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Fiction & Opinion

The Bonsai Way: Display Companions

by Andy Rutledge, SA

“That the last one?” Kevin asked. He had just finished putting another bonsai stand into the back of his teacher’s old minivan. Each one was wrapped in a blanket - six in all.

“Yes. Let’s go,” Mr. Fukuda answered as he emerged from the house. He stopped on the porch to zip up his leather bomber jacket. He already had on his hat; the faded old brown fedora he wore every time he left the house.

Kevin checked to make sure the van’s cargo was stable and swung the back hatch down to close it with a “thunk.” He looked up to see his teacher’s wife standing at the door of the house. “See ya’ later Mrs. Fukuda,” Kevin said. Mrs. Fukuda smiled and waved before closing the door.

Kevin and his teacher got into the minivan and in a few moments were on their way. Mr. Fukuda had already taken the trees he was displaying in the exhibit to the event hotel earlier that morning. Kevin arrived in time to help load the stands and companion plants.

This was Kevin’s first time to help set up a bonsai display at an exhibit and he was more than a little excited. He had attended a few bonsai shows and conventions, but he’d never displayed a bonsai. Actually, his part in the exhibit had begun weeks ago as final preparations were made for the trees Mr. Fukuda wanted to display in the show. Kevin had spent several days removing wire, plucking needles from pines, doing light trimming on junipers and removing dead leaves from maples and elms. Mr. Fukuda said that he was considering a dozen or more trees for the show, but would make his final decision on which few to exhibit a day or two beforehand.

Kevin noticed that Mr. Fukuda missed the turn for the highway that would take them to the hotel. “We stopping somewhere before we go to the show?” he asked.

“Yes. Your house,” his teacher answered. “You need to get dressed.”

“Uhhh… but I am dressed,” said Kevin. Just to make sure, Kevin looked down at his legs and feet. Yep, jeans and sneakers - clean ones even.

“Dressed for yard work, maybe.” Mr. Fukuda replied. “We are not going to do yard work. We are going to show bonsai.”

Kevin was completely at a loss. He didn’t remember Mr. Fukuda mentioning how he should dress for the bonsai show. It’s not like it was a black tie affair or anything, right? He noticed that his teacher was wearing nicely pressed dark slacks and his shoes were shining with a good polish.

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said. “I didn’t know it would be a formal thing.” He was feeling a bit silly now, like he often did around his teacher, but he still didn’t know what the big deal was.

“Of course it is formal, Kevin,” Mr. Fukuda said in a surprised tone. “It is a bonsai show. Showing a bonsai in a bonsai show is not like showing a clock radio in a garage sale.” He paused for a moment while making a slow left-hand turn, careful not to upset the precious cargo in the back of the minivan. “Surely you have noticed that art exhibits are held in galleries and museums, not in warehouses and convenience stores, yes? They are formal. Of course.”

Kevin stared at his shoes for a few seconds. “I guess I never thought about it like that before.”

“Mmm, yes. Start,” Mr. Fukuda admonished Kevin with a smile as they pulled into Kevin’s driveway. “And wear a tie please.”

“Right,” answered Kevin. He jumped out of his teacher’s minivan and ran inside to get changed.

* * *

Minutes later, the two were on their way to the hotel where the exhibit was being held. Kevin was feeling better about himself now that he was properly attired. He noticed that the slacks and dress shoes and tie made him feel quite a bit more important than he felt earlier. It was almost as if the bonsai show had taken on more significance - as if he had taken on more significance. Wow, all that from slacks and a tie, he mused to himself.

Kevin looked over at his teacher. “Well, you do look pretty spiffy this morning.”

Mr. Fukuda’s brow creased. He looked like he was considering something. “Spiffy,” he muttered softly to himself, as if trying to discern the meaning of the word by tasting it.

Kevin smiled to himself. “The hat is a nice touch.”

“Mrs. Fukuda says it makes me look like Indiana Jones. Handsome, ne?”

Kevin chuckled. “Mmm, maybe Yokohama Jones.”

The wrinkled brow again.

Their minivan pulled into the hotel parking lot and up to the door to the exhibit hall. The two of them unloaded the companion plants and stands one-by-one into the hall.

The hall was large and well lit. Display tables were lined up along 3 of the walls and there were 3 rows of tables down the middle of the room. All of the tables had dark blue table-skirts on them and white tablecloths. Mr. Fukuda was right – the room did have a formal air to it. The carpeting was too busy for a bonsai exhibit, though; ugly browns and greens. Kevin had never noticed carpeting in a hotel ballroom before, but it stood out like a sore thumb to him now.

The pots for Mr. Fukuda’s trees had been cleaned and polished since Kevin saw them last. Each looked immaculate and had a dull sheen he’d not seen on them before. Kevin noticed that some of Mr. Fukuda’s trees were missing. They had six stands, but only three of his trees there, at least that Kevin could see.

