When a dad quits his job to find meaning in his work, he unwittingly destabilizes his marriage just as the COVID pandemic worsens. Ironically, with his wife ill and daughter hungry, Alex discovers a purpose, but when the crisis eases Lisa wants to return to the past, leaving Alex to make a difficult decisions.
Sugarbug is an 82,000 word general or upmarket novel whose level of violence, tone and overall approach to a pandemic is similar to Station Eleven by Emily St. John-Mandel. And while I am a mere shadow compared to Wallace Stegner, Sugarbug invites readers to discover whether or not a marriage will reach "The Angle of Repose."
Alex Novak didn’t have a headache. He only rubbed his temples from habit. He decided, it hadn’t been a terrible week. Once again, he’d outmaneuvered COVID. No small feat for a pharma sales-rep in and out of clinics.
Lounging on the spring loaded seat of his 1948 Chevy flatbed, Alex washed with sanitizer. When finished, he removed his disposable mask and slipped a finger behind his silk noose. Tie loosened, Alex found his Neumedi cellphone in his coat pocket and dropped it next to him. The phone bounced. Alex left it on the floor.
Neumedi Pharmaceuticals required twenty-four seven availability for salespeople. In seven years, no doctor had called outside clinic hours, although his manager found a thousand reasons to interrupt his evenings and weekends. Alex considered the phone to be the technological manifestation of hell.
Having let out as much late summer heat as possible, Alex closed his six-foot frame inside the steel oven.
He turned the key and the truck wheezed, cleared its throat, and grumbled to life. Cautiously, Alex pulled it out of the Oakwood Hospital visitors lot.
His father had purchased the truck in another age, the spoils of building Chevys on the line. Alex still felt his father’s defeat when he had handed him the keys a decade prior. Later, alone, Alex had cried to see the man he’d idolized so emasculated.
Two months after, Alex had inherited his boyhood home, offering his estranged sister the estate’s cash to compensate. Thirty years of smoking had caused his father’s lungs to fill and rot. He’d essentially drowned.
A few key ideas had defined Alex’s father. He was Polish, Catholic, a member of the UAW, an autoworker. Alex grew up without such markers. He’d gone to college convinced by teachers that he would find in ivied halls the certainty he lacked. He’d graduated feeling as aimless as when he’d arrived.
In the fifteen years since, he’d worked six jobs. He’d only stayed at Neumedi for the last seven because he and his wife had reached an agreement. He provided health insurance; she pursued her dreams.
Alex might go home each Friday feeling less alive, but he appreciated that he’d found a career that had seemingly stuck. It made him feel reliable, like spending himself this way had purpose.
His father would have found his musings incomprehensible and horrifying. For Dad, holding a job wasn’t sacrificial. It’s just what a man did.
“Yeah, you’re a real hero,” Alex mumbled as he eased his truck into a generic business park off Rotunda.
As he pulled into a parking space Alex’s phone decided to bleat. Oooo baby I love your way…. Alex didn’t reach for it. Neumedi wasn’t the only one who appreciated twenty-four seven availability. She’ll text me. Marriage gave life a certain predictability.
After a long week, some guys drank, or spent dollar bills at a strip club; Alex walked the aisles of his favorite temple to American ingenuity and hope. Classic cars grounded him, connected him to history and his dad, and ending his week looking at cars fortified him against the dings and scratches of home-life.
Alex thought Gateway Classic Cars deserved a neon sign here in Detroit. The city and cars were inseparable, or had been.
Alex stepped out and remembered he needed a mask. Breaching Neumedi protocol, he put on his used one.
Lisa’s text arrived on schedule.
Stretching, he rescued his phone and laid his blue Armani suit-coat across the seat before shutting the door and locking it. His wife brought his clothing home from her work at a fashion company.
Lisa: Picnic two weeks from Saturday at G and Ps. You’re making a salad.
After reading the second bit, Alex rolled his eyes. It’s not that he minded making a salad. Alex rather enjoyed the kitchen. It was more his thing than Lisa’s, at least when it went beyond mere sustenance. However, he would rather have had the courtesy of being asked. But that’s what marriage is, the ability to not ask and know that we won’t get fired.
Polished chrome, hardened steel, and the smell of fresh tires greeted Alex as he stepped into the low-ceilinged room.
Nick, the burnished salesman with the thinning white hair, wore his face-mask looped over one ear. He gave Alex a cursory nod before turning back to the television hanging in the corner.
“The CDC announced today that it is investigating a cluster of deaths in Orange County California stating that the COVID pandemic is likely to get worse in the days ahead.”
Nick clicked his tongue before muting the television. “Alex, tell me you came to sell your truck today.”
Alex grinned behind his mask. “How much?”
“I’ll give you $25,000 cash right now.”
“And how much is it really worth?”
Nick stared at the Kelly green beauty while thinking. “Well you drive it around. That lowers the value somewhat. A car-show version, kept in a garage and all, maybe $45,000.”
“You’re shitting me.”
Florida that went for something like that last year. So you want to sell me your truck?”
Alex would sooner have sold his daughter. “No.”
“Then come work for me.”
Alex shook his head again. “I have a job.” He shrugged. “Good benefits.”
Nick frowned, disbelieving. “Ah well…”
To fill the space, Alex asked a question that had been on his mind for some time. “Are all of these built by professional street rodders?”
“Some of them, and there are a lot of shops that specialize in restoration instead of turning them into hotrods. Although you’d be surprised, a fair number are built by hobbyists; car guys like you. Somebody sees a rust bucket in a field and buys it for a few hundred bucks, and if they don’t let it rot in their field, they spend three years making it something. Hell, even big names in hot rods like Boyd Coddington started like that. His first car was a 1915 Model T.”
Alex’s eyes strayed to the purple 1976 Laguna with black racing stripes, as he pondered the idea of building a truck.
“Anyway I’ll let you wander. You really should come work for me. You’ve got the right attitude for it.”
No, Alex thought, if he did something else, it wouldn’t be sales. He’d had enough of sales; building things though, that interested Alex.
Alex cruised the showroom for thirty minutes maybe more, spending extra time on the new 1968 Bel Air in red. All the while, he kept thinking.
Could he restore a truck? How much would it cost? After parts, was there any margin left? Full time he thought he’d could pull off one a year, maybe two. That wouldn’t pay, would it? It’s not a job, Alex. It’s a labor of love—a hobby—which is why it takes three years. The only way you make money is on TV. People like you don’t end up on TV. Besides, building cars doesn’t provide health insurance.
Eventually, Alex left and made the long drive to the northern suburbs. Try as he might, he couldn’t shake the disturbing feeling that, deep underground, water was seeping under the dam that had kept him stable for seven years.