When she bought the bonsai tree, Agnes imagined it would become a consuming passion in her life. She saw herself pruning and grooming and coddling until all her overgrown thoughts were dwarfed by the tiny tree. Agnes looked forward to the day when she could produce more than tears when confronted with, How have you been Agnes? She’d be able to respond with, I’ve become fascinated by the botanical practices of the early Han dynasty, or perhaps, Are you familiar with Utsubo monogatarti, the first Japanese novel, and its perspective on bonsai?
Unfortunately, Agnes’s bonsai tree required much less guidance than she imagined. She spent far more time staring at the tree than nurturing it. When she stared at the tree, her mind started to deal rapidly from its deck of memories. The last card dealt was always the sound of the garage door closing the night he left.
After fourteen years of marriage, he came home from work one evening and simply stated, “Agnes, I don’t want to be married anymore.” Before Agnes had a chance to cry or choose an object suitable for theatrical smashing, he was gone. She was left alone to listen to the hum of the garage door slowly rising, a brief silence as he drove out, and the same gentle hum as the door lowered. It seemed so insulting for the garage door to act this way. It showed no regard for her emotional state. It was patient and deliberate and somehow found it appropriate to make the same sound when her world fell apart as it did when she returned from the grocery store. That night, Agnes found herself unable to sleep with the same question looping in her mind for hours. How can an automatic garage door be the soundtrack of my heart breaking?
Without his clothes to wash, his meals to cook, his dishes to clean, and his lectures on the decline of American values to listen to, Agnes’s days stretched out before her in a suffocating expanse. In her married life, she often marveled at the speed in which her days passed. Her cycle of chores and talk shows and errands left her with little need for a life outside of her routine.
Six months into her singlehood, Agnes stood in the canned goods aisle of the supermarket. The pitiable idea of warming soup for one yet again struck her with such intensity that she abandoned her cart and headed for the exit. Before the glass doors parted, Agnes caught the reflection of a bonsai tree display. A scene from a black and white movie played in her mind. An old man sat hunched over a bonsai gently shearing its leaves while a war raged outside his door.
When Agnes arrived home, she placed the bonsai on the mantel where her wedding portrait once stood. She dug out an old encyclopedia from the garage. Hoping that sitting crosslegged on a throw pillow would increase her focus, Agnes began to read about the tiny tree.
Within a few days, the initial excitement of the distraction wore off. The encyclopedia did little to animate the bonsai. It just sat on the mantel like all the other knickknacks. Other than a little water, the tree needed nothing from her. Instead of inspiration, the little tree caused her resentment to ripen. The place that he once occupied was now a gaping hole she had no idea how to fill.
Regardless, Agnes couldn’t bring herself to simply throw it away or leave it to wither on her patio. Even though she no longer wanted to look at it, she didn’t want to be burdened with the responsibility of its death. Maybe somebody else could appreciate its inactivity.
“Hello, you’ve reached the classified department. I’m Bob. What can I do for you this morning?”
“I’d like to sell a bonsai tree.”
“A bonsai tree? That’s a new one for me. I mostly get old bicycles and sofas in strange colors. First thing I’m going to need is your name.”
“Leisle? I went to school with an Agnes Leisle. Any chance you went to Wooton?”
For the first time in decades, Agnes sounded off, “Go Patriots!”
“No kidding? You’re the cute little Agnes Leisle that sat in front of me in history?”
Agnes felt the heat rise in her cheeks. She didn’t remember a Bob, but began to form a picture of him as they talked. They spoke of pep rallies and parties under the bleachers, prom night and their post grad lives. Before they knew it, an hour had passed. A lunch date was set for the following day.
“Well, Agnes, it’s been great talking to you. I’ll give you a call in the morning to work out the details.”
As she fell asleep that night, Agnes thought about Bob. She thought about how her name sounded much softer when he spoke it. She thought about her days filling up with lunches and long conversations. She even imagined the shape of his hands and how they would feel wrapped around her waist.
As Agnes made coffee in the morning, she pictured pouring a cup for Bob as well. When she scrambled an egg, she imagined how Bob might like his cooked. While folding her laundry, she thought of sending Bob to the office in a freshly ironed shirt.
By 9:00, Agnes had finished her chores and tried on three different dresses. By 10:00, her hair was curled and lips painted pink. By 11:00, Agnes was sitting by the phone rehearsing conversation topics.
Shuffling through her memories, Agnes placed them one by one in the discard pile. Bob wouldn’t want to hear about recipes, coupons, the details of her failed marriage or what she had watched on T.V. that week. Agnes looked at her immaculately shined floors, dust free tabletops, and perfectly painted nails. She thought about that cute little Agnes Bob remembered from Wooton. That girl had a notebook full of poetry and a picture of Paris taped in her locker. As much as she tried, Agnes couldn’t quite figure out how that girl had become the woman sitting around desperate for the phone to ring.
By 12:00, Agnes lifted the receiver to make sure the phone was working. When she heard a dial tone, the gaping hole in her gut ripped even wider. She felt stupid for getting all dressed up and scolded herself for believing that Bob would actually call. Agnes sat on the couch, watching the entire bonsai liquefy through her tears.
As the little tree rippled, Agnes began to realize what a special thing it was to have an entire tree wash over her all at once. She didn’t need to strain towards the sky, drop her chin to her chest, or shift her eyes side to side to grasp the totality of the bonsai. She could hold it all in a single glance. Its roots disappeared gently into the soil. Agnes wondered what was down there. Was there a whole world of living organisms she could not see? The possibilities below the surface seemed infinite. Agnes tried to visualize where the water went after she poured it. How far did it travel? All the way to the outermost leaf? What did it see along the way and what would become of it after that? Did it escape through the top of the tree to run away with the clouds?
Agnes traced the trunk with a single finger. She followed its transition into the longest limb twisting up and away from the others. She ran her finger along the other two branches reaching for the west. She imagined the bonsai turning back into a tiny seed. She thought of its parents and grandparents and all the generations before.
When the phone finally rang, Agnes made no move to answer it. A new branch was emerging from the bonsai tree.
Her mother gave her a typewriter on her tenth birthday.
It is the best present she ever received.