Volume 21, Number 3

Playa Conchal

James Bryan Cornelius

There is a small resort village on the northwest Pacific shoreline of Costa Rica, within the province of Guanacaste, near a town called Tamarindo. It is arguably the most beautiful of the Esmeralda beaches. Below Playa Hermosa, even further down than Playa Flamingo, is the exclusive and all-inclusive cove of La Playa Conchal. Most of the shores in Costa Rica have black lava sand. But the beach at Playa Conchal is made from zillions of tiny crushed shells. If you reach down and scoop some of it up in your hand, it really does look like sand, but it is all little pieces of ancient conch.

A clapboard shantytown hangs above the cliff where the black crabs cluster, but the resort itself is just on edge of the jungle. Playa Conchal is surrounded by a ten-foot terracotta wall, with a guarded back-entrance leading down to the ocean. Just outside the gate, but before the water, is a grove of palm trees. The locals set up tents with tables to sell t-shirts and jewelry to the tourists. Indigenous lavender orchids line the pathway. Just beyond the makeshift market are several women sunbathing nude.

Donald swings in a rope hammock, strung between two stilt-rooted walking trees. A warm breeze blows the frayed fronds of his straw hat. A wooden bowl of chunk papaya lies on his chest; a tumbler full of cane liquor and fresh coconut milk is clamped loosely between his thighs. A scarlet macaw glides into the overhanging branches and stretches its red and blue wings boldly. Donald tosses a piece of the fruit into the air, and the parrot catches it in its beak. A leatherback sea turtle pulls itself along the tide line, leaving drag marks momentarily. A band of hooded howler monkeys screech from somewhere back up in the cloud forest. Donald watches two catamarans weave between the rocky cays about a half mile offshore. Tiny sparks of sunlight sit, for a split second, on top of every wave and ripple. A bright yellow butterfly, one size too large for flight, lands on Donald’s left big toe, and he lets it stay there.

“Well, we’re not exactly sure what it is.” said the neurologist. “It’s definitely some type of dementia though. It’s not like anything I’ve ever personally seen before.” The doctor rubbed his chin like doctors do when they’re thinking. “Has your father ever been to Costa Rica?”

“Nope.” Danny shook his head slowly. “He never even took a vacation. I mean Mom took us, with her sister and our cousins. Dad had a business to run—but he talked about it all the time, knew everything about that place, been studying it for years, got a big box of books and brochures down in the basement.”

An anatomical chart of the nervous system was tacked to one wall, illustrating the human species with all of its skin peeled off. On the other wall was a poster of the brain, sectioned with dotted lines, like cuts of meat in a slaughterhouse. “Hy-po-thal-a-mus.” Danny whispered to himself.

“The closest I’ve ever treated, was a woman who thought she was married to a television weatherman down in Tampa.” The young doctor uncrossed and then re-crossed his legs on the swivel stool. “But she had been bedridden for thirty-five years. She just watched television all day long, whole different scenario.”

Danny glanced around at the bottles of alcohol and bottles of iodine, the jars of cotton balls and jars of Q-tips, the wooden tongue depressors, the tuning fork, that little rubber mallet they use to test your reflexes. He didn’t give a damn about some invalid lady falling in love with a meteorologist in Florida or their respective scenarios.

“Your father knows the name of every road leading up to the Miravalles volcanoes during the rainy season.” That got Danny’s full attention. “He can define all seven suborders of the poisonous dart frog.” The doctor paused again. “He can calculate the rate of exchange for currency on command. I looked it all up, personally.”

“So he’s some kind of savant, all of a sudden?” Danny wasn’t following.

“Oh, no, no.” The clinician corrected immediately. “He is, well, quite delusional. And I don’t mean that in any kind of dark way at all. In fact, he is one of our most colorful patients. But he does display some extremely strong quixotic tendencies.”

“How did he get here?” Danny imagined windmills and sidekicks and jousting.

“From what I understand,” the doctor was about the same age as Danny, dressed in aquamarine scrubs, wearing gold-rimmed reading glasses, “he told the nurse at the reception desk that he was ready to check in to his cabana.”

