Jeannie Galeazzi's work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in thirty-four publications including Fence, The Literary Review, Permafrost, Southern Humanities Review, and Main Street Rag, as well as Feathertale Review (Canada), Dotlit (Australia), and Snorkel (New Zealand), and is forthcoming in The Distillery, RiverSedge, and All Rights Reserved (Nova Scotia). "Wager" is for Blake Galeazzi.
A month ago, out of the blue, my aunt Ruth invited me over for coffee and a chat. Normally I can worm out of anything, but a summons from my late dad's unmarried older sister comes freighted with the prerogative of an aunt who'd bought me school clothes when Mom was broke, who'd spirited me off to the zoo and aquarium whenever Mom couldn't cope, to dim sum or high tea or pizza-and-a-movie if Mom had a date. Ruth was a goddess.
And so I made the ninety-minute pilgrimage from the Stinson Beach surf-shack I share with three other guys, across the Golden Gate Bridge, through San Francisco, and down the peninsula to Ruth's house in San Mateo by the track. Perched at one end of her antimacassared couch, I sipped my coffee and pretended to listen as Ruth nattered away about her high-maintenance collection of bonsai ("bone-sigh," she called them), about her adventures with her buddy Jane on their cruise last year to Alaska, about her goddaughter Pammie moving to Vegas with her new groom and three kids. If I hadn't been zoning in and out, I'd have put it all together—the bonsai, the travel tales, Pammie bailing—and been ready with a dodge when Ruth said, "Anyway, Jane and I both turn sixty next month, and we've booked another cruise—Mexico this time, Sunday to Sunday with an overnight in LA—and Pammie isn't here anymore to look after the bonsai, so I need you to do it."
With what I hoped was a ruminative air (despite my panic at the bitch of a favor I'd just been asked), I set my "Akadama Mama" mug down on its coaster. Even though I hadn't yet landed a job more suited to my degree in French Literature than bagging groceries at the Mill Valley Safeway—though I was playing phone tag with the personnel manager at a corporate translation firm in San Francisco—I'd graduated from college almost two months ago and was feeling adult enough, finally, to speak my mind. "Sorry, Ruth," I said, "but that might not work."
"Hogwash," said Ruth, eying me as if I were a road apple on her couch. She was a big lady—not tall, not fat—but solid of presence, her hair short and silvery-sandy-red, each strand fixed in place like wrought-iron plumage (a wig). "What else are you doing with your summer besides mooning about?"
I'd done some mooning in college. "Well…"
<p."That's what I thought." Ruth gestured toward the window framing the back yard, a yard in which her collection of bonsai—fifty or more trees, some flowering, some fruiting—were basking in the late-July sunlight on display benches stacked like shelves against the fence. "They need daily watering in the morning early to cheat the fungus and the slugs, so you'd better move into the guest room. I've already inquired at the local Safeway to see if you can bag there for a week. The manager's expecting your call."
"But," I said as my brain did a flip, "I know nothing about, uh, 'bone-sigh.'"
Ruth shot me a thunderbolt glance. "I'll give you an orientation today, a refresher next weekend, and a test the morning we leave. Any more questions?"
I gaped at her, at this favor-turned-blood-sacrifice.
Ruth arched a tepid eyebrow. "You should feel honored," she said. "In Japan, a bonsai apprentice may handle pruning shears on day one, but it's four years before he's trusted with a watering can."
I slumped, defeated, against the antimacassar. Oh to be an apprentice in Japan.
On the Sunday of their departure, I chauffeured Ruth and Jane to the airport for their flight to Los Angeles, whence they'd embark tomorrow morning on their cruise to the land of Quetzalcoatl. Jane seemed wryly amused at my predicament, but I played it cool. Ruth had catechized me on the bonsai basics again just that morning, and though I couldn't tell chokkan from shakan, kabudachi from fukinagashi, she pronounced me fit to minister to her arborous flock. The sole purpose of my existence this next week, she reminded me at the curb as I heaved their luggage out of my trunk, was to promote the washing-out of excess salts and the vital exchange of gases. In short, I was to water.
