January 19th, 2024

The Girl From the Red Rose Motel
by Susan Beckham Zurenda
(Mercer University Press, 2023)


Synopsis: Impoverished high school junior Hazel Smalls and affluent senior Sterling Lovell would never ordinarily meet. But when both are punished with in-school suspension, Sterling finds himself drawn to the gorgeous, studious girl seated nearby, and an unlikely relationship begins.

Set in 2012 South Carolina, the novel interlaces the stories of Hazel, living with her homeless family in the rundown Red Rose Motel; Sterling, yearning to break free from the expectations of his wealthy parents; and recently widowed Angela Wilmore, their stern but compassionate English teacher.

Hazel hides her homelessness from Sterling, until he discovers her cleaning the motel’s office one morning when he goes with his slumlord father to unfreeze the motel’s pipes. With her secret revealed, their relationship deepens. Angela, who has her own struggles in a budding romance with the divorced principal, offers Hazel the support her family can’t provide.

Navigating between privilege and poverty, vulnerability and strength, all three must confront what they need from themselves and each other as Hazel gains the courage to oppose boundaries and make a bold, life-changing decision at novel’s end.

Scene excerpted from Chapter Five

Context: In this scene, Sterling Lovell learns that Hazel Smalls, a girl who has amazed and captivated him since he met her during in-school suspension, lives in The Red Rose Motel, a dilapidated property his father owns.

Sterling’s father woke him in the still dark the last Saturday of January to accompany him to the Red Rose Motel to check on frozen water pipes. Rudie Jones, his father’s manager, had come down with flu and wasn’t going anywhere. It wasn’t the first time lately his father had bugged him to go to one of his properties. Sterling put his pillow over his head, tried to beg off. He had no desire to freeze his butt off on a morning cold as a witch’s tit at a dump like the Red Rose. But Hugh Lovell wouldn’t relent. Misery loved company. No breakfast, no nothing. Only ten minutes to brush his teeth, pull on flannel-lined pants and a sweatshirt, and find his heavy jacket stuffed in the back of his closet.

Walking into the motel office, Sterling’s father extended his hand, causing the dude behind the counter to stand abruptly, his stool teetering. The guy wore a buttoned- up parka because it wasn’t much warmer in here than outside. Sterling hadn’t been in this office in a long time. It was a good place to forget then. Now it was abysmal. He looked at the cracked linoleum counter, glanced across the room. Inside the dirty beige walls was nothing but a pair of grungy, tweed-upholstered chairs in a corner and a rack with a few pamphlets by the door. Leaflets for tourist attractions? No tourists here, no way, not in this dump that smelled like sweaty gym socks. What a joke.

“Sterling,” his father’s voice made him turn. “Meet Malik. He takes care of things here.” Sterling nodded. He wanted to be anywhere else on this frigid Saturday morning.

“Brought my son along to see the lay of the land,” his father continued.

“Ah, I see,” Malik answered, nodding hello to Sterling. “No water in the faucets and the toilet in any room. It’s frozen.”

“Let’s see the pipes,” Hugh Lovell said, brisk. Malik walked from behind the counter motioning, leading them through the smudged glass doors and along the sidewalk until they were behind the motel. They all looked at the exposed pipes. “No wonder. No insulation. Doesn’t usually get this cold, but they ought to have insulation. Rudie should have seen to this. But right now, got to keep ‘em from bursting. Let’s get these things unthawed quick before we have an explosion,” his father announced. Ever in charge, his old man, Sterling thought, shaking his head at nothing.

“You got somebody in maintenance who can get some hair dryers out here?” Now, his father sounded irritated, thinking, Sterling supposed, that Rudie had no business being sick.

“Sure, yes,” Malik responded. “I will get hair dryers now.”

“God knows it’s cold. Must be breaking a record.” His father stomped foot to foot, hands thrust in his pockets against the icy air. “And let’s get some insulation tape on these pipes when they’re thawed.”

Malik nodded enthusiastically.

While his father waited and Malik ran off to retrieve drop cords and hair dryers, Sterling wandered off. Nothing he could do to expedite the process. He walked around the Red Rose Motel in a stiff lope, hands in his jacket pockets, wishing for gloves. The place was a relic of concrete block and metal railings built decades before. If it once evoked the idea of romance with its name, that day was long gone. He passed by the open door of a room being cleaned and looked inside.

