Some men collect stamps. Others wear engineer’s caps and conduct model trains around knots of plastic track or slog up and down Civil War battlefields waving metal detectors.
Ed Munson carves decoys—ducks mostly. Surprisingly, he has no particular fondness for ducks or, in fact for birds of any kind. There are no owl bookends to be found in the Munson home; no Audubon placemats are ever brought out for the Munson’s dinner guests; and Ed himself is never seen wearing mallard print trousers on Saturday morning trips to the hardware store or post office.
Despite their tranquil appearance, Ed has long believed ducks to be a menace to public health, flocking as they do in parks where young children are apt to play and littering the ground with their feathers and droppings. They are oily creatures besides.
Still, ducks have done a lot for Ed. Ducks have won him a raft of blue ribbons. Ducks have gotten his flattened grin into the local papers on two occasions. Ducks have brought him peace of mind.
For Ed, there is nothing like burning in the feather splits on a saucy bufflehead hen or tooling the putty eyelids on a canvasback drake to take him from away from the homeowner premiums and collision claims that are his livelihood.
Ed sells insurance at a modest, but by no means unprofitable, agency in town. It is a dull business, all fine print and numbered clauses, but it has enabled him to meet the kind of men who can pull into the Lion’s Club or cut him a deal on a loaded Pontiac. And he is close—not more than half a dozen universal life policies from making vice president.
Still, it’s not enough.
For the past nine weeks, Ed has been preparing for the Floating Decorative Life-size Waterfowl Pairs Division of the Bailey World Championship. The Bailey is the toughest event on the decoy circuit—the Big Pond—and the judging has a severe simplicity. The merits of each entry are weighed on technical craftsmanship, anatomical accuracy, and the carver’s ability to capture the essence of the species, which for this year’s competition is the hooded merganser.
What’s more, the hen and drake are to be scrutinized as they bob in the gin-clear waters of the floating tank, a rectangular tub roughly the size of a backyard kiddie pool. It’s serious stuff.
Ed has entered the Bailey three years in a row, placing higher each time; he squeaked out a second place ribbon for a plump brace of ruddy ducks his last time out. This time will be different, he tells himself. This year, he’ll be prepared.
Night after night, he helps his wife Bea with the dishes, then says I’ll be in the basement for a minute or two or Think I’ll do a little sanding. He’s gone for hours.
Bea Munson was cheered at first when her husband began to turn down fishing trip invitations and drop Friday night poker games to tinker with his benign new hobby. After all, he is home all the time now and engaged in a Boy Scoutish pastime to boot.
Lately, though, she has caught herself locking her teeth in simmering agitation as she faces the television with dull eyes and listens to Ed’s power tools screeching beneath her slippered feet.
Ed claps the sawdust from his hands and turns the drake so that it faces its mate in the bluish-white puddle of light cast by the fluorescent work lamp.
He swivels the hen toward him, then studies it in profile, his eyes moving from the narrow serrated bill to the elegant crest at the back of the head, then over and down the gentle slope of the scapular and tertial feathers all the way to the tail.
He smirks, touch a dusty finger to his chin. This one has the jizz, all right—the shot of magic it will take to put the Bailey’s $20,000 Grand Prize check into his callused hand. Just wood-burn the feathers on her, and every judge will swear she’s breathing.
The drake is another matter altogether. The proportions of the body are fine. Shoot, they’re better than anything he’s done before. And the knife-like bill and turn of the head are right on the money.
It’s the neck, or more specifically, a know in the neck that’s the problem. It was lurking there just below the surface, like a tumor, when Ed ran into it while using a chunky carbide bit to hog the basswood down to a manageable size. Damned if the power-carver hadn’t come close to seizing up on him, its neoprene rubber sleeve turning soft as taffy from the heat. Ed rubs the knot with his thumb, then taps it with his fingernail. If he’d hit it just a week earlier, he could have knocked out a new head for the drake from clear-grained stock. Now, with the competition only nine days away, he has no more than 40 hours to texture both birds with diamond drill bits and dental sanding discs, add all the feather detail with a wood-burning pen, and apply seven washes of acrylic paint. The labors of Hercules, he thinks, killing the work lamp for the night.
Sitting behind the wheel of his Pontiac, Ed waits for Bea to return to the house for something she’d forgotten in her rush to get out the door.
She comes back with magazines and two packs of chewing gum.