I drove straight from the airport to my new bagging gig at the San Mateo Safeway, and that evening when I got back to Ruth's house, the air inside and out was still sultry. I opened the fridge and shelved the case of cold Bud with which I'd be washing down whatever food my aunt had left me, looked like tuna casserole and tapioca pudding. To my deep disappointment, the cookie jar by the sink contained cranberry newtons; but wedged inside the lid was an envelope marked "Emergency Funds"—and inside that was a measly twenty bucks. Feeling doomed, I kicked off my sneakers and flopped onto the couch with Proust and the TV remote.
Next morning I rose at six, as promised, and blearily dipped a hand into the underwear quadrant of my suitcase only to find my week's supply of plain white boxers—every last pair—missing. My roommates, the dicks, were probably laughing their asses off back in Stinson Beach. Laugh away, pals. Too bad for you I absconded with the plastic popsicle molds. Hah! No beersicles for you while I'm gone.
The morning was already heating up, so I trudged out to Ruth's back yard attired in nothing but yesterday's unlaundered white boxers. I'd been applying the watering can for about twenty minutes—diverting myself (but not much) by matching each tree with its name on Ruth's posted chart—when I caught a whiff of cigar. I glanced toward the spicy perfume and saw, beaming at me over the side fence, an older fellow with a cannon-ball head atop a barrel chest, no neck in between. Against the olive grain of his skin, his mustache was stark black, as were his eyebrows and comb-over. He was dressed in striped pajamas and a summer-weight blue bathrobe, and the thick cigar in his thick fingers sent up a fragile curl of smoke.
"Morning!" said the man, his voice a raspy growl. "You the nephew?"
"That, I am," I said—in my underwear—keeping my voice down in the matinal hush.
"I'm the neighbor. Anton Martinka. Call me Anton," roared the man, his accent steeped in Eastern Bloc. He waved his cigar at the bonsai. "Some pains in the asses, huh?"
I shrugged. It was my first time watering solo, and I was coming to grips with the fact that it would take at least an hour to do the job as directed, to water all seventy-three bonsai thrice in three passes: once for the pot, once for the soil, and once for the tree. But the trees were soaking it up, these stunted supplicants anchored and contorted with wires; and as dainty as they all were in their dandy glazed pots, it struck me as an insane amount of sway for one living thing to have over another, like foot-binding or circumcision.
Anton was puffing at his cigar, squinting. "You play the ponies?"
"Nope." To show him I was too busy to talk, I bent over a pint-sized Cork Bark Elm and intently irrigated the rocky red akadama soil at its roots.
"Racetrack's right next door," said Anton. "I could help you place a bet."
"No, thanks. No cash."
"Not at first, but then you play the ponies, eh? Things change."
I came to the end of one row of bonsai and started on the next. "Sorry."
Anton craned toward me over the fence. "Hey, I'm no bookie. I take no percent."
"No, you just take the money and run," I tossed off in a jocular, worldly tone that said I saw right through him.
Anton chuckled. "Ah, you got to have faith. Not in me, maybe, but in my pal Elegua here. Come have a look."
I feigned preoccupation with a tiny azalea blooming in Good & Plenty colors. "Uh, I'm kind of on a schedule…"
"It takes just one second. Come, push that spare bench against the fence and hop up and peek over into my yard—like your auntie when she thinks I don't see."
There was an image. Curious, now, as to what Ruth might be spying on, I put down the watering can and lugged a vacant display bench over to the fence near Anton. The bench seemed sturdy enough, so I stepped up onto it just as Anton hopped off a bench on his own side of the fence and toddled over to his patio and posed with his hand resting on a wood cabinet, the cabinet's doors propped open on an interior festooned with streamers and ribbons and scarves all in red and black. At the center, by a scatter of peppermints and cigars, sat a large smooth gumdrop-shaped stone in whose charcoal face had been set white cowrie shells to mimic eyes, nose, and lips.
