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Tall Tales From an Unexpected Visitor

WHEN our family was very young, we were visited one morning between rising and breakfast by a dignified-looking old man who said he had some powder, one sprinkle of which at the foot of our pecan trees would cause all that ugly Spanish moss to fall off.

"Really?" I said. "Just like that?"

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"You've got to cut the bark," he said, taking a tiny knife out of his pocket. "You make a little slice." He unclasped the knife and demonstrated how small, how neat, his cut would be. "You sprinkle on some of this." He held up a teaspoon and removed a crumpled brown bag from a pocket in his coat. "Twenty-four hours it takes. No more. You go out in the yard, there it is - all that nasty moss on the ground. And those trees...."

He looked deep into my eyes, "They will commence to flourish. They will send out shoots." He spread his arms wide. "You like pecans?" He smiled slyly. "You like the meat? The shells full and fat, not dried up and black when you crack them?" I nodded my head.

"Then you must treat them."

"How much?" I said.

"Two dolla' a tree." He paused. "For you, I make it one dolla'."

"All right," I said. "Three trees. That's about all I can afford."

"You'll be a rich man in pecans soon," he said.

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Paul, our two year old, came out with me and followed the old man from tree to tree picking up strands of fallen moss.

"Your boy," the old man said as he cut a slice into the bark of tree No. 3, "I perceive in him a true affinity for moss. He'll help you gather it when it comes down."

"And it will only take a day?" my wife, Lucy, said. She was standing next to me holding the baby, Patrick, in her arms.

"Within the next 24-hour period, Madam, all that moss will have fallen to the ground." He looked in the direction of the six remaining untreated trees, and then at us. His face glowed with seeming innocence.

"Maybe," Lucy said.

"You live around here," I said. "You could come back?"

"I live near here," the man said. "Indeed, I could return."

"Why don't we wait to see what happens," I said to Lucy, almost in a whisper, so as not to offend the man. I was also thinking that there would be a great deal of moss on the ground just from the trees he was treating, and I was wondering what I would do with it.

"The moss that comes down," said the man, as if reading my mind, "you can sell it, you know." He paused, glancing again at the untreated trees. "You spread it out on the fence wire, let the sun wither it. The husk, the silver part, falls away. What is left resembles horsehair. Twenty cents a pound it brings. It's used to fill the seats of cars."

We were both looking up at the foot-long waving festoons of moss that all but obscured the sight of the upper branches of the pecan trees, making them look ghostly in the dim morning light. Riches all around, I thought, grinning with delight.

"That a guava tree?" the man asked suddenly, standing up and bounding to the far end of the yard. "You wish me to resuscitate it, enliven it with a sprinkling of powder?" The tree in question looked completely dead. "I'll do it for you as a gift."

Before I could thank him, he had finished and was on his way back. But then he stopped. "You do not value this orange tree?" he said. "You do not enjoy the succulence of the fruit?"

"The fruit's sour," I said. "There's nothing you can do with it."

"It needs a graft, that's all," he said. "It happens I have one here." And with that he pulled a foot-long stick out of his bag. "You cut away this branch," he said, taking hold of one of the lower limbs. "You slit it down the middle and insert the young shoot. Bind it up tight. In the spring, it'll blossom and grow and soon you'll have many sweet oranges. Sour ones you can use for marmalade."

Lucy, Patrick, and Paul had gone back inside. It was just me and the old man now.

"How much?" I said.

"Two dolla' " he replied. And he waited in silence for my reply.

Five dollars in all. Back in 1954, in Gainesville, Fla., where I was doing graduate work in English, $5 represented a quarter of our food money for the week. But I nodded my head. "All right," I said, "Do it." And I went to get him his money.

Before going to bed that night, Lucy and I stood out under the pecan trees looking up at the swaying moss. "It's starting to fall," I said, picking a wisp of moss off the ground.

"Imagine all the sunlight we'll get now," Lucy said. We stood looking up through the branches at slivers of moonlight dancing behind the festoons of moss. "If we do what the man said - dry the moss out and sell it - we'll have the money to clean out the rest of the trees."

"And think of all the oranges," I said. "And guavas. Guava jelly for Christmas."

It was windy in the night, and I kept hearing what I imagined to be great clumps of moss thumping to the ground. I groaned in my sleep as I raked and dragged the mountainous piles to the fences.

But waking me from sleep, Lucy said, "There's no moss on the ground." Together we went out to view the scene.

"It's not quite 24 hours yet," I said feebly, knowing in my heart that we'd been taken, that the man was a phony, and that we might as well kiss our $5 goodbye.

WE gave it three days, and then I decided to just climb up into the trees and pull the moss down myself. What a difference it made. I didn't do anything with the moss except pile it up in the back to rot, because I found out through asking around that 100 pounds of moss yielded only about a pound of horsehair (20 cents).

To no one's surprise, the guava tree failed to bloom, but we made delicious marmalade from the sour oranges and gave jars of it away for Christmas.

We never saw the old moss man again, but to the people who approached us over the years who tried to sell us what we didn't need, or do for us what couldn't be done, we managed to say no - most of the time.

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