“So,” I ventured, looking hesitantly at the wrinkled old man stooped before his easel, fiddling with a paintbrush. “What is the meaning of this new hieroglyph?”
The man bent his head in apparent thought, presenting a bird’s eye view of the scalp beneath his thinning hair instead of the rough glare of his wire-framed glasses. Looking up, he blinked twice, then planted the wooden handle of his paintbrush in the dry soil of a tall house plant rising like a flame from a bucket next to his chair. A strangely pallid, vibrant thing, the plant looked humble and precious in its container, leaves draping. In Jamaica I remembered seeing them thick as weeds and towering above my head.
“Orchids,” he finally said, and after a pause, “Orchids. Everywhere.”
Those few words altered everything. All of a sudden he appeared in a pool of sunlight, whittling on a small stick in Just Natural, the restaurant in the west end of Negril known for its wonderful vegetable soups.
Getting there required a ritual walk along the smooth beach, past the closed, chain resorts and the thatched beach bars and stacks of plastic reclining chairs of seaside hotels with names like Mahogany and Tree House and T-Water, and middle-aged women selling orange juice squeezed before dawn into recycled rum bottles, carried now in plastic bags draped upon their head or by their side, slicing coconuts and pineapples with their skilled hands and sharp-bladed, worn-handled machetes, braiding young girls’ hair beneath the palms, and young, entrepreneurial men and bouncy boys wearing green-brimmed Oakland A’s hats and outsized gold-and-purple Lakers jerseys as they tried to charm or intimidate their way into the pockets of tourists, using jewelry or fresh fish, CDs or ganja as bait;
past the makeshift restaurants with tin roofs and open fires that served delicious and inexpensive rice and beans and patties, and the cacophony of huts and stalls filled with interchangeable conch and other shells harvested from the sea, thin, brightly colored dresses, scarves, and knitted beehive hats, and native crafts, jewelry mostly, and countless painted, varnished carvings of rastas, looking as if they were the product and the vision of a single, unimaginative man;
past the bridge over the dirty river inlet with a few moored, bobbing fishing boats leading to the steady traffic of the central square with bank, gas station, a scattering of dimly lit shops, supermarket, and a Burger King, brash monument to consistency and capitalism, Just Natural’s antithesis;
past the sharp turn to the left flanked by the soothing green-blue sea that sometimes splashed gently above the low seawall, splintering like beads of glass;
past the rough-hewn avenue of pastel pink and yellow, blue and green bars and coffee shops and hand-written scrawls advertising magic teas and potions, overlooking the ocean;
past a hulking concrete church that filled with people singing hymns that filled the air through tall open windows Sunday mornings, and the sometimes post office heading west on the road that led to rocky cliffs near Rick’s Café, and further west, to an ancient concrete lighthouse.
Just Natural was unassuming from the road, set back inland away from the sea, luring visitors into its hidden spaces with strings of white Christmas lights dangling from the trees, which led at intervals to cozy alcoves with picnic tables and lit candles stuck in empty Red Stripe bottles. Music played from a boom box on the porch outside the kitchen, Bob Marley songs hybridized, interpreted by a host of contemporary artists. Orchids of varying size, color, and shape clung to every available surface, nestled deep in the crotches of trees or on mossy limbs, some seemingly suspended in mid-air. Only a few remained in blossom in February, but still the effect was intoxicating, augmenting the artificial light.
But, the old man admitted, rubbing his glasses with his handkerchief, he had never visited Jamaica during peak bloom before Christmas, “and there are no orchids in the painting.”
The soup was what he remembered best. “The young chef,” he said, his glasses replaced on his head, “was wise beyond his years. Every day was different — he would use whatever ingredients he had left over from the previous day, carrots, ginger, tomatoes, kallaloo, coconut, beans, peas, cabbage. Nothing was thrown away.
“The result was always magical, and no two soups were ever the same. The food was good, but it was the soup that drew me back, again and again. Soup, and the orchids.”
The walk home on the narrow road was a sensory treat and good for digestion, with the smells of cooking mingling with the ocean carried by a warm breeze beneath brilliant stars undimmed by civilization. Occasionally we would be enticed along the way into taking a cab to complete our journey from among the numerous entreaties beeped or shouted from occasional darting, compact cars.
Unlike many of our fellow tourists, our nights were not late; I was ready to sleep soon after I returned to my room, and I much preferred walking the empty beach at dawn looking for shells that had washed up overnight, or talking with James, the ancient long-armed man wading knee-deep with a starfish balanced on his crumpled canvas hat, dragging his sky-blue, hand-hewn cottonwood canoe as he trolled for customers for snorkeling trips, sand dollars, and shells, before the uniformed attendants began raking the beach of plastic cups and cigarette butts and other late-night debris, and then a seaside breakfast of French toast, fried plantain, papaya and lime, and strong coffee.
The old man and I said nothing, deep inside our reveries. As I got up to leave, though, I discretely removed the paintbrush from where he had left it in the potted plant. I could not help myself, as a few of the leaves were starting to yellow.