[We're so excited to announce Sugar Run as February's pick for the BuzzFeed Book Club! Join us as we dive into the book — posing questions, sharing opinions, and interacting directly with author Mesha Maren. More info here.]
As the sun melted down toward the horizon Jodi left the motel room and followed the carnival song to the fairgrounds. When her stomach had started grumbling she’d realized that without thinking about it she’d been waiting for the chow bell. She ordered a corn dog and nibbled it as she walked down the aisles of dart and ball games, past a leering Mickey Mouse, garlands of fake roses, and mammoth teddy bears. Give it a shot here, ma’am — take a swing — whoa, didja see that? As easy as tossing a lima bean. The barkers leaned against the brightly colored girders with a greasy ease, stubs of cigarettes pressed between their lips, letting their practiced tone carry the pitch far out into the alley, crowded and sawdust thick.
Jodi stopped and watched a row of plastic ducks circling on a miniature conveyor belt. Every once in a while a customer managed to knock one off and it fell backward only to be resurrected moments later, looping along on the same endless track. Here I am again, she thought, popped back up in Chaunceloraine.
The shadows lengthened and the roller coasters glowed with a soft phosphorescence that mixed up into the pink-orange sunset. From the bandstand at the far end of the midway, loudspeakers piped out tinny pop music and over it the single-note ring of guitar tuning and a voice: Check — check, check. Jodi felt glad that the long day was dragging itself toward evening. Though she knew she needed to act fast, find Ricky now and then head to West Virginia, it was also a relief to see the sun set and be able to say, Tomorrow, I’ ll work on that plan tomorrow. She felt the struggle of time playing out inside herself, the quick ticking away of her pre–parole meeting days pushing against her overpowering need to be in this moment, beside the bandstand, watching men pace the almost empty stage and a tiny blonde woman painting her toenails on the bench across the way.
Sugar Run is the February selection for the BuzzFeed Book Club.
When the band started playing she was halfway back up the midway, looking to buy an ice cream. The song began unrecognizably slow but that voice could not be mistaken: Our land, our land is far through the heart of this snow. Jodi froze, locked all up in her brain and body, and then she began to run, dodging barkers and families, out of breath by the time she reached the stage. A wire-mesh fence separated the ticketed customers from the general fair but the bleachers were only a little over half-full. Leaning against the fence, she squinted up at the beer-bellied bass player, bearded keyboardist, graying drummer, and there, at the front, a sun-worn Lee Golden. His skin was dry and leather tanned but the guitar glistened and between his lips shone a set of pulsing bleach-white teeth. She called to me, sweetness, what the fire shows, the truth is set before us or it cannot grow. And with the evening’s bleeding I am gone, for our land is far through the heart of this snow. His pants were purple now instead of the white ones he’d worn on his old album covers but the song was shockingly familiar. A 1989 crossover hit that had threaded all through Jodi’s last summer before Jaxton.
“Sad to see him here,” a voice said, and Jodi turned to find a man leaned up against the fence beside her. “Weird that he’s playing this rinky-dink place. Man, when I was coming up, the name Lee Golden meant, God, you know...” He wrinkled his face, searching for the words.
“I didn’t know he still played,” Jodi said. “I mean, I hadn’t heard—”
“Covers. They just do covers now.”
“No, he wrote this song.”
“That’s what I mean, covers of their own songs. They play ’em all weird now. This is the only one Lee can play all the way through, lost the rights to all the others when the Gemini broke off from him. Turns out this is the only one he wrote.”
“That’s not the Gemini?” Jodi waved toward the stage.
“The Gemini left him back in, like, ’95, I think. You didn’t hear about that?”
Jodi shook her head.
“Oh, man, yeah, Lee was funneling the band’s money straight into Scientology for years and years, telling them they weren’t making half the royalties they really were and, shit, sending thousands of dollars over to that cult.”
“Well, who are they then?”
“He calls them the Jupiter Twins. I think he just hires whatever good old boys he can get to play cheaply in whatever town he’s gigging in. They play knockoff versions of all the originals. Get sued again every few years.” The man shook his head. “Lee disappeared for a while after the band broke off. He went somewhere out west.”
“Joshua Tree,” a woman’s voice said.
Jodi and the man turned and the blonde woman stared up at them from the bench, her green eyes liquid and huge in her child-size face.
“Joshua Tree,” she said again.
“Lee grew up not too far from here.” The man looked over at the stage. “About an hour west. I hear he’s got a couple of kids too, little boys.”
“My boys,” the blonde said, her voice punching against their backs.
Jodi and the man turned again. There was something magnetic about the girl, something that made it both hard to look right at her and hard to look away. She was pretty, sure, with a fine and tiny symmetry, but it was something more than that, something about the way she held herself, a strange mix of confidence and unease.
