uliette stood frozen in a corner of the disgusting room, staring wide-eyed at the chaos swirling around her. Her grandfather sprawled moaning on the floor. Her mother shouting and running around, talking on the phone, grabbing a blanket, but not really accomplishing anything.
And then the doctor, who her mother called George instead of doctor, hurrying in with his pajama shirt hanging down from his sweater, his gray-threaded hair standing up in spikes on his head, his eyeglasses held together with some sort of flesh-colored tape — tape! — at the bridge of his nose. How anyone could trust such a man to sell them a newspaper, never mind save their life, was thoroughly beyond Juliette.
Dragging after the doctor, sucking her thumb, eyes bleary behind glasses as thick as the ancient windowpanes of the apartment, was a tiny little girl wearing a ruffled pink nightgown and clutching a threadbare pink bunny. Even as the doctor was bending over Juliette’s grandfather, listening to his heart, peering down his throat, the little girl tried to hang onto the shirttail of her father’s pajama top.
“For God’s sake,” Juliette’s mother said, turning to Juliette and switching into French. “Can’t you amuse this pathetic child for us, Juliette?”
“She’s not pathetic,” the doctor answered, without looking up and in French that was much better than Juliette would have expected from anyone in Arkansas. “She’s just scared, is all, and unhappy about being dragged from her bed in the middle of the night by someone too bull-headed to call a regular doctor.”
He even used the slang têtu for bull-headed. Impressive.
“I’m sorry,” Cora said quietly. “Really, I’m an idiot. We’ve been traveling for so many hours, and I’m in shock from what I found here….”
“It’s okay,” the doctor said. “Maybe if you could boil me some water? I know it’s a cliche but….”
Juliette would have gladly boiled the water for her mother, but Cora brushed right by her as if she wasn’t there and started banging around in the filthy kitchen. The doctor was busy with her grandfather, the child had now fastened herself to her father’s back like some jungle animal, and Juliette’s grandfather was crying out for somebody to bring him a goddamn whiskey, for Christ’s sake.
Backing out of the room, Juliette spied the stairs leading up to the third floor, where she remembered the bedrooms were. Nobody would miss her; she just wanted to get some sleep. Maybe when she woke up she’d find her mother packing the suitcases again, declaring that they were heading back to Paris, or to New York, or LA, maybe, anywhere but here. Or even better, she’d wake up to discover, like in the stories kids wrote in school, that it was all a bad dream.
But, oh my God, there was nowhere to sleep up here. Her grandparents’ room, which she’d last seen after her grandmother’s funeral, when the peach mohair afghan was still folded neatly as always over the back of the flowered armchair, the antique silver hairbrushes still lined up on the dresser and the ivory rosary beads draped across the mirror, was now littered with old-man clothes and newspapers across every surface. The sheets were pulled halfway off the bed, the bare pillows spotted with browned blood. Juliette clapped her hand over her mouth and reeled across the hall to her uncle’s room.
Her uncle Jamie’s room was, unbelievably enough, even worse. There was no sign of any actual bedding here, just a bare stained and stinking mattress hanging off the box spring, and a crusty plaid sleeping bag on top of that. This room too was filled with dirty clothes and old newspapers, but also with old pizza boxes — green-furred crusts still inside — and crushed beer cans and used plates and empty potato chip bags and ice cream cartons. The crowning touches were a plastic bong as big as a samovar atop the dresser and a gallon milk jug beside the bed filled with a dark yellow substance that looked suspiciously like urine.
Feeling as if she was about to throw up, Juliette pushed open the door to what she remembered was the guest room. There had been twin beds in here, that her grandmother always kept made up with red and white quilts that her grandmother had made by hand. There had been starched white curtains on the windows, that Juliette remembered watching move in the night breeze as she waited for sleep, listening to everyone talking English and laughing downstairs. She’d loved the sound of her mother’s voice back then, slipping so quickly and easily into that Southern accent. It was like her mother had a secret self — softer, more relaxed — that no one in Paris could see, but that Juliette rediscovered each time they were back in Hot Springs.
Now, though, all traces of that beautiful old room were gone, or maybe they were under there somewhere, under the huge black plastic bags of garbage and old clothes and mounds of books and magazines and towers of broken chairs and restaurant-sized cans, empty but unwashed, that had held plum tomatoes and beans and corn. Atop one of the black bags, crouched guiltily, was a cat crunching on what could only be a mouse.
Juliette bolted out of the room, rushing past the bathroom so fast she only got a glimpse of what looked like an alligator in the bathtub, and galloped down the stairs, banging out onto the sidewalk.