“I mean, how did he actually get here?” Danny felt like he shouldn’t have to be asking these kinds of questions. They should be telling him why his dad was here.

“Does he drive a silver Mercedes?”

Danny nodded his head up and down slowly.

“There was one abandoned in the visitors’ parking lot on the day he was admitted. The security officers eventually had it towed to the ambulance garage behind the clinic.”

“Can I see him now?” It wasn’t really a question, more of a directive. Somebody had to take charge of this situation eventually, and Danny was the only son.

“Certainly.” The physician looked genuinely relieved. “Follow me.” He was simply on-call at the nursing home that afternoon for standard psychiatric evaluations. “I’ll introduce you to the administrator.”

The place was a holding pen. It reminded Danny of a really fancy cuckoo’s nest. Everybody was old, and everybody was talking to themselves. They passed an orderly pushing a little gray-haired granny down the hallway. Danny made eye contact with her, just as she began to sing out loud:

Been through the desert on a horse with no name. It felt good to be out of the rain.” she increased both her timbre and volume. “In the desert, you can’t remember your name. ’Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain....

The doctor turned to Danny, like he hadn’t heard a thing. “Your father is in the memory unit. It’s a lock-down area. Just wait here and I’ll get someone to let you in. We’ll talk again later.” ... La, la—la—la, la, la, la.

There were several couches. Half a dozen residents dozed in front of a big-screen television tuned into the old folks’ channel. On the coffee table sat a remote control the size of a cribbage board. On the wall closest to Danny was a permanent, hand-painted sign with temporary placards that could be hung interchangeably over certain words: Today is: THURSDAY. The date is: MAY the 6th. The weather outside is: SUNNY. The next holiday is: MEMORIAL DAY.

Below that was taped a laminated lunch menu: Meatloaf with Macaroni and Pear Halves with Green Jell-O. The foyer smelled like an air freshener, chemically synthesized to mimic those same institutional smells. Danny stuck his head into the dining hall. The lights were dimmed. Everything was antiseptic again for the dinner rush. In the far corner, a nurse opened four different capsules and sprinkled them into a bowl of ice cream. A two-hundred-year-old man sat next to her, eyes closed, leaning forward, mouth wide open, like a baby bird in a nest. She had to drag a small spoonful across the top of his gums before it fell onto his tongue. The old guy flapped his arms, eager for more.

Some lady in an ill-fitted suit, with cosmetic hair and teeth, approached, clicking her heels on the checkerboard tiles. “Hello, I’m Ellen, the facility administrator.”

She extended her hand to shake.

“Just call me Danny,” he told her, before she could consult her chart.

“Walk this way, please.” Ellen pivoted, and let Danny observe her departure. A thousand really cool comebacks went through Danny’s mind at that moment, but he decided to just let her lead the way instead.

Donald paddles his surfboard out past the second sandbar. Every ninth wave is bigger than the other eight. He counts down and waits. When it comes, he rises to a crouch. Then he stands. He cuts left and steps forward, adjusting his weight to the laws of liquid motion. He can see people on the beach, cheering him on. Back in his other life, he could barely walk.

Donald drags his board up to the palapa bar and jabs it fin-up in the dunes. There is a tiki hut with a thatched roof. Heliconias sprout between the bamboo slats. Four upside-down oil drums serve as stools. On the near one is a toucan eating guava from an overhanging branch. On the far one is Donald’s recent paramour. Her name is Estrella. She is the stars at night. Estrella wears a peasant dress and she is barefooted.

Pura vida.” She pats the stool next hers, a ginger blossom behind one ear.

Donald shoos the big dorky bird away. “Squawk. Squawk.”

¿Qué quiere usted, el Jefe?” The bartender is a little brown man, in a white smock, with an iguana on his shoulder. He snaps his bar rag, and wipes the counter wet.

Dame dos Imperales, por favor.” Donald can feel the salt drying on his sunburned skin. It gives him special powers. He did not speak Spanish before last week.

