GMA BUZZ PICK • Passion and risk, fathers and daughters, wives and single women, jazz and soul: a "gorgeously written debut" (Celeste Ng, best-selling author of Little Fires Everywhere) about the perennial temptations of dangerous love, told by the women who love Circus Palmer—trumpet player and old-school ladies’ man—as they ultimately discover the power of their own voices.
“A modern masterpiece.” —Jason Reynolds, best-selling author of Look Both Ways
It’s 2013, and Circus Palmer, a forty-year-old Boston-based trumpet player and old-school ladies’ man, lives for his music and refuses to be tied down. Before a gig in Miami, he learns that the woman who is secretly closest to his heart, the free-spirited drummer Maggie, is pregnant by him. Instead of facing the necessary conversation, Circus flees, setting off a chain of interlocking revelations from the various women in his life. Most notable among them is his teenage daughter, Koko, who idolizes him and is awakening to her own sexuality even as her mentally fragile mother struggles to overcome her long-failed marriage and rejection by Circus. Delivering a lush orchestration of diverse female voices, Warrell spins a provocative, soulful, and gripping story of passion and risk, fathers and daughters, wives and single women, and, finally, hope and reconciliation, in answer to the age-old question: how do we find belonging when love is unrequited?
Release date: September 27, 2022
Print pages: 357
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Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm: A Novel
The girl may have been the end for him. The end’s beginning, like the bend of a road too slight to notice where it leads. She could have happened to him a day later or a day before, but she was there on that day, in that moment, just hours after Circus Palmer turned forty, a predictable time for a certain kind of end to come, and just seconds after Maggie slid her hand from his wrist and with her lips parted just enough to slip his finger through if he’d wanted, whispered, “I have something to tell you.”
Outstretched on a chaise longue beside the hotel pool, Circus watched from a distance as the girl—in her mid-twenties, he figured—did cartwheels alone on the beach, her linen skirt falling open to bare the smooth plane of her hips and the slide of her calves sloping up to her toes. She lured his eyes away from Maggie, who was lying in another chaise longue beside him. All afternoon Maggie had been acting strangely, staring at nothing and losing the thread of conversations. This wasn’t Maggie. Circus figured whatever it was she had to say wasn’t anything he wanted to hear, so he let his attention be taken by the girl doing flips back and forth across the sand. When she landed on her feet, her hair lashed across her back like a whip, her shoulders lifted and hands spread beneath the melon sunset as if she carried it on her fingertips. Hips, calves, toes, shoulders, hands, she circled in the air again.
“I wasn’t going to say anything.” Maggie hummed, the sound not fully making its way to him, not quite breaking through his focus. “But I thought you should know.”
If she were any other woman, he would have told her to come to the point. But this was Maggie, so he waited, a sense of dread needling in his gut. Chewing at the inside of his cheek—always his mouth needed something to do—he concentrated on the melody the girl made inside his head as he tapped a nervous rhythm on his knee.
“Listen to what I’m telling you.” The push in Maggie’s voice, major-keyed and salty, brought Circus back to the cabana, back to the Wild Turkey warm in his glass and Maggie beside him. Her lips were pursed as she stroked her long neck and watched the night begin to fall, possibly without noticing the girl, possibly trying not to.
Six days earlier, after not seeing each other for weeks, they’d arrived in Miami and hastily made their way to the hotel in order to get into a bed together. They’d paid extra for a room with a round marble bathtub where they could spend mornings sipping champagne before heading out to the city to visit Little Havana markets and smoke cigars. On the nights Circus played in the horn section of his friend’s band—the reason they’d made the trip—Maggie went into the city on her own, dancing in salsa bars and kicking drummers off their kits so she could play. And when he wasn’t gigging, they found hole-in-the-wall clubs where they could jam onstage with the band. Other players would recognize Maggie on occasion, asking what it was like to drum behind jazz greats and rock stars, and she’d tell stories about filled stadiums and rowdy tour buses, letting them craft fantasies around her. Usually Circus liked being the storyteller in a room, but watching Maggie hold court gave him a charge. That morning she’d sung “Happy Birthday” to him playing a ukulele while wearing her bikini bottoms and a birthday hat. He’d laughed and lusted and wished they’d never have to leave the room.
But now this.
He’d come to Miami to draw a clean line between his first forty years and his next, and he’d invited Maggie because she was the only female in his life who knew how to be easy. He didn’t love traveling with women. A woman in the room meant ending the night back at the hotel where she was waiting.
