It might have been aphids or low humidity that made the buds drop before the lilies ever had a chance to flower. It might have been a gas leak or contamination by paint. Maybe what Lyddie thought were aphids were thrips. Or mites. Lyddie turned off the misting apparatus and walked through the greenhouse, more witness than caretaker. She stopped to examine the South African begonias—their leaves burnt, stems rotted at the base. Too much water? Not enough light? She wondered if she were capable of taking care of anything. The wild herbal quarter looked as though it had undergone an experiment on the effects of sequential disasters—natural and human-inflicted. Some of the plants appeared to have suffered overwatering; some to have been pruned without mercy, as if by leaf-cutter ants. Others had grown leggy and acute freeloading on sunlight. A few that had flourished under her benign neglect threatened the others with encroachment.
Lyddie left the greenhouse and went in by the back door of the house, up the back stairway and into the bedroom. Digging deep into the closet, she pulled out a few hangers and their contents, none of which seemed right for the art opening she was supposed to speak at in less than thirty minutes. The only thing even halfway suitable was the black dress. The opening featured the work of six young German artists, and young Germans wore black—for everything. They would not be present, but she would allude to their sense of style.
The dress still had its tags dangling from the underarm. She had bought it as a way of making real to herself the likelihood that Phelps wasn’t coming back. She had not meant to wear it until they’d found him and there could be a funeral. Nearly three months she’d been waiting. She walked to the full-length mirror, turned sideways and examined her profile: still mostly flat. In the bathroom, she scrubbed at the dirt under her nails. It wasn’t for her lack of trying that so many of the plants had died. At first, she’d spent countless hours reading and watering, trimming, pleading with them. It seemed the least she could do for Phelps. She didn’t want to hire someone to do what he had left her to do, though they had both thought he’d be gone just two weeks. Lately, however, the plants’ distress seemed an indication that Lyddie was nearing the end of her ability to cope. She took the dress from its hanger and slipped it over her head. She struggled with the zipper, wondering, when it was halfway up—at the very point Phelps would have assisted—if she had given up hope.
Black heels in hand, Lyddie crossed the yard to the white Olds 98 parked on the gravel pad behind the house. She slid onto the vinyl seat and eased the car into the alleyway. At dusk, against the leafy outlines of the trees, starlings gathered. Streetlights flickered on, tentative but insistent. Everything was poised for obscurity yet utterly clear. Lyddie felt as though she were behind the wheel of an ark. The fuel needle dipped below empty and when she pulled up to the pumps at the mini-mart on Elmwood, hundreds of tiny white moths descended from the bank of lights overhead onto the windshield of the car. They were everywhere, their white bodies crushed against the grills of other cars and flitting at the cashier’s window like something that should last seven days or seven years. Were the moths a curse? (Seven more months of grief deferred?) Or was her life just a rest stop for them on some kind of migration? What Lyddie did know was that the passenger seat remained an obstinate blank, and she felt oddly relieved to have chosen the black dress. A couple of months longer and she wouldn’t be able to wear it anyhow.
The months since Phelps had disappeared seemed an eternity. And the time she’d spent in Berlin—another lifetime. But that had been just four years. Four years before, Phelps had convinced her that Axel was something of a madman. Now, all over again, she had begun to doubt it. Even looking at Axel’s paintings had been dangerous for her.