Lester Smith was a heavy-set man in his sixties, a confirmed bachelor we believed. He was a regular at our auction house. Though he was only five feet six, I could always spot him in the room since the aroma of Tide emanated from his denim bib coveralls.
On a Sunday preview, I was working at the jewellery showcase displaying gems spread on black velvet that sparkled under florescent lighting. Lester lumbered past the Victorian dining table, tagged for auction and arranged with a flow blue dinner service. He ignored the Victorian parlour furniture and the cluster of kerosene lamps on display and tapped on the glass showcase with his rolled-up catalogue.
“Mrs. Bradbury, show me some big rocks.” That man had rough ways, few social skills, shifty eyes. As a collector he usually bought lamps, clocks and tools, so I was surprised.
Sweeping my hand uncertainly over the gems in the case, I was about to select a Deco man’s ring when he commanded, “That one!” Of all things, he indicated an engagement ring. His gruff manners made me cringe. He stared at me unblinking. The wide white around black irises, almost as black as the pupils, reminded me of a masked face where eyes penetrate deep into our souls, but the face reveals nothing. I put the velvet box containing the ring on the top of the case.
As the ring slipped onto his stained, pudgy little finger, the furrows of his brow deepened. His horned-rim glasses got pushed up over the hump of his Scottish nose, and the few remaining strands of grey hair got brushed across his bald spot.
Colin Roberts came over to where we were standing. I liked Colin. He was past middle age, always looked neat with long, grey hair and a beard neatly trimmed. He was the opposite of Lester - polite, friendly, liked to pass the time of day. As far as I knew, he was Lester’s only close friend, maybe because they were neighbours. Colin had his antique shop near Lester’s 200-acre farm. He remarked, “Good, Lester, you’re taking my advice.”
Lester’s mouth ticked in a fleeting smile as he glanced toward Colin. My ten-power magnifier was on the counter, and Lester used it to look at the band and the diamond. “The clarity is good, few inclusions.”
Amazing! Lester knew jewellery terms. But then, if he was shopping for lamps he always carried Thuro’s book on lighting. Getting a genuine thing at a bargain price put a smile on his face. It made sense that he had studied the field before he took to investing in jewellery, if that was his aim.
With the magnifier, Colin made his own examination. “Good colour, no hint of yellow.”
Lester nodded agreement and drummed on the glass counter with his palm. “Not perfect, but I’m not buying the “Hope”. Continental on Yonge is sellin’ one, same carat for ten thousand.”
“You’ll do a lot better than that at auction,” Colin said. “Anyway, this isn’t one of your prize bulls. It’s a present. You can’t....”
“Course it’s a present,” Lester cut in, “but if I need money, I’ll sell. That’s good sense. Too much Scottish blood in me, ya know. Got to be an investment.”
That comment confirmed what I’d concluded about Lester. I thought he was stingy, but I was sure that he thought he was frugal and clever.
The impatient tapping on the glass resumed. He wanted me to take that diamond back and to show him lot 197 so I put that lady’s ring on the glass for him. It was an Oriental emerald.
Lester said to Colin, “I was reading that an Oriental corundum emerald is worth a lot more than a Colombian beryl emerald. I should have bought in Asia when I was out there.”
Did he just say “Out in Asia”, Asia meaning China, the Philippines, Vietnam? I never knew this farmer to take his pickup truck further away than New York State to attend an auction. He would be edgy about flying, I assumed.
Lester and Colin were huddling over the rings, whispering to each other, and then Colin said, “Which will it be?”
Pawing the floor with his work boot, and shaking his head like it was really hard to make up his mind, Lester came out with, “I’ll think on it.”
Colin was more than peeved and began to scold, “You confound me. Some things you do impulsively, but you’ve procrastinated months over buying a ring.”
Lester handed the emerald back. He had nothing to say, and I was more confused than you could imagine.
Monday night the auction was about to start. Rows of metal-tube chairs with vinyl seats faced the raised auction stand and the screen upon which projected lots would appear. Lester and Colin were coming up to me at the jewellery case again. Colin smelled like Irish Spring and Lester smelled like fresh laundry emanating from clean overalls. A paper bag was pinched in his armpit, and an Asian girl, whom I’d never seen, tagged along behind. She was tiny, just over five feet and very pretty, looked to be about twentyfive. Her black hair, like silk, formed bangs flanked by straight hair that fanned onto her shoulders. She had her hands in the pockets of a blue jacket, and her shoulders were hunched forward shyly. I put the two rings the men had liked on the top of the case, all the while trying to figure out what was happening.
