Tim Fitts lives and works in Philadelphia with his wife and two children. He is on the editorial staff of the Painted Bride Quarterly, and his stories have been published by The Gettysburg Review, Granta, Cutbank, among others.
The job paid five dollars an hour, but it paid cash, and Mrs. West promised future employment at West Farms Florist if things stayed busy after Valentine’s Day. Mrs. West had a Southern bouffant that I didn’t trust, but the next morning, I met her husband at their shop on Archer Road, and he drove me and a guy named Bankowski to the farm way out past I-75 into horse country. Mr. West picked us up at six-thirty, and the morning Florida fog seethed in and out of the Spanish moss and live oaks all the way down Archer Road to the farm. Mr. West took us to the shed where we met Harold, his cousin, who was going to be stripping roses with us. If the wind blew right, you could get a steady waft of horse manure. They kept the roses bundled up in boxes where they had been shipped from Peru. Mr. West told us they had to order extra roses, because they rammed steel blades into the sheaves at Customs to make sure they aren’t loaded with cocaine. Predicting how many roses would be destroyed was impossible.
Mr. West told us to strip the five boxes here. When we were done with these boxes, separate them into long, medium and short stems. Take out the longest stems and put them in a stack. The long stems need the thorns intact. Once we had a stack, tie them into dozens. Then he pointed to the barn where the boxes had been stacked in three columns ten boxes high. On average, he told us, stripping twenty-thousand roses required three ten-hour days, so it came out to fifty per day. If we finished early, it was fifty. If we finished late, it was fifty.
Mr. West handed us each a metal tool to strip the thorns. He demonstrated, fitting the mouth of the gadget around the stem, then pulled down in a swift tug, shooting thorns out the sides. Thorns nicked your hands no matter how you held it, so Mr. West told us that we had better use our gloves. I had forgotten to bring any gloves, and he told me that I should have brought them. I asked if they had some in the barn, but Mr. West told me that it would be better to use mine. I asked him if we could check, and he said that I should have brought my own gloves. Harold told me that if I rubbed my palms at the end of the day with garlic juice and Vitamin E they’d be good as new in the morning, which I tried when I got home that evening, but he failed to report that the sting of garlic shoots down where the nerves meet the joints and makes silver and purple lights light up behind your eyelids.
The three of us drank coffees and listened to the morning news, and broadcasters announced that the trade embargo against Iraq had caused perhaps more damage to archeological sites than the war itself. Harold said boo-hoo. Assholes like Saddam Hussein rape their own women, gas their own people, spy on their own people, and then people get bent out of shape because of archeological sites. Boo-damn-hoo. “Give me freedom, or give me archeology. I’ll take freedom,” he said.
We listened to music until lunch. Mrs. West fixed us tuna sandwiches that had a funny taste, but they worked. I took a stroll to work the stiffness out of my legs. I thought about bolting and even walked a half-mile towards Bronson to see if maybe they didn’t have a bus, but decided against it. On the walk back, I counted over two hundred-fifty tiny cuts on the palms of each hand. When I returned, somebody had put it back to the news channel.
“Hey there, latecomer,” Harold said.
“How long have you two been back at work?” I said.
“Long enough,” Bankowski said.
“Listen,” Harold said, nodding at the radio.
I placed the gadget around a stem and jerked. The broadcaster repeated the announcement. The report was in from the Alachua County Police Department. They had made an arrest. Neighbors had called complaining of violence next door, and a young man had beaten up his grandmother. During the arrest, an altercation had ensued. The man was twenty-two years of age, and his face had been badly scarred, and witnesses claimed that he was wild-eyed. After some speculation, the police determined that the young man in question was the prime suspect for the killings. They had him. The fear that had gripped central Florida was over. “It is a good day for daughters. It is a good day for parents. It is good day for all of us,” the radio said. The radio announced that the moratorium on walking alone was off and young people could once again frequent Lake Allison after dark, but to lock your doors and use your best judgment. Still, the relief, the broadcaster said, was palpable. The newscaster recounted the entire scene of the murders and repeated all the details of which we were all familiar. The radio man revisited the crow bar and gore, the couple locking themselves inside to wait for help that never came.
“Gas him,” Harold said.
“Gas him nothing,” Bankowski said. “He needs to feel more than gas.”
Harold said it was times like this that they needed to suspend due process. Look at those girls he had cut up. Did we know what he had done to those girls? Harold said he had not seen the pictures, but he did not want to see the pictures. What he had read was enough.
“Did you hear what he did with the scalps?” Bankowski said.
“Don’t talk about it,” Harold said.
“You don’t want to know,” Bankowski said.
“I think I can use my imagination,” I said.
“I don’t want to use my imagination for that shit,” Harold said. “Unless you’re some kind of sicko. Leave me out of it.” Harold said that the killer had rearranged the girls after, and anybody who used their imagination for that was probably just as guilty. Harold said the monster they had picked up, had put them in positions, and monster wasn’t really the word.
Harold dumped the empty cardboard and Bankowski fetched a couple more from the barn. We ripped open a new box of roses, and you couldn’t help but do the math as you stripped and bundled. I didn’t want to think about how much we were earning per rose, but after a time, you can’t help but start calculating. Twenty thousand divided by twelve. Five times ten times three. Sixteen hundred divided by four-fifty. I kept getting my figures mixed up, but there was plenty of time to mix and match the numbers, and I didn’t even want to think about it. They put the music station back on, then after a time it seemed like somebody was always ripping open another box and taking one down from the barn.
