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The Secret Sugar Daddies

The Secret Sugar Daddies

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The Secret Sugar Daddies

296 pages
4 hours
Dec 14, 2018


The year is 2005. The Sugar Daddies are Chicago's loudest all-girl punk band. Singer Charleigh Hartbrake is irresistible, Drummer Sam Starr is irreverent, and keyboardist Dani Wonder is…insecure. Offstage, she's naïve, self-loathing Dani McCallister, a 20-something music school dropout who writes Disney song mash-ups in secret, pines for her absent father, and struggles to uncover who she is as an artist and a person. Dani is moments away from "ditching the Daddies" when a phone call informs her of the kidnapping of her lead singer and girl crush, the enigmatic Charleigh, sending her and the remaining Daddies on a road trip. Driving across the state in a smelly Ford Festiva, Dani and Sam confront shady old boyfriends and pre-pubescent super-fans, but when a self-righteous small-town cop detains the girls for driving a stolen vehicle, Dani must escape and complete the rescue mission flying solo in her dad's '80s jean jacket.The Secret Sugar Daddies is for anyone who's experienced the euphoria of a new friendship, or the despair of not fitting in. In other words, this darkly funny debut is for all of us.

Dec 14, 2018

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The Secret Sugar Daddies - Lara Levitan



Before you left, I was rightfully naïve.

I’d sit on the back porch like a disowned puppy, the wild backyard between us, while you sang Fleetwood Mac in the garage. I wanted to join you, to sing along with those melodic co-ed voices, those ‘70s soft rock rhythms, but you sang too privately. Especially Rhiannon on the self-titled album. Which was funny because to me, girl singers were Ariel the Little Mermaid or Belle the Beauty, each a desperate heroine hoping someone besides her sidekick would listen. So when I heard your strained falsetto, you stopped being a grown man who made his own decisions. You became a princess in disguise, an envied but doomed beauty, cursed and imprisoned by being our dad.

And I was the one who heard.

When I go to the garage now, sometimes I still expect to find you, smoking while dropping albums into boxes, like the last night. (I wasn’t supposed to catch you like I did. Do you even remember?) Years after you left, the garage became my sanctuary. No one bothered me in there, either. I kept your old jean jacket, the stonewashed ‘80s one with the black patches on the elbows, the red marker on the sleeve, the one Charleigh Hartbrake would eventually call smokin’— a word only she could use. I also kept the record player and the six boxes of vinyl, of course. After you left I was shocked to find that stuff.It was like Superman left behind his red cape.

Chapter 1

Put me on speakerphone.

A man’s voice, low and monotone.

Charleigh? I said, though this clearly wasn’t Charleigh, whose voice I would certainly recognize after ten months of playing with her. Also, the person on the line was a guy. And of course Bat Cave, practicing a few rooms over, had to start back up again, playing what sounded like a Megadeth version of piano drills.

I pressed the phone to one ear, my hand to the other. Charleigh’s wristwatch wall clock struck 8:39—39 minutes late. She was always late, showing up apologetic and radiant like she was rushing in from some fabulous party. At first I found her tardiness charming, a fee for friendship, but now I was just agitated. She was never this late.

This isn’t Charleigh, he said. Now put me on speakerphone.

More forceful that time.

I looked at my phone just to make sure I hadn’t picked up some other phone that had magically appeared in my backpack. The screen said UNKNOWN.

Sam stood with one boot perched on a kick drum. Too occupied by her stupid camera, she hadn’t noticed I was on the phone. I placed my foot on the nearest amp, like by mimicking her stance I could become her.

What’s your name?


Finally he said, I shall remain unknown, Dani.

Kevin, is that you?

I was well acquainted with my brother’s fake voices and this wasn’t one of them, but perhaps he was developing a new character. It wasn’t like he had actual things to do.

Sam snatched the phone from me.

Who is this? she barked—but did I catch her smiling? I imagined Charleigh sitting at the bar at Gold Star next to this Unknown character—ditching practice so she and Sam could play a joke on me. I saw her clasping her hands over her mouth to trap her laughter, writing his script on a bar napkin, paying him in shots of cheap whisky shots.

This was a really bad time to be stalling practice with a joke, because I was supposed to be quitting The Sugar Daddies. I’d been so tense waiting for Charleigh to show up, rehearsing my script again and again: It’s not you, it’s me. I just need some time to myself. Time to work on my own music.

As Sam shouted into the phone, I stood there buzzing, feeling stupid for playing along just by being there, by being me. So it almost happened. I almost took off right then and there, even without my phone. But Sam clenched my bicep, her fingers splitting muscle from bone.

I’m putting the motherfucker on speaker, okay?

Is this a joke? Be serious. Where’s Charleigh?

Bat Cave stopped playing. Sam pressed the button for SPKR.