“Sorry, baby.” He stroked her knee. “I’m listening.”
The air was slick with heat, the sky in full dusk. A breeze stuck in the palm trees clung stubbornly to coconuts instead of drifting down to cool him. As Maggie sipped a Manhattan, Circus felt crowded in a way he never had with her before.
“The sun’s going down.” He finished his drink and looked around for the server to bring another. “Why isn’t it getting cooler?”
A barman came with a bottle of bourbon from the other side of the deck, and Circus listened to the soft burble of the pour. Beside him, Maggie hiked up her dress to let the breeze reach across her brown thighs. He couldn’t stop himself from looking. To him, she’d always seemed designed rather than birthed, her body lean with crisp angles and slight curves. Circus resented her then for knowing how to steal his gaze from whatever spot on the horizon it had settled on, and he squirmed, sensing the tie lodged somewhere deep inside where he didn’t have access, the tie that attached him to her over three years—loosely, but attached nonetheless.
After the barman went away, he said, “I remember when I was a little tyke, me and my buddies did the math to see how old we’d be in 1999. Thought we’d be flying around in spaceships by then. Now here we are, 2013.” He looked over at Maggie, who didn’t seem to be listening. “Time, man.”
She answered only, “Light me a cigarette.”
Circus reached into his pants on the cement, pulled two Marlboros from the pack, lit them, and handed one to Maggie. He liked watching her smoke—the moist spread of her lips and the way she always let the tip of the cigarette linger at her mouth before she took a hit.
“I was late.” Casually, she ashed the cigarette into the air. “So I took the test.”
He let out a hard breath he didn’t know had been stuck in his throat and waited for her to smile, to laugh, to do something to let him know she was joking. “I don’t believe it.”
“You sure it’s mine?”
The corner of her mouth lifted. “Nice try.”
“I’ll be damned.” Circus opened his legs wider across the chaise. “We’re like a couple teenagers.”
A chuckle tapered out of Maggie’s mouth with a velvety line of smoke. “I didn’t think it could happen. Not with the number of years I got on me.”
“Baby, you’re not of this world. Who knows the miracles that body can do.” He took her hand, kissed the inside of her wrist, and linked his fingers through hers. “I got you, darlin’. We’ll take care of things when we get back to Boston.”
She ashed the cigarette again, winced.
The cigarette smoking between Maggie’s fingers and the liquor in her glass reassured him momentarily, but then he noticed the edge in her gaze.
“Maggie, come on,” he said.
“What’s there to think about?”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a fool.”
“You know nothing good could come of this. Shit, I already got a kid barely talks to me.”
“Koko would talk to you plenty if you saw her once in a while.”
“Jesus, Maggie, don’t ask me to do something I’m no good at.”
“I didn’t ask you for a damn thing.”
Circus’s body seized as if everything keeping him alive had shut down at once. He tried to stay calm but felt like a cage was rising around him. He imagined climbing back through the moments of the day and settling into the space where he didn’t know so it wasn’t yet true, where she hadn’t yet told him so he was still free.
“Don’t do this to me,” he said. “Everything’s about to happen, you know this. I got Peacock Evans trying to set me up with that producer in New York so I gotta be ready, gotta focus. Man, just talking about it’s giving me the jitters.”
On the other side of the pool, a woman glanced up, letting her opened book fall to her chest to watch them. He was used to being watched with Maggie. They were loud and beautiful together.
Circus lowered his voice. “You got everything you could want in your world. You want some kid messing that up? You gonna let some kid get in the way of me finally having what I want? Don’t mess with what we got. You’re brilliant and kinky and don’t need jack from anybody. You’re my wildcat, Mags. Don’t get soft on me.”
When Maggie turned her eyes, Circus knew he had the choice to take back what he’d said or let it widen between them. Maggie rose from the chair, her body blocking his sun. He braced himself, his hand sweating around his glass. Maggie’s tall frame towered over him, holding him down. Even his clothes seemed to pull at their seams.
“Say something else,” she said.
He took a defiant sip of his bourbon. “You’re no mother.”
Maggie collected her bag and stormed across the deck, back inside the hotel. He was surprised to feel a twinge of regret at her walking away, but a swig of bourbon took care of that. It was the dread that stayed in his gut and grew solid, so that the only relief came from down the beach where the girl was pinwheeling through the air.
