The house was too big. No matter how many Chinese shoe trees or Turkish prayer rugs, embroidered pillows from forgotten Irish counties, Balinese puppets, Deruta pottery, or African dung sculptures happened to rest in surpris-ing corners of the place, the house never felt quite full. Alice watched her mother notice this each time she returned—the house and its emptiness always appeared to register as sheer surprise. The Greens lived in a large house. They lived in a house on the water, in a cove shared with oysters, glass-green seaweed, broken bottles, and bloated prophylactics. Alice lived with her brother and father and mother in a house sea-damaged and in a constant state of not-quite-fashionable disrepair.
Since the day the Greens had moved in nearly seven years ago, Charlotte hadn’t stopped attempting to fill the house with objects. She went away to find more objects, was how it seemed to Alice, who, along with her father and brother, was always waiting for her to come home. That was why it felt so empty to Charlotte each time that she returned. The house . . . it had filled up years ago; they didn’t need another thing—and Charlotte knew they were waiting; she had to have known. It was only her presence that was missing. She must have known every time.
In between the afternoon and evening, it seemed to Alice that the world was running out of energy. The sun seemed like a legend—forcing people to get things done, day after dismal day. It was cold near the window, even under two sweaters, but Alice still couldn’t tear herself away from watching the day fade. The March skies looked like the skin around her mother’s eyes, like the dregs of her mother’s milky Bengali tea. She found herself standing in front of her parents’ bedroom window, watching her breath condense on the windowpane. The sky drained slowly as she anticipated the sight of her father’s car coming home from the lab. Alice’s father was a scientist, a professor of neurobiology, and he spent days at a lab where he acquired the scent of blood and floor wax, and worked sometimes for hours without so much as a cup of coffee, without a single bite to eat. She wanted to give her father an especially warm welcome, to distract him from realizing the heat still wasn’t turned on and that Charlotte hadn’t returned. Alice made twenty-three marks in the window’s fog, one mark for each day her mother had been gone. Today—her father didn’t like to promise—today the chances were good that she’d wrapped everything up and that she would be coming home from the airport, arriving before four. The clock said five-thirty. They’d all been wary anyway. Her mother made schedules but rarely did she adhere to them.
Alice turned from the window and sat at Charlotte’s table. She bypassed the stamped tin box filled with jade beads and silver, overlooked the crackled hand mirror and the 1920s button rings. She sprayed the Must de Cartier in the air, and then ran through it like a sprinkler in the heat of summer. In the third drawer on the left-hand side of the table, she found the black pearl earrings. They sat on an ivory silk cloth with a purple ink stain, as if they were no more than two good seeds, waiting to be scattered. They clipped painfully onto her ears and she sat for moments trying to imagine having the strength to endure that kind of pain for any kind of time. That was how Alice would know she was grown: the black pearls would clip onto her ears and she wouldn’t have a thought in her head.
She took off the earrings when they began to burn and put them back as she had always done. Thin sounds of the baby-sitter talking on the phone floated through the door, like a brighter other day. The baby-sitter was cheerful and put on fake foreign accents, which were wholly unrecognizable. Downstairs in the library, the TV was going and August was laughing. She could picture her brother laughing alone, laughing hard and loud, not noticing how dark the room was, or that their parents weren’t home. He might not even have noticed the cold.
When Alice heard the tires on the gravel, she almost ran out of the room and straight out the front door, but instead she went back to the window. It was possible that her mother was in the car with him. He might have picked her up at the airport. He might have had the time. Everything seemed to slow down as she looked out the window and watched the car, so small from this vantage, so weak next to the thick and massive trees. The shadows were taking over, going from evening to night, and Charlotte was not among them. Her father got out of the car in three distinct movements. He looked up at the roof and Alice waved but he didn’t seem to notice. He went for the front door and Alice ran downstairs when she couldn’t see him anymore.
“Hi, Daddy,” Alice said from the foot of the stairs. It always felt a little funny calling him Daddy; it made her sound like a baby, but she thought it sounded sweet.
“Hey, honey,” he said softly, having hung his big coat on a rusted hook. He wore a turtleneck sweater the color of soil. “How you doin’ over there?”
“It’s freezing,” Alice said. It just came out, the exact last thing she had planned on saying.
Her father didn’t come over and rub her arms. “Well,” her father said, “put on another sweater then. It’s healthier to wear layers than have the heat jacked up indoors. You know that.” He ran his broad hand over his face. All he wanted, Alice could tell, was a drink and some sleep. “Where’s August?” he asked.
“Gus,” Alice yelled.
Her father put his hand on her back. They walked toward the kitchen, her father flicking switches, frowning, whenever there was no light, at how many bulbs needed changing.
The baby-sitter, Melanie, was breathless with urgency, a quality many people acquired when talking to her father. He was often distracted and took an unnaturally long time to explain things. “So I have to go, Dr. Green. I’m glad you’re home,” she said, sticking a slew of papers out for Alice’s father. “Um, listen, here are some messages? You should take a look at these; they’re from Con Ed—kind of important?” Melanie glanced at Alice before deciding to stop right there.
“I’ve gotta go,” she said, and, after thrusting the papers in his hand, gave Alice a pat on the head and ran out the back door.