Note Book

Advise and suggest

“Jewelry’s a hard thing for a guy to buy,” observes Phyllis, lighting a cigarette. “Everyone’s in a hurry. Everyone wants a bargain. And they all get taken.”

Phyllis drops the match in an ashtray and exhales. Albert, seated on the stool on the opposite side of the jewelry case, shifts slightly and reaches for the paper plate of Christmas cookies. Mr. Bill, in a brown Globe uniform, sighs and crosses his arms.

“I tell you big story, short time,” Albert says. A year ago, Albert rapped on Phyllis’s door. Phyllis – “Phil” – buzzed him in. The 60-something Lebanese immigrant explained he’d just bought a 14 karat gold neckchain for $69 from Caldor. Would Phyllis appraise it? Phyllis deposited the item on her scale and declared it hollow. She then opened the wall case behind the counter and put a slew of gold neckchains in Albert’s hands. (“Rope chains, they’ll be in forever.”) He could take one home to show his wife, if he wanted.

He wanted.

“Woman is hard to convince,” Albert explains. “Some of them you must show.”

Albert bought the neckchain. After that, some earrings. “Then I make a friendship with her,” he says, nodding to Phyllis.

Phyllis did home shows out of a briefcase before she opened the store in South Philly 12 years ago. Brown pants, blue-gray sweater. Watch, earrings, bracelet, rings, neckchain. She gazes, hawklike, at the door. Her dark brown eyes could cut diamonds. Her hair, exactly the same shade as those eyes, never moves.

“All my business is referrals,” she says. “What I do, I advise and suggest.”

Phyllis aims a stream of smoke at a plastic hummingbird dangling on the beaded chain that activates the ceiling fan. She grinds out her cigarette, removes the ashtray and spritzes the counter with Windex.

“I came in once to buy something for my wife,” says Mr. Bill. “What, eight years ago? Don’t ask me what it was.”

“It was earrings,” says Phyllis, wiping off the Windex.

“Earrings?”

“Yeah, earrings.”

“Well, maybe.” Mr. Bill thinks about it. “I coulda bought ’em on Sansom Street,” he says. “I been exterminating 26 years. I know all ’em up there. She took the time to show me what to buy.”

Phyllis nods.

“It didn’t help you with the wife,” she reminds him.

Mr. Bill’s bought rings, chains, charms, bracelets, watches and pairs of earrings for “Donna, Donna, Donna and Donna” in Phyllis’s store. Most recently: an emerald and diamond ring. For “a new friend.”

“Significant other,” explains Phyllis. “He’s in the middle of a divorce.”

The phone rings. Phyllis retreats to her desk at the rear of the store. Beside the desk is a huge olive green safe with a poster on it advertising The Exceptions. “Come Party With Us,” it says.

“I’ve seen people bring watches in,” says Mr. Bill. “She’ll open ’em up, blow the dust out, put a battery in and say, ‘That’ll be a buck fifty.”

“IT’S TWO FIFTY!”

“Whatever. It’d be $7 on Sansom Street.”

Mr. Bill helps himself to the Christmas cookies. “Phyllis is good for a cup of coffee,” he says, sipping from a styrofoam cup. “She’s an upfront, honest person. No bullcrap. Unlike Albert. Sorry, Albert.”

Albert glances at his watch, grunts, rises and walks out the door with a short wave.

Phyllis watches the door close. She buzzes Freddy in.

“Wudda ya got for me, Phil?” asks Freddy.

Phyllis goes back to her desk. She shuffles catalogs. She picks the phone up. She punches numbers. She’s asking about a watch.

Freddy paces, smokes, sits, stands. Sits again.

Freddy took the girl he’s been seeing for a year to a downtown department store and told her to pick any watch she wanted for her birthday. “I figured six, seven hundred.” She selected one with a mother-of-pearl face surrounded by diamonds. It goes for $2,495. “I coulda wrung her neck.”

“Rocks,” says Phyllis, to no one in particular. “She wants rocks. I think your head’s a rock.”