Orange and black geometric wallpaper from another era covered the walls. Seeing no one, he stepped inside. Someone or something had peeled the paper back to bare wall on one side of the bed. Bad trip, Sterling thought. The dark, no-color carpet, alive, sucked at his feet. Towels hung on the racks in the bathroom, so he figured the room had been cleaned, in spite of the wide yellow stripe ringing the tub midway up.

No one in his right mind would stay overnight in this crummy place, he thought, even as he knew people actually lived here, day after day, week after week. Sterling walked back outside, shuddered. He wandered back to the office because what was the point of going back and freezing his ass off to watch people blow hairdryers on frozen pipes. The office might not be warm enough for comfort, but it was a hell of a lot better than outside. He would sit and wait.

Approaching the door, he saw the arm of a slim figure inside rubbing a cloth up and down the clouded glass. He didn’t want to startle the cleaning lady who wasn’t looking out, her head turned down and covered in a furry black hoodie, so he knocked. She spooked anyway, stepping back. Sterling opened the door. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare . . . ,” he said and stopped, as the person under the hood looked up at him. For a moment they stared at each other.

“Go,” she mumbled, backing away.

“Zell, what? It’s you. What are you . . . ,” Sterling exclaimed. He reached out to touch the sleeve of her jacket. She jerked her arm away.

“Let me by,” she pleaded.

“Hey, Zell, it’s okay. You work here?”

She nodded yes and then no. Like the scared rabbit when they first met. But worse. She sprang from one foot to the other, frantic.

“Zell, it’s okay. You work at my old man’s motel? I’m here same as you. Working. Or I’m supposed to be. Helping unthaw frozen pipes, but I left so now I’ll probably be in trouble with my Dad. What the hell.” Sterling reached out again and this time made contact with Zell’s arm.

She looked at his hand on her sleeve. “Please go,” she said, so quiet he could hardly hear her.

“Why?” Sterling asked. “It’s cold as a witch’s ‘you know what,’ and I don’t want to freeze,” he said and grinned.

Zell shook his hand from her arm. “It’s not . . . with me . . . ,” she started and stopped.

“What’s not?” he began but she hurried around him, nearly tumbling out the glass doors. He followed, calling her. She didn’t turn back. He sprinted, trying to catch up to her along the sidewalk. But she got away like her life depended on it. She turned a right angle and ducked into a corridor when she was yards ahead. Panting, he stopped then, knowing. She lived here. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have run like that.

No wonder she didn’t want to tell him. This awful place. No home at all, this piece of shit, part of his old man’s empire. Zell wasn’t so much shy, he realized, as she was ashamed. An image of Courtney flashed across his mind. Cool, calm, stunning in one of her expensive brightly patterned— Lilly something or other—dresses all the girls wore. A dress like that might pay half a month’s rent in this place. What did Zell think of him? He couldn’t put words to his imaginings.

She had seemed uncomplicated, not like the girls in his world with their cat and mouse games. She was beautiful, natural, and he wanted her. Easy enough. But now, seeing her bundled up against the cold in a too-big, furry-hooded sweatshirt, the mortification when she saw him, knew his father owned this joint, made his chest tighten. It did something to him, something he never felt before. Way more than her body and face, it was the sensation of her.

About the author: Susan Beckham Zurenda taught English for 33 years on the college level and at the high school level to AP students. Her debut novel, Bells for Eli (Mercer University Press, March 2020; paperback edition March 2021), was selected the Gold Medal (first place) winner for Best First Book—Fiction in the 2021 IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Awards), was a Foreword Indie Book Award finalist, a Winter 2020 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, a 2020 Shelf Unbound Notable Indie 100, a 2020 finalist for American Book Fest Best Book Awards, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, 2021. Susan has won numerous awards for her short fiction, including the South Carolina Fiction Prize twice. Her second novel, The Girl From the Red Rose Motel, (Mercer University Press, 2023), has been chosen as a finalist in the American Book Fest Awards, a Shelf Unbound Notable Indie 100, and was highlighted in Kirkus Magazine, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The author lives in Spartanburg, SC. (www.susanzurenda.com.)

Review in Charleston Post and Courier from January 14, 2024

Susan Beckham Zurenda