“It’s not a king size bed Frank but I don’t know why they’re called quarter berths. Maybe it has something to do with the crew’s quarters or a quarterdeck – I don’t know. I think it’ll be long enough but, if it’s not, I’ll row you back ashore and you can go find some fleabag motel.”
The 7-ELEVEN didn’t have everything I needed so, with a 10 lb. bag of ice, a pint of rubbing alcohol, a couple of flashlight batteries, and one of those “bakery fresh for 6 weeks” cellophane wrapped breakfast cinnamon rings, we were back in the dingy and rowing out towards Le Esperance. Frank had surprised me when he announced that he had “never spent the night on a boat!” Now he was facing me while sitting on the inflated transom of the Avon, the ice between his outstretched legs and grinning ear to ear. Funny, how we assume that everyone has done certain things only because, for you, the experience is routine. It also occurred to me that, for “Midnight Matheson”, this was probably one of the few places in South Florida that he hadn’t spent, at least part of, some night.
After we climbed aboard, Frank began questioning me and watched my every move. He couldn’t believe that such a small boat could sleep four and had something called a “head” with a real flush toilet. The Loran C, VHF radio, sink with foot-pumped fresh water, and even the built in ice chest all got his attention, but it was the gimbaled kerosene stove and two burners that fascinated him most. Lighting a burner to heat the water for our gallon baths required ignited alcohol in a spirit bowl to vaporize kerosene. The technology is centuries old but, to Frank, it was “super neat!” He asked if we were going to do it again in the morning and, if so, could he “give it a try?”
Matheson, like most first-timers aboard, had never tried to shower with only a gallon of water so I mixed him some extra to rinse off with. After we had both scrubbed down and I had made up the port side quarter berth, we used the left over boiling water for a couple of cognac laced hot chocolates. It was getting late but the cool night air and unexpected reunion with one of my oldest friends held too much promise to be short-circuited by sleep. The cockpit was still wet from our showers, so with nothing but towels wrapped around us, we meandered forward with our toddies and sat down on the cabin deck, facing off at different angles and leaning back against the mast. The October sky was a black sea of stars and neither of us said anything for …
“I envy you Jose. Things may not be perfect in your life but you still have a wife that will let you in the house and kids that, at least, care if you’re still alive. We grew up in the same town, went to the same schools, had the same coaches and teachers–we had the same everything but nothing has turned out ‘the same’ – not for me anyway.”
I didn’t say a word. Frank Matheson was not a man that “bared his soul” to anyone but, unless I was wrong, he was doing just that. I crossed my fingers and…
“I’m scared Jose. For the first time in my life, I’m really scared. I’ve never been involved in anything or with anyone that made me want to run and hide but that’s exactly where I am now. This whole deal with Carlos and the Cubans feels like it’s spinning out of control and I don’t know how to get off the carousel. Even if I ran away, I can’t afford it and they might come after me. I’m tired, I’m broke, and worst of all, I’m scared shitless! – I don’t know what to do, I just don’t know what to do…”
I’d never even come close to seeing Frank Matheson cry, but now he made no effort to hide his anxiety or the tears rolling down his face. Turning slightly, I reached my left arm around the mast and griped his shoulder at the nape of his neck. There was nothing I could say but I held tight until I felt his trembling subside. Frank wasn’t Catholic, and I certainly was no candidate for the priesthood, but the foredeck of my cutter had been transformed into a confessional. The only thing that separated my cheek from the back of Franks head was the cold metal of the aluminum mast.
Staring out across the darkness of the Sound but making no effort to face him, I asked:
“What do you think Frank, ……you want to tell me about it, or not?”
Silence…he may have been yelling and screaming inside but nothing crossed his lips. Periodically, he would twitch his shoulders and slide his heels back and forth on the deck like he wanted to stand up and jump overboard. Maybe ten minutes passed before he leaned his head back and seemed to relax.
My guess was that he had said all he was going to say, so I figured we’d call it a night. “Well, things will probably work out and I hope you feel better now that you’ve got it off your chest. Goodnight old man, I’ll see you in the morning. You can pretend you’re a Boy Scout all over again. We’ll test your new fire making skill and see if you remember how to boil water. That mummified 7-Eleven cinnamon belly bomb ought to be a real treat.”
I reached over, patted Frank on the knee and moved to get up…
“They’re all named Carlos.”
That’s all he said… but Frank grabbed my arm and pulled me back down.