The man chuckled. “Lee’s still got somewhat of a cult following but now most of ’em are just drugged up, delusional, and weird.”
Jodi glanced over her shoulder again as she walked away, back toward the motel, and the blonde, still sitting on the bench, stared straight at her, a fragile network of emotion behind a porcelain face.
In the dream Jodi’s mother stepped from the bathtub, shrouded with steam and thin winter light, reaching for a blue-striped robe. Chin up, she gazed out and over Jodi’s father, who knelt on the floor, his face flushed with a pleading need. Now what? he said. You think you’re clean? You think you can just wash him away? She put on the robe slowly, turning so that the shiny, wet front of her faced him. They were always merging together that way or careening apart, messy and pathetic, the wet cotton of regret already filling their mouths. Their fuck-fight need had glowed so hot it obliterated everyone else. Sick, Jodi’s grandmother Effie had said, and eventually she’d grown tired of their drunken fights and kicked them out of her house and off her land. They’d taken Jodi’s twin baby brothers with them when they moved to town but they couldn’t support three children, so they left 7-year-old Jodi to be raised by Effie. The dream sped up and flared, images tumbling on top of one another like a film with the projector turned up too fast, the frames clacking by breathlessly. Stupid cunt. The volume bloomed and burst. Spread your legs...
Jodi sat up and opened her eyes, blinking black to gray to blue, but the voices did not stop.
“I know how you like it.”
She flipped her head. She was alone in this room — pale light rippling along the mattress, the corner of a curtain flapping — and the room was so big, walls so far apart, and the glass eye of a TV screen — not a dream, not her Jaxton cell...
“See, this is exactly why you can’t have the boys, you got no spine, can’t never say no. Look, look at you. Close your legs, I don’t want no more of that.”
A motel, Jodi realized, she was in a motel. The voices echoed on in the room next door.
“What if I was to be recording you?” a woman’s voice said. “What if I recorded this and played it for all your God Bless America fans? Huh? You know, I’ve got stories I could tell about you—”
“Honey, ain’t nobody gonna believe you. Just look at yourself, really, come here, look in the mirror here.”
“Don’t touch me.”
Jodi gripped the sweaty sheet.
“Don’t touch you? Baby, what have we been doing here for the past few hours?”
“Don’t fucking touch me. Lay a hand on me and I’ll scream.”
Something fell, then the sound of a door opening. Jodi crossed to the window and pressed her face against the curtains as the little blonde spilled out, followed by a tall man in purple pants. Jodi shook her head but the view remained the same, a shirtless Lee Golden in a pool of yellow streetlight.
“I’m taking the boys away from here,” he said. “Can’t have them growing up in this corpse of a country. Give me your tired, your poor, yeah, send ’em on over here, come suck on mama’s big fat titties.” He spoke slowly and quietly, though the blonde was disappearing across the parking lot. “It’s a rotten, fucking whore of a country.”
The blonde did not look back. She walked barefoot, her pink dress fluttering down the street until she ducked into a neon-lit doorway.
The Ali Bar was older than the buildings around it, made of stone, with shuttered windows and a wrought-iron balcony. As Jodi opened the door music spread out before her, something singular and antique — piano notes — a deep and trembling sound, churning up like colored leaves. Jodi blinked. She could make out two men in a booth along the wall and two more up at the bar. The room was longer than it was wide, dark, with a carved wooden counter and green glass lamps. The warm air smelled of billiard chalk, whiskey, and cigarettes and the music, she realized slowly, came not from the jukebox but from the far end of the bar where the blonde sat, at an upright piano, her back to the rest of the room.
The door thudded shut and the bartender looked up.
“Don’t worry, Miranda,” he called over the music. “It ain’t him.”
Jodi took a seat at one of the stools and ordered a well whiskey, glancing at the men beside her, one with silver chains and the other sporting a Braves cap. When they moved over to the pool table, the barkeep closed his eyes and leaned into the music that surged on, something like a mountain creek now, a spring stream with the ice breaking up. Jodi had never quite heard anything like it, except for perhaps bits and pieces on the radio and an old phonograph her second-grade teacher had played in class.
Jodi wanted to reach out and touch her, right there where her neck curved elegantly up toward the back of her skull.
When the song ended, the breath went out of the room. In the rising silence the bartender applauded and as Miranda stood and walked toward the bar they all began to clap, hesitantly at first and then louder. Miranda shook her long pale hair and kept walking and a soft circle of light followed her; though the room was full of shadows, she carried with her a certain spotlight of shimmering.
“Ah, no, it’s nothing.” She waved her hand in front of her face. “Good old Rachmaninoff,” she said, the end of the name drifting off under her accent. “Always helps lift the mood.”