"What's that?" I said with a shudder. "Voodoo?"
Anton dropped his grin. "Ay, don't call it that, not if you want Elegua's help."
Anton flapped his hand as if I'd said something colossally stupid. "Elegua's a warrior—and a trickster—but he's also the granter of opportunities. And today is Monday—his day!—just the day for you to place a bet on those ponies.
"Place a bet with him?"
"With me. Through him."
"You're some kind of priest?"
Anton tapped the ash off his cigar. "Nah, I'm no santero, but I got friends told me how it works. Elegua came with this house when I bought it twenty-eight years ago. I built him this shrine"—Anton rapped the cabinet with his knuckles—"and as long as I keep the old boy in rum and cigars, he steers me right at the track. Mostly."
Cigars you smoke and rum you drink, I thought, but said, "You've been my aunt's neighbor for twenty-eight years? She's never mentioned you."
"Twenty years. She's a newcomer. And she don't like me since our first date."
Anton slid me a lopsided grin; without another word, he closed the doors of Elegua's shrine, turned, and shuffled off back inside his house.
In his dreams he'd had a date with Ruth.
I got back to watering. Later that morning, after leaving a sixth voice mail for the manager at the corporate translation firm in SF, I set out for my bagging shift at Safeway, en route braving the pell-mell picked-over racks at Marshalls in search of underwear for the upcoming week. Just my luck, the plain white boxers in my size were all sold out, as were the plain white jockeys; my only option was a pair of silky blue boxers printed with grinning goldfish sporting sunglasses and flashing peace signs with their fins.
Next morning, I hauled myself out of bed at six for what promised to be more of the same: watering Ruth's bonsai, then bagging all day at Safeway, then home for a night of TV and Proust and Budsicles. My one taste of variety over the next hot sticky monastic week in San Mateo, it seemed, would be which pair of boxers I'd get to wear. Today was the maiden voyage of the goldfish; before going out to the yard, I hand-washed yesterday's plain old discount whites.
Midway through my labors with the watering can, Anton prairie-dogged up at the fence. "Nice shorts," he observed with not a scintilla of irony. Again he pushed me to play the ponies, and again I declined, but I did remember to ask him about his date with Ruth. Between mirthful puffs on his cigar, Anton recounted how he'd squired my aunt to a Moroccan spot years ago in hope of romance, but all Ruth would talk about were the display benches she wanted to hire him to build for her growing family of bonsai. Then a belly dancer came frolicking through the joint and got too friendly, in Ruth's opinion, with a bachelor-party table that was showering her with tips. Ruth harrumphed out of the restaurant, on her way passing close to the dancer and jamming a nasty note into the girl's belt. Anton never asked Ruth out again, but he did build the benches.
"Some story," I said, embarrassed for my aunt as I drizzled water over the roots of a Lilliputian Trident Maple. "Wish I hadn't asked."
"Ah, well," said Anton, "it pays to find out who you're dealing with." He coughed into his fist. "Whom." He cleared his throat. "So. No bet today? Not even a five?"
I lobbed him a look. But that evening, as I was slouching toward the fridge for another Budsicle, I heard a knock at Ruth's front door. I trotted over and checked the peephole and, reluctantly, opened up.
There on the doorstep stood Anton in shirt and slacks. "Here's your winnings," he said, and thrust a balled-up greenback into my hand.
I held my palm up flat, the bill uncrumpling on top. It was a five. "My winnings."
Anton winked. "Elegua's colors are red and black. His numbers are 3 and 21, right?"
"Whatever you say."
"So, today at Bay Meadows, I visited the paddock to see who's wearing what colors. Number 21's silks was red and black—red and black!—so, just for you, I placed the minimum bet on race 3, two bucks to show on number 21. And 21 came in third! You won seven bucks, but I took back my two, so now you have five bucks to bet tomorrow, a gift from Elegua to get you started. Tomorrow you offer him some chocolate, some of those caramels he likes, and you bet again."