Without any preamble, Lester took the diamond, pulled the girl’s hand out of her pocket and dropped the ring into her palm. “Try this one.”
The girl cringed. No wonder; Lester was so crude. She held her hands close against her chest as she edged the ring down her middle finger, but Lester didn’t let her finish.
He laughed at her and said, “Naw, the fourth one.”
“You should put it on her finger,” Colin admonished.
“Naw, I wouldn’t know how.” Lester shook his head back and forth like he didn’t want to think of doing that.
Without waiting, the girl looked up at him, a sweet expression on her face. She had been quick to catch on and handed the ring to Lester.
Lester backed up, still refusing, while the girl appeared to pout.
Finally, he held the ring between his thumb and index finger and gave it a quick shove into place, exhaling loudly when the job was done. Then he laced his fingers together against the back of his head and rocked back and forth in his work boots. “Well, it fits; doesn’t need sizing.”
When he let go of her hand she lifted it and splayed the fingers, sending rainbow flashes from the diamond around the room. Her knuckles were chaffed, nails worn to the quick like she’d been scrubbing floors or working out of doors. She held her hand toward me, the ring foremost. I guess she wanted a woman’s opinion.
I nodded and signaled with raised eyebrows that I liked it, but it did look gigantic on such a little hand.
Lester was after her to take it off and try the emerald. The routine was repeated as he put the second ring on her finger. Again, she fanned her hand for me to see. Her head was bowed and her breathing was fast.
I wondered if Lester was going to ask her which ring she preferred, but then Colin did. “How about it, Hana?” And then he prompted, “Lester, you didn’t introduce Hana to Mrs. Bradbury.”
Lester blushed and his shoulders slumped as he studied the floor and scuffed it with his boot.
Colin sighed and said, “Lester went to Vietnam and got married. He’dbeen writing to those picture-bride Asian girls and didn’t tell any of us. She’s been here five months now.”
Lester looked up to weigh my reaction, and I said, “Well, congratulations. I’m happy for you.” The way he jostled his shoulders made me think he believed he’d got a better trophy wife than most men find in Canada.
Lester and Colin were talking in low tones. Hana was twisting the emerald ring and looking at her hands, and I was remembering the classified ads I’d read when I was in high school. Some lusty men in Alaska wanted pictures of possible brides. Sometimes I thought it would be romantic, like a Jack London story, to go up there and let some burly man look after me, but I didn’t think I could put up with the hardships of the cold weather and a primitive house. I’d decided that I wouldn’t really want to go. Some girls might go, just to take a journey, or to get away from an unhappy home. I looked at Hana, wondering what her expectations had been. At least she didn’t marry a complete stranger. Having seen him before the ceremony, she might have found a tender side of him that had escaped my notice.
She was meeting my eyes like she wanted me to say something, so I asked, “How do you find Canada?”
“Big. Much food.” Still reserved, she brushed her skirt.
I was taken aback. Her abdomen quivered, and she giggled making me notice for the first time that she was pregnant. “Do you want a boy or a girl?” I asked.
Her face coloured. “At home, must have boy.”
“Her English is good, don’t you think?” Colin patted her on the back.
Lester sprang to attention, saying, “Of course it’s good. She’s a smart one. Her auntie who raised her wanted her to get to the States or Canada so she can send money back. No future in Nam for an educated girl.”
Educated? What kind of education, I wondered. “What did you study?”
“You speak well.”
“My college had American teacher.”
Having adjusted the paper bag under his arm, Lester nodded for Hana to take off the ring. He wanted to find a seat.
I was interested to see that when the men walked on, Hana stayed to watch me put the ring back into the showcase, like she was already dreaming of owning that ring. Then turning, she skipped to catch up with the men; she was like a little girl getting her daddy to buy something she wanted. This Asian girl wanted an expensive ring. She had a Victorian house, and she’d have money when Lester passed on. Maybe she was after those securities and luxuries. Some girls marry for money; why shouldn’t she?
As the men were pondering where to sit, a man in a tweed jacket approached them with his hand outreached. “Lester, congratulations! Sly one. You went to Singapore, was it? Picked up a woman.”
