My friend Mike is rich and dying. He lives alone in the hills north of the city. He bought the house right before he found out he was terminally ill, but he’s decided to stay. Every weekend I go out to check on him and bring him reports of the people he left behind. Susan got a promotion at the bank but she had to remove her tongue stud. Bradley got arrested in a sting at a bathhouse but his lawyer wound up getting him off. Janice took a bunch of pills, but she barfed them up and was at the club later that evening. I haven’t told him about his ex, Katie, moving in with me.
I stop at a flea market on my way up to Mike’s and buy a rusted tandem bike. I always stop at the flea market to buy something to cheer Mike up. We can ride the bike together up and down the rolling hills. I can do the pedaling. It takes me a long time to strap the bike to the top of my car. I cut my hand and wonder when my last tetanus shot was.
When I get to Mike’s I discover he’s already purchased his own distraction.
“Meet Whitey,” says Mike.
At Mike’s side is a big dog. He’s like a pit bull but twice the size, white as a snowman, with a loose pink mouth.
“Whitey?” I say. “That’s the best you could come up with?”
Mike says, “I don’t have enough time left to get creative.”
The dog’s got a big, flat head and muscles the size of yams in his jaws. He doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in me, but he’s not exactly disinterested either. I concentrate on projecting a calm vibe so that the dog will like me, but these days I’m anxious around Mike.
“The breeder told me these dogs are trained to take down wild boar in South America,” Mike says. “Even jaguars, sometimes.”
Whitey’s docked ears twitch in their sockets.
“What they do,” Mike continues, “is grab the boar by the throat and drag it down to the ground and pin it there, a thousand pounds of pressure in that bite, and wait for the hunters to come kill it.”
Mike’s got a violent streak. When he says this stuff about killing boar, I think about kissing Katie that first time, when Mike was still healthy, or at least didn’t know about the sickness inside of him. Mike was in the living room of his big apartment, entertaining our friends, and Katie and I were in the kitchen, dropping olives into martinis from precarious heights. Then we kissed. Our lips were dry. It was like rubbing scabs together.
The big glass door to Mike’s house slides open and Jorgé walks out carrying two bows and a quiver of arrows. Jorgé is Mike’s at-home caregiver. When he’s not taking care of Mike, Jorgé lifts weights, so his arms are big and impressive. They stretch out the sleeves of his tee-shirts. He wants to tattoo a dragon on his biceps, and he keeps asking me to draw it.
“Mike tells me you’re a very good artist,” he says. I don’t want to make Jorgé feel stupid, so I never tell him that my paintings are just big color fields with parts of old computers stuck to them.
Jorgé says, “A little archery, maybe?”
But Mike doesn’t feel up to it.
“We’ll watch,” he says. The dog and Mike are a couple now, a “we.”
Jorgé and I shoot at a styrofoam deer I got at the flea market. Over the course of the summer, we’ve become good shots. Our arrows punch the deer with satisfying thwaks.
“Pow,” says Jorgé, “Right in the boiler room.”
The deer is so full of holes that the arrows droop after they hit. When we miss the deer the arrows fly into the woods beyond Mike’s yard. A few weeks ago, when we went to collect our arrows, Mike and I found a red fox lying under a tree with eyes turned to black goo and mushrooms growing around him. But there was no arrow in him. It wasn’t our fault.
Mike is sitting on a modern lounge chair that Jorgé dragged out of the living room. Whitey rests on a hot flagstone with an unfurled tongue the size of a flank steak. I wonder whether Mike’s getting a dog at this point in his life is really very responsible, but Mike’s got enough money that it’s easy to feel confident in his decisions.
As if he’s been listening to the goings-on inside my head, Mike says, “These guys don’t come cheap. I paid over three thousand for Whitey and I can’t even breed him.”
Jorgé lets an arrow fly and it hits the deer’s neck, which is not Styrofoam but plastic.
“Crap,” says Jorgé.
“That’s a lot of money, Mike,” I say.
“Well,” says Mike, “What else do I have to spend it on?”
“Jesus,” I say. “I can think of certain less fortunate friends…”
It’s a joke, of course, but Mike gets out of the chair. It is a many-staged process of leg bending, straightening, grimacing and balancing. He goes inside. Behind the glass doors and the reflections of the leaves and the sky it appears as if he’s moving underwater. When he comes back out he hands me a check for four thousand dollars, made out to me and Katie. The dog raises his head off the flagstone and watches me looking at the check.
I begin to pinch it in my fingers.
Mike says, “If you rip that check so help me god.”
Whitey stands and I see that the dog is old and rises painfully.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Don’t say it to me,” Mike says. “Say it to my dog.”