Ferrus T. Bucket Deals with Hard Times

HELEN CHAPPELL

February 22, 1992|By HELEN CHAPPELL

Oysterback, Maryland. -- It was one of those days that winter hands out every once in a while, with a sudden break in the cold and a gentle southerly breeze that hints of spring to come.

Down at the end of Black Dog Road, Ferrus T. Bucket rocked back and forth in his creaky chair, sucking on his dentures as he read the latest issue of Paris-Match in the warm sunlight. At his feet, Blackie, his ancient and half-senile lab, pricked up his ears at the sound of an approaching car.

Ferrus barely glanced up as the glossy new Mercedes, painted an eye-blinding white, roared past, then suddenly stopped in a flurry of brake lights and squealing tires. After a moment, it began to slowly back up, until it was parallel with Ferrus' littered wonder of an overgrown yard, decorated with all matter of rusting engine parts and extinct appliances. A woman's face, disapproving and haughty, floated in the smoked glass of the passenger's window, peering at Ferrus as if he were a particularly unappealing insect.

''Well, offer him a little money, for God's sake,'' Ferrus heard her voice, thick with the accents of the Western Shore, through the open sunroof. ''Obviously he's just some old cracker trash. He has no idea what it's really worth.''

''It would be a Lem Ward, Muffy. None of these people know the value of anything,'' her male companion said. ''Now, I know my decoys. You just watch me.''

A man climbed out of the passenger seat. Like the car, everything about him was too new and too expensive.

The man strode into the yard without so much as a by-your-leave and picked up an ancient decoy carelessly resting against an old deep freezer lid. He turned it this way and that, tapped it with his finger and even sniffed it like a wine cork. Apparently satisfied, he walked a few feet deeper into the yard. ''I say, pops, this decoy is quite interesting. A bufflehead, isn't it? I collect decoys, don't you know.''

''Is that right,'' Ferrus replied. With his old man's fingers, he carefully creased his place in Paris-Match.

''Oh yes,'' the man continued. ''Know everything there is know ++ about them. This is rather an interesting specimen, don't you know. Not terribly valuable, I daresay, but interesting.''

''Is that right,'' Ferrus said again. He took out his pipe and began to fill it from his pouch, carefully tamping the sweet-smelling tobacco into the bowl. ''Been around here forever. Gave up gunnin' when my joints got too bad to move. ''At 'ere ole 'coy ain't no good for gunnin' no more. Neipert use a string that old; she'd heave up on you.''

Ferrus was reminded of the churchy caution against avarice as he watched expressions flickering across the man's face. Nothing could be read in his own countenance, however.

The woman was tapping on the car window, mouthing something at her companion.

''Well, listen old man,'' the Mercedes owner said impatiently. ''What do you say to selling this old thing to me? Give you fifty.''

''They got a whole goddam museum over to town fulla them ole 'coys,'' Ferrus said.

If looks could kill, Ferrus would have been dead on the rotten planking.

''Ger-ald, pay the man and let's get out of Tobacco Road. I would really, really like to be at Fager's by four.'' The woman leaned out the window now. With her blonde hair skimmed back from her head, she looked like a made-up skull.

''Take a hunnert,'' Ferrus said matter-of-factly.

The Mercedes man had trouble holding the decoy and pulling a thick roll of bills from his pants pocket at the same time. He handed Ferrus a bill, tendered between his second and third fingers, as if touch with the old waterman could contaminate him.

Ferrus was still tucking the bill in his shirt pocket when the glimmering Mercedes did a U-turn and headed down the road.

''I'm so sure that it's a Ward!'' the woman's voice hung in the air.

As soon as they were out of sight, Ferrus got up and walked around the back yard. Taking up his shovel, he began to dig in the manure pile, exposing a beautifully, if artificially aged wooden snow goose. ''Oh, I'm so sure that it's a Ward!'' he muttered in imitation of the woman's nasal accents. He began to chuckle. ''Not,'' he added, bearing the goose proudly to the front yard.

Helen Chappell is a novelist and keeper of Oysterback's secrets.

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