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Archive for the ‘Cora’ Category

1. CORA: Home After Dark

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.


6. CORA: Disaster Cocktail

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.


10. CORA: The Invitation

n what must have been her hundredth circle through town, Cora finally spotted Juliette walking fast and coatless along the main street, only a block from home. Leaning heavily on her horn, Cora squealed around in a u-turn and jerked the car into park right in the middle of the street — there was no one else on the road at this hour anyway, if you didn’t count the fire trucks that had sped, sirens screaming, by — and jumped out, engine still running.

“Where in hell did you go?” Cora shouted, torn between grabbing Juliette by the shoulders to shake her and throwing her arms in gratitude around the girl. She’d been terrified that Juliette had run away, or worse. Trolling the town, beaming her headlights everywhere she’d hidden out as a teenager: the alleys between the bath houses, the supermarket parking lot, the old gazebo. But there’d been no trace of Juliette.

Now the girl only shrugged. “I had to get out of that pigsty,” she said, in French. “I’m surprised you even noticed I was gone.”

“Of course I noticed you were gone. You scared me half to death.” Cora sniffed, the scent of smoke unmistakable in the crisp pre-dawn air.

“Have you been smoking?” she asked her daughter, taking the girl’s arm and leaning in for a better smell. “Or have you been in a bar somewhere?”

“I haven’t been doing anything,” said Juliette, pulling away. “Can we please go home to bed now?”

Cora was about to relent, more from her own exhaustion than from giving up on trying to figure out what was going on with Juliette, when she heard footsteps on the pavement. Who else would be out at this hour?

Through the darkness emerged a pale puffy face, a nimbus of long frizzy white-blonde hair, a large body wearing an even larger white nightgown and, improbably, a truly enormous pair of fireman’s galoshes.

“Jesus,” said Jimmie Sue Fallon, huffing to a stop beside them. “You sure gave me a run there, young lady.”


14. CORA: Revisitation

eyond the double hairpin in the road, past the leaping deer sign, right near where her mother used to come to fill plastic jugs with water that bubbled up from the roadside spring: That’s where Jimmie Sue said Cora might find Jamie.

It was a sorry-looking place, with rough-cut siding and a cement block for a front step, set back from the road in a thicket of birches. There were no cars in the gravel lot, but Cora’s skin pricked up, on edge. A faint puff of smoke wafted up from the metal chimney stack.

She never thought she’d say this, but thank God for Jimmie Sue. She’d somehow motivated Juliette to help clean up the whole apartment, and had also gotten Senior out of bed, gotten him shaved and dressed and slicked back his hair.

And it was Jimmie Sue who told her what was going on with Jamie, who told her to look for him at the Go Go and who drew the map to this place and also said there was another cabin where he might be, out beyond where George Forrest lived on his houseboat. Jimmie Sue drew a map to that place too, said Cora should stop at George’s for directions if she got lost.

Now Cora mounted the cement block and peered in the tiny window in the door, covered with a black metal grill. It was a disaster inside, even worse than the apartment had been, plastic bottles and what looked like coffee filters everywhere. She knocked but it was clear no one was there. The door was secured from the outside with an enormous padlock.

Jesus. Could it really have gotten this bad? Jamie might be guilty of leaving his dirty underwear on the floor, of eating soup cold from the can, but a hardcore drug addict? A dealer, a criminal?

Cora, chilled, frightened as she stood outside the house, didn’t want to believe it.

But what if Jamie was in some kind of trouble now? As a kid, she’d been the one to rescue him when he climbed to the top of the monkey bars and then couldn’t get down, who scared off the fat kid who was bullying him, who even told Lanelle Hinkins, who had a huge crush on him in high school, that Jamie didn’t really want to be her boyfriend. Whatever mess he was in, Cora could get him out of it.


22. CORA: The Mall

hopping with Juliette was like shopping with a terrorist.

“How about this?” Cora asked, heart pounding, holding up what she thought was a sweet flowered shirt for inspection.

Juliette’s lip curled. “No.”

“Well, what are you looking for? Maybe we should start with that.”

In Paris, there had been stores everywhere, and Juliette shopped with her girlfriends all the time. Of course, in Paris, there had also been money. And somewhere to wear the stylish clothes you bought.

“What I’m looking for can’t be found at this disgusting mall.”

For once, Cora was relieved that Juliette was insisting on speaking French. At least the people all around them couldn’t understand the scathing things she was saying.

“Okay, suit yourself,” Cora said, heart sinking. “I’m not going to force you to buy new clothes for school. Just wear what you brought from France. Fine with me.”

She’d been trying to be nice, was all. She could remember coming to this mall with her mother when it was first built, picking out new jeans, new shirts, new boots before school started. Her mother had been generous, buying Cora whatever she wanted, telling her how pretty she looked in everything. And Cora….

