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72. CORA: The End

eady?” Cora asked Juliette.

The girl hoisted her suitcase and gave a wan smile.

Cora gave up. She would have guessed that Juliette would have been delighted to go back to France, but instead the girl had been sullen, even weepy, all week.

“Is there something wrong?” Cora asked. “Something you’re not telling me?”

Juliette shrugged and blinked harder against the tears that seemed always to be lingering in her eyes.

Cora sighed. She’d been so full of doubts leaving Paris and coming here, so wracked by misgivings through all the weeks of dealing with her brother and her father and George and the family business and especially with Juliette herself. But she never expected she’d feel just as conflicted — more conflicted — about going back.

“It’s time,” said Medhi.

Hugo took Juliette’s hand and led her toward the stairs.

“Did you say goodbye to your grandfather?” Cora asked.

Again, the only answer Cora got from her daughter was a shrug, though this time it was more understandable. Cora’s father, Juliette’s grandfather, sat dim-eyed on the sofa beside his girlfriend, Jimmie Sue.

“Goodbye, Pop,” Cora said, crossing the room to kiss her father’s grizzled cheek.

He looked up at her, confused. “Who are you?” he asked, sounding almost frightened.

Would this be the last time she’d see him? At least with Jimmie Sue here, she could be sure that he’d eat and not drink himself to death. But even without the bottle of bourbon each day, some light had gone out behind his eyes.

“Remember what I told you,” Jimmie Sue said.

Jimmie Sue had told Cora not to go. She’d laid out the cards the night before and advised against the trip, against Cora getting back together with Medhi, against taking Juliette across the ocean.

“Your destiny is here,” Jimmie Sue had said, talking about a man in Juliette’s future who could only be George.

But Cora couldn’t let herself make decisions as big as how to raise her daughter and whether to reunite with her husband of 20 years based on what some old cards said, could she? She might be impulsive, she might be ambivalent, but she wasn’t a complete fool.
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68. JAMIE: New Man

t took him at least ten minutes lying there, listening to the silence, to believe that he really might be home alone.

No babbling in French. No female voices nagging him to clean something up. No Jimmie Sue woo woo or Senior dementia. Just…..silence.

He turned over which nudged Iggy awake. The iguana lazily opened its jaws and then snapped them down, more quickly than Jamie might have believed possible, on a beetle or maybe that was a cockroach scrabbling over his covers.

He’d been working hard to lure the bugs and the dust and the chaos back into his room, just to show his sister who was boss, if only of this 12 by 15 foot patch of ghetto. Let her scrub the cracks and align the corners of the rest of this dump; she wasn’t going to get the better of his room.

Jamie got up, brought Iggy into the shower with him, then let the animal perch on his shoulder while he gulped a cold cup of coffee left from the pot and ate the ends of all the food on the plates piled near the sink, ranging from peanut butter and jelly crusts to what tasted like a roquefort and leek omelet.

Where was everybody? What time was it? What should he do, now that he could do anything?

He flipped on the TV, but it seemed as if somebody had disconnected the premium cable: No more porn on demand. He considered jerking off anyway, but he’d done that already last night. Somebody had cleaned away all the magazines and newspapers. He had the feeling he’d been reading a book, and that he’d even liked it, but he couldn’t remember what it was or where it had gone.

There was nothing left to do but go out. At least there was nobody to stop him. He went downstairs, Iggy still on his shoulder, leaving the door open since he’d long ago lost track of any keys. His poor melted crotch was feeling a bit better, he noticed, though he still limped a bit taking the steps.

The streets seemed strangely empty. Now that he was outside, where was he going to go? His default destination, the Go Go, was shut down. There were other bars in town, but not ones where he knew anybody, and besides, he hadn’t had a drink in — he couldn’t even remember how long. Plus, he had no money. No girlfriend. No friends.

No friends except the miracle of Iggy, that is. He stopped in front of the MAL, giving his pet’s hide a proprietary pat, and that’s when he noticed it. The old place looked different. Cleaner. He pressed his forehead to the glass of the front window and peered inside. Damn if it didn’t look like somebody was fixing the place up.
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67. DARRELL: Kidnapping Mom

e set the alarm on his phone for 5:30 in the morning, earlier than he’d ever woken up before. It was still pitch black outside, but the birds were tweeting, he could hear, and if he listened really hard, he could make out the sound of the delivery trucks pulling up to the old Piggly Wiggly.

