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It's Bill

A game of hearts in Nicaragua

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Bill had a heart attack in Nicaragua, of all the inconsiderate places to almost croak. He's been half-dead for a hundred years now, looming like a big booger that can't quite be flicked free from the fingertip of life, and it would have been so simple for him to keel over in any number of accessible places, like Las Vegas, for chrissakes. He spent three weeks there recently, trying to hide from my sister Cheryl, who lives there and found him anyway. He avoided her, I'm thinking, because he gambled the money she gave him to start over after the bar he opened in Costa Rica sucked every cent out of his life. Bill likes to put all his chips on the table, so whether he wins or loses, the results are big.

Good thing he won in Vegas. In Costa Rica, Bill hadn't been so lucky. He'd been blathering about that place almost from the day my mother introduced him to me, about how he was going to open a bar on the beach there, with caramel-colored Ticas feeding him Peyote pellets between tandem-action tongue baths or whatever. That was almost 15 years ago, and he was living in his car, so I didn't take him too seriously.

But whaddo I know? It turns out by that time he had made and lost four fortunes, and years later he would amass his fifth, but first he became my mother's best friend. They'd met at an estate auction in Chula Vista, Calif., where he outbid her on a box of ceramic beagles with bobbing heads. Most of them were broken, which I think is appropriate. If there were ever two broken toys in the world -- two total misfits searching for a haven in the storm of conformity -- it was my mother and her friend Bill. At the time she had just lost her job designing defense missiles because government bombs had fallen out of fashion, and he was a paranoid, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, misanthropic, morally ambiguous old tarpit of an entrepreneur about to get rich again selling junk.

Yes, junk. They became junk dealers, my mother and Bill, with a warehouse six times the size of my house by the time my mother fell ill. He was with me at her bedside when she died, and I just now realized for the first time that I've known Bill longer than my mother ever did, not that he's been bearable all this time.

But at least he made it to Costa Rica. In the mid-'90s he sold all his businesses, headed to the beach town of Quepos and bought the biggest bar there. I visited recently, and the bar turned out to be much nicer than I expected, with 60 or so festively painted tables on a point of turf overlooking the ocean. Earlier I'd gotten e-mails from readers who'd made it there before me, telling me they'd met my "stepfather" and heard the whole story about how I'd once won a bar fight in Ensenada by choking an assailant with her own necklace. I never corrected them on the stepfather issue, though for all I know Bill isn't above having secretly married my mother. I mean, he certainly wasn't above secretly using my Social Security number to open a bank account once.

But like I said, Bill puts all his chips on the table, and in Costa Rica he lost everything. Then, after his casino caper that increased the money my sister gave him tenfold, he moved to Nicaragua and opened what amounts to be, I guess, a small hotel/brothel. He adopted the idea from his experience in Costa Rica, where he noted that almost every hotel is also a whorehouse. From what I understand, Bill had quite a cash register humming at his new place until this heart attack hit him. Cheryl left last Tuesday to be with him, but not before mailing me a card with directions to get there. "Take a taxi from the Managua airport to Granada," it read, "and don't wear any jewelry."

I'd already turned her down once, over the phone when she called to tell me Bill's condition. "I can't traipse off to Nica-goddam-RAGUA," I protested. "Don't they kidnap Americans there?"

"Only important Americans," she qualified. "Look, Holly, it's Bill," she implored.

It's Bill, that crusty bucket of phlegm. That big-eyed, big-mouthed, big-hearted old acid vat who held my mother's hand as she died in my arms. I wouldn't have thought him capable of crying if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, but there he was that day, holding her hand and then me.

It's Bill. Bill, who has the personality of a honey-covered warthog but nonetheless taught me that it matters, you know, how you handle things, like the slipping away of precious people you can't keep clutched to you forever. Now he's hurt and, God, I really hope it's true about the Nicaraguan kidnappers, how they're only interested in important people and not us, the flailing, lost little broken toys of the world who are only important to each other.

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