Pat walked into the specialist's office with a worried mind. Just last week, in for his yearly check-up with Feingold, he'd been given a clean bill of health. So why had this other doctor's secretary called to set up an appointment?
"He wants to discuss your test results," she'd said.
"Couldn't Dr. Feingold handle that?"
It was a plushy office all right, with a big desk and soft leather chairs. He hoped they could conclude their business here and not in some gleaming, antiseptic operating room.
In came the specialist. Mid-fifties, portly, tanned scalp under thinning gray hair. White lab coat over a dark suit. The small talk was brief; he got right to the point.
"Mr. Leary, the news is not good. There's no way to sugar-coat a thing like this. You have six months to live. Maybe a year, if the treatments are effective."
Pat stared, his mouth open, unable to speak.
The doctor sighed, came around the desk and sat on its edge. He told Pat about the rare disease he had contracted, that it was always fatal, that the terrible symptoms were better left unsaid for now, that it could only be transmitted through sexual intercourse, and only from female to male. "The woman is a carrier," he said. "She can live to a hundred."
Stunned, trying to process this shattering news, Pat thought of Catherine. "My wife's okay, then?"
The specialist looked surprised. "Your wife? You mean you haven't been fooling around?"
"No," said Pat, bristling. "Why would you assume such a thing? I'm a man who honors his vows."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to offend you. It's just that the details of this situation are a bit…complicated." He explained that the disease could only incubate in an adult woman who had been infected by another carrier. A male. And not just any male, but one with the genetic accoutrements of light skin, red hair, and freckles.
How much more of this could he take? Mike Flannery, his best friend for all of his life, had light skin, red hair, freckles.
At that moment, Mike Flannery himself came bursting into the room amid gales of laughter, accompanied by three other friends who were in on the joke. The "specialist," too, collapsed in mirth. He was Artie, Mike's distant cousin by marriage, a show biz agent who had easy access to offices, fake name plates, lab coats, actresses who could impersonate a secretary.
"Good one," said Pat, as his tormentors howled and pointed, keeping their distance lest their victim start throwing punches. "I owe you big time."
And so he did, this being the tradition between them. Mike would have to stay on his guard.
It took three months. The news traveled quickly in their circle, carrying an ironic sting. Pat had developed chest pains necessitating a visit to a specialist—a real one this time. He was told that his condition was rare and always fatal. Gremlins with tiny pickaxes deconstructing his heart. He might die tomorrow, or in a year. There was no treatment, no hope.
Pat told Mike as they were seated over corned beef sandwiches at their favorite deli. Mike laughed so hard he almost spilled his Pepsi. "I'm disappointed," he said, dabbing at his tears with a napkin. "This is your best shot?"
As the days passed, Mike came to respect the joke a little more. Pat had obviously gone to enormous lengths to bring his family and friends in on it. Everyone was talking about Pat's trouble, and expressed anger and sorrow at Mike's bullheaded dismissal of the whole shebang, as he called it. Pat sent him an official looking print-out that described the fancy, unpronounceable disease. Mike twisted the print-out into a paper hat and wore it to a gathering he knew Pat would attend.
A month later, Pat was dead. Or so everyone claimed. There was no viewing. "Gee," said Mike, putting on his tie for the big funeral, "I wonder why?"
"The waiting was hard on him," said his wife, easing her arms into a black blouse. "He must have looked terrible."
"Not as terrible as I'd look if I fell for this crap."
His wife gave him a hard stare. "I don't understand you. Can't you see how improbable it is that everyone, including Father Paul and the entire staff of O'Neil's funeral Home, would agree to all this, just to play a joke on an ass like you?"
Mike looked hurt. "I'll ignore that. What you don't understand, honey, is guys. We'll do anything to fuck each other up. Now move it, okay? I'd like to stop at Mickey Dee's on the way to the cemetery. I'm so hungry I could eat a Girl Scout troop."
Mike ate the last of his French fries during Father Paul's eulogy, prompting hateful looks from his so-called friends and family. When they lowered the casket, he cracked wise about the rocks that must be weighing it down. As the soil was shoveled into the grave, he finally fell apart. But it was just an act. Sobbing, his face buried in his hands, he could be seen peering through his fingers, waiting for Mike to jump out from behind a tree yelling, "Gotcha!"
It was the last straw for everyone when he told Pat's weeping children to knock it off, that dad would be home, probably drunk, before nightfall. Pat's brother Sean had to be restrained from beating Mike senseless.
After the mourners left, still he waited, sitting in a folding chair, smoking a cigarette, talking to Pat. "Come out come out wherever you are," he sang. "I got all the time in the world."
One of the gravediggers, a Mr. Halloran, turned to his assistant and said, "Life. One helluva fuckin' joke, ain't it?"