indifferently, so promiscuous in his praise that she wasn’tnsure he saw.n”Something is wrong with it,” she groaned.n”You shouldn’t let these things bother you.” He seemednpleased to find her worrying over flowers for once, instead ofnthe job. “What are you doing?”nHer job! She was holding the phone book at arm’s length,ntrying to make the numbers hold still. “Tad will know whatnto do.”n”For Pete’s sake it’s Saturday morning! He’s probablynasleep.”n”He’s a runner,” she told him with a proprietary thrill.n”He’ll be up.”nAlfred’s voice spiked in irritation. “Why didn’t you asknme?”n”Because I knew what you’d say.”nOf course Tad came, her young employer in his Saturdaynsweats soberly bending over the arrangement, never oncensuggesting even by inflection that this was a waste of hisntime. She leaned close, absorbed, as he did magic with anpiece of wire. “You do good work,” he said.nAlicia knew what he was too polite to say, that there werenbetter places to do it, yet she did not so much suffer asnencourage the Garden Club, traveling to Hartford for thenspecial glass marbles, setting bachelor’s buttons in washablenblue ink to enhance the color, getting up at five to arrangenthe fresh flowers, using her own breath to fog and polish thenfruitwood table. If at her new job in the library she had tonspend hours searching a tide for some medieval scholar, ifnshe could never catch up on the paperwork Tad and thenother kids in their 20’s seemed to toss off in minutes, she wasnstill good at this. In the moment before they came, she couldnbe perfect.nAlicia loved the way her house looked in the morningnlight, the golden promises of autumn in this nearperfectnmoment right before they came. It was her favoritentime of the year, and the saddest; everything was so pretty,nits time so short . . . She had dressed in rust today, to matchnthe leaves; the committee would come in fall colors —nJanice and Maud, Clarita and Elise, whose race memory, ornsense of the appropriate, would direct their color choices asnit had every October since they first went off to college, fiventremulous, gawky girls. When they were standing around it,nadmiring, her arrangement would be complete.nAlfred was out raking leaves in old boots and a Shetlandnsweater; in a few hours she would hear cheering from thenYale Bowl as the crowd rose for the kickoff. Thirty years agonshe and Alfred used to walk out to the Bowl with hundredsnof others, lugging blankets and thermoses. She rememberednher doctor in another autumn, waving at the open hospitalnwindow: hear them cheering? By the time the game is over,nyou will have your baby. Yes, it was a cliche. She lovedncliches. Hence the arrangement.nShe had begun to understand that there were in lifenchallenges it was appropriate to meet and others it was betternto avoid.nWithin the circle of the Garden Club she still had thencapability, as the computer people said, of fulfillment. Atnleast she needed to tell herself this when, in fact, shenunderstood—if she understood anything — that life hadnbeen created to demonstrate Goedel’s Theorem of Incompleteness,nunless Goedel’s theorem was an analog fornlife — the hand forever reaching for the eternally recedingncup.nY ounare too smart to sit home, her young boss had saidnafter their first conversation, in the year she went backnto school. She was not sure what he saw when he looked atnher. Whether he had spoken out of admiration or pity shenstill did not know.nShe would have put it another way. Her children werengrown. Her watercolors had dried up in their tubes, whichnwas all right because in her new, apparently insatiable drivenfor excellence she understood that her paintings had nevernbeen anything more than ladylike. Abandoned when shengave up photography, her darkroom filled up with winteringnplants. She could no longer be certain she was at thenbeginning and not the end of something.nThen one night she woke up screaming and felt Alfredngentiy trying to disengage her fingers even as he patted hernback and murmured, from long practice. There there, Lissy,nthere there.nSo she went back to school. At the university she had tonrun hard to stay in one place among swift, indifferent kidsnwho did well precisely because they didn’t need it. She usednto go home exhausted while the kids, her classmates, rannaround like jackrabbits, falling into bed with just anybodynanywhere, any time, dancing if they wanted to, partying lateninto the night. Well, let them. She was better organized. Shentook some assurance from her surroundings, or was it thensetting she had created: the glinting prisms in her chandeliers,nthe polished surfaces of her ancestral furniture, feedingnon her reflected image in the beveled mirror her greatgrandparentsnhad taken from New York to Baltimore in thenback of a wagon. Standing in the dust-shot sunlight shenthought she saw her own reflected face receding; I need tonbe useful, she told the image, useful.nWhen she blundered into the Manuscripts Library,nstymied by a graduate school assignment. Tad Elson wasnmore than kind. Did she remind him of his mother or wasnthere more? Although she preferred not to admit it, he hadninvented her, directing her thesis, creating a job for her.nWell, it was easy for him to make large gestures. Everythingnis easy for Tad, she thought resentfully.nUnlike Tad, she had to work long hours to accomplishnanything. Unlike handsome, careless Tad, who had a smallncar and a girlfriend, she hated to go home. Still, she couldnspend only so long at the library. When she got back to thenhouse, no matter how late it was or how many lights she hadnleft on, it would be empty and too dark. At least she nonlonger imagined she heard the voices of her grown childrennsomewhere in the house. Howard was working for an oilncompany in Saudi Arabia and Martha was married andnliving in Florida. Even in summer the house seemed coldnand no matter how exhausted she was, she would have tonstart dinner for Alfred, who had begun to affect a neglectednair.nWhen it was all she did outside the home, Alfred lovednher work with flowers. He used to come up behind her andnput his arms around her waist, chin on her shoulder,nadmiring the arrangement.nnnOCTOBER 1989/21n