“Okay, now we can go to your little bathtub contest,” she says, a teasing smile curling on her lips.
“Okay, now we can go to your little bathtub contest,” she says, a teasing smile curling on her lips.
“There’s prize money waiting,” Ed says.
He eases the car down the driveway, then noses it toward the interstate, determined not to go over 50.
The trip takes six hours. It is roughly 300 miles, most of it through low country with an abundance of yard sales and chicken processing plants. Along the way, Ed pulls over at a roadside stand whose signs Bea has been reading aloud to amuse herself. Cukes 3 miles, says one. Bottomless ice T, says another. The last one announces Breeze-By Farm in drippy, painted letters.
Ed slows the Pontiac, steering around the chuckholes toward the little stand. Watching Bea get out of the car, he tells himself that he’ll buy her anything she wants, even if it goes bad in the new car. He’s going to treat her like a lady this weekend.
The farm stand is little more than a garage set back in a tangle of poison ivy, its shelves stacked with tubs of twisted vegetables, floppy petunias and a lonely row of bear-shaped honey jars.
A man with full sideburns and a cigar in a white plastic holder comes out of a bathroom behind a pile of empty strawberry crates.
“Hep you folks?” The man removes the cigar from his teeth when he speaks.
Bea asks him about the three varieties of potatoes for sale.
“Some’s new, some’s russet and somes used. That’s a joke.”
“I know.” Bea’s eyes are little-girl bright.
She pokes around in a bin of tattered corn, while the man turns down the dial on a transistor radio taped to the cash register. A woman’s voice welcomes listeners to the Sunshine Hour, then begins reading from the Book of Habukkuk.
Ed faces the highway, jingling the change in his pocket.
“Know an’thing ‘bout nat’ral phenomena?” The man is speaking to him. “I know ‘bout nat’ral phenomena.”
Ed turns to look at him.
“See there’s a reason for ever’thing. A reason and a purpose. That’s why you’re tinklin’ them coins. Bet you know somethin’ in your bones.”
Ed pulls his hands from his pockets and asks Bea if she’s ready yet.
The man goes on. “Most folks don’t wanna know what’s gonna happen. Like lambs to the slaughter. Shame when there’s signs ever’where. Plain as a roadmap.”
Bea carries three jars of quince jelly and an RC Cola to the cash register.
“I’ll take these.”
“I’ll take these.”
“Okey-doke.” The man rings up the sale, says “Two makes ten,” and hands Bea the change. He picks his cigar off the register, looking over its smoldering end at Ed. “You can read a roadmap, can’t you?”
They check into the Sea Foam Motel just after dinner. The place is nicer than the name would suggest. There are cellophane-wrapped plastic cups in the bathroom and a soda machine whose hum can be heard through the wall, but there is also a tiny balcony with a partial view of the beach; it is there that Ed hopes to serve breakfast to Bea in the orange glow of daybreak.
Ed pushes the double beds together while Bea is in the bathroom. It seems to him that she is brush her teeth longer than usual—a good sign. He strips away the green bedspreads and turns bath both sets of sheets, whistling faintly. He walks to the window, listening as Bea rinses and spits into the sink before pulling the blinds open to get a look at the Pontiac in the parking lot, three stories below. It’s still there, angled by the swimming pool in a purplish blotch of light. The car looks safe enough, but then they always do. Some of those hot-wire artists could be out racking up mileage on your radials while you were still waiting for the motel elevator. He’ll definitely have to get the pair of carved mergansers out of the trunk.
“All yours,” Bea says, suddenly behind him. Her hair is loose, and she’s tightly wrapped in the pink bathroom he got her for Valentine’s Day. The one two years ago.
Ed tries to make eye contact as he passes her, but she’s looking hard at the beds. He keeps his smile all the way to the bathroom, where he gargles with mouthwash and runs a soapy washcloth under his arms, thinking all the while about Lady Luck.
The lights are off when he comes out in his boxer shorts with his gut sucked in. another good sign. He whistles a show tune, from what show he’s not sure. He puts out both hands and feels his way across the room. That’s the chair…and that’s the dresser…and that’s the television…and that’s that.
Bea has moved the beds apart in his absence.
He spends the night with the boxed mergansers roosting at his feet.
Ed rises before dawn, dressing quietly before going down to the car. He wants to get another look at the competition entry forms in his briefcase. He’s heard of men blowing a year’s work by missing the official check-in time.
