Copyright © 2017 Michael Poore
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Chapter 1: The Wise Man of Orange Blossom Key
Florida Keys, 2017
This is a story about a wise man named Milo.
It begins on the day he was eaten by a shark.
The day didn’t begin badly. Milo woke up before sunrise, tucked his fifty-year-old self into a pair of shorts, and walked out to meditate on the beach. His dog, Burt – a big black mutt -- followed.
Milo sat down in the sugar-white sand, closed his eyes, and felt the warm, salt breeze in his beard. He took note of his ponytail feathering against his back, and seagulls crying. That’s what you were supposed to do when you meditated: notice things, without really thinking about them.
Milo was not a particularly good meditator. He cracked open a beer, and watched the sun come up. Meanwhile, as always, the more he tried to think of nothing, the more he thought of ridiculous, noisy shit like his big toe, or France. Maybe he would get a new tattoo.
He drank his breakfast, noticing the ocean, welcoming its ancient indifference. He tried to match its breath – the breath of time itself -- and fell asleep, as usual, on the beach with his beer and his dog, until the tide rolled in far enough to wet the sand under his ankles.
He was, perhaps, the crappiest meditator in the world. But he noticed this, accepted it, and let it humble him. Humility was one of the things that made him a wise man.
He walked back to the house to open a new bag of dog food.
The shark that would eat Milo in a few hours was miles away, at that particular moment. It patrolled the surf off St. Jeffrye’s Key, looking for manatees.
The shark knew it was hungry. This required no thought. The shark lived in the moment, every moment, in a perfect equanimity of sense and peace, meditating its way through the sea without even trying.
Milo worked in his garden for a while.
He played with his dog and read a book about fossils.
He went online and spent twenty minutes watching dumb videos.
Then he drove his old pickup truck to St. Vincent’s Hospital, because visiting the sick is an important part of a wise man’s job. He took Burt with him.
Petting dogs was good for people; it was a scientific fact. Burt was a wise man too, in his way. All animals are.
On this particular day, Milo and Burt visited Ms. Arlene Epstein, who was dying of being a hundred years old.
She was asleep when Milo arrived, and he stood there looking at her for a minute.
Hospitals had an unfortunate way of reducing people, he thought. Looking at Arlene Epstein in her bed, tissue-delicate, you’d never know that she had once been a legendary bartender, keeping rowdy tourists in line with a sawed-off hockey stick.
Burt hopped up and rested his forepaws on the mattress.
“Milo,” yawned Arlene. “Is it Thursday already?”
“Saturday,” he answered, kneeling.
“I always liked Saturdays,” mused Arlene. “I think I’ll die on a Saturday, if I can help it.”
“Not today, though,” said Milo. “You look good.”
“Fantastic,” she replied, sitting up and giving his beard a tug. “You can take me for a walk.”
Arlene was not supposed to go for walks. There was a sticker on her door that said she was a ‘fall risk.’ Milo ignored the sticker, and stole a walker from a closet down the hall.
Arlene took one step about every three seconds. Milo stuck casually by her side, ready like a hair-trigger to catch her. Burt walked along the wall, sniffing like crazy (dogs love hospitals. Think of all the different smells you can never quite get rid of).
When they had traveled ten feet, Arlene asked, “Milo, do you know what happens when we die?”
He was honest with her. He said, “Yes.”
One step. Two steps.
“Well?” she asked.
“You come back as something else.”
Arlene thought about that.
“Like another person?” she said.
“Or a dog. Or an ant. Maybe even a tree. Burt was a bus driver in his last life.”
The old woman stopped.
“Don’t fuck with me,” she said. “I’m going to die soon, on a Saturday, and I want to know.”
Milo looked down at her with deep, honest eyes.
“I’ve lived almost ten thousand lives,” he told her. “I am the oldest soul on the planet.”
Arlene looked into one of his eyes, then the other. Seemed to like what she saw. She set the walker aside, took Milo’s hand with both of hers, and leaned on him some.
They resumed walking.
“Will I still be me?” she asked.
“Sure,” said Milo. “More or less. Of course, you’re supposed to make improvements.”
“Well, I don’t think I want to come back as a tree.”
Arlene patted his hand and told him he was a good boy.
Burt sniffed out something nasty on the floor, and gave it a big, fat lick.
If Milo had gone out swimming then and been eaten by the shark, it would have been a wonderful, generous note for his life to end on. But he didn’t.
The shark, always hungry, had eaten a mess of ocean perch and some floating garbage, and now cruised the deeps between islands, coming up slowly across the outer reefs of Orange Blossom Key.
