Lena is picking small black bugs off the roses when the car pulls up. It’s a medium-sized black SUV, sandwiched loosely between a low-rider Chevy and a cloud-blue Honda. It’s Saturday afternoon and there is a USC game at the Coliseum—otherwise Lena wouldn’t be working.
The window glides down. The driver is a youngish white guy with wild sandy hair and sunglasses that match his car. He has stubble on his cheeks, but he’s wearing a suit. He drums his nail-bitten fingertips on the steering wheel and doesn’t stop drumming even as he leans out to talk to her.
“How much for all of them?”
“All of them?”
“Yes. All. Of. Them.” His voice has a learn-English-damnit tone.
“I heard you,” Lena says coolly. She does some quick math in her head. What are the chances that she could sell all her flowers today? Not good. Despite the lava-thick traffic, football games are not bring-your-girl-flowers occasions. Graduation day is better.
So she would be smart to sell him her stock at a per-bouquet discount. People who buy roses at stoplights aren’t usually looking to bargain—but if the price is too high and the light changes, they’ll pull away without buying anything at all. There’s no time for the push-pull of pedestrian markets, so it’s Lena’s job to study their faces in a flash and name the perfect price.
“Two-hundred and fifty dollars.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he says, but he pulls out a tight cinnamon roll of bills.
Lena tries to count them as she slides them into her apron pocket, but the arrow turns green, and she still has to help him lift the flowers—all three buckets of them—into his car.
A horn honks and the man whips around to yell, “Calm down! The intersection is blocked anyway!” Water splashes and a thorn stabs Lena’s hand. You’d think she was Jesus, the way her palms look.
As the SUV inches away, she reads his license plate frame: Follow me to the Church of Perfect Light. Hypocritical dundo, she thinks. She wonders what he did to require three buckets worth of forgiveness.
She wonders but she doesn’t dwell. Instead she counts the bills. They’re small, so it takes a while, but at least she doesn’t have to watch the line of cars for customers. She’s done for the day. She thinks about seeing a movie at the University Village 3. She thinks about bringing Gilberto a meal that won’t make him sigh. For a second, she feels the feeling she associates with roses: pure, intense, perfect.
But then she finishes counting. One hundred and thirty-five dollars. Her movie falls away. Her dinner falls away. The DWP bill falls away.
When the stomach-punch wears off, she looks up and sees the SUV glinting like a glass bead in the string of cars a block away. She thanks God for football idiots and climbs on her bike. Without the buckets she is light and fast. The cars are slow and angry. They want to be somewhere now too, but they are trapped in big metal bodies that can’t keep up with their desires.
I will follow you to the Church of Perfect Light, pendejo, she thinks.
Then she imagines her mother, who would prefer that Lena clean office buildings with her in the deathly dull night, saying, “He could be a drug dealer, with all that cash. He could have a gun and shoot you.”
But she catches up with him so quickly that it seems silly to turn around. Traffic moves so slowly down Figueroa that she has to stop and walk her bike. She wonders if he sees her in his rearview mirror. Probably not. And he’s probably forgotten her face already anyway.
At 49th Street, the SUV turns right, then right again into the long driveway of a squat green building that says, in thin metal letters mounted to stucco, CHURCH OF PERFECT LIGHT. Actually, it says, “CHURC OF PERFECT LIGHT.” The missing letter has left a yellowish H-shaped ghost on the wall.
Lena parks her bike behind one of the rectangular hedges surrounding the church’s front yard. She takes her time, trying to think. If he’s not a gun-toting drug dealer, what’s he doing in this neighborhood? There’s a wedding taking place in the courtyard—she can see a black woman in white and a black man in black through a gap in the church’s stubby buildings. If he is a drug dealer, though, why that license plate frame?
She decides to wait and see. She creeps into a shady corner of the courtyard, where a handful of Latino men are pouring champagne into plastic flutes. Maybe she could pass as a wife or sister, along for the ride.
The minister has a booming voice, though the hot expanse of the outdoors absorbs it quickly. “Amanda, you were practically still a girl when you met Frank.”
Lena thinks of her own wedding. It was a day that felt like roses, even though her bouquets were made of stargazers and Gerber daisies. Even though Gilberto—if she’s perfectly objective about it—is a mediocre husband. But everyone she knew was there, their eyes fixed on her lacy dress and their hearts fixed on her future. An extended moment of pure purposefulness.
The minister continues. “I remember the first time you told me you were taking a liking to this young man who lived in your neighborhood. And Frank, I remember the first time she brought you to—”
“Stop!” yells a thin, ragged voice from the back of the crowd. All the heads in their Sunday hats turn to face the man with the roses. Lena had almost forgotten him. She was suspended, for a minute, in Amanda-and-Frank.
The man holds two immense armfuls of roses. They’ve soaked his pants, and his face shines with sweat. His hair has gone from messy-cool to just messy.
“Amanda, I know this sounds crazy, but I love you. I’m not going to say Frank’s not a good guy, because he is, but I’m crazy about you. Literally fucking crazy.”
There is a hush like rose petals. People look at the man and then at Amanda and then at the minister, as if he’s a judge in a courtroom.
The minister looks as stunned as the rest of them. Do people really stop weddings in real life? Then he looks indignant. His courtroom has been interrupted. Or maybe it’s more than that.
“Pastor Dylan,” the minister says sternly, “if you have feelings for a member of the congregation, now is hardly the time—”
An older woman takes the man—Pastor Dylan, apparently, who wants people to follow him to the church where he’s fallen in love—by the arm. She waves to the minister. “Don’t worry, Pastor Marc. Pastor Dylan’s just caught up in the emotion of things is all. I’ll take him aside and get him some lemonade.”
Pastor Dylan tears away so violently that the woman teeters on the heels of her sensible shoes.
“Amanda, can we just talk? Look, these are for you.” He thrusts the roses toward her, but she’s a hundred feet away. She would have to walk over to take them, which would be a statement that she doesn’t seem to want to make. So Pastor Dylan just stands there, arms out awkwardly.
“Amanda,” he says again.
Something is ending right now, Lena thinks. She saw the beginning of that end back at the stoplight, and soon the end will end. Amanda will say something or someone stronger than the old woman will lead Pastor Dylan away, and he will have to decide what to do with the rest of his life.
But in this moment he is desperation personified, and there is a purity in that too. It’s a purity of poverty rather than richness. It is not the tight-budded luxury of a new red rose, but a pale gray rose in full bloom, the petals beginning to brown.
Later, when he’s hunched on the steps, head between his knees, red petals like a trail of breadcrumbs behind him, Lena will wait quietly, allowing him the feeling of roses for as long as possible. Then, because there is a time after weddings and flowers, she’ll demand her money.