Jeff, Karma, and Me
Jere’ M. Fishback © 2020
All Rights Reserved
I was twenty years old when Jeff Brucelli walked into my life and turned it upside down. I had just finished my sophomore year of college and was home for summer break, to live with my dad in the head ranger’s residence in Fort De Soto Park, a county facility fronting Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Dad oversaw the park’s campground, as well as the picnic areas, boat ramps, piers, and beaches. Our house was a two-bedroom, wood frame structure seated on nine-foot pilings, with a screened porch overlooking a placid bayou. The floors were polished oak, and the wood burning fireplace was built of local limestone. A wooden dock and covered boat slip extended into the bayou, where Dad kept a sixteen-foot Carolina Skiff with a forty-horsepower outboard.
My first morning home, I gobbled a bowlful of cornflakes and chugged OJ from a carton. Then I took a bike ride through the RV section of the campground. The sun had risen two hours before and already the day heated up. Dampness gathered in my armpits while I pedaled along the crushed shell road. Most campsites I passed were waterfront, shaded by live oaks and sabal palms. Native foliage grew between them: sea grape, hibiscus, turkey oaks, and flame of the woods.
Many sites were empty, but at one near the eastern tip of the campground, an RV the size of a city bus hulked. A guy my age sat there at a picnic table, strumming an acoustic guitar. Shirtless and wearing cutoff denim shorts, he was slender and fair-skinned, and his cola-colored eyes narrowed when I approached on my bike.
“Are you staying here?” I asked.
Sunlight reflected in his mop of dark and wavy hair when he nodded and answered in a scratchy tenor. “My folks are serving as campground hosts the next few months. They’re both schoolteachers and have the summer free, so we’ll be here through August.”
I dismounted and lowered my kickstand. Then I pointed my chin at the RV. “That’s a nice ride.”
“It belongs to my mom’s parents. Grandma’s not well these days, and they don’t use it much, so they lent it to us for this trip. We’re from Indiana.”
I extended a hand. “I’m Jakub Mazur.”
Jeff told me his name while we shook. His palm felt warm, his grip firm.
I explained how I was home for the summer from Florida State University and living inside the park.
“I just finished my second year at IU,” Jeff said. “I’m a journalism major.”
Jeff glanced here and there before he spoke again, this time in almost a whisper. “We’ve only been here a few days, but I get the impression most people in the campground are older—retirees and the like.”
I rolled my eyes. “You won’t find many college kids here, but we can hang out if you’d like. Got a bicycle?”
Jeff jerked a thumb toward a ten-speed Schwinn chained to a sabal palm.
“Let’s take a cruise,” I said, “and I’ll show you my house.”
Minutes later we rolled westward, side by side, while our tires ground against the road. We passed beneath limbs of ancient live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Up ahead, at an empty campsite, a great grey heron stood on a seawall, studying a canal in hopes of finding breakfast.
“How long have you lived in the park?” Jeff asked.
“Since I was eight, when my dad was promoted to head ranger. The residence comes with the position.”
“Must be nice.”
I rocked my head from side to side. “The park’s pretty, and fishing here is good, but I never had other kids to do things with. It could get lonely, especially during summer when I wasn’t in school. The days dragged by, if you know what I mean.”
Jeff grimaced. “I spent a summer on my uncle’s dairy farm, when I was thirteen. The nearest kid my age was three miles away, and I thought I’d go crazy from boredom.”
When we reached the house, I pulled two Cokes from the fridge, and we sat on a glider sofa on the screened porch. Above us, a ceiling fan clacked and stirred the air. Out on the bayou’s placid surface, a half dozen brown pelicans floated while an osprey chattered in a nearby long leaf pine.
“This is sweet,” Jeff said while his gaze traveled here and there. “We don’t have such places back home. Indiana’s nothing but prairie.”
Jeff talked about his hometown of Peru.
“We have about ten thousand people. There’s a courthouse and high school, and it’s only a three-hour drive from Bloomington, so I can come home on weekends if I choose to, but I don’t often. There’s not much going on in Peru.”
I asked Jeff about his family.
“My dad’s a middle school shop instructor, and Mom teaches freshman English at Peru High. They come from large families, so I have aunts and uncles all over Miami County, loads of cousins as well.”
I shook my head.
“What is it?” Jeff asked.
“My parents were both only children, so I have no extended family or siblings. It’s just me and my dad.”
“Where’s your mom?”
I kept my gaze fixed on the bayou while my stomach knotted like it always did when I had to explain. “She has…mental health issues. About eleven years ago, she disappeared—just packed up her belongings and left. We haven’t heard from her since.”
