ight after she dropped Juliette off at school, Cora worked up her nerve and unlocked the front door of McAdams’ Apothecary & Luncheonette, the family drugstore and restaurant forever known as the MAL.
She’d expected to come back to town, add some insouciant Gallic touches to the menu, maybe get the waitresses some cuter outfits, and be back in business. Her family, she knew would be a problem. Her broken heart, she realized would need attention.
But the MAL? Running that was supposed to be the easy part.
At least she managed to fit in the key in the huge padlock that held the iron gate closed over the front windows. It took all her strength to pull it back far enough to unlock and push open the big heavy glass door.
The whole winter’s worth of cold air hit her in the face, along with the smell of mildewed dishrags and rotted food. It looks like the cops had raided the place in the middle of lunch hour and sent everyone home and locked it down. Dishes with green-furred crusts of ancient sandwiches moldered on the tables, ancient french fries lay dry as twigs in their paper cones, and a glass full of coke sat on the counter, looking disturbingly normal.
Thank God the day was warm, the sun shining brightly, the first real breath of spring since they’d arrived. She left the front door open at her back, which at least made the stench bearable.
She couldn’t believe Jamie hadn’t at least come down here and cleaned the place out after the cops shut it down. No, she’d seen Jamie’s room, the state of the apartment: She could believe it.
Where the hell was Jamie? She was pissed, but as the days went by and he didn’t materialize, she got more and more worried. She’d heard what happened to that poor girl over at the strip club. Jamie was mixed up with those people. Who’s to say something terrible couldn’t have happened to him? Or maybe he had something to do with….
No, she couldn’t let herself think that. Jamie was a fuckup, but he wasn’t bad. He would never hurt anybody.
She’d go tomorrow, out to the racetrack, see if she could find him there. She hadn’t wanted to do it, felt like she’d made a fool of herself, going to George’s house like that, only to find him sitting there with his wife. Well, she’d just stay away from the horse barn. And if she saw George, she’d just make herself be friendly and not think about anything more.
God, the place was beautiful, even trashed like this, with its honey-colored wood walls and its silver counters rich-looking as sterling, with the same red stools she loved to twirl on as a girl and the round white lights hanging low and lush as full moons. She couldn’t believe there was a time when all she wanted was to get as far away from here as possible, when she thought she’d be happy never to see this place again.
The steel door that led into the kitchen lay straight ahead. Sucking him her breath and holding it, she stepped forward.
Maybe she should have just stayed in Paris. Despite everything that had happened, this was the first time since she’d left that she truly felt herself falter. Maybe it would have been better to stay with the husband she knew was cheating on her. Maybe it would have been better to let her father and brother run themselves and this place completely into the ground, instead of almost.
I don’t want to do this, she thought, as she put her hand out to open the door.
You don’t have to go, she remembered herself telling Juliette when she was little and whined that she didn’t have to go to the bathroom. But you have to try.
The explosion of smells and mess that hit her when she opened the door made the front part of the place seem like a garden of Eden. She gagged and pulled her tee shirt up to cover her mouth and nose, willing herself to flip on the overhead lights and take in the extent of the damage.
Even before the shut-down, it looked like the place had been a disaster. The floor was filthy, the garbage overflowing, dirty dishes littered the side of the dishwasher. But the worst thing was the food that had been left in pots and pans on top of the big old black and silver six-burner stove, the same one she remembered her mother commanding like a spaceship decades ago.
She stepped forward, making herself think about the hot water, envisioning soap in a bucket, scanning for the garbage bags, imagining the cleanup already underway.
Then a huge rat, big as a cat, scrambled out from behind a pot and ran, squealing, along the length of the prep counter.
Cora let out a yelp and reeled away from the stove, out of the kitchen, out into the front of the cafe, gulping for air, feeling as if she’d just run five miles.
It wasn’t until she’d regathered her wits that she realized someone else was there in the room with her, silhouetted against the open door.
It was a black woman, she saw as her eyes adjusted, dressed in a white uniform, tall and powerful looking, her hair gathered into a low bun.
“Ms. McAdams?” The woman said, stepping forward. “Cora? I’m LaTonya Jones. You probably don’t remember me, but we went to high school together.”
Cora didn’t remember LaTonya, but the black and white kids didn’t mix much back then. Probably still didn’t.
“Yes?” Cora said.
“It’s about my son Darrell, and your daughter. We need to talk.”