Story: Doctor Rich by Jerry Kay
by Jerry Kay
At the end of 1984 I flew to Cozumel, Mexico, a small Caribbean island with warm water and gentle people. It attracted scuba divers and snowbirds, and I needed a very strong diversion, almost an intervention. Over the past twelve months, one after another, four people very close to me had died. It had been a very bad year, and I had sunk below depression into a numbing feeling of, “Ok, who’s next? Me, maybe.”
At a Chinese restaurant after one funeral, my fortune cookie read, ‘You need a vacation. Try Mexico‘. When I returned home, I watched a video, which unknown to me took place in Cozumel. The next day I stopped at a local scuba dive shop and the owner said, “We’re going on a dive trip to Cozumel. You could use a break. Come along.”
I sensed the beginning of a smile curling my lips, pulling me towards this serendipitous fate. And so, on a cold, December day I signed on to a two-week scuba dive trip with a group of twenty from Santa Cruz departing the day after Christmas.
When we arrived and I stepped from the plane on to the long steps, the warm, humid air embraced me; a tropical fragrance caressed my nostrils.
I touched down on to the tarmac, gathered my luggage and dive gear, and a taxicab driver looked at my bags and said, “Why bring so much? Here you need only a t-shirt and bathing suit.” We taxied to a small hotel outside of town, called La Perla where the owner mixed us nose-watering, tongue-biting spicy Bloody Marys by the pool. Already I began feeling better, and got a good night’s rest to be ready for a long boat ride and my first warm water diving.
The next morning we met the boat with a small, smiling ‘captain’ to take us out to the reefs and a skinny dive master to guide us undersea. The moment I jumped into the transparent blue Caribbean water, drifting with the current without need of a wetsuit, I saw a hundred feet down, through a profusion of colorful corals and fish. I had never dove warm water before, and it was as though I had come home.
We returned to the boat and motored to an island beach specked with palapa huts where a lunch of fresh fish, chicken, fruit, rice and beans had been prepared for us. A local band played island tunes. Other dive boats pulled up to the cove, and I waded ashore to this unexpected paradise. We ate and danced, lolled about, perused a couple of huts selling island trinkets, then waded back to the boat, perfectly ready for an afternoon dive.
I gathered my mask, fins and dive tank and heard someone say, “Hey Richard, are you diving this one?”
A fellow with a moustache who remained sitting on the boat bench answered, “Nah, I did this last year. It’s just a Disneyland dive.”
I thought, what an obnoxious answer. If he did it last year and didn’t want to do it this year, why did he come? And even so, why make it a downer for the rest of us? I had come to experience all of the glorious Caribbean underwater life. I was not going to miss one beautiful coral on any reef. I needed this. Maybe he didn’t. Screw him.
I remembered seeing him at the airport in San Francisco. He was the tall one carrying two carry-on metal suitcases filled with snacks and bottles of drinks. He had them open on the floor, rummaging through, looking for something. Why would you travel abroad and bring all that food, I had thought?
That first evening, after we had arrived, most of our group had taxied into town for a night of lobster and margaritas. We heard of a popular spot that served the best lobster on the island, and we all crowded there bunched at the entrance. A line of sun-tanned, foreign customers stretched outside the half open-air restaurant. The wait was at least an hour. We decided it might be worth it, so there we stood. A few in our group said that they weren’t starving; they had been up to Richard’s room and he provided cocktails and appetizers. He had brought along some great stuff in his suitcases, they said. They called him ‘Doctor Rich’.
A taxi drove up and stopped. Out came Richard and the driver. They walked inside and I watched his taxi driver speak with someone from the restaurant. They hurried and readied a table for two. Richard sat down with his driver. Then he stood up and disappeared into the kitchen. He returned with the cook, had his taxi driver translate something, and all three marched back into the kitchen. The table sat empty, until Richard and the driver returned and sat. A waiter arrived carrying two huge, grilled and buttery lobsters and placed them before Richard and his taxi driver. We stood, not so patiently outside watching them cut and chew, small sparkles of lobster moisture and butter dripping from their mouths.
Who is this guy that he gets seated so fast? And he’s buying his taxi driver a lobster? They ate, chatting away in English.
Our group finally got a big table, lots of lobster and too much tequila. Way too much tequila. Mucho mas medicine than I required, and on that trip I had self-prescribed a good quantity.
The next morning I struggled out to breakfast knowing that the liquid medication of the evening before was not beneficial for the day of boating and diving ahead. Bed and painkillers, if I could keep them down, was all I could imagine. The eggs in front of me…I had to avert my not-very open eyes.
And then the whine of a motor scooter rang in my head. Perhaps it was a Vespa scooper, the Italian make. Vespa in Italian is the word for ‘wasp’, because it’s high-pitched scream sounds like a wasp, a two hundred pound, metal combustion engine wasp ringing in to my ears. Upon it sat Richard who flipped off the key and hopped over the gate to the outside patio where I sat. He cradled a large plastic bottle.
Someone asked, “Where you been, Doctor Rich?”
“Into town. I rented this scooter, and I’m thinking of renting a room there, too.”
“But you’ve already paid for a room here?”
“Sure. But I thought a second room in town puts me closer to the action at night. Look here,” he held up the plastic jug. “I bought some carrot juice. There’s a juice stand that makes it fresh. They’ve got a real Champion Juicer from Fresno all set up. Watched them make it and pour it right into this bottle. Best carrot juice on the island. You ought to try some.”
He offered, but no one took. Yuck. Jeez, this guy’s obnoxious. Deep, orange carrot juice was the last thing I could stomach.
But Richard circled the table, working the crowd like a Champion Juicer salesman, pouring a sip or two, offering it around the tables. We all looked bleary, some more than others. None looked like I felt. A couple of people took a sip and handed the glass back.
‘Doctor’ Rich came to me. “Hey, you don’t look too good. Bet you had a couple margaritas too many, last night, huh? Bet you’re really ready for a bumpy boat ride with the smell of diesel fumes.” He laughed. I tried to smile. Just go away, I thought. Richard grabbed a glass and filled it, filled it! He put it right down in front of me. “You need this,” he said.
“No, I don’t.”
Yes, Take my word. Drink that carrot juice, and you’ll feel better.”
“Screw you. If I drink any, I’ll puke.”
He picked up the glass and put it to my lips, pushed my forehead back and said, “Now, take a sip.”
I wanted to grab the glass and break it over his head. I wanted him carried away immediately by Federales. I wanted a firing squad to execute him. I wanted my dead friends and relatives back. It wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I took a sip of the carrot juice.
I did not puke. It stayed down. I sipped some more. It tasted…refreshing. And more. My head cleared a bit. My stomach felt less queasy. Sip by sip, I swallowed the thick, orange contents in the glass. I took a breath, and the soothing feeling of gratitude that I might just be able to go out on the boat overcame me.
I looked up, Richard standing in front of me, looking down with a sly smile. “Best carrot juice on the island,” he said.
It hit me, looking up into his face. I saw past the obnoxiousness now. He wanted to heal me. He was sent here to help me, us, all of us banded together in companionship on this small, exotic island. He had been charged to seek out whatever it might be that ailed us, and to give us the medicinal aids we required to feel better. That was his mission. To make us feel better. I knew it from the depth of my soul. I could face the day ahead. And that’s how I fell in love with Doctor Rich.