Pierre is short, almost squat, with thick ropey legs that remind Mike of a WWE wrestler, one who uses their thighs to choke the shit out of people. Mike is short himself, brushing against 5′3″ when he puts his thick-soled loafers on. Pierre has a raspy-whisper voice, and Mike thinks it’s all those Pall Malls he smokes, one after the other, piling up in his ceramic ashtray on the coffee table. Over dinner, Pierre tells Mike that he used to own lovebirds, but the cigarettes kept killing them, so he decided he better stop. His cats seem to handle it better.
Mike is new to the Miami Beach Sunshine Community, a small trailer park for seniors. Mike did not want to move here, not really, but his daughter was moving to LA, and she was not going to be able to hire someone to check in with him, to make sure he was eating enough or taking his pills or if he needed help mowing the lawn.
The Miami Beach Sunshine Community is not an old folks’ home, but, as the woman who gives the tours says, a welcoming environment that provided an active, encouraging home for seniors. This does not make Mike feel better, and he hates his small, cramped trailer with its AstroTurf lawn and big block numbers that indicate his address.
Mike meets Pierre almost six weeks after moving in, after his daughter called and made him promise he’ll get out of his house. He heads down to the pool, a bright chlorine square flanked by orange lawn chairs. The pool is empty except for one man. He is lying nearly flat on his chair, his barrel chest shiny with sweat, a straw cowboy hat covering his entire face. He wears a tight, black Speedo, the brand indicated in large, white lettering on both hips. Mike sits a couple chairs down, not wanting to get in the water, and feeling foolish in his baggy trunks and ratty t-shirt. He watches as the man in the hat rummages in a duffel bag at his side, pulling out a large green thermos and a pack of cigarettes. He squints one eye at Mike, rows of shiny teeth glinting in the sun.
“Hey yourself,” Mike says, feeling strange and shy.
“Vodka? Orange juice?” The man in the cowboy hat is holding up a bottle of Grey Goose and the large green thermos.
The man gestures for him to come sit in the glossy orange chair next to him and pours screwdrivers into little, wax cups. The man in the cowboy hat says his name is Pierre, and when Mike asks if he’s French, he laughs until he gets himself coughing.
“No, my man. Not French. Miami—that’s what I am.”
Pierre tells him he recently retired from his job at the local high school, where he worked as a janitor for thirty years. When he pulls off his cowboy hat to wipe sweat from his forehead, Mike sees that his hair is dyed a very dark black. They sit quietly together, and Mike feels buzzy and hot from the vodka and sun. The chlorine blue of the pool bounces against his closed eyes.
Pierre invites him to dinner, and when Mike gets home, he spends an hour showering, shaving his stubble, and slicking his hair back. He looks at himself in the mirror. A damp towel is wrapped around his waist, the skin there soft and drooping. His ex-wife used to say he had turquoise eyes. He gently pulls the skin back at his temples, thinking of Pierre’s shiny black hair. He pulls a salmon shirt from its hanger, liking its slippery feel against his warm skin. He wishes he had a nice bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers to bring as a gift.
Pierre’s trailer is only two blocks south of Mike’s. There is a large orange tree in his front yard and jasmine and honeysuckle growing up the sides of his carport. Pierre is wearing a light blue linen suit jacket over a bare chest and matching linen pants, a gold medallion hanging from his neck.
“Mikey.” Pierre hugs him and gently pulls him inside, and Mike feels dizzy from the sweet smell of jasmine and orange and honeysuckle. He doesn’t mind being called Mikey.
He looks around Pierre’s living room, which is lined in green shag carpet and full of little ornate sculptures and potted cacti suspended mid-air in macramé hangers. He looks up at the ceiling, where a bright chandelier dangles, casting crystalline rainbows over the walls. Pierre tells him to have a seat, and points at a low velvet sofa. A giant stuffed snow leopard is frozen mid-pounce over the arm of it. Mike chuckles in amazement.
“You kill that thing?”
“Oh.” Pierre waves his hand at the snow leopard. “Not me. I bought it at an estate sale years ago. Drink?”
They sit on Pierre’s deep sofa and drink gin and tonics. Mike is aware of their two old bodies very near each other, and he can smell Pierre’s cologne and the orange tree outside, budding with sweet-sharp blossoms. Pierre takes Mike by the hand, and leads him down the trailer’s narrow hallway, which is lit by white Christmas lights that float from the ceiling.
