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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.


2. GEORGE: Kisses Like Marshmallows

eorge’s first thought on opening his eyes in his dark bedroom was: Taryn.

That was always George’s first thought when he woke up: Taryn.

Then he heard the phone ring, realized why he was awake to begin with, and thought again: Taryn. A ringing phone always made him think of Taryn too.

Shit: Taryn. Breath caught short, he lurched out of bed and fumbled for the phone. It was so black out tonight, barely a sliver of a new moon in the sky, and no street lights out here on the lake, only the lap of the water against the varnished wood of the houseboat and, from up in the hills, the hoot of an owl.

Something had happened to her this time, he could feel it. An overdose. Beaten up in the parking lot by some yahoo frustrated that all he could do was watch. Raped by some monster more than frustrated.

“Hello,” he said, grabbing the receiver. “Hello.”

He heard a woman’s voice, yelling, pleading, not making sense.

“Wait,” he said, the outlines of the houseboat’s only room taking shape through the darkness. “Taryn? Has something happened to Taryn?”

There was a pause at the other end and then the woman said, “Who’s Taryn?”

“Who are you?”

“This is Cora McAdams. I’m Senior McAdams daughter, from down at the MAL….”

He knew who Cora McAdams was. How could he forget, after what happened between them? Dark hair. Slender, bordering on scrawny, back in high school. Lips plump and mouth always open, just a little bit, An air of being perennially pissed off, which she probably had been, considering she’d hightailed it to London, Paris, one of those places, and never come back.


3. TARYN: I Cross The Line

aryn slammed down the receiver of the old pay phone still bolted to the wall outside the men’s room at The Exquisite A Go Go, and then slammed it down again, and then banged it against the wall a few times for good measure.

Fuck George! George was a class-A motherfucker. He was a first-class asshole, was what he was. Man says call him if she was ever in trouble. Man says don’t worry, he would always be there for her, of course he would be, she was the mother of his child, and he would always love her.

So this was what he called love? She phoned him in need, sick, and he said he was sorry, but he had to go take care of someone who was genuinely sick? Genuinely: She understood what that meant. It meant Fuck off, you druggy bitch.

Wade Perkins, another first-class asshole on her endless list, pushed out of the men’s room just as she was about to see if she could tear the phone out by its roots.

“Whoa, little girl!” he said. “Calm down there. Somebody do you wrong?”

Wade, with his flowing silver locks, big belly straining against pearl-buttoned black cowboy shirt, and Margarita breath, was the only dentist that Taryn had ever been to. George had sent her to Wade when they were first together, and she remembered Wade leaning over her, breathing through his mouth, clucking as he poked at her many cavities and exclaimed that she had the gums of an 80-year-old, a comment for which she would never fucking forgive him.

“It’s just George,” she told the dentist now. “He owes me my support money, you know, and he won’t pay me.”

Wade drew his head back, looked surprised. Yeah, nobody would believe such a thing of St. George, the Eagle Scout and Biggest Ass Good-Doer of central Arkansas. But it was her word against George’s, and she had the advantage of standing right here in front of Wade Perkins, batting her eyelashes and wearing nothing more than a rhinestone-studded patent leather mini-dress.

“Wade,” she said, stepping closer and laying a hand on his chest. “Do you think you could spot me some cash, just till tomorrow?”


4. JULIETTE: The Alligator in the Bathtub

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.


5. DaSHAWN: The Finger

ick dancers were definitely not something that DaShawn was supposed to be handling. That was on Llewellyn’s list of jobs: Number one, hire the girls, a task that Llewellyn embraced full-heartedly, though it wasn’t as simple and as pleasant as everybody seemed to think, finding hot-looking non-skanky females who were both willing to grind their naked booties on stage and who could be relied upon to show up and do so.

Number two on Llewellyn’s list of duties: Fire the bitches who were chronically late or who fought with the other girls or who tweaked or shot up on the premises or who had perennial babysitter problems or psycho boyfriends or who gained too much weight or got too old or who attempted to turn tricks without giving DaShawn a cut of the action. Llewellyn had initially pussied out on the firings but after being played by enough females was now turning nicely cold.

Llewellyn job number three: Deal with the girls who fainted because they didn’t eat enough or yacked because they drank too much or who went crazy from too much crank or two many hands pawing at their pussies or who cut themselves or who passed out or nodded out because of whatever reason.