“Damn, that had to be rough.”
“My dad nearly lost his mind. Even today, I don’t think he’s fully recovered from the situation.”
We rocked on the glider for a bit without saying anything more until Jeff rose.
“I need to help my folks with servicing restrooms, but after lunch why don’t we do something together, maybe go to the beach and take a swim?”
“Sounds good,” I said while following Jeff out of the front door.
After he climbed aboard his Schwinn, he raked a hand through his hair, and I noticed his slightly oversized nose had a few freckles on it. Then, while he pedaled away, I wondered if I’d found someone I could share my summer with.
Jeff and I stood waist deep in Mullet Key Bay, about forty yards from the campground’s grassy shore, with a view of Bunce’s Pass and, beyond it, the shimmering Gulf of Mexico. Jeff used a spinning reel and rod I’d lent him to cast a greenback southward. His bait hit the water with a splash and quickly sank beneath the surface.
The morning was humid, and sweat beaded on my upper lip. Jeff and I both wore swim trunks and broad-brimmed straw hats. The sky was cloudless, and by noon the temperature would likely reach the low nineties.
Five days had passed since I’d first met Jeff, and each of those we’d spent together, once we finished whatever chores we needed to complete. Jeff always appeared on his Schwinn, and we’d sit on the screened porch while discussing what we might do.
Jeff had never fished before meeting me, but he quickly grew to like it. Angling in the grass flats north of the campground produced a variety of catch: redfish, flounder, speckled trout, and Spanish mackerel. For bait, I always used a cast net to gather greenbacks in the shallows, and we placed these in a floating bucket I tied to a loop on my swim trunks.
Jeff also liked exploring Fort De Soto, a shell-and-concrete edifice built in 1900 by the United States Army, to provide defense against naval invasions of Tampa Bay. One day, we spent two hours visiting every part of the fort and then reading its history from a pictorial display located in a former powder magazine. According to the display, the two enormous mortars mounted on turntables at the fort’s center were intended for firing at enemy warships trying to enter the mouth of Tampa Bay, but had never been used in hostilities.
When we climbed a stairway to the fort’s roof, we had a view of the mouth of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. On the other side of the bay’s mouth was Egmont Key, where another fort, not quite as large as De Soto, had been built to house a second battery. A lighthouse winked at us from one edge of the island.
Late afternoons, when the sun descended toward the western horizon and the day’s heat had lessened, Jeff and I rode our bikes to North Beach to swim in the Gulf. We stood chest deep in warm and placid water and talked about our lives at school.
At IU, Jeff shared an off-campus house with two other students from Peru, guys he knew from his high school days. He worked part-time at a Bloomington supermarket and played basketball with his roomies. On weekends, he drank beer or smoked marijuana at parties.
I explained to Jeff how I’d dwelled in a campus dormitory my freshman and sophomore years, and how raucous the place was, with all the partying and loud music blaring from guys’ sound systems.
“My grades suffered, and Dad wasn’t happy, so this fall, I’ll share an apartment near campus with a guy from Fort Lauderdale. He’s a good student, and hopefully his study habits will rub off on me.”
What I didn’t tell Jeff was my future roommate, a boy named Brian Keene, wasn’t just a friend. We were, as Brian had termed it, “sex buddies.” The relationship had started somewhat by accident, the previous fall, during an alcohol infused Friday night in Brian’s room at the dormitory. His roommate was gone for the weekend, and we had the place to ourselves.
I had no previous sexual experience, and it came as a shock when Brian put his hand on my crotch. But I didn’t resist his advances—I didn’t want to. I quickly learned male/male sex techniques from Brian and soon became adept at pleasuring both him and myself.
Brian was good-looking, with a slender build, chestnut hair, and a dazzling smile. And when it came to sex, I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. Throughout the school year, we paired up on a regular basis, whenever we found privacy, and though I felt no emotional attachment to Brian, I sure enjoyed the intimacies, especially when Brian let me take him in the butt. The warmth of his body and the clench of his muscle drove me crazy with lust, plus I loved gazing into his cobalt eyes when I thrust inside him.
Now, at Mullet Key Bay, while I fished alongside Jeff, I wondered how he’d react if I told him about my activities with Brian. Homosexuality was pretty well accepted in Florida, but I wasn’t sure the same was true in Indiana, and I thought it best if I kept my sex life with Brian to myself. I enjoyed Jeff’s daily company and wanted to keep our friendship going all summer long.
Why risk spoiling that?