I started to feel myself drifting, plotting my escape route, not listening. Sam was holding my phone out before us, but her hand looked fake, a phantom hand.

But then she said, "What do you mean? What do you mean, kidnapped?"

Unknown spoke. "You need to be at 541 Primrose Way in Bobtown on Saturday night at five o’clock. Did you hear me? Saturday night at five o’clock. In Bobtown."

Kidnapped. Save. You need to. The words floated behind the cloudy glass encasing my head. They couldn’t be real, or have anything to do with me. I looked at Sam’s flushed face, her usual scornful expression obliterated by concern.

"Bobtown? she said. Who the fuck’s heard of Bobtown?"

Oh, god. I’d heard of Bobtown.

It’s a small town, you might have guessed, directly south of Champaign, Illinois—the site of my pathetic, humiliating attempt at being a college music major. (What a joke that had been.) My former roommate Macy’s weirdo boyfriend came from Bobtown, and according to him it was a lifeless, chain store hellhole in a cornfield. He once joked about exploding the basement of the Bible church he was forced to attend there. Consequently, I’ve never had a good feeling about Bobtown.

Unknown repeated the address, and Sam handed the phone to me so she could scribble it on her palm. Phone in hand, I located my tongue.

Have you contacted anyone in her family? I said, though the thought of Charleigh having actual parents seemed as laughable as her being in Bobtown. And anyway, how do you know my name?

Never mind that. This has nothing to do with her family. This has to do with Charleigh. And the Junebugs.

"The Junebugs? Sam said. Who are they? What are they? Adult contemporary?"

All I could think was, Say something, Dani. Say the perfect thing to put the kibosh on all of this. To make Charleigh admit that she’s there. Just think of it, and then say it. But I had nothing. My brain was the worst in times like these.

Sam? Dani? Unknown said.

We looked at each other.

"Don’t call the police. You need to do this."

I stared at Sam. I’d never seen her face like that before. She looked inspired, like she’d seen the light.

If you care about Charleigh at all, you’ll do this.

Think, Dani, think! The air in the room was thinning; there wasn’t enough of it to breathe.

And don’t call the police, he said.

Well, we wouldn’t for 24 hours anyway, Sam said, the cogs behind her eyes turning.

Godspeed, Unknown said, and hung up.

Chapter 2

It sounds so cheesy, but the day I met Charleigh Hartbrake everything changed. I’d been sitting at the front desk at 911-Roses, staring at the flower watercolors on the wall and asking myself the question I asked every day: I went to college for this?

The watercolors were supposed to remind us of the beauty of flowers, and how wonderful we were for delivering them—same-day delivery!—to people our bosses seemed to think were hopeless otherwise. But they only reminded me of how an actual flower couldn’t survive in our stifling office just north of downtown Chicago. If we didn’t seal the blinds no one could read their computers, because of the sun. Talk about depressing. I was trying to write a song about it in my head—

the sun peeking through the blinds/

like fingers grasping prison bars/

—when the elevator opened on a girl wearing hot-pink overalls and a side-cocked baseball cap.

Hey! She approached reception, pushing black Ray-Bans up her nose and balancing a purple boom box on her shoulder. I got a message for—she pulled a paper from her pocket, disrupting her low-hanging gold chains—Brandon Cahill?

Brandon Cahill worked across the hall at Friar Financial, but I hesitated to tell her. (I knew this because Fran, the Friar Financial receptionist, constantly ambushed me in the bathroom with work gossip.) With that Halloween hip-hop getup, I couldn’t tell if the girl was serious. And the way she was kind of smiling and kind of not, I felt like I was in on whatever she had planned, but wasn’t sure I wanted to be.

He got an office? She cocked her hip.

I saw then she was trying to keep a straight face.

Dani, what’s this? my boss Todd Chipworth said, trailing his Old Spice and office-coffee scent. He looked the girl up and down like she couldn’t see him doing it.

Brandon Cahill works over there. I pointed through our glass doors to their glass doors, where beneath the company logo Fran sat picking her nicotine patch.

The girl winked and slapped my desk before floating away, and as I watched her I had the most embarrassing thought: I know this girl, possibly from another life. It was totally stupid and weird, but the desire to call after her was so strong that I almost opened my mouth. Had I the nerve I probably would’ve blurted, where’d you get your overalls? and then wanted to kill myself.

I know what this is, Todd said. I definitely know what this is. Hey, Jimmy, come out here! Hey, Shelly! You gotta see this!

What’s up, Toddster? Jimmy threw a man-sized hand on Todd’s shoulder.

What the heck is going on? Shelly said.

We all watched the blonde in the baseball cap gesture at Fran, who looked flabbergasted, the corners of her maroon lips stretching down.