“He’s been a little groggy this morning.” The administrator knocked on the door with one hand and turned the knob with the other. “I’ll just leave you two alone for awhile. Let us know if you need anything.”

Danny could make out the shape of his dad immediately. Only the clothes seemed strange. All the blinds were open and direct sunshine punctured the room at acute angles. His father lay in a recliner with a travel magazine across his face.

“Dad?” Danny poked his father gently. There was a passport on the sink.

“Hmm, who’s there?” Donald wore a guayabera shirt the color of mango sherbet with milled wooden buttons, pressed khaki shorts, and suede sandals. He had a toe ring. Donald pulled the lever for his chair down, eyes still partly unfocused.

“It’s me, dad.” Danny said a little too loudly; his father wasn’t deaf.

“Oh, Danny boy, what brings you all the way down here?” Donald rubbed his eyes and scratched his whiskers. They were gray and about three days growth, but neatly trimmed up his neckline. His fingernails were perfectly manicured. There was a small gold anchor on a thin serpentine chain around Donald’s neck. Danny had never seen his father like this. Danny had never known Donald to wear anything but a coat and tie five days a week, and to church on Sundays. This was not Danny’s father.

“Umm, you look great.” Danny couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Did you fly into San Jose?” Donald tried to rise. “Because they got this new airstrip nowadays over in Liberia—not an airport, mind you—more like a cinderblock tower on a slanted tarmac. They push a ladder up to the plane to let you down.”

Danny helped his dad stand. It took three tries.

“Well, c’mon already,” Donald shuffled toward the door, “let me show you around the resort.” A nurse walked by just as they cleared the threshold.

“Waitress?” Donald scooted his aluminum walker another six inches further.

“Yes sir, what do you need?” She was carrying a tray of pills in tiny paper cups.

“Two lime daiquiris.” Donald winked and then reached to pinch her on the ass. The nurse dodged deftly, like she had done it a million times, didn’t even spill the pills.

“Sorry.” Danny shrugged at her. “Could someone please find my real dad?”

She raised her eyebrows and smiled. “I’m taking that out of your tip.” She was good-natured, but not good-looking. When he was retired one day, Danny hoped that he wouldn’t have to live in a place like this.

“We’ll just have them out by the pool.” Donald shouted and adjusted his walker another half a foot. So they moved like that, together in slow motion, toward a smaller commons area. About a dozen geriatric residents sat around a large banquet table doing crafts. Several attendants assisted them with crayons and markers, with construction paper and paste, with those clumsy round-tipped scissors. The term second childhood swept through Danny’s mind. It was easy to distinguish the staff, because they all wore matching teal scrubs. That, and the fact that the residents were stuck in some lower gear.

Father and son made a wide right turn and headed toward the courtyard. It was hot as blazes outside. There was no pool. Several sapling trees had been planted at strategic spots next to benches, both set firmly into cement. Decorative wrought-iron fencing surrounded the entire veranda. No exit.

The nurse approached again, white soles, soundless. On her tray this time, were two individual boxes of apple juice. “Here you are, Mr. Donald.”

“Will you just put that on my tab?” His dad pretended to fumble in his pockets.

Her nametag said Judy. Judy never stopped smiling. It occurred to Danny that they didn’t even know his dad’s last name yet. Danny thought about making a break for it, but there were no gates. He took a draw from his tiny bendable straw, and nodded at the unattractive nurse.

Within the walls of La Playa Conchal there are many spas; also boutiques offering beautiful hand-stitched suits and dresses and sterling and pearls to wear once you have finished with your spa. Playa Conchal boasts the biggest swimming pool you have ever seen, over two acres. There are
poró trees growing on three makeshift islands in the center—two with swim-up bars, and one with a calypso quartet playing non-stop.

Costa Rican money is the colón. Five hundred to one American dollar, it is weaker than the peso. Shopping is pretty easy in Costa Rica. Donald sits at a table, just outside the main lobby on the terrace, right above where the native tico boys wash the golf carts. They bring him coffee. It has been picked, roasted, ground and brewed that very same morning. Donald has a perfect view of the lagoon. Sloops and ketches tack and yaw. Terns and gulls trail behind a luxury liner headed down the coastline to the marina. From the beach to the boats is turquoise, past that to the horizon, azure.

