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He had been threatening to die for decades

I should have known Bill would die. He always does what he says he will. In most cases, it takes him a long time to get around to it, but he does it. When he met my mother, he was living in his car. They met at a dusty auction house in Chula Vista, Calif., where they'd haggled over a box of ceramic beagles, most of them broken. My mother outbid him.

"I'll buy the broken ones from you," he said, his cigarette hanging loosely from his lips like a little snapped appendage. My mother refused his offer, but they became best friends nonetheless. He was a decade younger, tall, big-eyed and always about to burst into knee-slapping laughter. I personally think my mother had a crush on him. The fact that he lived in his car would have been in keeping with her tastes, I believe. She was not all that picky about people she had crushes on.

Bill had always insisted he was my stepfather, and I would not have put it past him to marry my mother on a platonic basis for whatever benefit they'd both receive, but my mother never mentioned it. They began selling the junk they'd acquired at these run-down auction houses at the local swap meet on Sports Arena Boulevard in San Diego. My mother had just been laid off from her job as a weapons designer and, rather than rally and find another position in the same industry like she normally did, she went into business with Bill instead.

"He lives in his car!" I reminded her one day.

"Not for long. I'm getting a place," Bill said, because he was right there beside her. He was always right there beside her.

And he did what he said, he got a place — an ocean-front apartment with two bedrooms and a balcony overlooking the sand. We still wonder how the hell he pulled that off on the income he made selling, for example, inflatable beach toys (with punctures patched) at the swap meet. He had a roommate, too, a tall, 25-year-old, curly haired god named Brad who was as dumb as a bag of bait. Bill once caught him trying to blow-dry his hair in the bathtub.

Brad would lug things and my mother and Bill would haggle with people over those things and somehow it paid for their way through life, and then some. My mother rented herself her own almost-ocean-front apartment not far from Bill's, and about midway between their places they opened their second shop, which sold the higher-end items that came from their warehouse-sized shop in Normal Heights, things like tea cups and crap I couldn't understand. Bill would show me a signet on the bottom of a plate and insisted that meant it was worth a lot, and I would wonder why he wasn't selling black lacquer and chrome like the futon store across the street. Bill said he could sell the cup for a fortune, and he did what he said. In short, everything was going so well. Then the dying began.

My mother was first. She had been diagnosed with liver cancer and battled it heroically for a year before she died in her own bed with Bill standing beside her. It was the first time I'd ever seen his big eyes cry. Brad was next, felled by Karposi's Sarcoma brought on by AIDS. Bill insisted the doctors misdiagnosed his friend, adamant that what Brad really suffered from was Cat Scratch Fever. Still, Brad died in bed at the hospital with Bill standing beside him. Then, a bunch more of Bill's friends died from other diseases, Bill always beside them. It was the dying, Bill surmised to me later, that made him decide to sell everything and move to Central America.

Not that he hadn't been saying he'd move there since I met him, but I was still surprised when he did it, seeing as how his own health was hardly fabulous. For one, fat blue veins traversed his left leg entirely, making it look like the topography map of a forested region. That can't be good, I thought to myself on a trip out there to see him. But Bill had been threatening to die for decades, I thought, and this was no different.

The last time I saw him, he was in a roadside hotel in San Diego, aiming for Mexico, having abandoned the hospital and the cancer treatment he'd returned to the States to receive. "They want to kill me in there," he insisted, which would have sounded paranoid if not for the fact that this was Bill, and wanting to kill him is a perfectly natural reaction to his presence. His plan was to go to Mexico, where mystical cures awaited.

He never got there, though he was on his way. He died the day after Christmas in Indio, Calif., wherever the hell that is. The Internet shows a small town with pictures of palm trees and languid Western sunsets. At first I worry that Bill died alone, after he himself held the hand of so many friends in their last moments. But then I think maybe he was not alone, maybe they were all there, my mother among them. Maybe they all came to Indio, Calif., that day after Christmas to gently take Bill by the hand so he could finally close his eyes and, for the last time, do what he always said he would.

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