But it was DaShawn’s arms that Taryn fell into when she toppled off the stage. Girl was usually prancing around the stage, racing around, working that pole, shimmying so fast she was a golden blur. Taryn Piper was the finest child ever to wander into the Exquisite, and her talents had a lot to do with DaShawn’s success, he never denied that. It was, shit, nearly ten years ago the first time she walked through the door, claiming to be 18 and with the phony papers to prove it, but looking more like 12. Barely up to his shoulder, barely 100 pounds, with teeny little turned-up breasts tipped pink as rosebuds and hair the color of home-churned butter on her head AND below: that was one special sight. Everybody, DaShawn included, was so mesmerized by that blonde-haired pussy that Taryn still held the distinction of being the only girl never sent over to the spa to be waxed.


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.


7. JULIETTE: Are You A Black American?

s soon as Juliette was outside, she wished she were back in. It was so cold, nearly as cold as Paris, and her coat was upstairs.

But she was not going to go back up there, no way, not now. That doctor and her mother would have to get the old man to a hospital or something, and then they’d have to call one of those extreme cleaning crews that wore the gas masks and total rubber body suits to come in and hose the place off. There was no way she was going back in there again, not even for a minute. She was even going to burn her coat, her lovely coat from APC that she’d lined up at dawn practically to grab at the sale, and the entire contents of her suitcase.

The first thing she did was try to call Hugo, in Paris, but of course he didn’t pick up. Who even knew what time it was there? He was in school, or he was asleep, she could never keep the time difference straight. Or he hated her. That was probably it.

Then she dialed her father, heart in her throat as she listened to the phone ring, thinking about how totally pissed her mom would be if she knew Juliette was doing this. Well, who cared, fuck her, it was her own fault. “Daddy,” Juliette sobbed into the voice mail. “You’ve got to come take me away from this place.”

Immediately she felt like a complete fool. What did she think was going to happen, that one of them was going to swoop in from across the ocean to save her? That was so idiotic. And even if Hugo or her father did care enough to get her out of this god-forsaken hole, it would take them at least a day or something to get here. And she was on the street now.


8. GEORGE: So Hard To Do Nothing

ho was there?

George hesitated, listening, in the entrance to the houseboat, Beth sound asleep in his arms.

He might have forgotten to lock the door when he left for the McAdams’ place in such a hurry, but he knew that was a justification: He often left the door open, had some deep sense that if he filled his life with enough pure trust, nothing bad would happen to him.

That was certainly foolish, with the mushrooming of the meth cabins throughout the hills that surrounded him, with the belief that, because he was some kind of doctor and worked at the track, he was both rich and possessed a store of narcotics, and also with his connection to Taryn.

He heard nothing, but then, relaxing enough to take a breath, he smelled her, that unmistakable mix of lilies of the valley and smoke, of sweat and the Sour Patch Kids that were her dietary staple. He wanted to call out her name and throw on the lights, but he didn’t want to disturb Beth, and who knew, after all, what he’d really find? The only thing he was sure of was that she’d been there.

He tiptoed in, setting Beth gently on her bed and smoothing the comforter over her, straightening up slowly and looking around. Taryn might be here with someone else, Jamie maybe, or one of her other cranked up friends. They would have seen his headlights, heard his car door; they might be hiding, waiting to spring.


9. DARRELL: Bad Luck

arrell couldn’t believe his luck: A college girl. College girls definitely had sex all the time, with as little fuss as popping open a Diet Coke. They also all smoked pot pretty much constantly. At least that’s what his brother DaShawn had told him, and DaShawn had been up to Fayetteville studying business for almost a whole year.

But this girl, Julie something, only looked at him strangely when he asked whether she had a J. And even if sex was going to happen at some point, you couldn’t just make a grab for it as if she was one of the hos down at the Go Go. You couldn’t even make a grab for it with a ho, DaShawn told him. No matter what you were doing and with whom — DaShawn actually used words like that: whom — it was important to do it with style.

Remembering this advice was what gave Darrell the idea to take Julie to the Futureama. He’d tagged along behind DaShawn there late one night. DaShawn told him how the old fortune teller lady, Jimmie Sue, left the windows cracked no matter how cold or hot the weather, so the spirits could move around and shit. She left her money, wrapped in a nasty old silk snot rag, in the top drawer of her big old carved dresser, right beside her magic cards.

Do not touch those cards, DaShawn had warned Darrell, taking half the money from the silk cloth and putting the rest back. Those cards are evil. They will bring you harm.

DaShawn showed Darrell how to screw off the head of the big black buddha, where the pot was stored inside. The old fortune teller lady must grow her own, DaShawn said, and it was fine.

So every once in a while, when he was feeling brave, on nights when he just needed to get out of the house and wander, he’d come over here, let himself in, smoke a little dope, help himself to a bill or two, and slip out. Never with anybody else, though. Not until tonight.

“What are you doing?” the girl, Julie, asked, looking around, rubbing her arms, as he raised the back window of the Futureama, gently lowered his banjo inside and prepared to follow.


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.”