The shark had been an ocean perch, in a former life. It had been food of all kinds. It had been the Strawberry Queen for the 1985 Strawberry Festival in Troy, Ohio. Sometimes, in dreams, it remembered these other lives.
For now, though, it swam and was hungry, and swam and was hungry.
Milo still had his workday to look forward to. Part of being a wise man was knowing the importance of work.
Milo did two things for a living.
Thing One: he was a fisherman, and a sportfishing guide.
He owned a boat called the Jenny Ann Loudermilk, and charged people a fortune to catch fish. You could charge tourists in the keys practically anything.
Today, Milo’s workday involved housecleaning aboard the Loudermilk. Maybe a customer would appear, but he kind of hoped not. He was hoping to go surfing, if the waves built up.
He stood on the deck of his boat, wielding a garden hose, spraying away seagull shit and old fish guts. Burt curled up on the floor in the pilot house and lay there watching the flies on the windshield.
Milo thought about Arlene Epstein and wondering if she was scared.
He hoped not. Death was a door. You went through it over and over, but it still terrified people. That’s what he was thinking about when something bright and colorful caught his eye, down on the dock.
A tourist, in an Orange Blossom Key t-shirt. A chunky man of middle years, wearing a mustache, sunglasses, brand-new boat shoes, and a straw hat.
Suddenly, Milo didn’t feel like working that afternoon. Suddenly he just wanted to head for BoBo’s Pub, and sit at the bar and drink beer.
“Are you going out again today?” asked the tourist.
Aw, great balls of shit.
“The customer’s always right,” said Milo. “You want to go out, we’ll go out.”
Milo quoted his fee, which staggered the man. (O, shining hope…)
“Listen,” said Milo, “you get three or four other fellas, it’s easier on your wallet, and we could go out and hit it tomorrow morning --”
But the tourist seemed to be in the grip of some urgency.
“No,” he said. “Let’s go ahead and go.”
“Hop aboard,” said Milo, offering a strong, tanned, tattooed hand.
The tourist introduced himself as Floyd Gamertsfelder.
“I sell carpet,” he said.
“That’s awesome,” said Milo, casting off.
Burt jumped ship and trotted away down the dock, heading home. He didn’t belong out on the water, and he knew it.
Floyd Gamertsfelder didn’t give a shit about catching fish. This was something Milo knew the instant he saw him, the moment he heard that strange urgency in the carpet salesman’s voice. About half of Milo’s customers were like that; they paid heavy money for his time, fuel, and tackle, but they were there for something deeper and more difficult than amberjack or marlin.
This was Thing Two, the second part of Milo’s job: professional wise man and counselor.
People came to him because they had problems they couldn’t sort out on their own, and they had heard of him. Just as people in cartoons climbed mountains to find wise men, real people traveled serious distances to consult Milo aboard his boat, upon the sea, for the price of a half-day charter.
They were smart to do so. When you live almost ten thousand lives, after all, you can learn a great deal. Milo had squeezed so much learning and experience into his one, single soul that the knowledge had grown pressurized and hot, and transformed into wisdom the way coal changes into diamonds. His wisdom was like a superpower.
It showed in his eyes – like green fire in outer space – and in his tattooed skin, which was creased and furrowed as if his suntan had put down roots.
“I really just want to talk to you about some stuff,” Floyd admitted as they motored out of the marina.
“I know,” said Milo.
Past the breakwater, a decent-sized swell lifted the Loudermilk. The kind that promised good surfing, later. He hoped Floyd was a fast talker.
Patience, his boa reminded him. Compassion.
Milo nodded, formed the mudra with his thumbs and forefingers, goosed the throttle, and steered out to sea.
Floyd Gamertsfelder was not a fast talker.
Milo was kind of hoping he’d open up and spit out whatever his mystery problem was before they got too far out, but no. Floyd made his remark about wanting to talk, and then he just clammed up, watching the horizon, looking glum.
Milo wasn’t surprised. It took time, usually. The puzzles people brought were hard-core and personal. They had to ride the waves awhile, before they opened up. They had to glimpse his outer space eyes and hear the ocean roll in his seaworthy, biker-dude voice.
Milo nearly always took his customers to the same place, the same coordinates. Out of sight of land, an hour over open water, to a place only he knew about. In ninety feet of water, he dropped anchor directly over a forgotten submarine wreck, an artificial reef that hosted almost every species in the Gulf.
“A dead man could catch his limit here,” Milo told his customers.
He and Floyd drifted around for two hours over the sub, catching bonita and sunfish.
Floyd opened up a little cooler he’d brought, and they each had a beer.