I liked bundling the long stems. I told Harold I wouldn’t mind sticking around. I could do this kind of work all the time. I told him what Mrs. West had said something about taking me on permanently, but he didn’t answer. I could see myself doing that kind of work. Snip the stems, keep the water fresh, wrap the bundles in Mylar, tell people they made a beautiful selection. How hard could it be? Harold seemed preoccupied, and I could tell he was thinking about the killer. I was right. He zipped a stem of thorns then said he wasn’t sure what kind of asshole lawyer would go around defending somebody who either beats up his grandmother or cuts people up. “How do people stand in front of a judge and jury and look them in the eye and say that they should just walk free?” Harold said that due process was not established for people like that. Laws were made for normal people. They had him, they knew it was him, and they didn’t need to waste anymore of tax payers’ money on him. They had wasted enough. Take him out back, that’s it.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know about that guy.”
“What don’t you know?” Bankowski said.
“I don’t think he did it.”
“Oh, no?” Harold said. “This guy that beats up his own grandmother? He sounds like a real prince. I tell you what. My heart is not exactly bleeding for this creep.”
“Just because he beat up his grandmother?” I said.
Harold gave me a look and asked what kind of asshole beats up his grandmother. Bankowski raised his eyes at me. “Did you listen to the radio?” Harold said.
“I know,” I said. “I never said it was good to beat up your grandmother. By general rule, one should never ‘beat up their grandmother.’ However, my greater point is that nobody beats up their grandmother without provocation, unless the grandmother has touched some nerve.”
“Christ,” Harold said. “This guy.”
We kept stripping roses and bundling, and after a while, Bankowski changed the radio to a Top Forty station. The played Richard Marx, the Bangles, Amy Grant, and then broke for a millennium of commercials. Then they returned from the break to play more Richard Marx. I tried to crawl into a deep space in my mind and pretend the music wasn’t happening, but sometimes one is powerless. I told the two that if they played one more Richard Marx song the police were going to have to come and pick me up for questioning.
On Thursday, after three shifts from morning until mid-afternoon, Mr. West dropped me and Bankowski off at the shop on Archer. I counted the money on the bike ride home and was happy that they had not charged me for the sandwiches Mrs. West had made for us each day. I tucked fifty dollars away for the electricity and water, and when my roommate, Charles Russell, came home, we grocery shopped. I bought a twenty pound sack of potatoes, two dozen eggs, a ten pound bag of apples, two pounds of black beans, three pounds of pintos, a tub of fat from the butcher, a gallon of whole milk, a quart of buttermilk, and a quart of goat milk and some onions. That night we ordered two large pizzas and split a twelve pack.
Charles Russell sat on his barstool eating pizza from the countertop, and I sat on the bean bag in the middle of our empty living room, facing the sliding glass doors that looked out on the woods. I could see Charles Russell’s reflection behind me. I could see him bobbing his head to the music, holding a slice with one hand and raising his other hand a foot from the wall, opening his palm and slamming it against the wall—punishments he doled out to our neighbor for constantly complaining about noise from our apartment.
Moments later, when the phone rang, I watched Charles Russell pick it up and talk to our neighbor. He said he had not heard anything at all. He talked further, and then brought the phone to me. I told Selene, our neighbor, that I had not heard thumps or any sounds, either, but I would be happy to be on the lookout. I agreed, I said, that it was strange.
I told Charles Russell that he had better stop doing stuff like that, or people would start calling the cops, and they would have a new murder suspect.
Charles Russell responded by giving the wall another thump. We waited, but Selene must have been too tired to call.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “If that was me out there. If I was the killer, I would take this opportunity to go south. Or north. Or any direction. I would walk right down to the bus station and buy a ticket for the Keys, or Miami, or Okeechobee or something like that. I would not stick around for a heartbeat.”
“They got him, already,” Charles Russell said.
“That’s not him,” I said. “They’re just trying to cool off the hysteria. A killer does not beat up his grandmother. Killers get lazy, or reckless, or careless, but they don’t go around beating up grandmothers.”
“We’ll see,” he said. “We shall see.”
“If that was me. I would go anywhere but here. Nobody’s looking for him, now. Nobody’s thinking about anything. I would go anywhere else and let them think they had their man. By the time they realized their mistake, I’d be gone.”
“Keep talking like that, people are going to think you’re the killer. I’m serious,” he said. “I’d keep my clam shut if I were you.” Charles Russell took another bite of pizza, then said, “It probably is you. You take walks in the woods. You take odd jobs. You do shit like shuck roses. You’re like a day laborer. You do drifter work.”
We sat for a few more minutes, and then Charles Russell went upstairs for bong hits, and I stayed downstairs for a few more beers, and then I went in the kitchen and ground up a garlic clove and rubbed the juice into my palms. It was worse the first night when I wasn’t expecting it. The juice touched the openings and turned into instant fire—white light, white heat, blue flash, then sustaining, then holding, then giving, finally cooling into red, the pain subsiding and coasting into pleasure. Sweet pleasure.