I read about this, Todd told the group, which had expanded to include Beth, Gerald, and Vincenza. She’s a Ghetto Greeter. This comedian started it as a way to get back at his ex-girlfriend or something. She was cheating on him with a co-worker—

Oh, yes! Vincenza interrupted. She was a chronic interrupter, but her Italian accent made it forgivable. I read this, too. He had his friend, this rapper man, go to the office and rap something, something unacceptable and lots of swearing.

Oh, man, this is good. Todd was glowing, and I realized it was indeed possible to hate him more than I already did. "Oh, god—Connie! Connie, you have to come watch this!"

We were joined by Connie and Cindy and Tim, and all eight of us watched the scene. I felt massively uncomfortable with the whole thing, praying the girl wouldn’t turn around to see us gaping, but I couldn’t stop. When Brandon Cahill finally appeared, his boxy head wagging in confusion, the girl pressed play on her boom box. We heard the tinny thump of a hip-hop beat (the kind I could play on my old Casio with a press of the urban button), and after she performed a pretty decent Fly Girl dance (Oh my god, Todd chanted, aiming his phone), we heard the muffled inflections of her rapping.

The girl couldn’t rap, but she was confident. Throwing her hands in Brandon Cahill’s blazing red face, she killed it, stripping every layer of his self-respect, embodying the lover he’d done wrong with each off-key verse. We couldn’t hear her words but we felt their meaning. The Friar Financial staff trickled in, some assessing the scene and slipping away, others lingering, all pressed lips and pocketed hands, helpless to the spectacle. At first Brandon Cahill tried to smile and shake it off, but then he started to lose it, licking his lips, balling his fists.

The girl struck a final pose, pressed stop on the boom box, and absorbed the dumbfounded silence. Her dollar sign chain had swung over her shoulder and hung at the small of her back. I wanted to run up behind her and fix it. I wanted to drape a cape over her shoulders and usher her out like James Brown.

Oh my Christ! Todd repeated, overjoyed by this messenger from the land of people who do creative things on Tuesdays at nine a.m. The Ghetto Greeter turned around and faced us, and the entire staff, led by Todd, dashed back to their cubicles like bats chased by sunlight.

I’d like to believe I wouldn’t have hurried away even if I did have someplace to go, that I would’ve owned up to being enraptured by the girl, and that maybe I would’ve told her so. As it was, I watched. Fran tried to console Brandon, who was speaking angrily into the phone. In the lobby, the girl pressed the elevator button again and again, bouncing her foot. The elevator was notoriously slow—security would arrive before it did. They would handcuff her, confiscate her boom box. It would be an unjust ending for the Ghetto Greeter who, like the rest of us, was just trying to do her job.

This way, I whispered, having made it through the glass doors without thinking. I grabbed her wrist. Our hands magnetized, and I pulled her around the corner, past the bathrooms to the emergency exit.

Take the stairs to the basement and you’ll find an exit there. No one will see you leave.

But won’t the alarm go off? Her eyes were huge and troubled, Cinderella at the stroke of midnight.

Truthfully, I didn’t know. It’s a shocker, but I’d never had occasion to use the emergency exit before. I pushed the bar and when an alarm didn’t go off, making no sound but the reassuring click of a metal spring, I felt like the Wonder I would soon become.

I so totally owe you. She escaped into the hallway unfazed—like strangers constantly came to her aid—but not ungrateful. She dug into her bag and produced a hot-pink flier the same shade as her overalls.

My name’s Charleigh. You should totally come see my band.

Thanks, I will.

Usually I was lying if I told a stranger I would go to their show. But somehow, Charleigh wasn’t a stranger. And I, returning to my dreary grey desk, felt like a sneaky ray of sunshine burning through the blinds.

Chapter 3

I dropped the phone in a pile of cables coiled at our feet. This was so stupid. It was almost nine, practice was supposed to be over. I was supposed to have ditched the Daddies, the lighthearted slogan I’d assigned to this campaign to make it bearable. I was supposed to be free, to go home and celebrate with a glass of Dancing Zebra in the garage, Someday My Prince Will Come on the record player. Instead Sam and I gaped at each other, the echo of Unknown still pinging through the air.

What the fuck was that? she said.

Are you kidding me?

Kidding you? About what?

I stared at her, waiting to see if now she would admit it. I couldn’t let it go. The only way I could process that phone call was to assume it was a conspiracy against me.

Sam retrieved her phone from her purse, flipped it open.

Who are you calling?

Who do you think?

When Charleigh didn’t pick up, she threw the phone at her purse. What the fuck?

Look, Sam. You’ve got to tell me. Is this for real? You really have no idea who that was?

She dug out her Newports from her purse, stuffing one in her mouth. Lighter, lighter, she whispered, rummaging, candy wrappers floating to the ground.