His mom was still asleep. Sleeping in, she would call it. Before, she’d always been awake at this hour. Studying, cleaning the house, getting ready for work. But the new reformed mom slept until it was time to get him up for school, to cook him a waffle, to kiss him goodbye and wait for him to come home.

He dressed quickly in the black tee shirt and dark jeans he’d picked out the night before, and then as quietly as he could brewed a pot of coffee, reassured by her snores from the other room.

“Mom.” He shook her awake. Her room was the smaller one, barely space enough for him to crouch in, beside her single bed. “Come on, I made you some coffee.”

“What?” she said, confused, her eyes cloudy, her breath foul with sleep. “Why?”

“I have the SATs this morning. Don’t you remember?”

He could tell she was searching her mind, more ashamed at her forgetfulness than argumentative.

“It’s all right,” he reassured her. “There’s been a lot going on. Drink up. We gotta hurry.”

He bustled around the apartment then, avoiding her, while she drank her coffee and brushed her teeth and got dressed. The best would be if she just went along with him without question and then, once they were already there, he could spring the truth on her. And she’d have no choice but to go ahead.

But damn if she wasn’t exactly like Juliette, always with the questions, always with her own ideas about what was happening, and what should be.

‘Darrell Antonio Jones,” she said, stopping stock still at the top of the stairs. “Something’s not right here. I would not have forgotten something as important as your SATs. Exactly what is going on here?”

“You’re right,” he said. “Just wait here a second, and I’ll show you.”
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59. NOT GEORGE: The Festival

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58. GEORGE: The Festival

h no.

The festival.

He forgot about the festival.  Or he blocked it out.  Or he told them he needed the day off and they forgot, or he forgot, or….

Oh no.

He hated the festival, the major event of the racing season, where the horses were a sidelight to the bands and the food and the beauty queens, to the girls in wet tee shirts and muddy bikinis, to the rapping contests and the tractor pulls spilled out from the track to venues all around.

And he hated himself for hating the festival, when it was just supposed to be fun.  But the horses got spooked by the noise and the crowds.  And somebody always got hurt, a drunk toppling off the stands or some stupid kid blowing off his thumb with a firecracker.  And who had to patch things up till the real doctors got there?  He did, of course.

Jesus, he was starting to sound like his father, cranky and disapproving of everything in the world, especially if it involved laughter or frivolity.  Better to sit alone in a dark room with the TV on silent and a glass of whiskey in your hand.  Better to leave your children all alone so you could sit by yourself in a trailer parked in an empty field.

“Beth.”  He shook his daughter awake.  “Come on, honey.  Time to get up.”

On an ordinary non-school day, he’d take Beth to work with him.  She’d sit obediently on a stool and color while he tended to the horses.

But during the festival, it was just too crazy out there, too unpredictable.  People swarming in and out of the barn, emergencies popping up all over the place.  There was no way he’d be able to reliably take care of her.

He thought, inevitably, of Taryn, who seemed to have vanished into the hills.  He might have worried that she’d drowned in the lake, or overdosed, but reports had reached him that she’d been sighted so he knew she was alive, and functioning.  It was odd that she hadn’t tried to get in touch, if only to hit on him for money, or to call high in the middle of the night, ranting about Beth.

But he should be happy.  Beth hadn’t said anything about her for a few days, and the best thing would be for Taryn and all memories of her to fade away.
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57. LaTONYA: Insult to Heaven

o,” George said. “I’ll see you tomorrow night? Usual time and place?”

They were standing on the street — George with his little girl in his arms, LaTonya and Darrell — in front of her building. It took her a minute to figure out what she was talking about. Then she realized: The tutoring. The medical school exams. Which were now just a few days away.

“No,” she told him. “I’m not going to be able to pursue that this time.”

She hadn’t been to class in a while either. Not since all the trouble started with Darrell. If she was going to try to get into medical school, it was going to have to be sometime far, far in the future.

“But you’ve worked so hard,” George said. “I really think you’re ready, maybe if we did one refresher session….”

She put up her hand to stop him. “I appreciate all you’ve done for me, George. But I can’t go ahead with medical school now. Please don’t make me feel worse about it.”

She could tell George was about to say something else, but he bit back his words, shook his head, and said goodnight.

