It was early evening, June 1996, at the Clermont Lounge in Atlanta, Georgia. Selma Messner, now calling herself Irene Castleberry, leaned on the bar and looked out at the sparse crowd. She was dressed in a sleeveless yellow blouse, jeans, and work shoes, none of which were new, so she didn’t worry about spills. A large, black woman was dancing on a platform, to the amplified sounds of “Jump” by Van Halen, and was surrounded by a few patrons, but otherwise business was slow. There were only a few smokers inside, but the room still reeked of cigarettes, and body odor, and beer. The real crowd didn’t start showing up until eight or nine, and usually later, and, on weekends, often got younger as the evening wore on. Selma couldn’t understand why college kids would want to hang out in a place like this, but she welcomed their tips, when they gave them, and otherwise, they weren’t much trouble for her. She had a little hardwood club, fashioned out of an old stool leg, positioned strategically under the bar if a patron got a bit too rowdy, and if things really got out of hand, she could give a sign to the bouncer and he’d handle the situation promptly.
Selma had been employed there for nearly two months, since just after she’d confronted her daughter, Christine, outside a hotel in Buckhead, where she was going to some sort of meeting with a fellow Selma took to be her boyfriend, a handsome young man named Brian. Selma had seen him at the Clermont once since. Christine left home when she was sixteen-years-old and came to Atlanta, after several troublesome incidents in Perry, where they lived, and since that time had taken on a new name, Claire Belmonte. Selma hadn’t been in touch with her daughter since that time, but had recently left her husband and didn’t have many places she could go. Claire had given her money to leave town, but Selma decided to stick around, adopt a new name herself, that of her maternal grandmother, and try out life in the big city. Claire had not been happy to find Selma was still in town, but Selma rarely gave much currency to what her daughter wanted or didn’t want, so Selma decided to stay on until she could think of something better to do. She didn’t make a huge salary busing tables or tending bar, but she was paid in cash, and the tips often made up for the shortfall. She’d always considered herself a godly woman, but had to admit, the wages of sin were sometimes quite lucrative.
Around 7:15, Selma turned toward the entrance and was surprised to see Claire enter and head to the bar. Claire was tall — at least six feet — with long, black hair, and portional to her height. She was usually fairly sullen when dealing with Selma, but as she headed toward the bar this night, she seemed to have a bounce in her step. It was Claire’s second visit in as many weeks, the first being to confirm and complain that Selma was still in town. Claire leaned against the opposite end of the counter, a curious smile on her face, and Selma moved toward her.
“Well, hello there, Ms. Belmonte,” Selma said. “You here for a drink, or did you reconsider that dancing position?”
“You really like it here, don’t you?” Claire said. “I never pictured you in an establishment like this.”
“It ain’t bad,” Selma said. “I mean, the folks is usually nice, and I get some good tips. I can take it or leave it, I guess.”
“You really think I’m just going to stand back and let you hang out in Atlanta?” Claire said, the curious smile still glued to her face.
“I don’t see what choice you got, really,” Selma said. “Ain’t but one person can do anything about it, and there’s no way you’d ever call him.”
“Funny you should mention that,” Claire said, pushing away from the counter and standing back from the bar. “Just so happens I was down that way a few days ago.”
The smile on Selma’s face vanished. “No. You’re lying. Ain’t no way–”
In response, Claire looked over her shoulder, toward the entrance. “Mr. Messner, would this happen to be the person you’re missing?”
There was a long pause, during which Selma almost convinced herself Claire was bluffing, then around the corner stepped a smallish man, with salt and pepper hair and beard, wearing jeans and a work shirt, with black work shoes — Selma’s husband, Zachariah Messner.
“Why, Ms. Belmonte, it is indeed,” he said.
Selma could do nothing more than exclaim, “No!” She stepped back from the edge of the bar and her eyes shot to Claire. “How could you do something like this?”
“It was actually pretty easy, once I set my mind to it,” Claire said, her voice slipping into the vernacular of Middle Georgia. “We had a nice little chat one morning and I was moved by his sad tale. I swore I’d do all I could to reunite him with his wayward spouse.”
Zachariah stared at Selma for several long seconds, then said simply, “Time to come on home, Selma.”
Selma remained frozen behind the bar. She caught the eye of the bouncer, who walked over. “Irene, everything all right here?”
“No, it ain’t,” Selma said to him. “Get these people out of here. They harassing me.”
The bouncer moved so he was between Selma and the pair. “I believe the woman asked you folks to leave.”
Claire looked at Zachariah, who appeared on the verge of speaking. She held up her hand to silence him. In a voice brimming with emotion, she addressed the bouncer. “Sir, this woman is my mother, and this is her husband. She’s been having some mental issues, and claiming to be someone she’s not. I learned she ran off and was hiding out here. We’re only here to try and get her the help she so desperately needs.”
“Is that right, sir?” the bouncer said to Messner.
Zachariah lowered his head, and replied with deference, “Yessir, as embarrassed as I am to admit it. What she’s said is true.”
The bouncer looked back and forth from Selma to Claire and Messner, then threw up his hands. “I’m not getting in the middle of some domestic situation. Sorry, Irene.” He walked away. Selma watched him with trepidation.
“I think that settles the matter,” Claire said. “Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Messner?”
“I believe you’re right,” Zachariah said. “Get your things, Selma. We got a long drive back.”
Selma lowered her head and moved out from behind the bar. “My stuff’s upstairs. Won’t take long.” She glared at Claire. “I never imagined you could be in cahoots with him.”
Claire leaned in and said in a harsh voice, “Never underestimate me again.”
Selma led them outside and into the hotel. It took her about fifteen minutes to shove all her clothing into her bags. She and Zachariah carried them down to his car.
Once Selma was seated on the passenger side, with her seatbelt on, Zachariah turned to Claire. “I thank you again, Ms. Belmonte. If you’re ever back down our way, be sure to stop in and say hello.”
“I think we both know there’s not a chance in hell of that ever happening,” Claire said.
Messner chuckled. “Well all right, then. You take care of yourself, Ms. Belmonte.”
He got in and drove away. Clare stood for a long time staring after them, before heading off to wait for her bus.