As far as endings go, Jack Standridge had one of the best. He simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up the next morning. A Marine, who served in Korea, he came home to Decatur, Georgia, where he found a job with his father’s insurance agency, eventually taking over the business when his father retired. Along the way, he married Nancy Belmonte, a lively woman he met at Georgia State, and together, they had three children, two sons, Rex and Lawrence, and a daughter, Claire, who they lost at age eight to a congenital heart defect. Just before the kids started school, he and Nancy bought a nice home in Avondale Estates, now devoid of all but the two of them, though the day before the house had been filled with family, Rex, his wife and four kids, stopping in on their way from Florida to Chattanooga.
Nancy, always an early riser, discovers when she comes to rouse him for breakfast, that Jack is cold, not breathing, but wearing his customary smile. She mostly remains calm, allowing herself only a few sniffles as she goes into another room to summon the authorities, then begin the process of alerting the family. Grief will come later, when it’s official, when all the details have been ironed out. Then she will mourn.
By eleven that morning, Lawrence has arrived from Ansley Park, where he lives with his partner Elijah Parker, who’s in Washington until the end of the week, and Claire Belmonte is there. Claire came to their home at age sixteen, after running away from a nightmare situation in Middle Georgia. The Standridges welcomed her into their home and family, and Claire remained with them for nearly four years, taking Nancy’s family name as her own, completing her high school equivalency, and starting junior college as a sound technician. Though she moved into Atlanta just prior to her twentieth birthday, she remains close with the family, stopping in at least once a month, and her relationship with the Standridges has been more like that of an adopted daughter. By the time Lawrence, then Claire arrive, the medical examiner has come and gone, verifying what Nancy already knew, that Jack passed, quietly, in his sleep the night before, and transporting him to the coroner.
There’s already a small crowd there, mainly close neighbors alerted by the police cars and coroner’s van that something wasn’t right, and universally complimentary of the man now gone. Nancy alerted Rex, but insisted he and his family continue their brief vacation, and come by on their way back, when arrangements will be more formalized. Having finished most of her self-appointed duties, Nancy now finds herself seated on the couch, surrounded by Claire, and Barbara Stewart, her next-door neighbor, who have taken over the roles of chief comforters, Barbara constantly assuring Nancy that “Jack’s in a better place”, and Claire inquiring frequently if Nancy needs anything. From here, Nancy entertains a continuous stream of well-wishers as word of Jack’s passing filters throughout the enormous community of those who knew him. She finally relaxes, and settles into the role of grieving spouse, knowing fully well that she will need to make many difficult decisions in the days to come. The most difficult arrives a few days following the funeral, in the person of an agent representing Walker Development, inquiring about Nancy’s plans for her property, and promising a competitive offer on the home.
Depending upon one’s point of view, Walker Development is either a dynamic force for revitalization around Atlanta, or an unfeeling corporate behemoth, mercilessly dotting the landscape with gaudy, overpriced McMansions that only the super-wealthy can afford. As young people from the suburbs of the Atlanta Metro area have moved back into town, fueling gentrification in formerly minority neighborhoods, Walker, among others, has been there, encouraging them to demolish the older structures in favor of new, more upscale dwellings, which the developers will, of course, design and build. The previous residents, many of whom have lived in the neighborhoods their entire lives, suddenly find the costs of taxes and utilities becoming unbearable, and always, the developers are there, offering low-income residents just slightly more than the “book value” of the property, to encourage them to move on quickly. Once they’re gone, the modest homes are replaced with vastly more elaborate structures, which sometimes sell for a thirty to fifty times the cost to the developer, and which increase the stress on the crumbling infrastructure the city or county maintains. Along the way, old neighborhood names, kept alive by the elderly black residents, who learned them from their parents and grandparents, get resurrected, as the Fourth Ward becomes The Old Fourth Ward, and the areas south of the tracks from Chandler Park and Lake Claire become Kirkwood and East Atlanta Village. Once-quiet little neighborhoods find themselves overrun with coffee shops and corner bars, and choked with increasing traffic, as non-residents flock there, sometimes from as far away as Bartow or Henry County, to sample the local ambience.
The representative from Walker is a first contact, a young woman, who’s very deferential and self-effacing, complementing the home, and expressing sincere condolences for Nancy’s loss. She doesn’t stay long, and leaves a few brochures for Nancy to look at “when the timing is right”. Nancy knows, however, that once she’s on their radar, the contacts will increase, and become more insistent, phone calls, mailings, and visits, not just from Walker, but from any number of developers or real estate agents. She doesn’t relish the thought of having her family’s memories demolished, but without Jack, staying no longer seems desirable for her.