Three ducks splash down in the motel swimming pool while he riffles through the paperwork. Mallards. Two hens and a drake. He’s never seen such a thing, thought it’s obviously a possibility—a swimming pool being a body of water and ducks being waterfowl. Still, it’s curious. Is this the kind of sign spoke of by the man at the farm stand? Ed tries to spot some clue in the drake’s iridescent plumage. He strains to hear some message in the hens’ scolding quacks. He even takes a stab at reading the four feathers left on the surface of the pool like tea leaves. There isn’t time to seek an answer. Check-in for the Pairs Division is in less than an hour.
Ed marches toward the convention hall with a bird packed under each arm. Bea trails behind him, humming something he’s heard recently. It’s the show tune he whistled last night. When he turns to give her a look, she squints back at him, popping a pink cube of bubble gum into her mouth. Glancing at the Bailey banner flapping above the entrance, he feels none of the nausea he’s had before his previous two showings.
He smiles and jokes his way through the formalities of the check-in process, even letting Bea pat the birds on the rump for good luck before handing them over to a man in a camouflage Ducks Unlimited cap.
“Got the heft of winners,” the man says.
Ed nods. This is the hard part, turning your babies over to some stranger in a funny hat.
He finds Bea sitting in the stands, talking to two short-haired women, probably wives of men who have entered the competition. She winks at him, then waves him off, her jaws working steadily on the gum.
There is still plenty of time before the Pairs judging, so Ed wanders among the vendor booths in the hallway off the main floor. Some of the biggest names in carving are there—Bud McCloy, W.W.. Krebs, Tiny Milfoil—all of them hawking their how-to books and aviary videotapes and patented tools right next to local merchants trying to unload duck burgers and feather fries. Anything for a buck.
Ed buys a sterling silver pendant of a lesser scaup from a skinny girl who has driven all night from Piggott, Arkansas. He tucks it into his pocket, planning to surprise Bea with it later.
He runs into Zeke Dawkins by a display table crowded with novice and intermediate songbird entries. “Pretty little things,” he says.
“Sure, if you like working with tweezers all ding-dong day. You in the pairs, Munson?”
“What do you think?”
“Figured. You did the hen with the heads-up pose?”
“She looks good. But that drake—can’t put my finger on what’s wrong with that fella. Guess that’s what the judges are for.”
“Always a pleasure, Zeke.”
Ed checks his watch and cuts back toward the stands. Bea is still with the women, still gabbing. Those gals can sure go on. He catches Bea’s eye, gesturing that he’s going to stay on the floor. Not that she’ll care.
He has just staked out a spot with a clear view of the floating tanks when someone taps him on the shoulder. It’s Jimmy LeBecque, the Carvin’ Cajun, a champion several times over and one of the field’s elder statesmen, known for his way with marsh ducks.
“You feel good ‘bout dis one, you?”
“Sure,” Ed says. “But that doesn’t mean anything.”
LeBecque looks keyed up as they watch the tournament’s volunteer staff begin to wheel the decoys in on dollies. “Bonne chance,” he says.
“You, too.” Ed puts out his hand, but the Louisiana Legend has moved off to watch the event with his bayou buddies, men who seem to go in for elaborate facial hair and matching belt-and-boot ensembles. He would have liked to ask LeBecque what he thought of the drake.
The decoys are now being gingerly doled out to the head judge like slices of cake. So that’s the man, Ed thinks: a bald guy with tinted glasses and a towel slung around his neck. He looks like a boxing trainer, the kind of man who’d give you a pep talk while you spat blood into a bucket, your eyes tight as the slot in a piggy bank. Ed overhears someone say that the judge is a tenured professor of ornithology at a small women’s college in Massachusetts.
He watches the professor carry the ducks two-by-two to the floating tank, then plunk them upside down into the water. This is the first and most rudimentary test, a sort of baptismal rite in which the decoys are required to right themselves from any position.
Of the 18 birds in the tank, only two loll on their sides, dead in the water.
Ed feels a vague prickling up the back of his neck as the birds and their mates are removed from the tub; his dread flickers into satisfaction when he hears Zeke Dawkins curse out loud.
The professor marches twelve paces away from the tank, then wheels around sharply. He motions for one of the assistants to move the birds, arranging them in some pattern known only to himself. He squats low on his haunches, takes off his glasses, cleans them while he blinks at the stands, then replaces them with a shove of his thumb. He orders six more decoys out of the little pool as coolly as a lifeguard. The survivors now total twelve.