I shoved the five toward Anton. "Oh, no, listen man, I really have no interest in—"He waved the money away. "It's yours." I tucked the five into his shirt pocket and whipped both hands behind my back. "Sorry. But thanks, okay? No hard feelings."
Anton sighed. "It was your lucky day," he said, and turned and grumped off.
Wednesday morning, first thing, I pounced on the newspaper and checked yesterday's racing results and discovered that Bay Meadows—hah!—had been dark. Some lucky day, I thought as I hand-washed yesterday's goldfish boxers. Although, speaking of luck, I did get a call yesterday afternoon from the manager at that corporate translation firm in SF. My interview was set for Monday.
After arranging the goldfish flat on a towel to dry, I sauntered out to the back yard in my old discount whites and filled a plastic tub with water for the special once-a-week baptismal devotions whereby—to lock in hydration, per Ruth's instructions—I was to immerse each bonsai up to the top of its pot and wait until the bubbles petered out. Never mind that it would take an eternity. I grabbed a tree, knelt at the tub, and went to work.
"Hey, I still got your five bucks," said the owner of a gritty, smoke-wreathed voice at a distance above and behind me. "How 'bout you offer Elegua a treat and place a bet?"
Without glancing up from the dwarfed redwood I was dunking, I said, "I'm not the pushover you think I am, Anton."
"No?" he said in a wheeze. "This job you do for your auntie. How much she pay?"
I really didn't feel like talking.
Thursday morning, dapper in my goldfish boxers, I was dousing a petite Crab Apple when I heard: "Good races today. How 'bout you give me five bucks out of your own pocket for a change and offer a cookie to Elegua. He'll make you rich!"
It was getting to be a bit much. And yet, at this point, I was tempted: it would be worth losing five bucks just to see Anton eat crow. "Does Elegua like cranberry newtons?" I asked. "It's all I've got."
Anton scowled at me over his cigar. "One. One newton," he said. "And five bucks."
"I'll be right back."
That evening, when I heard a knock at Ruth's front door, I opened up ready—ready to say it was okay, never mind, but please don't bug me again—ready to be a good sport.
"You won!" said Anton, and slapped two bills against my chest.
I took the bills and looked: a twenty and a hundred. "My five bucks won this?"
Anton rocked up on his loafered toes. "I won six-fifty. Must be those cranberries."
I may have celebrated a bit too hard with the Budsicles and newtons that night, for Friday morning rolled around indecently early, and I stubbed my toe getting out of bed. When I donned my old discount whites, they felt imperfectly dry, hideously damp through the crotch. Muzzy and pasty-mouthed under my gambler's high, I hand-washed yesterday's goldfish, spread them out extra flat on a fresh dry towel, and then hobbled into the yard to get the watering started. As I was sluicing the roots of a peewee Kingville Boxwood, I heard a gruff: "So, we go again?"
In my addled state, I'd already placed and won that bet; I slogged over to the fence and surrendered last night's wad. "Sorry," I said. "All out of treats."
"All out?" said Anton with the pique of a man now hooked on cranberry newtons. "You'd risk Elegua's wrath?"
"Huh—yeah, right," I said. "I'll take my chances."
But as the day wore on, and I recovered my wits and equilibrium, I couldn't help waffling on the subject of sugared petitions to fickle deities. Logic said it was all a celestial scam, a sucker's bet; my gut said I should have run out and bought more newtons. That evening, when the knock came at Ruth's door, the issue seemed decided as soon as I opened up and beheld Anton in a defiant droop.
"Oh," I said, ruing this morning's cavalier wager. "And you?"
Anton brightened. And strolled off.
Saturday morning, I vaulted out of bed at an ungodly five o'clock with a mind to dispatch my watering chores early and thereby duck Anton. Spiffy in my goldfish boxers, my break from bonsai servitude looming, I watered like a zealot and savored the dawn birdsong and the cigar-free fresh air, all the while meditating on the gleam of my future with that corporate translation firm in SF.
