John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

“For the exercise.”

“You’re terrible!”

He did not hear her go back to her own bed. He awoke at four and left the bedroom quietly and let himself out onto the patio to stand naked for a time, listening to the tree toads. He stretched out on a chaise, feeling the cool plastic bands against his back and his behind. A mockingbird started up, reestablishing his territory. A slight breeze came out of the southwest and though their home was four blocks from the beach, he could smell the salty, fishy fragrance of the flats.

Keep your head down, fella. Do your job. Sell the product, write the contracts, negotiate the loans, attend the closings, bank your share and fatten the Keogh accordingly. Bern is the more cheerful partner. He believes nothing will ever go wrong, really wrong. And you have believed all your life that things can go terribly wrong without warning. Because they did. They proved they could. As someone once said, Life is unfair. Sure. Got the roof fixed just right and along came Hurricane Elena to nudge it out of true and set up the leaks. You can expect a little bit of luck along the way. Beth was proof of that, certainly. And the kids too.

And expect the other kind too. Like when a week before the wedding, his father had taken his wife and Wade’s sister out in that old faithful Prowler and anchored at a good spot just off the fastest flow of the outgoing tide. The way they put it together later, after they had caught enough fish and it was time to come home, Ed Rowley had punched the starter button without first running the exhaust fan to clear fumes out of the bilge. Or possibly the exhaust fan did not run properly. So a boat nearby, heading in, saw the orange-red flash, heard the deep whump of explosion, saw chairs and tackle and bodies in the air. Fished the two women out with a boat hook, wrapped them in tarps. Never found the man. Stayed looking until the Prowler burned to the waterline and then went under, hissing and steaming. A shrimp boat found Ed’s body two days later. Beth came down with him for the services and stayed, ignoring her family’s sharp disapproval. And, in time, when he could lift his head, they were married in a far simpler manner than originally planned.

Over the years the big storms with personal names had taken a lot of lives. As had the diseases of the times. But it was different, somehow, to put your tanned and callused thumb on a silver-shiny button on the instrument panel, press it and get blown away along with the two main women in your life.

And so with the first faint eastern light of the fifteenth day of July, Wade Rowley came upon the memory that had been tucked away so long.

They were over near Pascagoula, Ed Rowley and his son. They had off loaded the dinghy and Ed was poling it through the invisible channels of a mainland tidal marsh. Wade remembered it was a Saturday in the spring. His father was testing him on the names of the marsh plants. Ladies’ Tresses, Sweet Bay, Spider Lily, Button Bush, Love Vine, Seedbox, awarding him an imaginary dollar for every one he got right and fining him two for the ones he got wrong. When the breeze died the bugs got too savage, so they poled back to the open water and along the beach to where the Prowler was anchored.

Once they were aboard, Ed lit his pipe and got out three dollars and gave them to Wade. Wade said he thought they’d be imaginary dollars and if he had known they were going to be real, he wouldn’t have taken so many chances on the ones he didn’t really know. Ed said that all of a sudden he had decided they were real. He said money was a funny commodity. It stood for different things with different people. It could buy almost anything. With some men, he had said, it would buy more than it would with others. It was important, he said, that a man find out early just where he ought to plant his personal For Sale sign. He said that a man who worked for Woodrow Daggs had called him the other day and said Daggs wanted to buy the garage off the Harris property. He would pay for having it moved. He wanted to use it as a construction office on a new job Regal Construction was starting. Ed Rowley had said it wasn’t for sale. The man got back to him with double the first offer. Ed said no. When he came back with the offer doubled again, Ed knew he had riled Daggs.

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