But then, on the way up the stairs to the apartment, Darrell said, “Why did you tell him that?”

“Tell him what?”

“That you weren’t going to take the test? That you weren’t going to go ahead with medical school? Are you even going to graduate?”

“It’s not practical, sweetheart. Between my job and taking care of you, I’ve got all I can do. More than I can do.”

She just wanted to sink in her bed, knowing her son was home safe with her now. Wanting more than that, ever, had been an insult to heaven.

“But I don’t need taking care of,” Darrell said. “Not like that, anyway. You got almost all the way through college, you did all that studying for the test, and I was a lot younger than I am now. You can’t just quit.”

“Would you like some ice cream?” she asked him. “Maybe a hot cocoa?”

“Mom, since when did you make me hot cocoa at bedtime? I want to know why you’re not taking that test.”
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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.

Medhi.

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.”
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54. DaSHAWN: Unwritten Agreement

his is it?”

Taryn looked skeptically around DaShawn’s apartment.

“You actually live here?” she asked.

He wasn’t sure exactly what she meant by that, but he had the feeling it wasn’t anything good.

“I was gonna straighten up,” he said. “But you didn’t give me a chance.”

She laughed. “I hate that defensive fucking bullshit,” she said, kicking off her heels and flopping down on the low leather beanbag chair. “Why do men do that? Why don’t you just say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m a pig, fuck you if you don’t like it.’”

“I’m sorry, I’m a pig, fuck you if you don’t like it,” DaShawn said.

“You don’t have to talk to me like that.”

They stared at each other, hate zinging back and forth, and then they both burst out laughing.

“I’m dead,” Taryn said, putting her hands behind her head, stretching out. “Do you have anything to drink?”

“Beer,” he said, guessing. “Vodka.”

“Vodka tonic,” she said. “But only if you have diet tonic. If not, just give me some vodka on ice.”

And then she leaned back,  looked around, waited.

This is not the way it was supposed to go. DaShawn had not had too many women over to his place, preferring to do his business elsewhere, but Taryn had invited herself. Told him — not asked, but told – that she was going to be staying there till they took possession of the farm. And now seemed to expect him to wait on her hand and foot.

He had to lay down the law right this fucking minute.

“Glasses in the sink,” he said. “You’re gonna have to wash them. In fact, better clean up everything in there while you’re at it.”

He sank down on the sofa opposite her and stretched out his own damn legs. Closed his eyes for good measure.

She was quiet for so long he thought maybe she’d just very quietly gotten up and started cleaning. But finally she spoke.

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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.

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50. GEORGE: Square One

t was a little yellow house, just four rooms and a wreck and a half, but it was close to the center of town and enormous compared with the houseboat. He and Beth didn’t need much space anyway; from living on the boat, she tended to stay within three feet of him no matter where they were. Right now, in fact, she was where she’d been spending a lot of her time since Taryn had left: clamped to his leg.

“Honey, maybe you want to go play with your horses so Daddy can set up your bed,” he said.

But she just clung to him more tightly and shook her head no.

He sighed. “Well, maybe you can help me? You can hold the pillow here, while I connect the pieces of your new big girl bed.”

This at least she agreed to, but still stood right beside him, bending when he bent, stepping when he stepped. At this rate, it was going to take him till Christmas to set up the house.

Was this normal? He was worried that it wasn’t, but he told himself it was, that the child was naturally sensitive, that she’d been through a lot with Taryn’s comings and goings, with her breaks with sobriety, even with sanity. Any child would take that hard, but Beth was particularly tender.

But she had one parent who was completely there for her, loving and present, and surely, in a pinch, that was enough? It had been enough for George and for his siblings, their mother warm and loving enough to make up for their father’s benders. And then, when their mother died at 58 from breast cancer, George himself had tried to fill her role, shepherding his sisters and brothers through high school and off to college. One was a doctor now, one a lawyer, one a teacher, all gone to live far from this sorry place. George was proud of the part he’d played in their success.

Or had he? Maybe he’d had little to do with it, maybe they would have done just fine on their own. He barely heard from any of them now from one month to the next, would scarcely recognize their spouses or children on the street. What he would give to have his mother alive now, for her to know Beth and to sit with them, not even having to say or do anything, really, on a Sunday afternoon.

His phone, jammed into his jeans pocket, buzzed.

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