“Where are your other trees?” Kevin asked once Mr. Fukuda returned from parking the van.

“No more, just these,” answered his teacher while he rubbed a stand down with a cloth.

“But I don’t understand, …we brought all of these stands and…”

“So that we would have the right ones for the room,” interrupted Mr. Fukuda.

Kevin raised his eyebrows. “For the room?”

“Yes, the stand has to match the bonsai, but I want it to match the room as well,” his teacher explained. “I brought two stands for each tree. Each will work with the tree and pot, but maybe the room and walls and the tablecloth will help determine the proper shade of wood to use.”

“Oh,” remarked Kevin. “Is that what they do at Kokufu-ten?”

“No, they know what the room will look like. I did not,” replied his teacher. “The display was not yet assembled when I brought the trees this morning.” He continued to tidy up the stand with his cloth. “This is not something that is really necessary, but I like to make my choice of stand in the exhibit room.”

“Becaaaauuse… you’re picky?” Kevin ventured.

“Because I am an artist,” his teacher answered. “This is bonsai - the art is not completed in the nursery. It has to be completed here.”

Kevin and Mr. Fukuda polished the stands and then spent a while setting up the displays and resetting them and resetting them some more. Each time, they placed a towel on the stand surface so that the pot feet would not scratch the wood while the pot was positioned and repositioned, sometimes by only a few millimeters. After several trials, each of the three displays was set: one Chinese juniper, one white pine and one maple.

Kevin noticed that few of the other bonsai in the exhibit were being displayed on stands. Some of those that did didn’t look quite right, either. He also noticed that besides himself and his teacher, most of the exhibiters were in jeans and sweaters or warm-up jackets. Mr. Fukuda had tricked him. This occasion was not all that formal after all.

Kevin and his teacher set up the displays. Each of the three bonsai were displayed with a companion plant. Mr. Fukuda said that each companion was an example of winter foliage, in keeping with the season. The maple display was completed with a hanging scroll with a painting of a distant snow-covered mountain.

“Why does the maple get the hanging scroll?” Kevin asked.

“It asks for it,” answered Mr. Fukuda. After a moment he continued: “Notice how the juniper and the pine are strong and full of character. We have only one space large enough to put a scroll and the maple is more interesting with the scroll.”

Kevin nodded, sort of.

Mr. Fukuda sensed that Kevin was not entirely convinced. “Many people who will visit this exhibit today do not understand bonsai. They may think that this maple is dead. They may need convincing that it is leafless because of winter. So, I will hit them over the head with the snowy mountain on the scroll.”

Understanding dawned on Kevin’s face. “Ooooh, I get it,” he said, smiling. “Yes, it does help make it look more…”

“Spiffy,” said his teacher

* * *

Later, the exhibit was opened and the public entered. A steady stream of people filed through and lingered here and there throughout the day. There were many bonsai in the exhibit; more than 80. Kevin noticed, however, that Mr. Fukuda’s displays received more attention than the others. His bonsai were good, but perhaps not the very best trees. However, his displays were much better than any of the others. Many of the visitors brought cameras and photographed some of the bonsai, but none more than Mr. Fukuda’s displays.

From time to time throughout the day Mr. Fukuda was called over by friends and acquaintances to talk to someone who had asked about his trees. Kevin noticed that his teacher received quite a few compliments from visitors, and in each case they treated Mr. Fukuda with deference, as if he were a visiting dignitary. Kevin knew that he was just an old coot from across town, but that was not what he seemed to be here today. It was if Mr. Fukuda was running the show.

Sometimes Kevin was introduced as Mr. Fukuda’s student and in each case Kevin was treated with respect and courtesy, as if he were 10 years older than his actual age of 17. This was an exciting and different kind of day for him. And all too soon, it was over.

* * *

Later that evening when the exhibit was closed, Kevin and his teacher dissembled their displays, said goodbye to a few friends and made a couple of trips to bring the trees and stands back to the nursery.

“Well that was very cool,” said Kevin to his teacher in the minivan during their last trip back to the nursery. “It wasn’t like other bonsai exhibits I’ve been to.”

“Mmm, I think it probably was,” corrected his teacher. “You were not like you were at other bonsai shows. That was the difference.”

“You mean because I was helping with your displays?” asked Kevin, confused.

“Because you had an appropriate display - …your “companion” tie and pants and nice shoes,” Mr. Fukuda answered. “You looked like someone important instead of someone who was there to sweep the floor.”

Kevin pondered that one for a moment. The correlation became clear. “So I was like the bonsai display, huh?” he asked, smiling. "Only I didn’t have 2 ties and 2 pairs of shoes to choose from for when we got to the exhibit hall,” he observed, chuckling.

“Mmmm, no,” answered his teacher. The furrowed brow again. “I said I did that because I am an artist. You shouldn’t worry about such things, Kevin.”