Sugarland (excerpt)

Hoxie, Illinois, 1921

AT TWO IN THE MORNING the trains were stopped for the night, and the old wooden depot, manned only during the day now that the Great War had ended, was deserted.

Eve could see her breath in the cold January air as Gavin Johnson helped her up the last step of the empty train car. Then he jumped up himself. He moved closer and she smelled whiskey and something musky he’d splashed on his face. He pressed her against the rail and began to kiss her with lips cold at first but getting warmer. That was all right.

She turned her head and kissed him back, a feeling of steam moving up through her body. The night was so still it was like a creature holding its breath. She pulled away for a moment. “How’d you get a key to the train car?”

Gavin just laughed. “Let me put out the light.” He opened his lantern’s tiny glass door to blow out the flame, and in the darkness Eve followed him into the empty car.

Her blood was still warm from the corn whiskey she had drunk with the boys after the show, and she felt a little lightheaded. Here she was with a handsome man late at night, alone, her heart beating hard. Before her the rows of worn velvet seats were like people turning their backs. For some reason this excited her more.

“Nice at night, dontcha think?” Gavin asked, taking her hand. With his other hand he touched the soft fold of her dress at the collar. Then he began to unbutton her coat. They were in the Entertainers’ car, the special train car they all traveled by and even slept in if there weren’t any colored hotels in town. Jimmy Blakeley and His Stoptime Syncopaters, they were called, with Gavin Johnson on tenor sax and Eve Riser on piano. Everyone in the band was young and excited, and Eve felt young and excited just being around them. But sometimes it got lonely going from place to place without resting.

From the window Eve could see the empty depot house. Gavin touched the side of her face and she closed her eyes. Oh she should know better all right. But she was feel-ing so good, she had played so well that night, really found her way into the music. Also that afternoon she had started a new song—“Sea Change,” she would call it. The first four bars were a gift, just appearing in her mind as she walked back to the hotel from the drugstore, and they still looked good even after she’d written them down. Eve had learned always to travel with a notebook—she had four songs published already under the name E. R. King—and a one-pound bag of sugar. She liked coffee very sweet and some places didn’t offer you even a spoonful.

He kissed her neck and her collarbone. Her throat was dry and she opened her eyes. “Hold on,” she said, and went down to the other end of the car, to the tin cup hang-ing by a nail above the faucet.

“Spigot won’t work,” she said, turning it round. It was so loose it spun in her fingers.

“You don’t need any water,” Gavin told her.

He came up behind her and replaced the cup on the nail. Her hand was still out like it was holding something invisible, and he took it and pressed his thumb to her palm. Then he folded her in his arms. It was hardly warmer inside the train than out and she pressed against him too now, wanting to feel every inch. Gavin spread his overcoat on the floor and Eve let him guide her down onto the aisle, a hard space meant for feet. After a while his kisses became firmer and deeper like now they had really started, they were really going somewhere now.

She felt his hands behind her neck, fumbling with the buttons of her new dress.

“Gavin,” Eve said.

“Shh, angel girl. I got us all covered.”

She let him undo the buttons. She’d been on the circuit six months now. Six months of playing different pianos all in need of tuning, of fending for herself, of shooing off managers who said come on back to my office and I’ll show you something I know you’ll like. Eve was tall and dark-skinned with widely spaced eyes and low, prominent cheekbones. Her great-grandfather on her father’s side was a Shawnee Indian—where she got her cheeks from, her father always said.

Some of the boys in the band called Eve beautiful but she didn’t know about that. What she cared most about was her music. The horn players liked to start off with notes so strong and high you thought there was nowhere else to go, challenging Eve to follow. She always did. She thought of them as brothers, the teasing variety. But then Gavin came in halfway through their tour, a fine-looking man with deep brown eyes and a complexion her grand-mother would call Georgia brown. At first Eve thought he was just another alligator with his little straw boater and his silk tie and his fine boutonniere pin from one of his daddy’s social clubs, but it turned out he was there to play second sax. He called her angel girl and brought her coffee in the mornings. She was tired of being lonely. She liked his sloping smile.

Gavin got her last button unbuttoned. The moon shone through a window behind him, his eyes dark liquid drops in dark hollows. He pulled her dress down to her shoulders and kissed her collarbone again.

“Beautiful,” he said.

“I should say,” said a deep voice behind them.

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