“That’s me,” Pierre says, lighting a cigarette, then punching a finger at a photo that hangs in the hallway.
Mike leans in close to the photograph of a small cowboy in leather chaps astride a massive bull with its back arched. The hat atop the cowboy’s head is knocked back slightly, and he has one hand flung high in the air.
“Get out,” Mike says with a little laugh.
“I will not.” Pierre winks at him through the smoke of his Pall Mall.
Pierre’s bedroom sits at the end of the trailer’s hallway, and two Siamese cats lounge on his bed, framed in the doorway, blinking up at them with small, blue eyes.
“George Bush.” Pierre grins and points to the one on the right. “And Bill Clinton.” He leans to kiss the head of the other cat.
“It’s an honor, Mr. Presidents,” Mike says, bowing deeply, and Pierre throws his head back and laughs in raspy little barks.
Pierre cooks them roasted chicken breasts stuffed with rosemary and wild rice and wilted asparagus. Mike pulls the crisp skin from his chicken breast. He stuffs the skin, dripping with oil, into his mouth with his fingers. It is so delicious, he feels like he might moan out loud. They drink cheap champagne with their dessert, bananas and cream, which Pierre serves in chubby gold goblets. Pierre tells Mike about his twice-broken back, and how he won close to ten grand in the rodeo circuit, and how he got hooked on cocaine and pills when the pain got too bad.
“Ten years sober from that shit,” Pierre says.
Mike leans back against the sofa, staring up at the snow leopard, which seems to float over them. He feels loose and woozy from the champagne and gin, and Pierre’s sweet, raspy laugh. The snow leopard’s teeth are just above him, and Mike reaches out a finger to touch its yellowed tip.
“I’ve never touched a snow leopard,” he says, his voice soft and slurry.
Pierre clambers off the couch. He adjusts his blue jacket over his round chest, and stands next to the leopard, stroking its chest.
“They’re almost all dead.” There is so much sadness in Pierre’s voice that it makes Mike want to cry.
“Why?” Mike asks, his throat tightening at how tenderly Pierre is petting the big cat’s fur.
“Climate change, you know. The weather’s too warm, the water’s too high. The shit’s too fucked.”
“Ah,” says Mike, feeling inadequate.
“Just like here. You and I, we ain’t a lot different from this big guy. Miami’s got water creeping up so slow you’d think it wouldn’t matter. But pretty soon, Mikey.” He makes a wet whooshing noise, and slides a hand flat over his head, indicating a wave of water overtaking him.
Mike feels a little sick, thinking of a wall of water sweeping him and Pierre and the snow leopard out to sea. He sits up slowly, pours them more champagne. He doesn’t smoke, but he reaches for Pierre’s pack.
“Not at all, Mikey.”
Pierre tells him that there are mile-high ice caps in the arctic, melting down, and coming all the way to Miami in gentle waves. Eventually, there would be no land left, just miles and miles of flat, shining water. Mike feels silly and small. Of course he knows about the warming planet, and the rising waters, but climate change has always seemed so far away, something that couldn’t quite touch him.
“How long do we have?’ He chokes a little on the Pall Mall, which is filling his head with a sharp little buzz.
“Relatively?” Pierre shrugs off his blue linen blazer His round chest is nearly hairless. “Not that long.”
George Bush and Bill Clinton slink into the living room, purring and winding around Pierre’s legs. He bends to kiss them, and Mike feels overwhelmed with sadness and gratitude. Mike tries to make a joke, asks the cats why they have failed their country, but his voice is tight.
“You’re crying!” Pierre sits beside him, very close now, and Mike can see he is missing two bottom teeth, and he thinks of Pierre, arching back and forth on a dancing bull, the crowd around him a blur, the smell of shit and feed and beer filling him up as he spins round and round.
“I’m scared,” Mike says, feeling Pierre’s wrinkled hand in his, loving the hard calluses below each finger.
“We’ve got a little time,” says Pierre.
Pierre’s hands are gently slipping off his shirt, and Mike is leaning back into the deep velvet sofa. Pierre’s lips and hands and face are covering his. The snow leopard is above them, standing guard, Mike thinks. And he pictures a frozen blue and white mountain, coming undone bit by bit by gentle waves, and he thinks that it’s okay, the water won’t come just yet. They have a little time.