Ed panics for a moment, sweat beading above his lip until he spots his birds—first the hen, then the drake—bobbing in the middle of the little flock.
The professor hikes up his pants and makes another run at the tank, dismissing four more decoys.
A sharp crack breaks the hush of the auditorium. Ed see Jimmy LeBecque turn away from the tank, the broken halves of a ballpoint pen in his hand.
But the professor hasn’t heard a thing. His bare arms are wet to the elbows now as he handles the birds himself—lifting this one, turning that one, nudging the rejects into a corner. They don’t stay there long.
Three pairs remain in the pool. A one-in-three shot, Ed thinks. Your basic shell game. He tries to get Bea’s attention up there in the stands. She is smiling at something one of the women has said, just grinning and chewing.
Suddenly the professor picks up a hen—Ed’s hen—to study the delicate transitional feathers between the neck and side pockets; the bird is sent to the front. Go to the head of the class. The professor fishes another hen from the tank, frowning at the bill detail. He is vetting the females all at once. Ladies first. The second hen is quickly banished to the corner; the third is pushed up next to Ed’s. seeing them side-by-side like that, his hen nodding like a queen, Ed imagines fingering the $20,000 Grand Prize; in his mind, it’s as crisp as Melba Toast.
The first drake picked up by the professor is a preener, carved with its bill nuzzling its primary feathers. It’s a mistake, Ed thinks, tricking out a drake that way. Too damned precious. A male duck is supposed to look like…like a real drake’s drake.
The professor seems to agree, dismissing the prissy bird with a snap of his handkerchief before blowing his nose.
Ed is one duck closer; he’s doing better than he ever would have guessed during all those nights spent hunched over rough blocks of wood—linden, jeleutong, tupelo gum—with his fingers bleeding from 200-grit sandpaper and curls of wood putty caked under his nails.
The remaining two drakes are placed wing-to-wing in the tank. Of the two, Ed things his bird has the edge; it rides slightly higher in the water, its bill cocked upwards with a bit more authority.
The processor looks hard at both decoys, his lips moving slightly. What the hell is he up to now? Arguing with himself? Cursing? Saying a prayer?
Ed makes it as far as the daily bread portion of the Lord’s Prayer, before the professor scoops up his rival’s decoy. The man gives the bird a real going-over, peering into each seven millimeter glass eye, tweaking the slender bill, running a scholarly finger along the crest of the head. He sets the drake bobbing in the center of the tank, no hint of approval or scorn on his face.
Ed knows his fate rests in the hands of others now—both God’s and the professor’s; he would like to believe that he has at least some pull with one of them at least. He takes up the Lord’s Prayer where he left off, tearing right through to the end.
The professor handles Ed’s drake like it’s a bust unearthed from Pompeii or the latest installment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He’s all fingertips and slow motion as his eyes strobe behind the tinted glasses.
Ed hears the ebb and flow of blood in his temples; it sounds like a passing rainstorm. He bounces up on his toes when he hears the professor clear his throat, as if about to make an announcement. None comes.
The professor is now surveying the right—and, in Ed’s view, wrong—side of the drake’s neck. He has the pinched, active nostrils of someone who can sniff out a not hidden under seven washes of burnt umber acrylic paint like a hog rooting for truffles. A moment later, he nods slightly, attending to some internal checklist before focusing his attention on the duck’s rump.
A smile plays over Ed’s face. He’s home free. He’ll hear his name echo choppily over the PA system, have his back pounded by well-wishers, blink at flashbulbs, read his name in Wildlife Today. And the prize money? He’ll have to think about that. Maybe put it toward a used RV—a Konestoga he can customize with a salt marsh scene, a ragged V of black ducks silhouetted against an orange sunset.
The professor taps a microphone and speaks, his voice fading in and out. “Attention…bear with me…sound trouble…we have…a winner…default…”
The winning drake is snatched up by the scholarly fingers, raised above the balding head.
It’s not Ed’s bird.
When the crowd thins out, Ed stands at the corner of the floating tank, his drake nesting in his palm. His eyes trace the familiar lines: the proud breast, the tucked wings, the jaunty crest, the sassy tail. There on one side of the rump, pink as a wound, is a wad of gum.
Bea waves a pinkie at him from the stands, then blows an enormous bubble.