Look, if this is a joke, please just tell me the truth. I won’t be mad. I just, I don’t think you guys understand how sensitive I am—

You think I’m acting right now? Like, I’m pretending to be freaked out? Okay. Yes, Dani. Yes, we’re totally messing with you because it’s so much fun to convince you that one of us got kidnapped. It’s our fucking hobby. She waved smoke around with her arms as she spoke, streams of it leaking from her nostrils. I mean, I’m scared too. Don’t you think that was intense? Don’t you think that guy sounded really serious?

I’d never seen Sam so worried, never had a chance to feel how unstable that made me. Her steady indifference, apparently, had provided the backbone of our relationship (if you could call it that). Whether the phone call was legit or not, I felt like I had to mop her off the floor.

"So maybe we should call the cops, I said. We can talk to everyone she knows. We should definitely talk to Jay."

Jay was Charleigh’s sort-of boyfriend, the singer of Soldier Haunts, a band the Reader had described as so up-and-coming they were already there. Jay was elusive, moody, and hot—like, recklessly attractive. When I first met him at New Friend Sleepover, I kept trying not to stare and he knew it, even seemed bored by it, like women were regularly awestruck in his presence. He had lashes like Cinderella’s, thick and luxurious, and just like Cinderella he dressed in rags.

The mention of Jay sent a jolt through my belly, a.) because I felt like by saying his name I was somehow revealing my ridiculous crush, and b.) because Jay wasn’t a name you just threw around in this company. Even though Charleigh wasn’t there, this was her lair. Her posters and these weird little voodoo dolls she loved were tacked to the wall.

"Oh, yeah. I’m so sure Jay has a clue about anything. Come on, Dani. Didn’t you hear what he said? He said Charleigh needs us. He said it had to be us. He said that we need to do this."

Yeah, but ... but, Jesus. I couldn’t believe that Sam, of all people, would fall for that so easily. Unless, of course, she was in on it.

What if he’s a murderer? What if this is a trap? Like those people on Craigslist who get lured to their death when all they wanted was a free daybed?

Fuck it. I’ll go without you if I have to.

But you can’t drive.

"Jesus, Wonder. You are such a..."

I braced myself for the insult.

Sam seemed to know me the moment we met—and not in a good way. She reminded me of Kevin, the way she could see right through my skin and organs to the boring turkey and cheese on white I brought for lunch every day. Kevin and I share DNA, so with him I get it, but what was Sam’s excuse? The night of New Friend Sleepover, the very first time she met me, she asked, "True or false, Danielle McAllister: Are you a virgin? I wondered if she’d intuited the fact that yes, I was a virgin (even though I said false" and then I said nothing), that I still lived at home with Patty and Kevin, that I had attempted to be a music major at U of I and came home crying after one measly semester. Sam saw how I laughed when someone wasn’t funny, how I ordered another beer when I was dying to leave, how I made flat jokes while standing in a circle of people and then felt suicidal about it. She saw how I said yes out of some pathetic attempt at coolness when a blue moon like Charleigh Hartbrake came along and made me feel like someone new. Maybe I was fooling some people, but I wasn’t fooling her.

You know what? She lifted her foot and stabbed out the cigarette on the sole of her boot. "Fuck this. And fuck you. I’d rather go without you."

Male voices and clomping boots filled the hallway.

It reeks in here, man.

Smells like Saul’s farts.

They laughed their smarmy dude laughs.

Saul, you in here, man?

I wished I could laugh like everything was la-dee-da, too. Instead I felt vertigo, the bones of my hands and feet becoming too large for our crowded practice room. I stared at Charleigh’s poster of Blonde Ambition Madonna juicing her crotch like an orange. Express yourself, she chided. Next to her was Ian MacKaye from Fugazi, screaming into a mic like he was counteracting the pressure of his exploding head.

You know smoking is not allowed in this building, young lady, Ronny from Bat Cave said, his bushel of black hair brushing the doorframe.

Sam, who’d just lit up another, snapped her head in his direction.

Oh, really? She took a drag.

He smiled, winked, and was gone.

Sam looked at me and said, Jesus, Dani. You look pale.

Then I said it—I gotta split—and cringed at my irony, using her terminology to make a getaway. I grabbed my coat and backpack, my keyboard in its case.

Hold on—where are you going? Wait, Dani—what the fuck?

Chapter 4

from ME

to Char Hart Subject: Hey!

November 10, 2005

Char—You’re not answering your phone, so I’m writing you this. If the phone call from Unknown was really a joke, I just want to let you know—it may sound stupid, but I’m really paranoid about these kinds of things. I’m sure you just don’t understand or realize how sensitive I am. Can you just call me (or Sam, but preferably me) or just email me back? I have something important to talk to you about. —Dani

Two weeks after meeting Charleigh during the whole Ghetto Greeter debacle, I stood in the crowd at Bare Assets

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