Well, come to think of it, Cora hadn’t been very nice to her mother either. Or she’d been nice for as long as it took for her mom to put everything on the credit card, and then she’d turned sullen and critical again. What she wouldn’t give now to take one more shopping trip with her mother, to make up for all those nasty comments, those withering looks.

“I don’t even want to go to that stupid school,” said Juliette. “I told you, I don’t feel well. I want to go back to France.”

“Well, you’re not going back to France. This is your home now, you’re only 16 years old, and you are going to school.”

Cora started threading her way along the main passageway, back toward the car. She’d been feeling sorry for Juliette, having to deal with the fallout from her failed marriage and her even-more-failed family. And she’d wanted to at least enjoy this one simple please — shopping with her daughter, on a Saturday afternoon — to balance the disappointment of finding her father ill, the cafe shuttered, her brother disappeared, and even George Forrest, surely the most attractive man in Arkansas, turning up married. But she wasn’t going to beg.

“Do you really want me to go to school with these kids?” Juliette asked, close to her ear. “Look at them — they’re freaks!”

And Cora did have to admit, the youth of Hot Springs did not inspire faith in the future of America. Tattoos, piercings, huge baggy pants sagging down around the thighs, acne, baseball caps, chains, fuck this and motherfuckin’ that….. Cora felt her step quicken and her spirits fall even further.

Maybe there was something to what Juliette was saying. Maybe she shouldn’t go to school.

Could Cora home-school her? Without wanting to stick her own head in the oven?

24. CORA: You Have To Try

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.


31. CORA: Let Them Eat Cake

ora finished serving the lemon cake and then sat back to watch everyone eat.  The dining room glowed with candlelight just as it had for big dinners when her mother was alive, long golden beeswax tapers burning in silver candlesticks atop the mantelpiece, votives in their glass holders arrayed along the windowsills, the big candelabra polished and shimmering with light in the center of the long wooden table.

Outside, the wind howled, the temperature plummeting again so that it seemed as if the world had changed its mind and retreated back to winter.  But in here, all was snug, birch logs crackling in the fireplace, the only other sounds the scraping of her mother’s silver forks against the delicate flowered dessert plates.

“Well, I never thought I’d say this,” pronounced Jimmie Sue, setting down her fork with a clatter, “but I do believe you’re a better cook than your mother, Cora.”

“Oh,” said Cora, feeling her cheeks warm and color.  “I don’t think so.”

“Maybe not when it comes to the basic stuff, the fried chicken and the mashed potatoes and like, Eleanor had no equal in that department.  But this cake: I’ve never tasted anything like this.  Would you consider this a Parisian dish?”

“Not really.  It’s more like plain old lemon meringue pie, except it’s cake.”

“Are we having cake?” asked Senior, although he’d just finished his second piece.

“You already did, you old fool,” shouted Jimmie Sue, in Senior’s ear.

“Everything was delicious,” said George.  His daughter sat dozing on his lap.  “I really appreciate you including us.”

“I’m happy to do it,” said Cora.

George hadn’t said much as they drove through the dusky evening, bright spring green hills and trees against gray sky and mist, back toward town.  Cora could think of a million things to ask him, but in the end they were all just chatter, and the central thing needed no elaboration.  He had untied his houseboat and let it drift away; he was letting go of something old in his life and starting fresh, just as Cora had walked away from Paris that morning and got on a plane for Arkansas.  How could you adequately explain that to someone on the outside?  What more did anyone need to know?

He’d asked her to drop him and his daughter off at the Barstow, when she on impulse had asked them over to dinner.  The lamb was already in the oven, the cake’s meringue layers already cooling on the kitchen counter, the lemons freshly squeezed.

The evening had been relaxed, even happy, the best time Cora had had since arriving, the kind of big hometown dinner she’d imagined they’d be enjoying every night.  Even George, despite his overlay of sadness, seemed to have a good time, joking with Senior, carving the lamb.

Juliette’s phone buzzed and she jumped up and started to leave the dining room.

“You have to help clean up,” Cora said, wishing that instead of invoking duty she could say: Stay with us, honey.  Just sit and be part of the family for a while.

“I’ll help in a few minutes,” said Juliette.  “I have a call.”

“Is it that boy, LaTonya’s son, what’s his name?”

“Darrell,” said George.

“It’s Hugo, if you must know,” said Juliette, answering the phone in French and rushing from the room.


44. CORA: French Diplomacy

ora was awake, daylight just beginning to sift through the windows, though she was not sure she had ever fallen asleep.

She could remember sitting alone in the living room, feeling so restless and helpless knowing Juliette was out there somewhere. Finally, she’d lain down on the sofa, her mind alive with images of her little girl in the woods, or on the dark streets: Somewhere beyond Cora’s reach. Or were those dreams?

Now she was awake, itchy to get out there and find her daughter.

She heard voices, male voices, heavy footsteps on the wooden stairs. They seemed to be speaking French. She shook her head, wondering if she was hallucinating. Or hallucinating again.

