can’t understand what happened here,” Cora said.
They were back downstairs after maneuvering her father up and into his filthy bed. George assured her that now that Senior’s stomach was empty, now that he’d been shot full of antibiotics to deal with the bronchitis-bordering-on-pneumonia that had combined with the booze to make him pass out, he should be all right. Until the next episode.
She was so tired. She didn’t think she had ever been so tired, not when Juliette was a baby, not when she’d pulled all-nighters in college, not when they were launching the restaurant in Paris and worked from dawn until well after midnight. It was well after midnight now, and she still was a long way from bed, given the state of the house.
“After your mother passed,” George said, “your dad and Jamie, they just never seemed to recover.”
“But it was only six months ago,” said Cora. “I was here for the funeral. Mama had been sick for a while then, but the cafe and drugstore were still functioning, the apartment was in good shape….. I mean, I didn’t expect to find all the beds made and the counters wiped down, but I had no idea things had disintegrated so far so fast.”
George let out a deep sigh. Even in his disheveled state, even through her bleary eyes, she could see he was a handsome man. Tall but not imposing, slim but at the same time soft-looking, he had a sweet smile and eyes that seemed to be searching for something to believe in.
“There was some trouble last fall with certain drugs disappearing from the pharmacy,” George said. “After the authorities shut the place down, your brother made himself scarce….”
Cora’s head was swimming. Drugs disappearing? Authorities shutting the place down? She’d been aware of none of this.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Can you stay and tell me a little more? For just a minute? I can make us a drink….”
George’s sad-looking little girl was curled like a cat asleep in her daddy’s coat, the real cats scattered to the shadows. Cora got the water running good and hot, washed out some glasses using her hands and a dried-out cake of Ivory soap, and set to putting together a cocktail, something that would not taste too bad but would blot out the reality of — well, basically everything.
George looked like he was going to refuse her, but then he swept the newspapers off the chintz sofa and sank down so heavily Cora was afraid he too was going to end up sprawled out on the ground. She handed him the glass, and he accepted it eagerly.
“Jamie’s got himself mixed up with my ex and some of the people she runs with,” George said, taking a long swallow of the drink. “Word is they’re cooking up meth, up in the hills.”
“Meth?” said Cora, perching on the edge of a wicker footstool across from George. “I mean, Jamie’s no angel. He drinks a lot of beer, and smokes a lot of pot. But he’s never been into anything harder than that.”
She still thought of Jamie as her kid brother, though he’d turned 33 in December. He still seemed to her like the little boy who spent all day reclining on the bed watching TV game shows with their grandmother, eating marshmallow peanuts. He’d never had a regular job, outside of helping out around the MAL, and he’d never lived anywhere but with their parents, and he’d never been in a serious relationship, never gone to college, had left Arkansas only for forays to the Kentucky Derby and Mardi Gras and once, for a single shining afternoon, to the beach in Los Angeles. He’d waded into the Pacific Ocean, figured he’d seen it, turned around and come right back home.
“I don’t mean to accuse him of anything,” said George. “He just looks a little wired, whenever I see him, out at the track. And he looks like he’s lost quite a bit of weight.”
“Jesus,” said Cora. She took a full swallow of her drink, which seemed like the best thing that had happened to her in days. “And what about my dad?”
“I’ve been out to see your dad quite a bit in the past few months. His health has really deteriorated. He’s not eating right, he’s drinking way too much, but beyond that he now has some serious conditions developing. I hate saying no in an emergency, but your father really needs to see a physician very soon….”
“Who are you?” Cora said. “Why are you the one coming here in the first place?”
From what she could gather, George was the vet out at the racetrack, but he helped out certain people in the community when they were desperate. Her father, roused to consciousness when she’d screamed at Juliette to call 911, insisted that she call George instead. Was even able, in his delirium, to recite George’s phone number.
“You really don’t remember me,” George said, setting his empty glass on the littered coffee table.
Should she remember him? A guy that good-looking would be hard to forget, yet nothing about him looked familiar.
“We went out,” he reminded her. “In high school. Well, it was only once. The Winter….”
“Oh my God.” She clapped her hand over her mouth. She did remember him, but still, only vaguely. He’d been so much shorter then, so much skinnier, so shy and quiet, with hands that trembled and left sweat stains on her dress when he’d pinned on her corsage. Shame washed over her as she remembered how much she wanted to get away from him at that dance, how hard she wished she were with one of the cooler boys, one of the basketball players or goof-offs who were now driving the 7-Up trucks. Everything she’d ever wanted, it seemed to her now, had been the wrong thing.
“So you came back to Hot Springs,” she said.
“I never really left,” he said, standing up. “Not like you, traveling the world. I guess you’ll be taking off again, pretty soon.”
He moved to lift his little girl, put on his coat. As exhausted as she felt, she wished he would stay a while longer, have another drink and talk to her a little more. She remembered now: She’d kissed him good night, a kiss that had been much more electric than anything she’d anticipated.
“I’m actually here to stay now,” she told him. “My husband and I, we split up. My daughter and I, we’re planning to….”
And then she stopped speaking. Her mind went back to when she and George had brought her father upstairs. She’d wanted then to ask Juliette for help — help maneuvering the old man upstairs, help getting the bed ready, help making sure that they’d also have a place to sleep. And she hadn’t seen Juliette anywhere.
She’d put it out of her head then. She’d had more urgent things to think about.
But now she looked quizzically at George.
“My daughter Juliette,” she said. “Do you have any idea where she went?”
Read Cora’s side of the story.
It’s a disaster! Brew a Disaster Cocktail at Cora’s Kitchen.