ora should have known better than to drive into Hot Springs at night. She and her daughter Juliette were up before six in Paris to get to the airport on time, swaying on the Metro through the gray dawn, gripping the suitcases that held everything she had to show for twenty years in Paris.
But it was all right, she told herself. They’d sleep on the plane and then her brother Jamie would meet them at the airport in Little Rock and then her father would be waiting for them, a fresh platter of fried chicken at the ready, and maybe a big bowl full of mashed potatoes cratered with salt and a volcanic pool of melted butter floating on top.
But their takeoff was delayed, so they were late getting into Houston and had to get a later flight to Little Rock. And then Jamie was not waiting for them at the Little Rock luggage area, and her father wasn’t answering the phone . They were bone tired and all Cora wanted to do was check into the nearest motel and make her way home in the morning. But she had a bad feeling, and Juliette could sleep in the car, and she could definitely drive that hour of mostly interstate to Hot Springs, couldn’t she?
Even with no energy, and no brain.
But she had forgotten how dark things got out here, in winter, when the tourists were not around. How close the hills crowded in, how dense the fog could be from the damp crevices in those hills.
It never got dark like this in Paris.
Juliette snored softly and Cora flicked on the radio, settling on the third and last station on the dial, all of them country, but at least something to keep the coyotes at bay. Was Medhi combing the streets of Montmartre for them right now, banging down the doors of her friends, demanding to know where she’d gone, where she’d taken his daughter? Or maybe, relieved to find that she’d vanished at last, he was laughing in bed with one mistress or another, happy to be alone.
Your cheating heart will pine someday
And crave the love you threw away
She would not cry, would not. First with her mother’s death, and then with the discovery of Medhi’s extravagantly adulterous life, and then with Juliette’s rebelliousness and with the intimations that her father and brother were not holding things together in Hot Springs, she’d cried enough. She was starting a new life now. A life that would not include the kinds of things that made her take four showers a day just so she could cry.
Hot Springs appeared first as a glow on the cloud canopy, a hint of the blue and red and gold neon below. Then bright signs, traffic lights, street lights. Juliette stirred, asked in French whether they were there yet.
“Speak English,” Cora commanded. “You’re an American girl now.”
“I’ll never be American,” said Juliette, her Parisian accent thicker than ever, though Cora knew that if her daughter wanted to, she could speak as perfectly as if she’d never been east of Memphis.
“You’ll see,” said Cora. “It’s going to be great.”
Although she had her misgivings, growing by the minute. Where the hell had that church come from, with the lit-up cross tall as a hundred-year-old oak? And Jesus, the old Smitty’s bar was now called The Exquisite A Go Go, and seemed to feature a 24-7 strip show.
The old spa buildings looked as sedate as ever, hushed and dim, sentinels guarding the dense black hills of the national park with its subterranean hot springs, the progenitor of all that was here.
Cora almost drove right by the cafe that had been her family for a hundred years. The sign in the plate glass window that had been brightly lit every day and every night of Cora’s entire life, was tonight not lit. The window, which usually glowed softly from the lights beneath the zinc counter and along the sides of the wood-paneled booths within, was black. Above the store, the windows of her father’s apartment were dark too.
“Something’s wrong,” Juliette said in unaccented English.
Cora nodded, afraid to speak. She braked the car and jumped out onto the deserted sidewalk. She didn’t have to try the outside door that led to the stairway up to the apartment to know that it was unlocked; it swung open when she barely touched it.
She heard her own feet hammering on the wooden steps as she ran upstairs, the door to the apartment also yawning wide. The light was off and something told her to stop, run back down, get herself and Juliette safely away before she called the police and had them come help her deal with whatever was waiting inside.
She knew that was the smart thing to do, but as usual, she couldn’t do it.
“Dad?” she said, flipping on the light, feeling Juliette right on her back.
All at once she took in the scene: The apartment turned upside down, chairs with their legs in the air, table on its side, towers of newspapers toppled across the rug, sodden brown paper bags of garbage spilled onto the floor, cats perched gingerly on the detritus, licking cans, nibbling on bones.
And sprawled in the middle of it all, eyes closed, mouth open, arms and legs akimbo, was her father,.
Cora opened her mouth, and screamed.