PORT RICHEY — The tall, skinny man in the white cowboy hat walked slow with a cane because of his heart condition and the cancer inside his body. His friends didn't know what type of cancer, what stage, what treatments, because he was a quiet man and didn't talk about himself much.
They knew he was a mechanic from Michigan and he came down here, to the Wal-Mart parking lot in Port Richey, for several months every year to get away from the cold, which his body couldn't take anymore. He came in his 1985 Dodge van, which was more like an RV camper than a van as it had all the fixings for a simple life — fridge, stove, TV, toilet, shower. He parked in the outskirts of the Wal-Mart lot because it was free.
At the time the man died, he had two neighbors — James Kliven, 53, who lives in a gray van adorned with Sheriff's Office crime watch stickers and Jim Bilotta, 76, who lives in a black van that looks like it has been massaged with sand paper.
Bilotta and Kliven woke to the sound of sirens about 4:30 Tuesday morning and saw flames leaping from their friend's roof. There wasn't anything they could do but watch in horror.
Their friend died. The camper, which was full of what authorities said appeared to be all of his worldly possessions, had no rear exit. The state fire marshal's office said the fire seems to be accidental and has not yet released a cause.
His friends said his name was Robert Michael Dyer. They called him Bob. Authorities have not yet confirmed the name of the man who died.
Kliven hoped at least some of the man's cats would survive. He had six of them.
"I know he would throw them out first, before trying to save himself," he said.
But investigators with the fire marshal's office said the cats also passed away. Their bodies were found lying next to the man's.
"He loved those cats," Kliven said.
Dyer had a daughter back in Michigan. His friends said he was 52 and got Social Security checks and medicine in the mail. He drank his coffee with cream and sugar and only ate one meal a day. He said it was because he just wasn't that hungry. But he also didn't have much money — none of the men who live in this parking lot do or else they wouldn't be there — and those six cats to feed.
Dyer was going to head back up to Michigan at the end of April.
On Tuesday afternoon, Kliven and Bilotta sat in their vans, the engines off, a few spaces away from where their friend died. The asphalt was scorched black, pebbles of shattered glass glittering. Kliven smoked Pall Malls. Dyer smoked Kool 100s, but his friends doubt that's what caused the fire. They suspect it was something electrical.
Bilotta's van was facing the scorched spot. He said he felt sad. The three guys had dinner together at the Salvation Army most nights and sometimes went to the flea market and the beach on the weekends. They looked out for each other. Dyer fixed his van and changed the spark plugs. He was going to fix Kliven's broken window, held up by duct tape.
"He was a good man," Bilotta said. And he stared at the black spot some more.
"I think I'm going to trade in my van," he said, "And get one like he had. His was nice."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.