Lester flushed and averted his eyes. “Married her in Saigon.” He shifted from one foot to the other like he would like to turn and run. “She wrote better than the Manila one. and she’s a real hard worker.” He stared right into that man’s eyes. For sure, that look was telling him off. Hana was a good deal. “She’s making money on her hen eggs. Might buy her some ducks next.”
The stranger chuckled. “You mean you were courting girls in the mail? You old codger. Your mom used to say, ‘If he isn’t wed by the time he’s fifty, it won’t happen’.”
I didn’t like the way this man was looking Hana up and down like she was a plum ready to be plucked. It was embarrassing when he said, “Look what a family man you are. You’re a lesson for all of us. Keep your pecker up. Never too late, eh?”
Who wouldn’t feel sorry for them? Lester was staring at the floor and Hana had shrunk into her jacket and was biting her lip.
Lester said, “This here is George Bailey. Raises dogs. He’s getting a Shepherd for me. A dog’s a good idea after you’re delivered.”
Hana nodded meekly.
George was so rude. I wished I could shut him up, but he went on, “They eat dogs where you come from, eh?” He was pretending to be friendly, tapping Lester on his arm. “I’ll call when I get your dog. You cagey fellow. Producing an heir when your cousins were already counting the inheritance from your estate.”
I could have shouted “Thank goodness” when George nodded goodbye and the others found seats where I could see their reactions as the sale progressed.
The auction began, Tom auctioning from the podium. It was ticking along. Eventually the diamond ring was projected onto the screen. Hana must have recognized it because she stiffened. The price escalated quickly to seven thousand, but Lester didn’t make a move. I could imagine that he was thinking that the prices were too danged high that night.
When lot 197 was called and a shot of the emerald ring was projected, I wanted to give Lester a shove, tell him that this was his last chance.
Hana leaned forward with her elbows on her knees.
Although Lester looked cool and stared straight ahead, the toe of his right boot was pulsing up and down like a cat’s tail flinches when the cat is about to pounce.
Tom was taking too long to tell about the appraisal that goes with the ring. Finally, he got going. “What am I bid? Do I hear three thousand? Three thousand?”
A lady in the front row raised her hand.
Noting her bid, Tom called, “I have three, now thirty-five.” Another bidder had entered the race and Tom sped up his patter. When he was asking for five thousand, the place quieted. Tom surveyed the room, his gavel ready to drop when Lester raised his paddle. The others were out and Tom gestured with his arm, followed by a drop of the gavel that the ring was sold for five thousand dollars to bidder 63.
Was that Lester’s number? Lester was leaning back in his chair looking complacent, but Colin was tapping Hana’s hand and when he whispered, she beamed. The sly one had won the bid. Lester seemed to be signaling that they should leave. I rushed to stand behind our cashier wanting to see Hana’s reaction when the ring was received. Maybe she wouldn’t miss her family back home if she got pretty things. I wondered if she’d had a choice about marrying Lester.
“Are we getting the ring?” Hana asked. She had drawn the lapels of her jacket close to her chest and was beaming.
Lester was gruff the way he pushed her aside while watching the invoice come out of the printer. Rob, our cashier, told Lester the total of his bill and asked how he would pay.
Lester’s eyes flashed back and forth sidewise like he had something up his sleeve. “Cash,” he said, removing the paper bag from his armpit.
I gasped when I saw him remove bundles of hundred dollar bills from the bag and align them in front of our cashier.
Rob was trying to keep a straight face. “Do you always carry your money in a paper bag?”
“No fun in spending it if you can’t hold it.” Lester was getting a kick out of Rob’s reaction. I was surprised that his black eyes, with the white around the iris opened wide, were twinkling when he glanced my way.
“Come on kid.” He pushed Hana toward the exit after receiving the ring in its box. Hana was jumping up and down and teasing as she strove to get the ring box.
Lester opened the box at eye level so she could have a glimpse, then snapped it closed and put it in the bib pocket of his coveralls.
The lady bidder came along. “You got a good buy. I should have gone higher.”
Lester had his shoulders back, neck straight as if the world should applaud his purchasing skills. He said to Hana, “We did well tonight. Okay, kid, you can wear it to church tomorrow. No wearing it to feed the chickens, though.”
I was pleased that he took her arm as they went down the stairs and out the front door.