Rhythmically, Carla gently pushed little Carlena securely seated in the children’s swing at the Gilbert Run Park near the manmade lake. She then joined her daughter in dizzying spins on the playground merry-go-round before helping her little girl take repeated trips down the slide. Her precious child was almost four years old. In Carla and Jerry’s joint memory, Carlena had not aged a day in a quarter of a century.
Their only child’s timeline on this world ended the day when Carla looked from that same bedroom window to see little Carlena’s toy Hot Wheels trike floating in the water in front of their docks.
Carla had only been distracted for a few moments as she searched for a receipt from the Sears surplus store in the pockets of her blue denim jeans crumpled in the clothes hamper. The junior drum set she had purchased for Carlena’s upcoming fourth birthday lacked a crash cymbal. The perceptive customer assistant from Sears waiting on the unhooked downstairs phone was the first call in to the Charles County Sheriff’s Department when she heard the scream that echoed through the house.
The Charles County dispatcher was coordinating with his St. Mary’s counterpart when Carla’s breathless call came into the emergency operations center under the old jail beside the circuit courthouse in Leonardtown. She had run to the end of her dock. The Mattel tricycle was bobbing in the water. Carlena was nowhere to be seen.
Carla’s frantic call is recorded among the thousands of tragic events stored in the St. Mary’s County 911 archives.
Upon orders to go home from Gibbs, the mill accountant, Jerry arrived to see two St. Mary’s Deputy cars, a State Police cruiser, the Mechanicsville Volunteer Fire Department truck, and the new Mechanicsville Volunteer Rescue Squad ambulance parked in front of the house.
Little Carlena’s lifeless body was found late that evening in a cove of cat-tail reeds up the creek.
In vivid dreams, Carla played, danced, and sang with her daughter. This was her subconscious relief valve from the unremitting guilt she suppressed for that brief distraction from her motherly watch so many years ago. Or, as Carla believed, the dreams were a prelude to the joy they would find when they reunited in the next world.
During the day, Carla Largent was an interpreter at the Charles County Courthouse in LaPlata for the Spanish speaking legal and illegal immigrants who found their way into the Charles County Court system. She quietly sympathized with the hard working laborers guilty of simple misdemeanors who had come so far to find their way behind bars. But, she had only contempt for the murderers, rapists, and pedophiles who invaded her adopted Country from South of the Border. Unfortunately, with the urbanization of that once rural county and the takeover of the one party Democratic entitlement politics from adjoining Prince Georges Country, Charles County had become a mecca for low life criminals of all cultures.
At least, her own brother with his despicable corrupt business enterprises had treated her well. Carlos provided a good home in Miami far from the poverty they had been born into. He paid for an excellent education in a private Catholic girl’s school. And, he allowed Carla to date and marry a rather eclectic but honest American who loved her dearly and provided her a more than adequate lifestyle.
How many other orphaned Columbian girls could be so fortunate?
Though she seldom sought to conjure up her poor struggles as a child in South America, during the quiet moments between her busy life in Southern Maryland and the peaceful deep dreams with her departed daughter, Carla often remembered those happy years in South Florida.
When Carlos privately chartered the 49 passenger vessel called the Infante for her twenty-first birthday at Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, he was actually looking for an ambitious and knowledgeable captain. Carlos could not have foreseen the additional consequences. Carla had no friends to celebrate with her and Carlos did not want to enter the clear waters where the Christ Statue resided in a beautiful coral ravine on the deep side of Key Largo Dry Rocks.
Capt. Jerry volunteered to buddy up with Carla as her snorkeling tour guide over the reef. Jim, his first mate, stood watch onboard and kept Carlos company. In the water, Capt. Jerry was a perfect gentleman and a living shield when a large reef shark swam by, too close for Carla’s comfort. Only on the way back to the dock did Capt. Jerry learn that this Carlos Castaneda was the wealthy owner of a banana plantation, not, as Jerry assumed, the author of the book about the Yaqui Indian shaman. Capt Jerry also discovered that Carlos and Carla were not spouses but siblings. Before she walked off the boat, Capt. Jerry Largent had the phone number to their condominium in South Miami.
Carla was quietly amused when Capt. Jerry arrived in a rusty Keys cruiser in front of her high class coastal condo off Highway U.S. A1A. The rag top of the baby blue ’63 Ford Falcon convertible had long rotted away. The homemade plywood roof only covered the front seat. The back seat was exposed to the weather that was generally pretty good. Capt. Jerry had drilled holes in the back floorboard for the wet season.
Capt. Jerry had the original Key Largo low rider with a golf cart battery bank packed in his back trunk. The half dozen deep cycle Trojan batteries were the mobile power source for his travel trailer parked in a mangrove clearing at the end of a limestone rock lane on Card Sound Road. Plugged into a shore receptacle near the dock beside the Marine Patrol boathouse in Pennekamp Park, Jerry’s battery bank charged up courtesy of the State of Florida while he ran reef trips.
The rectangular box that extended up from a hole cut in the hood capped out Capt. Jerry’s custom mods to his very unconventional car. He had installed a Nay Box, designed by Elmer Nay prior to 1930, that vaporized gasoline to give him better mileage. In the Jimmy Carter years of high fuel prices and even/odd purchase days, a car that could go from the Keys to Miami and back on two gallons of fuel was a big deal even though he was constantly adjusting the contraption. However, Jerry knew he could get better than the seventy miles per gallon he was getting with his crude convertible. His goal was to get a hundred miles per gallon in a hundred dollar pick-up truck. Jimmy Buffet would be proud.
Carla did not drive and did not understand the technical nuances of Jerry’s jerry rigs. He made her laugh and showed her a new colorful underwater world. He helped her escape from the dense Miami metropolis, through Cutler Ridge and Homestead, then, either down the 18 Mile Stretch or across the Card Sound Road Bridge (if he had a dollar to spare) to their humble hide-a-way in the mangroves of North Key Largo.
Together, they helped customers on the snorkel boat he worked on. At night, she sold beer and cut up bait for the passengers on the party boat he captained for evening snapper fishing trips from the Holiday Inn docks near Mile Marker 100. His own boat was an old Sears canoe with an electric trolling motor that he used to cruise the mangrove creeks and shoreline. While clad in a Speedo bathing suit, cotton gloves, and snorkel gear, Jerry pulled spiny lobsters from their coral rock lairs in those mangrove creeks for seafood feasts. Carla was the bag lady. She snorkeled with him carrying the dive bag full of lobsters that he harvested.
Much to her dismay, Carlos encouraged their relationship. She was twenty-one and he needed a good captain.