry said I wouldn't regret waiting.
If Ivan didn't return to me, it would be his loss.
This didn't make my anger go away. It became easier to manage, once Harry said what he said. If someone told me five years ago that Harry would be the one to set me straight on Ivan, I'd have laughed in his face.
I wasn't angry with Harry because he knew Ivan and I were lovers. I knew Harry was on my side. It's the idea Ivan told him without consulting me. We lived in a time and a place where information like that could end a career and damage you irreparably.
I had my son, my family, and work that depended on cooperation with many kinds of people to consider.
Being gay wasn't something you dared to let get out.
For Christmas 1975 I gave Dylan new snorkeling gear. As fast as he was growing, the first, less expensive gear, had become too small. Before we ate breakfast Christmas morning, I had to take him to the marina to try it out. I didn't take him out in the Seaswirl. We'd have plenty of time for that during the holidays and it was Christmas.
We snorkeled off the pier at the end of the row of twenty-four slips. I'd never gone in the water that close to shore in the cove. The sheen on the water caught me by surprise. There were two dozen boats in slips and the fishing fleet was anchored nearby. The excess gasoline and diesel fuel made the water less than pristine and I'd learned something new.
I went to the lab and back to the marina to take water samples later that day. I'd keep a running record on what I found out from routine checks on the cove's water quality.
At six and a half, Dylan was growing like a weed. He was getting taller and who knew the obvious would become so obvious so soon? He not only resembled Ivan, he had the same build as his father.
Everyone at the conservancy house knew the truth now but it wasn't mentioned. Dylan was his own person. Any similarities to his father were natural.
From time to time my heart skipped a beat when I looked at Dylan and I saw Ivan. It startled me more than once.
I thought of how proud Sunshine would be of Dylan. I could smile when I thought of her now. She'd been a supernova I experienced before she burned out.
Lucy gave Dylan books for Christmas. I'd remarked we'd gone through most of the Hardy Boys books I could find and she took the opportunity to give him a leather bound copy of Moby Dick by Herman Melville and the Leather Stocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper.
Mama and Pop gave him clothes and books. He always needed clothes these days. He'd outgrown his new school clothes I bought him in August before Christmas.
I took Dylan with me to the Christmas parties at the conservancy, J.K.'s, Harry's, and at Twila's house. This was the first year I was comfortable taking Dylan around people who drank. He took it all in stride. J.K.'s was one of his favorite places and the people there loved it when I brought Dylan.
Twila's son, Taggart, now thirteen, took Dylan fishing with him while Twila and I caught up. I'd never eaten so much as I ate at Twila's that Christmas afternoon. Twila's cooking rivaled Mama's for taste and appeal. She'd mastered the art of making desserts.
We were home in time for snacks and to enjoy the Christmas tree in the foyer as Mama and Pop opened their presents.
Pop once again brought in a substantial tree. Lucy decorated the tree, the stairs, chandelier, and railings on each landing. With the lights off and the tree lit, the foyer was alive with glitter and color.
Dinner at Twila's was at one and Mama had dinner ready at seven. It was just enough time between meals to allow me the maximum consumption of calories in a single day. While I was a man of moderation, over the holidays I ate what I wanted when I wanted it, and I was still able to burn off most excessive eating at twenty-five.
When we got to Harry's that evening, as usual, he was surrounded by a group of older men. They were dressed to the nines. Dylan and I were in jeans and matching sweaters.
A cool breeze had picked up out of the northwest late that afternoon and it felt chilly after a very warm December.
When Harry saw me with Dylan, who he hadn't seen in two years, he came over. His eyes never left Dylan's. Harry knew what the people at the conservancy house knew. His expression was priceless once he put two and two together.
“Your father works with me,” Harry said. “I run the conservancy. I'm Harry.”
“You're the congressman,” Dylan told him, cocking his head as he looked Harry over. “Are you a crook?”
“What?” Harry said surprised by Dylan's question.
“Nixon said he wasn't one. Turned out he was. I don't suppose you'd tell me if you were one.”
“Probably not. You are your father's son, aren't you?” Harry asked a question of his own.
“I'm my Daddy's son, not my father's,” Dylan said.
“I see. I got you a present, Dylan,” Harry said.
Dylan turned his head to look at me.
“Go ahead. He's OK.”
Harry had purchased a set of books on the founding fathers for kids. We hadn't read much history.
“Daddy says these guys would roll over in their graves if they saw what was going on in the government these days.”
“Your Daddy is right. I wonder how it got this way.”
“What way is that?” Dylan asked.
“Lucy put him up to this,” Harry said with a grin.
“She does influence him,” I said. “I don't remember saying that about the founding fathers.”
“It's a pleasure to know you, Dylan,” Harry said.
“Daddy said not to lie. I don't know you well enough to have an opinion, ...but Daddy says you're OK.”
Harry couldn't stop grinning at my very serious son.
“I've got to get back,” Harry said. “We'll do the Gulf Club one day next week. Do bring Dylan. I need the youth vote.”
Harry walked away.
“You made a hit with Harry, Dylan.”
“Why's that?” Dylan asked.
“Ask your Aunt Lucy. She'll explain it. You are direct and even when you aren't predisposed to shoot the breeze with a stranger, you leave an impression on him.”
Dylan looked at me curiously.
“Shoot the breeze?” He asked.
“Engage in small talk,” I said.
“Oh! Can we put these in the car. They're heavy,” he said, indicating the books.
We didn't stay long. I merely wanted to touch base with Harry. While doing it, I learned again how extraordinary Dylan was.
I felt lucky to be his Daddy.