John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

To the memory of Maxwell Penrose Wilkinson

In baiting a mouse trap with cheese, always leave room for the mouse.



A night bird winging back to one of the islands made a harsh sobbing cry as it passed near a small cruiser anchored well to the south of the channel. The sound brought the owner up out of sleep, wrenching him out of his dreams into a moment of confusion before he sorted his world into the small realities of time and place.

He was naked on top of the sheets, sweaty, and with a thick headache somewhere behind his left brow. The sea was so still he could detect no motion, nor could he hear any slap of water against the fiberglass hull of the Thelma HI. He heard a humming sound begin and knew it was the cooler. The woman in the other bunk made a thick snorting sound and settled back into her quiet sleep.

Loomis stood up and felt his way to the two steps and the hatch, and the cockpit deck. It was lighter under the invisible stars. Morning mist obscured them. Off to the east, toward Florida, was the first suggestion of dawn, a deep red line, narrow as a needle, along the watery edge of Mississippi Sound, out there close to infinity, close to the edge of the world where, if things were properly arranged, one could fall off. Or push someone off. Or hold hands and jump.

He felt around in the scuppers until he found his soggy red swimming trunks, discarded soon after he had jollied and cajoled Helen Yoder out of the black and white swimsuit he had loaned her. He stepped into the trunks and pulled them up. Didn’t matter if there was no live person left on earth, a man felt better with a little bit of protection between his private possessions and the toothy creatures of the deep.

Tucker Loomis climbed heavily over the transom, stood on the small mahogany diving platform for a few moments, then sat and dangled his legs in the soup-warm sea, and slid in, glad of the chance to sluice away the sour sweat of hot night and too much to drink. The drinking seldom happened. It was not a problem. But the pressures were heavy lately. Have to keep watch for a correlation. If drinking goes up with the pressure, time to get back on the wagon. As he swam a slow circuit of his little cruiser, he emptied his bladder into the summer sea, heat into warmth. A notable example of environmental pollution. Get the professors all agitated and jumpy about it. They’d probably say that ten months and three days from now they could scoop up a pan of water in Sydney Harbor and take it to the lab and find one part in forty trillion is hangover piss out of old Tuck Loomis, one of the great despoilers of God’s own earth. With some real sophisticated procedures maybe they could find out that this pleasant pee at dawn had originated in a couple of bottles of the best champagne put out by Perrier. Maybe eighty dollars a pop in your best restaurant. Pretty flowers on the bottle. That old senator surely went for it in a big way last April in New Orleans in the suite.

He circled the boat three times, and when he climbed back aboard, the narrow red line was a broad pink band, and there was less mist overhead. He stepped out of the trunks, picked them up and wrung them out and spread them along the back of the fishing chair to dry.

When he went below to get a fresh towel, Helen Yoder was sitting up in her bunk, arms wrapped around her legs, forehead on her knees. She raised her head and glanced at him and lowered it again. Her dark blonde hair was a wild tangle.

“And a cheery good morning to you too, little buddy,” he said.

“Just shut up, Tuck. Okay?”

“That bad?”

She did not answer. He knelt and took a towel out of the stowage locker under her bunk. Enough gray light came through the small port to make a silver glow on the good flat lines of her back and shoulders. He sat on the bunk behind her and toweled the mat of wiry gray on his chest and the thick crop of white hair on his broad skull. He leaned forward, pawed her hair out of the way and gave her a noisy kiss on the nape of the neck.

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