Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Alphonso and the Coconut

She was a little firecracker, that Maxine, ready to party before the plane even touched down in Mobay. She left her husband at home in their small midwestern town, said Jamaica just wasn't his thing, he wouldn't be comfortable.

And she did behave herself.

She had a husky voice for such a petite woman, a testament to too many smokes. And a laugh that burst out of her like it was shot from a cannon. I enjoyed her company during the day, sharing cocktails in the afternoon, but I always begged exhaustion when she tried to coax me out after dark. The beach night scene just doesn't appeal to me. I'd rather sit on the verandah with a book, listening to the gleep gleep of the tree frogs and dodging the smoke of the "destroyer" I had to place at my feet. Party on.

One afternoon, Maxine was sitting out at the beach front of the Whistling Bird, chatting with Alphonso. Well, actually, Maxine was doing most of the chatting. Alphonso was quietly nodding and handing her pieces of his jewelery for her to examine. Alphonso is an elder dread and a master craftsman. He works primarily in tortoise shell and black coral, but also often adds in pieces of silver, gold and occasionally slivers of bright scarlet or turquoise corals.

Earrings and bangles, pendants and combs, guitar picks and rings, his inventory is always changing. The work is exquisitely crafted by hand. He carries them all wrapped up in a bright white towel, tucked into his backpack. He won't sell his wares to just anyone, the vibe has to be right, he doesn't walk the beach and unroll the towel at every place he visits. His work is a part of him, he once told me, his art is his life. He'd rather not sell a piece than let the wrong person haggle him down to a price that disrespects his craft and his sensibility.

He'd rather go hungry.

By the time I reached the table and sat down, Maxine was wearing a pair of tortoise shell hoop hearings, a thick black coral bangle bracelet on her left hand, a slender tortoise shell bangle on her right, and the showstopper around her neck -- a luscious globe of lignum vitae, or ironwood, carved into the shape of a voluptuous coconut and wrapped with a tortoise shell coil at the crown, threaded through a black leather thong. Lignum vitae is such a slow-growing, hard and dense wood it will sink in water. I don't know how Alphonso managed to carve it into such a beautifully curved orb.

It made me drool.

I always tried to purchase something of Alphonso's each summer and I was envious of Maxine getting to that piece first. But it looked perfect on her. The creamy caramel color of the wood, its slightly oval shape, nestled in Maxine's cleavage - it oozed femininity, fertility.

Alphonso stepped away from the table, letting Maxine just sit with a mirror and admire herself with his wares. Alphonso never gives anyone the hard sell. It is almost as if he'd prefer you didn't buy anything, as if he's reluctantly parting with his children. Maxine whispered to me that she really wanted to buy them all, but he was asking for about $500 for the lot -- the earrings, the two bangles, and the coconut pendant. She ticked off the individual prices he'd quoted, which came to slightly higher than that amount. He was willing to trim the total since she'd buy all four items.

Maxine winced. "Do you think he'll knock off another fifty bucks?", she whispered. Alphonso stood well away from us, gazing up the beach.

"I dunno," I said, "that's a pretty good price," knowing how Alphonso felt about hagglers. "Maxine, he does have a whole buncha kids," I said. "If you can afford it, I wouldn't try to get him to go even lower." She looked back in the mirror, softly caressing the coconut.

"Couldn't you just DIE for this piece?" she asked, her eyes widening.

"Yeah," I sighed. "It's just beautiful. You gotta buy it, Max." Maxine called Alphonso over to the table. He slowly ambled over to where we were sitting.

"Wha' chew think, Maxine?" he said, softly.

"I just LOVE them ALL," she gushed. "I'm just not sure."

Now Alphonso may have scruples but he's also a wise businessman, he's practiced in the art of the soft sell.

"You don't have to decide right now," he told her. And he started to pack up the rest of his pieces. "Wear them for a bit. I'll check back with you tomorrow." Smart move. He let her keep all the pieces, no money exchanged hands, and he offered to meet her there again the next day when she could purchase what she chose or return them all.

Maxine was delighted. She had accessories for her evening ahead. Alphonso knew that after "owning" those pieces for 24 hours, Maxine would be less likely to give them up. But, he later told me, he never considers a sale a sale until he's got cash in his hand. It's always a gamble.

I didn't see Maxine that night or the next day. I caught up with Alphonso at the Whistling Bird bar the next evening.

"Hey," I said, "did you see Maxine today? Did she come through for you?" He gave me one of those quick chin-up gestures, and looked at me sideways. "She give them all back to me," he smiled, "said she couldn't come up with that much cash, she only have credit cyard. She nuh buy nuttin. So it go."

"Wait a minute," I said, "she could always get a cash advance on her credit card, or use the ATM over by the Hi-Lo. And I KNOW she could afford it." He shrugged.

"She's just not the right person for my pieces, that's all."

Damn straight, I thought.

"Hey, 'phonso, lemme see that carved coconut pendant." He smiled. He opened up his back pack, and unfurled the white towel, letting all of his pieces spill out onto the table top in front of me. He plucked the pendant from the center of the mass of tangled pieces and handed it to me.

"How much you want for this one, 'phonso?"

"One-seventy-five," he said, and he started to explain how he caved the lignum vitae and how he softened the tortoise shell into a coil.

I stopped him, shaking my head. "Two hundred," I said, "and not a penny less."

He nodded slowly and smiled. "I guess dat's the piece for you."


Ron Southern said...

Fine story. I got absorbed in it.

Lola said...

Another wonderful story & illustration ~ we are so fortunate that you share these with us! I hope to cross paths with Alphonso one day.

Anonymous said...

mi meet tree a im dauter an two sons. mi fren dates im gyal dat goin a college in minneapolis an mi other fren dates im oldest. I have been to his property in redground but have not made his aquaintance. am gonna track im down an find da piece dat rite for mi. his work is beautiful!! JA bless