The Sirens of Soleil City

A Novel



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July 9, 2024 | ISBN 9780593908983

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About the Book

Three generations of women learn to own their mistakes and rebuild their bonds as they prepare to compete in the South Florida Senior Synchronized Swimming Competition.

“A witty, touching story of resilience, forgiveness, complicated family dynamics, and second chances.”—Deepa Varadarajan, author of Late Bloomers

West Palm Beach, 1999. A phone call summons fifty-eight-year-old Cherie Anderson from a frozen Minnesota to help her two mothers: Dale, the mother who left her when she was five and is facing eviction from her budget-apartment complex, Soleil City, and Marlys, the mother who raised her from that moment on—and who’s now dying, but won’t admit it to her daughter. Cherie seeks a reason to stay in town long enough to give Dale the help she’s finally asked for and Marlys the help she clearly needs. And she must find a project to distract her pregnant daughter, Laura, whose marriage has fallen apart just weeks before her due date.

The South Florida Senior Synchronized Swimming Competition seems to be the answer. The publicity from winning the contest, along with the ten-thousand-dollar prize money, could help save Soleil City. With Laura, who used to captain a dance team, as their coach, they’ve got a fighting chance. And with everyone else preoccupied by the competition, Cherie can focus on saving Marlys before it’s too late.

Over the course of a month in an apartment complex filled with feisty, funny, strong-willed women in their seventies, four women who make up an uneasy family will realize that in life, and motherhood, there isn’t good and bad. There’s only trying to get it right.
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Praise for The Sirens of Soleil City

“Witty, endearing, and poignant, The Sirens of Soleil City delivers a heartrending exploration of mother-daughter relationships with a strong dose of fun. Sarah C. Johns has crafted a wonderful summer read.”—Mikki Brammer, author of The Collected Regrets of Clover

The Sirens of Soleil City is a witty, touching story of resilience, forgiveness, complicated family dynamics and second chances. The unforgettable women of Soleil City charmed me, moved me, made me laugh out loud, and reminded me that pivotal friendships can be created at any age.”—Deepa Varadarajan, author of Late Bloomers
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The Sirens of Soleil City

Chapter 1

24 Days


Seventeen hours after arriving in West Palm Beach, Cherie was already wondering how soon she could leave.

She pressed the piece of concrete that she held into her hand, picked up from the ground after falling from the building and hitting her on the head as she left her mother’s apartment to go to the pool. Cherie looked at the balcony railing on an apartment across from where she sat, dangling her legs in the water. Two potted plants blocked the gaping hole left by missing balusters; duct tape held the remaining six in place.

Oh, Florida, Cherie thought. So slapdash and sketchy and yet also so sunny. Cherie turned her face toward the sky to feel the warmth. This might keep her in West Palm Beach a few extra days, away from the frozen tundra of Minnesota in February. She splashed her feet in the pool, the gorgeous pool. The four aging concrete buildings of Cherie’s mother’s senior apartment complex looked like they might be pushed over by a light breeze, but the pool at its center looked like it had been dropped into place straight from a Florida tourism ad—an ad that showed a Florida that could exist only in the minds of people who had never actually been to Florida before.

How had a pool like that—Olympic-sized and sparkling clean, surrounded by tropical flowers, pristine lounge chairs, and unblemished tile—ended up in a place like this? It should have been in the fancy new senior complex down the street with its terrazzo tile and grass cloth–covered walls, not in this place filled with residents surviving on Social Security and the occasional largesse of family.

“Our landlord forgets to fix the broken laundry-room window and doesn’t repaint the lines in the parking lot, leading to absolute chaos, but we do get this gorgeous hole to splash around in,” a small woman with bleached blond hair and overplucked eyebrows said to Cherie as she sat down beside her, letting her own veined legs fall into the water. “Welcome to Soleil City. I’m Evelyn,” the woman said, offering her hand. Cherie took it. “You’re Dale’s kid.”

Cherie nodded. Dale was her mother, even if Cherie wasn’t entirely sure how to tell anyone what that actually meant. At Cherie’s daughter’s spring wedding almost three years ago, the wedding that had supplied enough monogrammed cocktail napkins to last a lifetime, Dale had introduced herself to one of Cherie’s friends as the secondary mother. Secondary mother. Was this the term Cherie had been trying to find to describe Dale for the last five decades of her life?

“Marlys is Cherie’s primary mother,” Dale said, grabbing a mini crab cake off a silver tray as it passed during the wedding’s cocktail hour. “Marlys took Ed, Cherie’s dad and my first husband, from me—they’re not here because Ed is busy dying—but I guess it worked out because Marlys and Ed have been married nearly fifty years and I had five more husbands. Anyway, Marlys got the husband and the child and did a much better job with both of them than I ever could, and not just because I was a goddamned teenager when Cherie was born. So, she’s Mom. I’m Dale. My place is more around the edges. Just to be clear.”