"Hey! Forget about the newtons. How 'bout you give me one of those little trees for Elegua, and we play the ponies?"
I'd jumped on Hey! and dropped the watering can, nearly upending a Shimpaku Juniper, and now stood glowering at Anton leering over the fence.
"One tree," said my neighbor. "Your auntie won't miss it. Don't she owe you for all this work?"
Indeed, the notion had been gnawing at me.
Anton pointed. "That one, second row from the bottom, three trees in from the left. You give me that one, and we'll call it three hundred smackers—fronted by me—all to play the ponies. With Elegua's blessing, you'll make ten times that."
I traced the line of his finger to a Japanese Black Pine—densely-needled bursts of green on branches torqued at a dynamic slant—no more or less quaint, to my eye, than any of its brethren on the benches. Anton's "three hundred smackers" was either divine intuition or an astonishingly accurate guess; Aunt Ruth, in impressing upon me the importance of my duties, had confided that her collection was worth "a conservative twenty-two grand," which (I'd already calculated), at seventy-three trees, averaged roughly three hundred per tree—a sum I might make back in spades. Such entrepreneurial moxie on my part could redeem this week and mark a new era in my relationship with Ruth: no longer would she see me as her malleable squirt of a nephew, but as a young man not to be underestimated, bullied, or used.
"You're on," I said to Anton, and fetched the pine. That evening, at Ruth's front door, Anton handed me a cool five hundred.
Sunday morning, as I watered Ruth's seventy-two bonsai, I spent the time crafting answers I might use in tomorrow's interview at the corporate translation firm in SF. Anton didn't show, not even to gloat about yesterday's triumph; just as well, as I had no intention of tithing to Elegua or playing the ponies now, with Ruth and Jane's flight arriving in a few hours and me leaving for Stinson Beach. And anyway, on reflection, I'd come to believe that the dips and peaks in my fortunes this past week had less to do with Elegua's whims than with the dumb luck of the underwear draw—and today, with the lucky goldfish laid out to dry, I was stuck wearing the inauspicious old discount whites.
I rinsed out the popsicle molds, straightened the antimacassars, and packed.
"Where is the Japanese Black Pine?" said Ruth, scanning the back yard from the living-room window; upon entering the house thirty seconds ago, she'd made a beeline for that spot. Mexico had tanned her and blarneyed her into some gaudy gold earrings, but the wig and the woman under it were unchanged.
I lowered her suitcase to the rug and, in the grown-up voice I'd rehearsed, spoke my piece. "Well, Ruth. I figured you'd be giving me something for this past week. It's just that one little tree."
Ruth wrenched away from the window. "That 'one little tree' was seventy-five years old, the cornerstone of my collection."
A blowtorch blush hit my cheeks. Pointless, now, to boast about not having touched the cookie-jar emergency funds. "Um, I did get five hundred dollars for it."
"You 'got' five hundred?" Ruth scalded me with a look. "Try five thousand."
"Five—?" I reeled and thought: Anton. I could just see him, bonsai in hand, trundling off to the nearest garden society to cash in on my naïveté, my "good luck" at the track merely his cost of doing business. "I had no idea, Ruth, and I apologize, and I will pay you back," I said, scrambling to get the words out. "I have a job interview tomorrow, and with any luck—
Ruth huffed. "A job interview? With what firm? I ought to call them and tell them you're an idiot!"
"You wouldn't," I said, though the awful thing was, Ruth just might. "You won't," I said in a new voice—one I hadn't practiced—and stalked off to get my suitcase.
I'm back with the guys now in Stinson Beach, and we've had our sober exchange of underwear for popsicle molds. I phoned Ruth Tuesday evening to wish her a happy birthday, and she called me a fool, but not even Ruth can shake my new faith in what does—and doesn't—work: under my interview suit yesterday, I wore the goldfish boxers. And kicked ass and got the job.