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Dreams as fragile as the flowers she sells

Published May 25, 2003

The lunchtime crowd is making its way out of the Hillsborough County Courthouse.

The crowd is a mix of well-cut suits and low-slung denim. The stench is stomach-churning: cigarette smoke and over-the-top perfume coming from the courthouse, car exhaust from the street. Tattoos are as prolific as toddlers. People move briskly while talking on little silver phones.

They don't see Jennifer Modlin. Still, they manage to avoid tripping over her.

Jennifer, 25, sits on the sidewalk with her long legs crossed sharply. She is holding one rose up like an offering.

She is waiting. She has been waiting all morning. She has sold most of the roses a man she knows left her to sell. He has not shown up. This has never happened before.

The roses are made of a single strand of the Florida state tree, the sabal palm. "He can make a rose in 65 seconds," Jennifer says proudly of the man, "and do it with his eyes closed." But he has never taught her how to make one.

They sell them in other places, at flea markets, in Ybor City. There's a story that flowers like these began as keepsakes that Confederate soldiers in Savannah made for their loves. It's a pretty legend, but I have no idea of its truth. All I know is that it has utterly nothing in common with the reality of Jennifer's life.

She had met the man who makes roses here, at the courthouse, just two weeks ago, minutes after a judge took away her 14-month-old daughter, Amber, because Jennifer had been unable to provide a proper home.

It was a rude welcome to Tampa. Jennifer had left Peoria, Ill., only days before; come by bus with her baby; and moved in with somebody who had a camper. The camper had no screens. Jennifer's elbows are still covered with the scabs and open wounds of constantly picked-at mosquito bites from nights in that camper.

The baby also was bitten, so badly that Jennifer took her to the hospital looking for help. The hospital called in the authorities. She takes all the blame. "It was my fault because I didn't plan ahead," she says.

She'd left the courthouse heartbroken. The man who makes roses was out on the sidewalk. He was kind at the very moment she needed it.

They moved into an apartment near downtown. They shared it with two other men.

The roses are good business. In the two weeks since, Jennifer and the rose man have saved $500 toward a down payment on a place of their own.

When we first talk, Jennifer speaks of him like he's the Almighty. "Without him," she says, "I don't know, I don't know where I'd be right now."

But as the minutes of waiting for him to show up blend into hours, she changes. She acknowledges that during their two weeks together, there have been evenings when he went out with his palms and roses and stayed out all night. He said he was going to make more money.

This might explain why she never calls him her boyfriend. The word suggests a certain reliable weight to the relationship it doesn't have.

And yet, all those nights he came back in the morning. But not last night. He didn't come back. That's why she's out on the sidewalk, alone.

Jennifer decides not to sell the last three roses she has. As they get older, they go the way of some romances. Their color fades. They fall apart.

Lunch hour passes. It melts into a long afternoon.

Where is he? This man has such power. That money they're making, those roses they're selling, will buy Jennifer the stability to get her baby back, to make a life. This is what Florida was supposed to be, a place where Jennifer had the chance to get what she sees everybody else getting.

The man who makes roses finally shows up as dinner time approaches. For this, Jennifer had to spend a day with her heart in her mouth, to get this fragment of a thing she so longs for.

- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at or (813) 226-3402.

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