Two-thirds of the way through the journey of my life, I found myself newly retired. After a few weeks I began yearning for something noble and meaningful to do with what little time was left to me. My friends gave well-meaning advice, as friends are apt to do.
"Volunteer some hours in a hospice," one suggested.
"Read 'Moby Dick,'" said another.
"There will be time enough to read 'Moby Dick' when I myself am living in a hospice," I retorted, which my friends did not appreciate hearing, strangely enough.
The first piece of really useful advice came from my Uncle Floyd, who took time off from drinking Margaritas on the beach at Waikiki to phone me with congratulations at having thrown off the bonds of wage-slavery. "Now's your chance to see the world, Owen, my boy," he rasped. (I guess I should have felt complimented at being called a "boy," but to a nonagenarian like my uncle, ninety percent of the world's men must have seemed like boys.)
"Thanks, Uncle Floyd," I said. "Are there any parts of the world you recommend?"
"Yes, but the best thing about going to them is that few people have discovered them yet," he said with a chuckle.
This was an obvious allusion to his vaunted talents as an explorer. He had climbed impossibly tall mountains, survived treks through the jungles of Borneo, and wrestled all sorts of large, sharp-toothed exotic beasts with his bare hands. I could claim no such talents.
"If I remember correctly, you made most of your discoveries as a young man," I said. "I'm well past the bloom of youth. Couldn't you suggest a good tour guide who knows great spots off the beaten track?"
"Point taken," Uncle Floyd said with a sigh. "A pity, though. There are sights that you really ought to see while you're young enough to appreciate them. You blew it, sad to say."
"But you'll give me some recommendations?" I said hopefully.
"Let me think about it." He hung up.
Three days later he was dead. I was shocked and saddened by the knowledge that I would never know what his recommendations would have been, until the phone rang one afternoon. It was Uncle Floyd's lawyer, calling with the news that I had inherited five million dollars.
Suddenly it began to seem possible that I might see the world in style. Then the lawyer punctured my balloon. "The money is conditional," he cautioned.
"Conditional?" I exclaimed. "What are the conditions?"
"Uncle Floyd wanted to make sure you would do some real exploring," the lawyer explained. "You can use the money to rent a boat and hire an experienced crew, but the burden is on you to go where no one has gone before."
"Is that even possible?" I asked, thinking that the whole planet had been explored at one time or another.
"Yes," he said. "The last unexplored spot on the face of the Earth is a place called Uninhabited Volcanic Island Number 115, located in the Pacific near the equator. Come by my office and I'll give you the coordinates. Your uncle gave me the name of a consultant who handles remote expeditions. The money will be more than adequate. Just get in there and do the work. Your uncle is sure you can do it....."
I was thrilled to be facing the first real adventure of my life, but as soon as Uncle Floyd's lawyer hung up, I was seized with anxiety. What if I fell into a hidden ravine? Or got bitten by a poisonous jungle snake? What if the volcanic blew up just as I arrived? What if I failed to find the island and had to pay back the cost of the voyage? My sleep that night was troubled by nightmare scenarios. Well, you can wake up from a nightmare and shrug it off, but what if real life turns nightmarish?
I was jarred out of a sound sleep the following morning by the telephone. I just managed to get my eyes open and my feet working fast enough to get to the phone before the call went to voice mail.
"Hello, Owen?" Said the voice on the other end. "It's me, Claudia. I heard that Uncle Floyd died and left you five million. Congratulations!"
Talking about money with my ex-wife wasn't fun even when I was wide awake and prepared, neither of which applied here. "I just got out of bed, Clauds," I said. "Can I call you later?"
"Oh, don't worry," she reassured me, "I'm not looking for a cut of the proceeds, just checking in....."
"How'd you find out?" I wondered. "Was it in the papers?"
"Too soon for that. Donny tipped me off. He inherited a few bucks too."
Donny was my middle son, the one who already had his own software company despite still being in his early thirties.
"Anyway, your Uncle Floyd was such a rat, I never expected him to be so generous with family," Claudia went on, "after divorcing Zelda like that!"
"Zelda never got divorced," I exclaimed. "She's the one who lost her footing and slipped off the edge of a glacial ravine while the cameras were rolling."
"Oh, right, she's the one who was murdered."
"Again, the cameras captured it all. Floyd was nowhere near her at the time. No way could he have murdered her."
"You'd think they could have put up guard rails. But okay, point taken. Anyway, the guy had three wives. It's easy to lose track of them..."
"He only had one at a time, Claudia," I said patiently.
"So again, congratulations."
"Thanks," I said. "Bye bye." I was wide awake by now, for all the good it did me. I wandered into the kitchen and made some coffee, but didn't get as far as preparing food to go with it because the doorbell rang.
The sight that greeted my eyes when I opened the door was unusual, to say the least: a blonde, blue-eyed African-American woman in a wheelchair, who introduced herself as the captain of the ship that would take me to Uninhabited Volcanic Island Number 115.
"Andrea Doria Smith here," she said cheerfully as I helped ease her wheelchair up over the doorsill. "The whole crew is thrilled to know that you're coming with us on the good ship Heregoesnuthin."
"Just out of curiosity, Ms. Smith, did your parents know they were naming you after a famous shipwreck?" I wondered, steering her down the hall and into the kitchen.
"Oh, of course," she said as I poured coffee for her and got out the cream and sugar. "Mom and Dad felt that fate was too perverse to do anything in a predictable way, so by naming my sister Lucy and me after ships that sank, they were guaranteeing long and healthy lives for us. We could safely become captains of ships, which is what we did."
At the word "healthy" I couldn't help glancing down at the wheelchair. "Oh, this thing is temporary," she explained cheerfully. "As soon as I get my heart transplant I won't need it any more. Anyway, I come from a long line of sea captains. The most famous was Edward Smith, of course."
I winced at the thought of entrusting my life to this descendant of the man who went down with the Titanic, but I knew I had no choice if I wanted Uncle Floyd's millions -- not that there was any assurance that I would be able to get to that uninhabited isle and back again to enjoy my new wealth. Even if I asked Andrea Doria to take a pass and let her sister Lucy go instead, it would be just my luck that Lucy was short for Lusitania....
Andrea Doria's appearance was not just a social call. She had boarding passes for me, as well as instructions on what I could and couldn't bring to Uninhabited Volcanic Island Number 115. Surprisingly, I was allowed to bring my favorite chair, my stereo, and all my Kate Smith and Village People recordings. My youngest son, on vacation from college, helped me lovingly wrap these treasures for the arduous journey ahead. He could not resist smirking at my taste in music, however.
We finished packing just in time for the funeral, which was held in a small chapel in the next town, where Uncle Floyd had been born and raised. As I sat in the front pew, I thought about how handsome my sons were in their suits, how much gray hair Uncle Floyd's children had, (heck, even his oldest grandson was getting some gray hair!), how respectfully Claudia was dressed despite her disdain for the dearly departed.
The only family member I couldn't place was an old guy -- roughly Floyd's age -- who was sitting on the end of the pew. He had dark glasses, a long beard, a hat, and a cane. What pity that he couldn't see the beautiful flowers, I reflected. Or that beautiful funeral attendant who was standing not three feet away as she set up the podium. He was staring right at her with his sightless eyes.
The funeral had not started yet, so I sidled over to him. "Sorry, I can't quite place you, sir," I said as I introduced myself.
"I'm a cousin of Floyd," the man rasped. "Name's Klondike O'Leary. I used to supervise a diamond mine near Fairbanks. I had to retire early when my eyes gave out." He brushed a tear from his cheek.
"Well, the family resemblance is remarkable," I commented. "You even *sound* like Uncle Floyd."
"That's very kind of you, Owen," Klondike O'Leary said. "Floyd always spoke well of you. If I hadn't been busy in Alaska, I would have spent more time getting to know you and your lovely wife."
I wanted to say and talk some more, but Claudia had noticed him and was glaring in his direction, so I meekly went back to my place in the pew.
The mourners at Uncle Floyd's funeral wept buckets of tears during a slide show that was cobbled together from photos of his life. It wasn't clear whether some of the scenes were provoking tears of sorrow or fright, however. The polar bears that seemed about to maul Uncle Floyd looked pretty scary, all in all! Floyd's children were cute as buttons in the early pictures, and they continued to look better and better. I found myself weeping from envy, thinking that the good genes never got to my end of the gene pool. But, I reflected later, it's not hard to look good when you're young, as my kids did. Looking good at Uncle Floyd's age was trickier. My real envy was that, with thirty more years under his belt, Floyd had looked younger than me!
Klondike O'Leary was the life of the wake, so to speak. It amazed me how well he hid his sorrow as he sampled rich pastries and scarfed down copious quantities of the mulled wine that Floyd's daughter had provided. I saw her shaking her head as she watched him guzzle it. Who got to be ninety with an undiminished capacity for holding one's liquor?
Two days later I sat at my breakfast table waiting to be picked up for my ride to the airport. My bags were waiting at the door, I had made sure all the dishes were washed, the hot water turned off, and the refrigerator empty of anything that would go bad if I didn't get back soon -- or at all.
Since the funeral, I had spent the better part of my time searching the Internet for info about the island I was soon to get up close and personal with. Little was known about Uninhabited Volcanic Island Number 115. Even the photos taken from communications satellites were often blurry due to clouds that tended to hang around the island's central volcanic cone. When there were no clouds in the way, there was a greenish tinge to the cone, thought to be caused by trees that grew on the slopes. The absence of a crater was attributed to eons of erosion that had backfilled the hole. The island around the cone was unremarkable, sort of a generic overgrown jungle ringed by a sandy beach.
This would have begged the question as to why the island had gone undiscovered for so long, had it not been for sharp, jagged rocks poking out of the sea all around the isle, and a high-velocity vortex ringing the rocks. Ships that were able to brave the current of the vortex would need to be very lucky to avoid the jagged rocks. I crossed my fingers, hoping that the wheelchair-bound captain with the bad heart would have some tricks up her sleeve for getting through to the island where all other ships had failed.
I was jolted out of my reveries by the loud sound of a motorcycle pulling up in front of the house.
I put my coffee cup down and headed for the front door, where I beheld a young man in a blue-striped button-down shirt, a sweater vest, a pair of white chinos and a motorcycle jacket. He had the fresh-scrubbed face of a college undergraduate and the toned body of someone who liked to spend time in a gym or pool. My flabby arms would be of little use against his toned ones, but I was resolved to resist a ride on that deathtrap bike of his. Well, his eager face looked good-natured enough. Maybe he would yield to my wishes.....