It wasn’t clear to Cherie’s friend, of course. It still wasn’t entirely clear to Tom, Cherie’s husband of thirty years, who flinched each time he heard Cherie refer to the woman who gave birth to her by her first name. But it was clear to Cherie. Dale’s husband left her for Marlys, then Dale left them all and ran away to Mexico, not seeing her daughter for almost five years, and only briefly when she finally did. Marlys stayed. Marlys was her mom.

Marlys had been the one to tell Cherie that there was a threat to tear down Dale’s apartment complex and throw all the residents to the wind. It’s how it had always been. Dale would tell Cherie all the good things and tell Marlys all the real things. Cherie would hear about how Dale had seen Audrey Hepburn walking down Fifth Avenue in the summer of 1956 and then Marlys would hear about how Dale had left her fourth husband after only twenty-five days of marriage.

In the nearly two years since Dale had moved less than three miles away from Marlys in West Palm Beach, a fact that still surprised and confused Cherie, the updates had come more frequently and become less newsworthy. Dale wouldn’t eat the crusts on her chicken salad sandwiches. Dale liked to sing “Fever” by Peggy Lee, complete with hip thrusts, when she went out to karaoke with her friends from Soleil City—the friends that seemed to take up most of her time. Last month, Dale had negotiated a better contract with the ice vendor as part of her role on the complex’s leadership council, which was important because that lot could drink.

For both Marlys and Cherie, Dale remained something of an enigma that fascinated and repelled them. A mother and a mother-maker. She lived a life in cities they had only visited, had marriages to men they had never known. Dale told them a little and let them imagine twice as much.

Now, according to Marlys, Dale was in trouble. What did that mean? When Cherie’s dad was dying, her mom would say things like “he had a rough night,” which Cherie would later find out meant that he had “coded”—his heart had stopped beating—before he was successfully revived. Was there something she wasn’t being told? A secondary mother is still a mother. Cherie called her travel agency the moment it opened the next morning and bought a one-way ticket to find out for herself.

It was Tom, Cherie’s lawyer husband, who Marlys had initially requested. “Dale needs Tom’s help. She might lose her apartment. She doesn’t really have anywhere else to go.” Cherie remembers her anger at the suggestion. Sure, Tom could handle whatever legal thing they needed. But Cherie could solve problems. Cherie solved problems all the damn time. How hard could this be? Dale needed a new apartment; Cherie could spend a few days in Florida finding her a new apartment. Maybe Dale wouldn’t be able to lounge by the pool with the same group of women every day, but was that such a big deal? She just needed a place to live.

Cherie’s first surprise upon arriving in West Palm Beach was that Marlys had been right. Dale really didn’t have anywhere else to go. Dale was broke. Her apartment was practically bare. She didn’t have a coffee table in front of her couch. She had an old, folding TV table that had clearly been a garage sale special. She had borrowed a camp bed for Cherie to use from her neighbor, covering it with a jumble of old sheets from different, incomplete sets. She was watering down her shampoo to make it last longer. True, Dale was a child of the Depression, but she had never before acted like one. This wasn’t habit born of early childhood trauma. This was poverty.

“So you’ve heard about how the Jackass—”

“The Jackass being your landlord,” Cherie interrupted to clarify.

Evelyn nodded. “The guy who wants to tear this place down and start all over again,” Evelyn said. “Little pipsqueak. The man can’t be more than thirty-five. But he’s seen the high rises they’ve built in Miami and that goddamned fancy Hawthorne Haven complex down the street.”

“Oh, I’m familiar with Hawthorne Haven. Quite a security apparatus they’ve got over there. Very . . . active,” Cherie said, rubbing the ankle she had twisted the night before.

After unpacking her toiletries in the small bathroom she and her mother would share—“That’s a hell of a lot of moisturizing you’re doing there, Cher,” Dale said, as Cherie lined up all six bottles on the back of the toilet for lack of space—her mother offered to provide dinner. Provide. That word alone should have served as something of a warning as to what was to come.

After eating criminally under-seasoned grilled chicken breasts in Hawthorne’s dining room—there was an unused grand piano in the corner—Dale shoved the check in her purse with a wink and pulled Cherie through the kitchen into a long dark hall. As Cherie realized she had just participated in petty theft, a large security guard suddenly appeared, yelling at them to stop as Dale broke into a sprint, Cherie following closely behind.

Evelyn smiled. “Dale used the magic exit, right? She parked on the far-right side and pulled away before they even realized you were both out the door?”

“We stole our dinner correctly, yes.”

Once in the car, Cherie rubbed the ankle she had slightly twisted—Dale could have at least warned her not to wear heels—then rolled down the window for fresh air before turning to her mother.

“Did we have to do that, Dale?”

Dale laughed. “Oh, darling. Things aren’t that bleak. We did that because we could do it. And because we should. Before Hawthorne came in, Soleil City was fine. Now, we aren’t enough. So screw ’em. Plus, wasn’t it just a little bit fun?”

About the Author

Sarah C. Johns
Sarah C. Johns is a writer and video producer. After studying in South Africa, Hungary, Israel, and Germany, she graduated from McGill University before attending film school in Sydney, Australia. She lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota. More by Sarah C. Johns
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