Then the door banged open.

There stood Medhi, her ex. With him was Hugo, Juliette’s ex. Or current: Cora never could keep that straight, and suspected Juliette couldn’t either.

At any other moment, Cora would have started screaming at Medhi for all his sins, would have pushed him back down the stairs or run out into the street herself.

But now, after only a moment’s hesitation, she walked straight into his arms.

Letting her forehead rest against his shoulder, breathing in the starch of his shirt, the musky scent of his neck, feeling the tickle of his hair against her cheek, feeling herself release all the worry and all the tears, brought back every moment she’d spent like this with him over all the years. Weeping for joy when he asked her to marry him and when she found out she was pregnant with Juliette. Crying in pain when she lost pregnancy after pregnancy and later when her mother died. Medhi’s steady strength, his warm shoulder and his hand on her back had been the constant through all the most important events of her life.

“It’s all right, I’m here, we’ll find her,” he said, and she let herself cry harder, collapse into him more thoroughly.

I was such a fool to ever leave, she told herself. I never should have taken Juliette away, never should have left Paris, should have learned to live with this man, my husband, no matter what.

“What I don’t understand,” Medhi said, gently stepping away from her, “is how our daughter got lost in the first place.”


51. CORA: The Flesh of the Lamb

edhi was in the kitchen, working on his lamb, when George arrived, looking tired but oddly relaxed.

Cora kissed him on both cheeks, blushing when she realized she’d fallen back into the French way of behaving.

“Sorry,” she said.  “I’ve been spending too much time with the Europeans.”

“That’s great that Juliette’s home safe,” George said.  “How’s she doing?”

“It’s weird,” Cora said, leaning in close, tilting her head to where Juliette sat in the corner, deep in conversation with a dark-haired young man.  “It’s as if she went for a little stroll in the woods, not ran away and then got shot at by criminals.”

“Did they catch anybody?” George asked, but before Cora had a chance to answer, Medhi called to her from the kitchen.

“Cora, these knives are disgraceful.  Why don’t you have a goddamn sharpener in this house?”

Blushing for the second time in as many minutes, Cora excused herself and went into the close little kitchen with Medhi, who was rifling through drawers and muttering in French.

“Don’t yell at me like that in front of a roomful of people!” she hissed.  “You’re not my husband anymore, and even if you were, I don’t like to be talked to like that!”

Back in Paris, through the years of their marriage and running the restaurant together, she’d grown accustomed to Medhi’s bark and also grown accustomed to not confronting him, knowing that would only lead to a bigger blowup.  But since she’d been back in Arkansas, she’d found herself wishing that she hadn’t let him get away with bullying her, that she’d spoken up for herself more even if that had forced their marriage to the brink.  She’d been keeping the peace and look where it had gotten them: Apart and alienated.

“I don’t like to be talked to like that either!” said Medhi, switching into French.  “And I’m still your husband and always will be!”

“This isn’t the fucking Middle Ages, you cretin,” she said, back to English again.  “And as for the knife, deal with what’s here or let me do the cooking.”

She reeled out into the main room, where everyone had either not heard the altercation in the kitchen, or was pretending they hadn’t.  She wished Juliette weren’t all involved with Hugo like that.  She’d never trusted the guy, who was wildly in love with Juliette one day, frosty and distant the next.  And now that he was here, he and Medhi, she was afraid that somehow they were going to spirit Juliette back to Paris with them and leave her alone. Or persuade her to go too.


55. CORA: The Black Cat

ast midnight, all the guests were finally gone and the house was finally dark, its many denizens in their beds.  Cora, exhausted, kept drifting toward sleep, yet her still-buzzing mind refused to let her tip entirely over the precipice.  And so when the door to her room opened, she wasn’t sure whether it was reality or a dream.

A man, warm, hairy, muscular, slipped into bed beside her.  Wriggled out of his boxer shorts.


He turned toward her and took her in his arms.

“What are you doing here?” she cried, pushing him away.

“Sssssh,” he said, touching her lips.  “I want you.”

“Medhi, stop.”

“I love you,” he said.

“Medhi, no.”

“Cora.”  He kissed her cheek.  The side of her mouth.  Her neck.

“Medhi, please.”

Groaning, he rolled onto his back and lay there, staring at the ceiling.  Her eyes were wide open now and she could make out his features easily, even see the bulge under the coverlet that betrayed his excitement.  It was so weird to have him here, with her, and at the same time felt completely natural, as if there’d been no break in the 20 years of nights they’d shared a bed.

Now that he had pulled away from her, she allowed herself to roll toward him.  Propped her head on her hand, gazed down at him.

“I couldn’t take all the other women,” she told him.

“I know,” he said miserably.

“Or the bossiness.”

He shrugged.  “What can I say?  You can’t blame a cat for having a tail, or sharpening its claws.”

“You can get rid of the cat.”