Donald holds the glazed earthen mug in both hands and blows across the top. Dozens of ramadas, open-air beds draped with linen canopies, surround the pool. Hundreds of chaise longue chairs are already claimed by mid-morning. A grasshopper lands on the table next to his arm. It is three inches long and plump as a ripe pepper. They make great bait. But he will not fish today. Donald is scheduled for the zip-line tropics tour sometime later this afternoon. Yesterday he parasailed. Tomorrow he will raft the Rio Corobici. But tonight, Donald will dine on langostino wrapped in banana leaves, shoestring cassava and fried plantains. Estrella will bring the dessert.

“Your dad’s disease is degenerative. He will eventually die from it.”

The doctor tossed his files down onto the counter. “Your father is terminal. First he will begin to forget names, then faces. One day soon, he will stay in Costa Rica.” The doctor cleared his throat and reorganized his papers.

“Not a bad way to go?” Danny shrugged. The first stage is denial.

“Then one day, his brain will stop telling his mouth to chew, his throat to swallow. Eventually his mind will forget to tell his heart to beat, his lungs to pump.”

“So how long? Danny stared at the cylindrical steel waste can with the foot-pedal lid in the corner. “What am I supposed to do until then?” The second stage is anger.

“Well, he could outlive us all.” The shrink swiveled on his chrome stool. “He’s healthy as a horse. Blood pressure, cholesterol, lipids, everything checks out okay physically. Except his knees are shot, but he can still get around slowly.”

“Hope you don’t mind my asking?” Ellen the administrator stood in the doorway, one hip in, one hip out. “Do you happen know your father’s net worth?”

Actually, Danny did know the answer to that very question. Donald’s business partner had recently mailed Danny some buy-sell and key-man insurance documents. Danny held the power of attorney for his father’s humble estate.

“He’s got enough, I guess.”

“This is a turnkey facility.” She handed him a portfolio, pressed cotton-fiber parchment, gold-embossed across the front: Treatment Plan and Fiduciary Analysis.

Danny thumbed quickly to the last page. “Is this a monthly figure?” he asked the administrator. “Hell, he could live in Costa Rica for half that much.”

“I’m sure they have some very nice facilities down there.” Ellen bluffed.

Danny looked at the young doctor again, then back at the administrator. He felt like he was being sold a timeshare. One was the pitchman, the other was the closer. Danny did not like pressure. His dad’s money would be gone in ten years at this place.

“Maybe we’ll just do that instead.” Danny made a short list in his head. Stop by the lawyer’s office, then the bank, then the airport.

Ellen realized her transgression too late. “You’ll do what instead?”

Donald was a widower. Danny was divorced. They were both unencumbered. Plus, Danny hated his present job. There would only be one quick layover in Atlanta before landing tomorrow morning in Costa Rica.

“I must remind you,” the doctor interjected, “the severity of your father’s condition. He will require constant and professional care. Mr. Donald is unsound.”

Danny had to get out of there, before they changed his mind.

“Just have somebody bring his car around,” he instructed them.

Danny sits at a wicker table on the
mirador, with a plate of ceviche and a tall glass of iced horchata. A forty-foot charter boat, named the Picaroon, lies anchored in the bay, surrounded by buoys. A skiff is moored to the quay just offshore. Donald stands at the patio bar, supported by a hand-carved walking stick, sipping local guaro with the ship’s captain. His dad and the skipper are dressed almost alike, so they swap hats. They will all be boarding soon for a sunset cruise around the point, to play a few rounds of baccarat at the casino before bedtime. Then up early tomorrow for sailing lessons while the sea is calm, brunch at an open-air parrilla just up the hill from the resort, snorkeling in the shallows during the heat of the day, afternoon massages, cocktails before dinner, then to the discoteca for late night dancing. Mañana y mañana.