John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

With total confidence he rolled the dice, rolled them hard. They whacked the far end of the table and came tumbling back, and he was smiling in anticipation. Six and six. Boxcars. Busted.

He could not remember leaving the casino floor and going outside. It was a clear cool night then also. A woman tugged at him, mumbling her dirty words, and he shoved her away.

He had felt confused and helpless then as he did now. Life had bounced and rolled and it had come up wrong again. For absolutely no reason.

He suddenly realized he was back home. He unlocked the door and went in. He startled Shirley, the nurse. He had told her he wouldn’t be back until after Mrs. Madigan had relieved her. Thelma was asleep. He went in and stood by her bed. It was so still he could hear her breathing. He wondered what moved through her dreams, what stirred in her world without words.

He went back through the darkened house to his study, turned on the desk light, opened the safe in the closet and took out a rectangular box covered with dark blue fabric. The two latches were ivory pins which slid into little leather loops.

He opened it under the desk lamp and looked at the ten Masanao netsuke, each in its open compartment lined with white silk. He took the delicate masterpieces out one at a time and aligned them on the green blotter under the bright desk light with its green shade. Ancient ivory, with tiny age cracks and glossy patina. A seated hare, a monkey with a persimmon, a Kirin, a Shishi, a fat young dog, a swimming carp, a stylized sparrow, a standing figure of Fukurokuju, a grazing pony and the rat so recently purchased at auction in London.

He remembered where and when and how each piece had been acquired. He knew the provenance of each piece, the name of the previous collector. Davey, Meinertzhagen, Sharpe, Ford, Murakami, Hepworth. Each piece had been authenticated.

He handled them, trying to rekindle the pleasure of possession, trying to imagine once again what it would be like to present this small and superb collection to one of the great museums.

But he could not respond. Not this time. He replaced them in the box and noticed just as he closed it that he had them in the wrong order. But he did not rearrange them. He replaced them in the safe with the feeling that it might be a long time before he would take them out again. It might be forever.

He went out into the night and walked down near the river and sat as before in the children’s playground, on the blue wooden crawl-through. The cool wind came off the river. He rocked slowly from side to side and made a small humming sound in his throat.


Sunday morning. The twenty-first day of September. A cold front had come bulging down out of Canada, all the way through Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, all the way to the top of the Gulf of Mexico. It was the first of the season, changing the long hot days to an anticipation of winter.

Maria’ arrived ten minutes early to relieve Mrs. Madigan, and they talked in the kitchen about the sudden cold spell, and reaching for blankets in the night, and how long and hot and dry the summer and early fall had been. A deficit of nearly twelve inches of rain, they said. No hurricanes had come booming in this year to soak the land, not like last year with four of them.

Mrs. Madigan said their patient seemed the same as usual.

Possibly she had a little cold starting. They would have to be careful of that. In her condition a cold could turn quickly to pneumonia.

After Mrs. Madigan drove out, Maria looked in on Mrs. Loomis and then tiptoed along the hall and opened Tuck’s door and saw him sound asleep on his back, snoring with each deep slow inhalation, popping his lips with each exhalation. She closed the door and went back and stood at the foot of the bed and looked at Thelma Loomis. Thelma looked back. First the bed pan to avoid the sodden chore of changing the whole bed. The woman’s nostrils and eyelids looked slightly red. After Maria had emptied and rinsed the bed pan, she stood at the foot of the bed again.

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