It was the going he liked, liked the unclasping of links, liked getting to whatever was waiting at the other end of his leaving. It was this that pulled him toward the girl, dangled in front of him by either a generous or a mischievous fate. She seemed a promise of good things, good things welcoming and soft, as she stood on the beach and lined her lips with shimmery gloss. Circus loved those first moments when a woman didn’t know he was watching and he could linger inside the strain of his body trying to resist. But he didn’t linger long this time. The dread pushed him away from the terrace, away from the hotel and away from Maggie until he was slipping on his pants, grabbing his trumpet case from the ground and sprinting down the beach.
The lamps lining the boardwalk lit up as the sky started to deepen on its way to black. Circus made his way through the families lugging floats and coolers back from the beach, the couples strolling arm in arm. Once he hit the sand, he plucked a seashell from the ground, easing up beside the girl. He held the shell up to the waning sun, studying it in hopes of making her curious. She finished another cartwheel and sat hunched over her knees, peering up at him through the part of her hair.
“Wanna make a wish?” He held out the shell for her to see.
She shook her head, a skittish glint in her eye.
“I only make wishes on birthday candles. They’re the only wishes that come true.”
“Suit yourself.” He kissed the shell and gently lobbed it into the waves.
“What’d you wish for?”
“You know I can’t tell you that.” Circus kicked a rock from beneath his shoe. “Where’d you learn to toss yourself around like that?”
Her gaze flickered up the beach toward the cabana where he’d just been sitting beside Maggie. The corner of her mouth quaked into a half-smile, and he wondered whether she understood what had brought him to her.
“I got two left feet,” he said. “Even onstage, I can’t move with that kind of grace.”
“Onstage?” The girl slid her wrap from the beach and tied it around her waist, rising to her feet. “You don’t look like an actor.”
“What’s an actor look like?”
“Handsome.” She fondled the wrap’s tassels in the knot at her hip. “Young.”
Circus took a step closer to her, enjoying the tease.
“Do you tell jokes?” she asked.
“Music, doll.” He tapped the trumpet case in his hand. “Why? You like jokes?”
“Tell me a joke then.”
The girl reached into her beach bag and pulled out a brush, picking loose strands from the bristles before running it through her hair. Circus took the time that her eyes weren’t on him to study the angles of her face—the hewn nose and cheekbones, the pretty point of her chin. He could tell by the coy way she carried herself that she had already begun to understand what those angles could do to a man and was trying to figure out how to handle it.
“A guy with amnesia goes into a bar.” She eyed him as she ran the brush through her hair. “He sees a beautiful lady and asks, ‘Do I come here often?’ ”
“ ‘Do I come here often?’ ” He grinned. “That’s a good one.”
Something shimmered on the ground, so he poked through the sand and pulled out a piece of sea glass. He handed it to her. “Matches your eyes.”
The girl fingered the glass, a smile quivering on her lips. He could smell her now. The oily sweat of her skin beneath brine from an earlier swim, mint chewing gum, and the faint scent of vanilla. “They call me Circus,” he said.
He heard the accent. Cuban, he guessed. “Well, Luz, what is it you’re doing out here all by your lonesome?”
“I cook in this hotel,” she answered, her voice like the pluck of a guitar string out of tune. He couldn’t decide whether he liked it. “I always come to the beach after my shift ends.”
“Silly, them hiding you in the kitchen.” Circus glanced toward the hotel to make sure Maggie hadn’t come back. When he turned to the girl, she had her phone in hand, scrolling.
“Am I boring you?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Promise nothing’s more interesting in that phone than what’s standing in front of you.”
“I don’t believe you really wished for anything,” she said. “I think you were only pretending.”
“What’s it matter? You don’t believe in wishes anyway.” He took another step toward her. “Listen, an hour from now, I got a gig down the beach at Tres Gatos. I wished you’d take me somewhere to eat and come with me to the show after.”
“Why would I?”
“Oh, you should, doll. I’m good company.”
Luz slid her phone into the band of her skirt, turned, and started walking. “What kind of music do you play?”
Circus followed. “Jazz. You ever listen to jazz?”
She shook her head.
“Something else you should do. Sweetens the soul.” He stopped walking and lit a cigarette, letting his silence signal his impatience, letting it turn her back around.
She asked, “How do I know you’re a nice person?”
“I reckon you don’t.”
“What do I get if I go?”
“Come by and I’ll show you, doll. Take a risk.”
She yanked at the knot. “Where do you want me to take you to eat?”
“Anywhere. Doesn’t matter. Bring me someplace you like to go.” He took another glance at the hotel and a shiver passed through him. “Just get me away from here.”
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