“Have you ever been married, Milo?” Floyd asked.
Ah, a marriage problem. Marriage counted for eighty percent of the wise man business.
Milo said, “Yep.” (Nine thousand, six-hundred, forty-nine times)
“Well,” said Floyd, “basically I don’t think my wife is very nice to me.”
Milo made a sympathetic noise.
“Not like cheating on me. I don’t mean that. Maybe this’ll sound dumb, but she doesn’t ever do nice shit like bring me a glass of lemonade when I’m mowing the lawn. Am I being old-fashioned? They say it’s the little things, right? Well, she doesn’t do any of the little things.”
Milo reached behind him to damp the throttle, cutting the engine noise.
“Do I do little things for her?” Floyd continued. “Hell yes. Last week, I made spaghetti, and -- whoa, something’s happening!”
A nice amberjack had hit Floyd’s line, and they spent fifteen minutes reeling it in.
The wind picked up a little. Down below, in the ribs of the old submarine, thousands of fish watched the shadow of the Jenny Ann Loudermilk as it lurked across the sea bottom. A mile away, still, the shark that would eat Milo chased a school of mackerel, and glided north along the drop-off.
“Is your wife nice to other people?” asked Milo.
“Not particularly,” said Floyd.
“What do you think the problem is?”
Floyd took a deep breath, and said:
“I pretty much think my wife is an unpleasant person. I think she doesn’t like me very much, or anyone else, either.”
“Why don’t you leave her?” asked Milo.
Floyd digested this question for five full minutes.
“I’m trying to be mature about things,” he said at last. “I thought maybe we just needed time. Marriage is work. So what --” and here, he finally turned to look straight at Milo – “so what I think I need to do is, I need to grow up and want things to get better. My parents didn’t raise quitters.”
Milo didn’t meet Floyd’s eyes. He watched the sea, looking for something in particular.
“ ‘Scuse me a minute,” he said, and cast a tube lure waaaaaaay out, watched it splash down. Silently counted: Four, three, two, one – and then yanked back hard, cranked like mad, and dropped a giant, angry barracuda onto the deck, right in front of Floyd.
“Christ!” screamed Floyd “What’s wrong with you?”
The barracuda thrashed, all huge jaws and razor teeth, instantly making hash of the deck hose.
Floyd exploded in panic, dancing and spinning.
“Be mature about it,” suggested Milo.
The barracuda flipped into the air, snapping at Floyd’s hands.
“Give it time,” added Milo. “Fishing is work.”
The barracuda mowed through an empty beer can, and went for Floyd’s ankles.
The carpet dealer, like most people, was brave when he needed to be. He swallowed his panic, bent down and grasped the fish around the middle, and flung it out of the boat with something between a sob and a grunt.
Then he stood there shaking, pumped full of adrenalin, trying to decide if he had enough courage left over to shout at Milo again.
“The problem with a barracuda,” said Milo, “isn’t that you aren’t being mature. The problem is that it’s a barracuda. If you don’t like being in the boat with it, one of you has to go.”
Floyd sat down in the fighting chair. After a minute, he said, “Yes.”
He said it in the saddest way, but he looked happy.
Milo mashed the throttle and sped for home, hoping to save the tail end of the afternoon.
If he had died just then, it would have been a poetic and satisfactory end. But he didn’t.
He chose to get drunk at Bobo’s Pub.
BoBo’s was famous across the Keys for BoBo himself: a stuffed baboon with exposed fangs and a life preserver, eternally crouched on his haunches, one paw wrapped around a healthy erection. The bartender had to take BoBo home at the end of each night, otherwise kids would break in and steal him.
For about a year, Milo had been shacking up with the weekday bartender, a forty-five- year-old former soccer pro named Tanya. After closing, he helped her stack chairs, and then they went back to her bungalow (BoBo rode in the back of the pickup), where they killed half a bottle of wine, and made love.
Outside the open bungalow window, waves hissed and crashed. Then, suddenly, one wave made a different kind of sound, a boom like a bass drum in a hollow log.
It was a surfing sound.
“Come surfing with me,” said Milo.
‘Not tonight,” she said. “I’m going to get a little drunker and go to sleep.”
“I’ll wake you when I get back,” he said, leaning down and kissing her.
“No,” she protested. “Are you kidding? Let me sleep. I gotta work early tomorrow.”
Isn’t that dumb? That was the last human conversation Milo had, in that life.
He paddled out past the shallows, muscled his way through breaking waves, and slid downhill into the deeper country, where the waves were still swells, right before they began toppling.
It was his favorite thing. Sitting on his board out there, waiting. Glimpsing the candlelight in the bungalow window. Wondering what Tanya was thinking about. Wondered how Burt was doing at home, a few miles up the beach. Sleeping? Hunting along the shore?
That was Milo’s status, in the minutes before the shark. Not bad, as such minutes go.
He even managed to meditate a little, folding himself up inside the moment. He noticed the moon, like an anklebone, like a story, up in space. The night and the breeze and –
The shark hit him.
It drove upwards like a rocket, and smashed into the air with the surfboard in its jaws. Milo experienced it the way you might experience getting hit by a bus. Sudden and hard, and knowing something bad was happening without knowing what, yet.
And then knowing, and being afraid.
Getting eaten by a shark wasn’t any different for a wise man than it was for a shoe salesman or an aardvark. He felt what was happening with terrible clarity – the awful tearing crushing -- and he screamed and yelled just like anyone else.
Too bad. He had always kind of thought he would go into death like an explorer, in a golden flash of peace and wholeness, and here he was being chewed up like a ham.
His last words were “No! Fuck! No!”
The voice in his head began to go quiet, the light inside him started to go out.
Burt, Milo thought, before he went totally dark, would be smart enough to go find a new friend, someone who would appreciate what a fine dog he was. It was a good and kind thought, a wise thought, and then something like a fast-moving, interstellar night flooded through him and snuffed him out like a –
With a flick of its tail, the shark dove for the middle-depths, leaving behind a cloud of gore and pieces of surfboard..
It didn’t stop to savor, or to be appreciative. It was still hungry, so it looked for more food.
One half of the shark’s brain noticed the ocean, noticed the sounds and heartbeats of the sea.
The other half noticed the warmth of good food digesting in its belly, and remembered being a perch, and a mackerel, and a clam, and a whale, and a dog, and a cat, and the Strawberry Queen.
Chapter 2: The Unlikely Joy of Being Catapulted Into Vienna
Dying was nothing new, of course.
Milo had died nearly ten thousand times, in almost every way possible.
Some deaths were horrid; some were not so bad. !’),
The best way to die, of course, was instantly, but this was rare. Milo had died instantly just one time. A tower crane dropped an iron girder on him. It was the only time he got to the Afterlife and had to ask, “What happened?”
Of course, even if you knew she was coming, Death was never routine.
Five times, Milo had been executed, and therefore had known in advance the exact hour he would die. He had been burned at the stake in Spain, beheaded in China, hanged in the Sudan, and gassed in California. Knowing death was coming, you could usually manage to act brave. But it was just an act. Inside, it felt like someone was working on you with a plunger.
Milo hated the ones that hurt. Sixteen times he had died in combat: speared, knocked off a parapet, wounded and bled out, speared, run over by a chariot, paralyzed with a mace and run over by a horse, kicked in the face by a horse, speared, bayoneted, exploded, shot and bled out, shot and dragged by a horse, fallen on by a horse (Milo hated horses), and choked to death by a giant German infantryman. Once, he had been captured by the Turks and flung by catapult back over the walls at Vienna. This was his favorite. Crushing speed, and then flying through the night in a universe of battle smoke, the fires of the starving city beneath him. Horrifying, but wonderful, wonderful!
There were deaths of haunting beauty. As an arctic explorer, freezing to death, he felt nothing but the illusion of warmth, and his brain released little chemicals of peace and satisfaction. He slipped away as the sun rose, flashing on the ice like a knife catching fire.
He didn’t always get to grow up, before dying. He knew what it was like to spend all summer at Children’s Hospital with his hair falling out, and die holding Charles, his toy alligator.
Milo had died during orgasm, died after rich dinners in fine company, died in moments of perfect love. Died, in one future life, in a starship crash at the speed of light, in a moment that resonated forever inside the envelope of time, so that it was always happening, like a guitar string that would never stop humming. He had fallen from trees and choked on waffles. He had been eaten by sharks and cancers. He died of bad habits and angry husbands and killer bees once, and dumb accidents like sticking a high-pressure air hose up his nose when he was working in a tool shop, trying to be funny.
Between lives, when he could remember it all, he sometimes wanted to relive being catapulted into starving, besieged Vienna. How strange to want to relive a death. Forty times he had asked Death to make this happen.
“Why?” Death had asked him.
He thought it over. “I flew!” he answered. “I was weightless.”
She said, “Nothing’s weightless; that’s why we die.”
He settled for the memory: weightless and perfect and closing his eyes, remembering the fire and the speed and the rushing wind and some rising kitchen-smoke he had flown through, smelling of onions and roast dog.