“That’s when I knew something wasn’t right; when I found out they were all named Carlos. After Betty and I separated, I hooked up with the first Carlos. Things were simple. He told me, if I could get a truck, he’d give me a little work and pay me ‘under the table’. That way, I could draw unemployment and not have to worry about any divorce settlement. I even rented my condo under a bogus name to keep under the radar. I didn’t have anything to worry about because I didn’t have anything…period. I was broke and unemployed. All the people that I had screwed over, abandoned, or beat out of money back in Palm Beach had, long since, given up on ever seeing me again. I paid cash for the truck and went through some shit forming an LLC and making the first payment on an auto insurance policy. I had to do all that just to drive off the lot but that’s been over a year now. I’ve never made another payment and haven’t heard a word from anybody.”
Frank had calmed down. The Caribbean Club was only a hundred or so yards away but the band had checked out for the night and most of the customers had probably done the same. Still sitting on the deck and facing our separate ways, Frank continued…
“For the first few months, my routine was always the same. I meet Carlos twice a week at the Carreta Restaurant down on Calle Ocho, he gives me my pick-up programar, I go to the Airport, his guys load my truck, I drive to Dodge Island, his guys unload my truck, or the other way around – you get my drift. Every Tuesday he would give me my pay envelope along with the paperwork. It was always a thousand dollars. Maybe one week was heavier than another because more ships docked or it was a holiday or something, but the money was always the same – one thousand yeats. Then, week before last at the café, he tells me that I have to do something a little different on one of my upcoming runs. Following my instructions; the next afternoon, it was a Saturday, I picked up a load at U.S. Customs dockside and noticed it was lighter than usual. I couldn’t count the suitcases but, before enough time had gone by to even load half my truck, I heard the slap on the door. After a minute or two, to be sure they were through loading me up, I drove off. What was really strange was that this was the run that a new stop had been highlighted in the schedule and plugged into my drive back to the Airport. The address was for a filling station not far from the Port. I passed it every day and I had been told to ‘just treat it like a regular pickup’ – pull over next to the curb, out of traffic, and wait for the slap.’”
Feeling like I needed to see if there was any emotion going along with this narrative, I stood up, laid down on my side on the foredeck facing Frank, and propped up my head. He picked up where he left off:
“I didn’t know what to expect but right after I pulled over and came to a stop at the filling station, I saw a short dark-complexioned guy carrying a large grey suitcase. I only caught a glimpse of him in the curbside rearview mirror before I felt the vibrations of the door rolling up and someone climbing up on my truck. After a minute or two, I heard the door roll back down and the guy came back into view in the mirror. He still had the suitcase and, again on the passenger side, he only walked far enough forward to slap on the cab door before retreating towards the gas pumps and out of sight. After that, I drove on to the Airport and everything was business as usual – pull up to baggage drop-off, the same Cubans unload me, and I drive back to the condo.”
Getting a little uncomfortable lying on the hard deck, I sat upright and wrapped my arms around my knees. Frank’s expression never changed but, with an extended pause, I sensed he was about ready to call our candid séance to a halt. I didn’t want that…
“That’s it Frank? That’s what you’re worried about? Why are things any different than they were after the first day you ever went to work for this guy, what’s his name – Carlos?
“They’re all named Carlos. They’re all named Carlos and I met the second one when I got paid last Tuesday. That night, for the first time ever, Carlos was not alone. At Carreta, he introduced me to a tall skinny Latino with black wavy hair pulled back in a pigtail… ‘I like you meet Carlos’. Not ‘for you to meet’, just ‘you meet’……..they never learn English. Anyway when I asked the new Carlos what his last name was–? He just looked at me with a blank stare and said ‘No hablo Eng…’. The other Carlos, my contact, helped him out: ‘he’s Carlos, just Carlos, same as me’. Over the next hour, the three of us shared some roast pork and Cuban coffee as ‘my Carlos’ explained that there would be different men meeting with me from then on. I was told, if you can believe this, that to avoid confusion they would all be named Carlos and that they would know who I was so ‘don’t worry about being recognized’. He outlined the procedure and assured me that nothing would change and that he would be back from time to time.”
I jumped in… “They never mentioned who they work for or the name of the Company? What about when they were talking with each other: did you pick up on any other names?”
Shaking his head, Frank answered……. “Nothing, at least nothing that I could understand. I heard them mention a few names that are the same in English – like cruise ships and airline companies. Other than that, the only name I heard them mention was ‘Norman’ and I didn’t catch a last name to go with it. They mentioned him three or four times but I’m not even sure they were talking about a person; it could have been a ship’s name or even a place? They just talked back and forth for a while in Spanish then, after the new Carlos handed me my programar and pay envelope, they both walked out of Carreta. It was only after I got home, and checked my schedule, that I found out they wanted me to leave the truck at some Cuban garage in Opa-locka to have some sort of custom work done on it and then drive down here this weekend in my car to meet some guy at a marina. Yeah Jose, and you’ll never guess what the guy’s name is…?
Oh! There is one other thing that has changed… that last pay envelope they gave me had twenty hundred dollar bills inside – they’ve given me a raise.”