NEA Literature Fellowships

Jean Harper

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from Rose City: A Memoir of Work

Just after six in the morning, every morning of the week, the drift of rose cutters into the greenhouse begins. There are thirty of us working in the greenhouse in Richmond, Indiana, in the fall of 1992. In my crew, most weeks, there are seven. There is Lil: almost sixty, a short, conscientiously cheerful born-again Christian. There is Eddie: hair to his waist, already one joint up on the day, squinting in the dim morning light. There is Sammie Jo: seventeen, translucent and blond as a Barbie doll. There is Bo: he smokes cigars all day every day in the greenhouse, and while he smokes he sings old George Jones songs to himself, to his imaginary hunting dog, Blue, and to us. There is Joy: seventeen, wearing shiny red lipstick, a tiny blue purse swinging at her hip. There I am: thirty-three, not yet unmarried, too thin, too blond.

And, last in, there is Hank, our crew leader. He has worked in the greenhouse cutting roses for thirty-eight years. He is bone thin, gawky as a teenager, and periodically seized with mute embarrassment in the presence of women. When he does talk -- to me or to anyone else -- he speaks in a clotted Kentucky drawl, and nods a lot, smiles a lot. His teeth are perfect, new dentures white as sugar cubes.

The ebb and flow of workers in the greenhouse is constant. On a good week, there are about thirty rose cutters in four crews of seven or eight men and women, all working the one daily shift at the forty greenhouses of E. G. Hill Incorporated from six-thirty in the morning until three o'clock in the afternoon. But every other week someone will quit Hill's, and the next week someone else will begin. The work is hard, sometimes dangerous, always tropically hot and mud-dirty, and the pay is low, as low as it can legally be in 1992: four dollars and twenty-five cents an hour. When new workers discover the truth of the work, most turn away to something else. Welfare and unemployment offer a better return than a greenhouse job. Part-time work at Wal-Mart or in an air-conditioned factory is cleaner. A temporary job at a bank, or at an insurance company, holds out the promise of a future. There are reasons to leave the greenhouse. But for those who don't leave, there are reasons to stay. Here, no one cares if you smoke on the job. No one asks if you can read, or write. No one requires that you have graduated from high school, or that you consistently bathe, are entirely sober, or always straight. There is no dress code. There are no expectations of manners or etiquette or personal behavior or what Midwesterners like to call morals. There is only the work.

Hank hasn't finished high school, he reads and writes with agonizing slowness, but he can cut roses faster than anyone: five hundred to six hundred roses an hour. Bo pees in the greenhouse between benches of roses whenever he needs to and smokes his rank cigars, but he can heft hundred pound bags of fertilizer and tote a full five-hundred-foot water hose as if it is a length of twine. Eddie, when he knows he can get away with it, lights up a joint and tokes until he is adrift in a thoughtless space, but he will spray for weeds all day and the next without complaint or question.

And me? I have transgressed the pact of one marriage, wrecked another, left all that I knew in the East for a place a thousand miles away. But no one in the greenhouse cares. Soon enough I learn to cut half as fast as Hank; I labor as hard as Bo; I take on every job in the greenhouse with the fervor of a penitent; and because I work hard, I am left alone. Because that's all that matters: the work.

The first warning whistle blows at 6:25 each morning. Russell, the general manager, slowly walks in, clipboard in hand. He oversees the rose cutters and their supervisors, the maintenance men who work the heating and cooling systems, and the alcoholic plant manager, Darrel.

The only person Russell doesn't supervise is Cher, the office manager who tallies our hours and our productivity. Cher and Russell both report to Lindley, the third-generation owner of the greenhouses. Lindley is descended in a zigzag line from E. G. -- Edward Gurney -- Hill himself, the man who brought roses to Richmond, Indiana, in the early twentieth century. Lindley makes appearances in the greenhouses on the occasional holiday, the annual employee appreciation day, or, if Russell recruits him, in surprise visits inside the greenhouses to make a show of benign force. But Russell is in the greenhouses every day. He is a ruggedly handsome man in his mid-forties, tan as we all are from the year-round sun, and possessed of little patience for fools. Each morning Russell walks in and sees everyone, acknowledging by nod a few: Hank, Bo, and some days me.

The second whistle blows at 6:30. We gather our cutters, our baskets and counters, and split into four crews to make the first cut of the day. Morning, we say to each other. Morning.

Jean Harper was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and now calls the Midwest her home. Her first book, Rose City: A Memoir of Work (Mid-List Press, 2005), won the Mid-List Press First Series Award for Creative Nonfiction. She has held fellowships at Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her writing has appeared in the Iowa Review, Cimarron Review, Epiphany Magazine, Jabberwock, and other publications. She teaches writing and literature at Indiana University East, in Richmond, Indiana.

Photo by Frances Peacock

Author's Statement

When you apply for an NEA fellowship, you know you are one among hundreds of writers vying for this award. Hundreds of writers, good writers, all just as hungry as you are for that fellowship that will grant you financial support, which grants you time, the most prized of all prizes any writer ever wants. Just time to write. Time to finish, to revise, to dream about the next piece of writing.

So when you apply, you send off your application, knowing that hundreds of your writing colleagues are doing the same, and then if you are smart -- you try to forget about it. You go back to work, the work that matters: writing.

After I sent off my application and vowed not to think about it, for most of the rest of the year I did mostly that. I worked on my book, Horses and Divorces. I re-worked it, revised it, re-envisioned it. I walked my dog. I rode my horse. I thought about sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Words. Just kept doing the work of writing.

So then the call comes. The Yes. Yes, the committee liked your writing very much. Yes, you have been awarded an NEA fellowship. Yes, what you had almost forgotten because you didn't want to be disappointed is real, and yours. In that moment, all of that willful, if not imaginary, forgetting falls away. I was stunned, grateful, overwhelmed. As the news sank in over the next weeks, months, I am now most of all struck by a certain sureness. I write forward now, not looking over my shoulder worrying if I am, indeed, a real writer, not worrying about time, about money. I write knowing I have been given a gift. I write, quietly thanking the NEA each day, and just keep writing.