Sliding onto the stool beside Jodi, she smoothed out her pink cotton dress so that it covered her knees. “Hey, Alister, give me a gin and juice, babe.”
She swallowed half the cranberry-colored liquor in one go, then wiped her lip with her cocktail napkin. “Hey,” she said, her eyes brightening. “I know you. You were over there at Lee’s concert. I guess you thought I was lying?”
Jodi wanted to reach out and touch her, right there where her neck curved elegantly up toward the back of her skull.
Miranda shrugged. “I don’t carry their birth certificates around with me but I grew all three of those boys right in here.” She rubbed her hand across her stomach and scrunched up her face thoughtfully, as if she herself found this fact nearly unbelievable. “Didn’t I, Ali?”
“Irish twins,” Alister said, winking.
Jodi watched as Miranda swallowed the remainder of her drink. She thought of her own younger twin brothers, Dennis and A.J., those two tousled blond heads. They would be thirty now but Jodi had no way to envision them past the age of twelve, sunburned with skinned knees and oversize egos, their first cigarettes hanging too cool out the side of their mouths.
“Alister didn’t actually see me pregnant but — hey, hey, don’t skimp me on the gin there, babe.”
Alister rolled his eyes.
Miranda retrieved her glass and drank deep. “Alister’s seen my boys.”
“Spitting image.” Alister nodded, wiping the counter with a rag that gave off a smell of bleach and old beer.
“Spitting image of who?” Miranda asked.
Alister paused. “Truth-truth?”
“Spitting image of Lee Golden.”
“Ah, shut up.” Miranda raised her glass as if to throw it at him. “You owe me another drink for saying that.”
Alister shook his head. “Truth-truth,” he said.
“Hey, what’s your name?” Miranda spun suddenly on her stool so that her knees knocked against Jodi’s.
Miranda pumped Jodi’s hand three times before letting go. “Let me buy you a shot.”
Jodi looked down to her empty glass.
“Oh, I’m Miranda Matheson.” Miranda paused and narrowed her eyes. “Well, legally, I’m Miranda Matheson Golden but I like the sound of just the double M’s.”
Alister set two whiskeys on the polished wood and Miranda put down her gin glass and picked up a shot. “To Jodi, for believing.”
Jodi clinked her glass and swallowed quickly but the whiskey caught somewhere in her throat and insisted on coming back up. She turned away, face flushed, and tried not to cough. Miranda wasn’t paying attention anyway.
“We need some music,” she said.
“Well, you’re the piano girl. Before you come along that thing was just something too big for me to carry away.”
“I’m not talking about music like that.” Miranda stepped down from the stool and moved off toward the jukebox.
In the glow of the lights, she swayed, blonde hair shiny all down her back and her face so serious and concentrated on those little record covers as they flipped by. There was something about the way she held herself and the way the men in that room treated her that gave her an air of near royalty and made Jodi feel significant, as if she’d achieved something major simply by being included in Miranda’s circle.
“Where are her kids?” Jodi asked.
Back then she’d been trying for something... reaching out blindly for her future like sticking her hand inside a grab bag.
“Over in Delray. Living with Lee’s aunt Nina.” Alister folded his bar rag and shook his head. “Miranda come up in here about six months back, I guess. She had all three boys with her, bought ’em a bunch of maraschino cherries, and set herself down at that piano. I’d never heard anything like it.” He unfolded the rag and wiped a spot on the already shiny counter. “Lee’s the one who taught her to play like that. Her daddy hired him — can you imagine hiring somebody like Lee Golden to teach piano to your little girl? Course he got her pregnant.” Alister looked over at Miranda. “I give her a job here ’cause she said she needed one. I didn’t know she was leaving those boys alone over at the hotel.”
A trembling blast of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” burst into the room. Miranda stepped back from the jukebox and spun, eyes closed and arms out. So, Annie are you ok? Her pink dress lifted and the men at the billiards table locked eyes on her. Jodi watched the way the room tensed and focused and she pictured her own 16-year-old self perched on a barstool in the Wild ’N Wonderful Casino. Back then she’d been trying for something, not even knowing what it was she wanted, reaching out blindly for her future like sticking her hand inside a grab bag. And now, she thought — seeing her older self here on another barstool — not that much had changed. She’d been pushed out into the world again, feeling just as lost and seasick as she had after her grandmother Effie’s death. And all she had to cling to was her need to find Ricky. ●
Illustrations by Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News.
Excerpted from Sugar Run by Mesha Maren, with permission from Algonquin Books.
Mesha Maren's short stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, the Oxford American, Southern Culture, Hobart, Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2015 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, a 2014 Elizabeth George Foundation grant, an Appalachian Writing Fellowship from Lincoln Memorial University, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation. She is the 2018-2019 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and also serves as a National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellow at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution.