About gmatt63

G. M. Lupo is an author, playwright and photographer from Atlanta, GA. In 2015, he wrote, produced and directed Round & Round, a one-act play, for Fringe Festival Atlanta, and released two books, a collection of short stories entitled Freedom and Consequence, and a collection of essays entitled The Cheese Toast Project. His scripted work has been performed at Out of Box Theatre, OnStage Atlanta, Lionheart Theatre, and Sketchworks. He is the author of The Long-Timer Chronicles, a series of books that includes A Tale of Two Sisters and Crazy Like the Foxes. He is a graduate of New York University's Graduate Creative Writing program (1991), and received a Bachelor's in English from Georgia State University (1987). His personal website is lupo.com; his blog is gmlupo.com, and he can be found on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr as gmatt63.

Woman of God

Avis Collins is the minister at the Apostolic Awakening Fellowship, a conservative church in Duluth, Georgia. Known as Mother Avis by her church family, she promotes herself as a black conservative who’s opposed to gay marriage, extra-marital sex, race mixing, and government entitlements. She grew up in a mainstream Methodist congregation, but became a fundamentalist following the fallout within her family from the deaths of their parents. Her church promotes family values and economic empowerment, and, in practice, their philosophy is a curious mixture of feeding the homeless while criticizing them for a lack of initiative, promoting Jesus’s teachings, while encouraging church goers to become entrepreneurs, and welcoming members of all races, just so long as none of them try to intermarry. As of 2011, Avis boasts a following of over four hundred parishioners, and their services are a rousing mixture of amplified Gospel, warm, welcoming fellowship, and fiery rhetoric delivered by Mother Avis.

In the late-00s, Avis’s ministry came under scrutiny when it was discovered that a number of the white parishioners in her majority black congregation were active members of the Klan, drawn by her message of racial separatism. This set off a flurry of news reports locally, with people on all sides of the controversy giving interviews, black congregants who stated they would not share the pew with racists, contrasted with those who said that so long as they mind their manners, all are welcome, versus white members, who tried to minimize the situation, citing Mother Avis’s powerful preaching as the reason for their devotion. It all culminated in Mother Avis giving a well-received interview on Good Morning America, where she remained cheerful and positive, and stated the situation demonstrated, “The power of Christ to unite people of all backgrounds and philosophies.

Still, the church remains controversial, with the IRS constantly questioning their religious exemption, some believing them to be more of a religiously-oriented business rather than the classic definition of a church, given the many products they sell, from essential oils and scented candles, to prayer blankets, videos and recordings of the choir and fellowship band, and others suggesting racial motives for the microscopic level of scrutiny they’re constantly under. Mother Avis tries to remain above the fray, with one notable misstep, where she commented harshly on what she termed as “sodomites” in a news report about the PRIDE Festival in Atlanta, which drew protests from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Following these challenges, the church instituted a public relations fellowship, which clears all requests for statements, and carefully monitors any outgoing missives for content, as well as largely shielding Mother Avis from unscripted press appearances.

One of the church’s harshest critics is a blogger known as Lady Midnight, who not only publishes a weekly column, where she tackles religion, politics, and human rights, and often uses Apostolic Awakening as an example of religious excess, but she also frequently posts disparaging criticisms on the message board at the Apostolic Awakening website. She’s consistently the only negative poster to whom Avis will personally reply, and their sometimes voluminous exchanges often betray not only serious animosity, but also a great deal of familiarity between them. In one such exchange, Avis stated, “You should be grateful the Lord blessed you with the opportunity to be an inspiration to others, rather than the sullen, withdrawn shell of the woman you once were.” While most congregants are either spiritually uplifted or totally befuddled by Mother Avis’s attitude toward this irritant, a few of her closest confidants are aware that Lady Midnight also happens to be Avis’s younger sister, Annabelle, with whom Avis hasn’t spoken directly for more than a decade.

Paralyzed in an automobile accident in Cobb County in 1990, Annabelle turned away from religion during her recovery period, breaking the heart of her minister father, and, in Avis’s view, hastening the deaths of their mother, who suffered a stroke in 1998, and spent the remainder of her life in a vegetative state, and their father, who suffered a massive coronary in 2000. Following their father’s death, Annabelle supported their older brother Alfred’s decision to take their mother off life support, which Avis vehemently opposed. The youngest brother, Avery, a singer, rapper, and actor now based in Los Angeles, who calls himself EZ-AC, eventually sided with Alfred and Annabelle, causing Avis to drop her opposition, and sever all ties with her family. Within a year, she began her ministry in a small storefront in downtown Duluth, and began recruiting members by preaching on street corners.

House Band, Jack Standridge

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.

The Handmaiden

Peace statue, Atlantic Station, Atlanta, GA.

Leah Walker steps up to the door of Rosalind Duchard’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and rings the bell. She’s there to meet with Rosalind and her husband, Paul, about a request they made of her at a previous meeting. Leah is still undecided on what her answer will be, but Rosalind has promised to have a legal agreement drawn up to spell out everyone’s responsibilities and the legal consequences of everything.

She’s met at the door by Paul, a man in his fifties, somewhat overweight, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and a madras shirt.

“Leah,” Paul says, with little enthusiasm. “You’re early. Rosalind isn’t back yet.” He makes no effort to invite her in.

“Can I come in anyway?” Leah says.

Paul considers it. “Oh. Yeah. Sure.”

He steps aside to allow her entry.

In the year since becoming Rosalind’s lab assistant, Leah has come to regard her as a mentor and friend, and Rosalind has successfully wrested from Leah’s aunt, Margaret, the title of “second most important” woman in Leah’s life. Around MIT, faculty, staff, and students recognize that talking to Leah is almost the same as having Rosalind’s ear, and some faculty members prefer Leah’s accessibility to wading through the sea of interpersonal issues they have to navigate to work with Rosalind. Leah and Rosalind spend most of the day together, and many evenings, depending on the time of year, or the grants Rosalind is managing. Their close working arrangement often draws the ire of Rosalind’s husband.

Leah has only had a few interactions with Paul Duchard, but they’ve been icy and uncomfortable. He always greets her with a stern look, and an over abundance of sighs and eye rolls. She’s found his reactions rarely change, regardless of how polite or friendly she tries to be around him. On the occasions they’ve been alone when she’s visiting, any interest she shows in getting to know him is met with monosyllabic responses, and it isn’t out of the ordinary for Paul to excuse himself whenever Leah and Rosalind are talking, even when they’re chatting and not discussing academic matters. Leah suspects Paul may have Asperger Syndrome, but whenever she’s broached the topic with Rosalind, she always dismisses Leah’s suspicions, telling Leah she just needs to get to know Paul better.

Paul leads Leah to the living room, where she sits on the couch. He takes a seat in an overstuffed chair that has a guitar leaning against it.

“You play guitar?” Leah asks.

“Yeah, picked it up when I was in high school,” he says. “Some of my colleagues in the Math department have a jazz band. We play at clubs around town.”

“Really? I never knew that,” Leah says.

“Well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me, Leah,” Paul says. He folds his hands in front of him and glances at the clock. “Rosie should be here anytime now.”

They sit in awkward silence for several minutes.

“Can I ask you something, Paul?” she says. “I mean, since we have a little time.”

“What is it?” Paul asks.

“What exactly have I done to piss you off?” Leah says.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Paul says without facing her.

“Like hell you don’t,” she says. “Almost from the moment I met you, all I’ve gotten is attitude. You’re short with me. You give me a hard time every time I call here for Rosie. I’d just like to know what’s behind it.”

Paul sighs. “There’s no big mystery, Leah. I don’t like you. No reason. You just rub me the wrong way.”

“Perfect,” she says. “Another one of those guys, eh?”

“Those guys?” Paul says. “What does that mean?”

“I’ve been dealing with guys like you my entire life,” Leah says. “You’ve got some kind of bug up your ass about strong women, or women in science, or whatever.”

“My feelings toward you have nothing to do with your being a woman in science,” Paul says. “Do you honestly think I could have married Rosalind Worthy if I’d had any reservations about that? If not for other factors, I’d probably be your champion.”

“What other factors might those be?” Leah says.

Paul stares at her, considering something. Finally, he says, “Your father is Paxton Walker isn’t he — the Walker behind Walker Development?”

“Yes, he is,” Leah says.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” Paul continues, “but after Rosie gave me a few more facts, I pretty well confirmed it.”

Leah shakes a finger at him. “You’re from Atlanta. Rosie never mentioned that.”

“She knows I went to Tech,” Paul says. “But she doesn’t know much about my early history. I’ve been a little mysterious about that, and she hasn’t really pressed me on it. It’s mutual. There’s quite a bit I don’t know about her past either.”

“Okay, spill it,” Leah says. “What’s your beef with my father?”

“You’re no doubt familiar with Dunkirk Estates?” Paul says.

“It was my father’s first major development deal. It made him a millionaire,” Leah says. “You lived in Dunkirk Estates?”

“No,” Paul replies. “My family and I lived in The Commons, which is what we called the neighborhood your father demolished in order to build Dunkirk Estates.”

“Wow, small world,” Leah says, mostly to herself.

“Yeah, too small, apparently,” he says. “We were sent packing, along with a community of over fifty families after Walker Development greased the palms of county commissioners to have them claim eminent domain on our homes.”

“So, call a lawyer,” she says. “If you had a valid claim to the property, you could have fought the county’s decision.”

“We couldn’t afford that,” he says. “Besides, the bulldozers were out there the following morning. We barely had time to finish packing.”

“What does any of this have to do with me?” Leah says. “I’m not my father. I was a child when he built that development.”

“No. But you benefited from it just the same, didn’t you?”

“For your information, my father and I had a parting of the ways before I started MIT,” Leah says. “He’s not paying for any of this.”

“What difference does it make if you’re being financed directly from him or through your trust fund?” Paul says. “You’ve still gotten all your advantages from his blood money. It’s what got you here.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” she says, “the mastery of coursework and long hours of studying were hardly a factor. Do you even know what my GPA was at Wellesley? That’s not a walk in the park, you know. Plus, I was jointly enrolled here for my last two years.”

“I’m not discounting your intelligence or drive,” he says, “but you’ve had opportunities handed to you most people cannot imagine.”

“You don’t seem to be doing so bad, yourself, Paul,” Leah says. “Whatever your upbringing, you seem to have overcome it.”

“Was there ever any question where you’d go to school?” Paul says. “Any doubt you’d be able to finance it?”

Leah looks away. “No. Not really.”

“Well in my case, there was quite a bit,” he says. “My family couldn’t afford to send me to school. My mother and father both worked outside the home just to scrape together enough to keep a roof over our heads. I’ve had to work my ass off most of my life for opportunities you routinely take for granted. You’re right. I’m doing very well now, and I earned every damn penny of it.”

“What’s that they say about the sins of the father?” Leah says.

“Look, I don’t hold you personally accountable for the things your father did,” Paul says.

“Could have fooled me,” she replies.

“You need to understand,” he goes on, “there were lives connected to every dollar your father made and you benefited directly from all of it.”

Leah stares at him a long moment, then shakes her head and chuckles. “Kind of ironic, isn’t it, the role I may end up playing for you and Rosie.”

“That’s Rosie’s idea, not mine,” Paul says. “I told her I couldn’t care less if our children were Jewish. I haven’t set foot inside Temple since the day I watched them bulldoze the only home I’d ever known.”

“Then why me?” Leah says. “There are at least five Jews on her Wall of Stars. Esther Gershon outshines me in pretty much all her academic accomplishments. She’s not married yet.”

“Rosie insisted,” he says. “She has this criteria in her head; math and science; Jewish; you don’t want children of your own. You seem to meet all her requirements. She calls you her star student, or something like that.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Leah says.

“How should I know?” Paul says. “Rosie says all sorts of crazy stuff. I tried to tell her the edict to marry proper Jewish women was from Ezra, post-exile. It’s not even mentioned in Genesis, but she’s obsessed.”

“Yeah, I wondered about that,” Leah says. “I seem to recall Leviticus has provisions for men carrying on their family line — surprise, surprise — but I don’t recall it being very explicit about women. Well, there’s Ruth.”

“Also Second Temple period,” Paul says.

“Yeah. Whatever,” Leah says, waving her hand dismissively. “Look, I’m not terribly enamored with the idea of future offspring sharing your DNA either, though, granted, they’ll definitely kick ass academically. This isn’t about us, though. It’s about Rosie.”

“Agreed,” Paul says.

“It’s not like we’ll be otherwise bound to one another,” Leah says. “If Rosie comes through with the agreement I requested, I’m prepared to wash my hands of the whole affair once the donation is done.”

“I could get behind that,” Paul says. “Plus, I have to agree. Given your academic credentials, any offspring should definitely have a strong math and science foundation. You’re a scientist; your father was an engineer. What did his father do?”

“He was a grocer,” Leah says. “Walker Groceries in Georgia and the Carolinas.”

“Multi-generational privilege, what do you know?” Paul says. “A typical southern tale.”

He picks up his guitar and starts improvising a Jazz riff. “Are you musical?”

Leah shakes her head, with a chuckle. “In high school, I tried trumpet, violin, and saxophone, and was pretty horrible on each one. If I get enough wine in me, I can usually do a mean Blues harmonica, but I doubt Dylan or the Stones will be calling anytime soon. As far as singing, I can usually hold my own in a chorus, as long as there are enough other voices to drown me out.”

“Yeah, I don’t have much of a voice either,” he says. He improvises several more bars on the guitar.

“You’re pretty good at that,” she says. A thought comes to her. “Say, maybe you can explain something to me. What is Rosie’s deal with May 23rd?”

“What do you mean?” Paul asks.

“When I asked her to be my thesis advisor, she didn’t want to take me on without knowing me better,” she replies. “So, I suggested she could hire me as her lab assistant.”

“Right.”

“She was showing me some stuff afterward,” she says, “how she does her grading, what not. The subject of my birthday came up — it was a couple of days away — and when Rosie learned I was born May 23, 1969, she sort of freaked out. Well, as much as Rosie freaks out.”

“What did she do?” Paul says.

“She walked away from me, thinking,” Leah says. “Then she stared at me a long time and confirmed I was born May 23, 1969. After that, she said, ‘Isn’t that something?’ Then she told me she’d reconsidered and agreed to be my advisor after all.”

“That’s odd,” he says. “But, like I say, I don’t know much about Rosie’s past. She’s never mentioned anything about that date. Her birthday is in March, and we were married in June.”

The front door opens and closes.

“Guess that’s Rosie,” Leah says. “Looks like there’s no turning back now.”

“It’s looking that way,” he says.

They face the door, to await Rosalind’s entrance.

Events of 1985, Leah

Computer keyboard

Leah Walker, age sixteen, descends into the basement of her family’s home in Buckhead, in Atlanta, a box of Lucky Charms in her hand, and sits at one of the computers she’s set up. Since it’s Saturday, Leah is wearing her typical household attire, cargo shorts, an oversized rugby shirt with the sleeves pulled up, and white Reeboks. The computers were purchased by her father, Paxton, with the idea they’d be used to connect him to his office, or allow him to work from home, but so far, Leah has been the only one to figure out how to use them, so they’ve more or less become hers to do with as she pleases. Her father still gives her assignments, such as connecting to his office network to post messages, or download files, but these don’t take up a lot of time, so she’s free to pursue her own interests.

Lately, her interests have included connecting to computer bulletin boards on the West Coast. A few months earlier, Leah saw a report on a network news magazine show about teen hackers in California who compromise the phone companies and invade computer networks. Two years earlier, she’d been enthralled by the film War Games, and ever since her father brought home the first computer, a Commodore 64, she’s been trying to tap into groups who could teach her how to pull off some of these tricks.

She switches on the stereo, and the room is filled with the Thompson Twins, from rotation at WRAS 88.5, Georgia State University’s radio station. She sits at the Amiga 1000, which her father recently purchased, and waits for it to power up. On another table is a Macintosh, Leah’s personal favorite for schoolwork, and on a portable stand nearby sits the Commodore 64, which is used mainly for gaming since the Amiga came along, with its new operating system, Windows 1.0, that Leah has been learning on her own, though she’s been badgering her parents to let her take a course at the Learning Annex on the Windows system.

“Hold me now, hold me in your loving arms,” Leah sings along with the radio. She opens the cereal and takes out a handful, which she pops into her mouth, then clicks on the modem software and selects a number from the list. The modem makes its usual wavering and staticky noises as it connects her to a box just outside Los Angeles, which, she’s recently learned, is a meeting point for several hacker groups. She logs in with her handle, JoeMamba, then begins exploring what’s new since her last visit. So far, she’s mainly lurked, following various threads without contributing more than a few questions. Not wanting anyone to suspect she’s a high school kid from Georgia, she’s set up her profile as Lee Johannes, a male college student from somewhere in the Midwest. As she explores the message board, she keeps notes on a yellow pad by the computer.

After about twenty-five or thirty minutes, Leah disconnects, and slides the yellow pad over, so she can see it. For the past several days, there’s been a discussion about a “backdoor” someone left on a server in Texas, and Leah’s anxious to see if she can get in using it. She keys in the modem number and waits for it to connect. Once she gets the prompt, she uses the credentials mentioned on the board, and this allows her access. From there, she has no idea what she’s supposed to do. It’s a Unix machine, and Leah has had even less experience with this type of system, than with Windows. She starts trying out some of the commands she has learned to see what they do.

Her sister, Alyssa, a tiny, blonde girl, four-years-old, appears at the door, standing on her tiptoes, which she’s in the habit of doing when she’s not wearing shoes. She has on a long, My Little Pony nightgown.

“Leah,” she says. “Can I play the bear game on the computer?”

“Sure, Princess,” Leah says. She pats her left knee. “Want to see what I’m doing?”

Alyssa hurries over and climbs onto Leah’s knee. “What is it?”

Leah leans toward one of Alyssa’s ears and says in a low voice, “It’s called hacking, so don’t tell Mom and Dad.”

“Okay,” Alyssa says.

Leah holds the cereal box for Alyssa, and she takes out a handful, which she eats one piece at a time, while she watches what Leah’s doing.

“This is a computer in Texas I’m not supposed to be logging into,” Leah says.

“Why are you doing it?” Alyssa asks.

“I think the main reason is because I can,” Leah says, “but beyond that I’m not real sure.”

“I want to play the bear game,” Alyssa says, sliding off Leah’s lap.

“All right,” Leah says, “it’s still there from last time, but use the headphones, okay?”

“I will,” Alyssa says.

“Remember how to turn it on?” Leah asks.

“Yep,” Alyssa says. She sits at the console, and starts the computer. She loads a program with cartoon bears in it, then puts on some headphones. As she plays, she occasionally hums along with the music in the game.

From the top of the stairs, her mother, Melinda, announces, “Leah, Gita’s here.”

Leah rolls to the door in the swivel chair and yells back, “Tell her I went to the North Pole.”

“She’s standing right here,” Melinda yells back.

“Oh. Don’t tell her that, then,” Leah says. “Are her legs working?”

There’s a pause, followed by Melinda saying, “They appear to be.”

“Well use them, Gita,” Leah calls back. She rolls back to the computer. A minute or so later, Gita, an Indian girl with short, black hair, and wearing sandals, cut-off jeans, and a bulky Frankie Say Relax T-shirt, enters. She stops, regards Leah with frustration, and says, “Why are you screwing around on the computer? We’re supposed to be going to the park.” She glances at Alyssa and says, “Hey, Aly.”

“She can’t hear you,” Leah says without removing her eyes from the screen. “Headphones.” Leah looks at the clock. “It’s ten forty-two. The park will still be there.”

Gitanjali Ramachandra or Gita, as she prefers to be known, is the daughter of the chief financial officer at Bickering Plummet, and has lived in Atlanta since her parents immigrated there when Gita was three-years-old. She and Leah met at school, and their families have gotten to know one another since Paxton’s firm won the bid to design an annex to Bickering’s corporate headquarters scheduled to be completed around the time she and Leah graduate in 1987. She jostles Alyssa’s hair, which prompts Alyssa to look up and say, “Hey, Gita!”

“Want some cereal?” Leah says, offering the box to Gita.

“Lucky Charms?” Gita says, with a sour look.

“Hey, they’re magically delicious,” Leah says, withdrawing her offer. “Never mind, then.” She eats another handful.

Gita plops down in an overstuffed chair nearby and sighs.

“Is that the Amiga?” Gita says.

“Yeah. My father likes to be on the cutting edge of the computing revolution,” Leah says. “The only problem is he has no idea how any of this works. That’s where I come in.”

“That’s convenient,” her friend says.

“It’s practically the only time Dad talks to me, when he needs something done on the computer,” Leah says. “Have you ever heard of the Arpanet?”

Gita shakes her head. “What is it?”

“Near as I can figure, it’s this gigantic network that connects the military with colleges and government agencies,” Leah says.

“Why would they need to be connected like that?” Gita says.

“I don’t know,” Leah says. “I guess schools that do research need to connect with the places that fund them. I read someplace the Arpanet was built to withstand a nuclear war.”

“That’s helpful to know,” Gita replies with more than a hint of sarcasm.

Twenty minutes later, Gita has shifted in the chair, so her feet, sans footwear, are over the back, and her head is hanging back over the seat. “How long are you going to be screwing around on that computer?”

“Sorry,” Leah says. “Once I get going, it gets addictive.” She disconnects from what she’s doing and shuts down the Amiga. She rises. “What’s the plan, Piedmont Park?”

Gita maneuvers in the chair so her feet are on the ground, then slips on her sandals, and stands. “That’s what I thought.”

“Anyone meeting us?” Leah says.

“I said something about it to Stewart,” Gita says.

“Stewart, the ass wipe who calls you Rama-lama-ding-dong?” Leah says. “Honestly, Gita, what do you see in that guy?”

“He’s cute,” Gita says. “Besides, he said he’d stop calling me that.”

“When’s he going to start? Monday?” Leah says.

Gita rolls her eyes.

“Why are you even looking at Stewart, anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be getting married?” Leah asks her.

“Not before I’m twenty,” Gita says.

“I cannot believe there’s a guy sitting over in India waiting for you to come over and marry him,” Leah says.

“No. Raja’s in Canton,” Gita says. “His family moved here five years ago.”

“Still, what do you know about this guy?” Leah says.

“Our families go way back,” she says. “They matched us up when we were six months old.”

“Well, good luck with that,” Leah says. “I’m never getting married.”

“What about Mitchell?” Gita says. “You’ve been seeing him for a while.”

“He’s okay, but creepy,” she says. “Always pestering me to come over to his house. Says he wants to show me something.”

“Like what?” Gita says.

“Oh, take a good guess.” Leah takes the cereal and goes over to Alyssa, who’s engrossed in her game. She pulls one of the headphones away from Alyssa’s ear, and sets the cereal beside the keyboard.

“You’re on your own, Princess,” Leah says, then bends down and kisses Alyssa on the forehead.

Alyssa laughs. “Okay. Bye, Leah. Bye, Gita.”

“Did you drive?” Leah asks as they head into the hallway toward the stairs.

“I just live across the street,” Gita says.

“Perfect!” Leah says. “Maybe we can get the Mercedes, then.”

They go upstairs into the kitchen, where Melinda is sitting at the counter reading the Constitution. A cigarette is burning in an ashtray nearby.

“Is Dad using the Mercedes today?” Leah says. She goes to the counter and takes a draw from the cigarette. Melinda takes it from her, and gives her an aggravated look, then puts it back in the ashtray.

“What’s wrong with Margaret’s car?” Melinda says.

“The Karmann Ghia doesn’t have a phone,” Leah says.

Leah learned how to drive in her aunt Margaret’s Karmann Ghia, and she’s been letting Leah drive it ever since Margaret purchased a sedan. One of the stipulations of Leah using it is that she service it herself, since Margaret doesn’t trust mechanics in the area, and Leah has become adept at most repairs.

“I think he’s golfing at noon,” Melinda says, “but I’m not sure if he’s driving or riding.”

“Let’s just take the convertible,” Gita says.

“Oh, all right,” Leah says. “But if we get stuck someplace and can’t call for help, don’t blame me.”

“What’s Alyssa doing?” Melinda asks.

“Playing that bear game for the five thousandth time,” Leah says.

“I’ll check on her in a minute,” Melinda says. “What are you girls doing today?”

“Piedmont Park,” Leah says. She kisses Melinda on the cheek. “Love you, Mom.”

“Have fun,” Melinda says.

Leah and Gita head out to the garage.

Axe Man

Baseball sculpture, Medlock Park, Decatur, GA, 8 July 2017.

Ishmael Branch enters the hallway at Tucker High School where his home room is, and strides toward his locker. At fourteen, he’s already over six feet, taller than his uncle Brian at this point, though with his head and shoulders slumped, as usual, it’s not always easy to tell. Looking at him, one might imagine he’s a grunge rocker from Seattle in the early 90s, rather than a high school freshman in Tucker, Georgia in 2011, dressed in well-worn jeans, a flannel shirt tied at his waist, with a Neil Young T-shirt covering the remainder of his skinny frame. A backpack is slung over one shoulder, and he’s carrying an expensive Martin acoustic guitar in a hard case. His hair is styled in dreads and he’s wearing a thin mustache with a soul patch.

Halfway to his locker, he passes Midori Collins, leaning against her locker, intensely staring at her cell phone, texting. Without looking up or otherwise acknowledging Ishmael, she pushes away from the locker and falls into step with him as he passes. They continue, silent, down the hall. Midori is nearly a foot shorter than Ishmael, with black, frizzy hair and a deep olive complexion. Her facial features seem vaguely Japanese.

“Band practice after school?” Ishmael says.

“Hmm,” Midori says in an affirmative manner.

“If you’re up for vegetarian, Mom invited you over for dinner,” he goes on.

“Sounds good,” she says without looking up.

“Is that Jordan?” he says.

“Pics from the Cake show at Variety Playhouse,” she says.

They stop at his locker and he sets the guitar case down and swings his backpack off his shoulder and onto the ground.

“Got your English homework?” she says, still engrossed in her phone.

“Of course,” he says.

As he’s switching out the books in his bag, a group of guys, led by Jeff Chambers, a pitcher on the baseball team come around the corner. Seeing Ishmael, one of the guys says, “Hey, it’s the Axe Man.”

Since the case for the Martin is too large to fit in a locker, whenever Ishmael has it with him, he has to carry it around from class to class. This has prompted certain of his upper classmates to refer to him as “The Axe Man”, usually in a taunting manner.

“Hey Axe Man, you going to let me play your guitar?” Jeff says. The guys with him start to snicker.

“This guitar is worth more than that car you drive,” Ishmael says.

“Mommy buy it for you?” one of Jeff’s cohorts says.

“No,” Ishmael says. “A friend gave it to me for my birthday.”

Another of the guys plays an air guitar. “Look at me. I’m the Axe Man.”

Laughing , the group starts to move on. Ishmael calls after them. “Hey, Jeff, when are tryouts?”

“Why you asking about tryouts?” Jeff says. Holding up his right hand and fluttering his fingers. “You want to be like me, Axe Man?”

“So what? You throw a baseball,” Ishmael says. “I can throw a baseball.”

“Think so?” Jeff says. “Tryouts start Monday.”

Once the baseball players are gone, Midori says, “You’re really trying out for the baseball team?”

“Why not?” Ishmael says. “Brian says I can pitch.”

“Why would you want to be on the team with those assholes?” she asks.

“To show them I can,” he says.

The following Monday, Ishmael arrives at the field for tryouts. An assistant coach has one list for the returning players, and a sign-in sheet for newcomers. Ishmael arrives with his own glove, but without the guitar.

Jeff Chambers is standing near the dugout as Ishmael heads over to the area designated for infielders. He calls out, “Hey Axe Man, where’s your axe?”

“Today, I deal in strikes,” Ishmael says.

Coach Lloyd Murdoch introduces himself to the new players. He’s a man in his early forties, trim and well-built, wearing a cap, a team T-shirt, with a warmup jacket over it, that’s unzipped, with the sleeves pulled up. He gives a short talk about his team philosophy, then tells the players to take positions on the field. He points to Ishmael. “What are you here to try out for, son?”

“I’m not your son,” Ishmael says, which elicits a look of surprise from the coach. “I’m here to pitch.”

“All right, then,” the coach says, amused. “I see you brought your own glove.” He points to the mound. “Take the mound.”

As Ishmael walks to the mound, the coach puts on an umpire mask and moves behind the plate. He indicates the catcher. “Jerry’s your catcher.” He signals to a large guy with a bat, who’s approaching the plate. “Ron here’s our best hitter. Let’s see if you can get a few past him.”

“No problem,” Ishmael says. He takes some signals from the catcher, then goes into his wind up, and releases the ball. The batter swings, but the only sound is the pop of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt, followed by the catcher howling as he rips off the glove and grabs his hand.

“Damn!” he screams. “Put some heat on that one.”

The coach takes off the mask and walks over and picks up the ball. He shakes his head. “Right down the middle, Ron. You couldn’t hit that?”

“Hit what?” Ron says.

Coach Murdoch picks up the mitt and places it on his hand. “Take five Jerry. Go ice that hand.” He tosses the ball back to Ishmael. “Let’s see you do that again.”

He crouches down, and nods to the batter, who returns to the plate. Ishmael winds up and delivers several more fast balls. The best Ron can manage is a foul tip and one line drive straight back to the pitcher, which Ishmael handles easily. This time, the coach says, as he throws the ball back, “You got speed, no doubt about it. How’s your finesse?”

This time, Ishmael’s pitch is slower, but wobbles erratically in the air and curves away from the batter.

The coach dives sideways to make the catch then stands with the ball in his glove. “Where’d you learn to throw a knuckleball?”

Ishmael shrugs. “My uncle took me to a clinic with Joe Neikro once.”

“Just once?” the coach says.

He has Ishmael throw a few more, including a slow curve, a change up, and a slider. Afterward, the coach asks, “Are you as serious about baseball as I hear you are about playing your guitar?”

“Yes, sir,” Ishmael says.

“Welcome to the team,” the coach says.

As Ishmael walks off the field, Jeff Chambers says, “Good arm, Axe Man. You’re going have to show me that knuckleball sometime.”

Ishmael nods with a smile. “Maybe, someday.”

Ashes

Each year, close to her birthday on May 11, Claire Belmonte takes a trip to a little church yard in Houston County, just outside Perry to visit the grave of Christine Messner, whose life dates are 11 May 1973 to 4 September 1989. Christine “died” on the same day she was declared an emancipated minor in juvenile court in Houston County, and the headstone was placed there by her parents Zachariah and Selma Messner in late October of that year. No death certificate has ever been filed on her, owing to the fact that she is, still, very much alive in Atlanta, and has taken a new name, Claire Christine Belmonte.

Claire learned of the headstone from her friend, Jodie Newcombe, about two years after it had been placed there. Jodie found it while visiting the graves of her grandparents, and noticed a new stone several yards away. There had not been any funeral services at her church since Deacon James Frederick had been laid to rest at a sparsely attended service just after Christine left Perry in 1989, and his grave is on the opposite side of the cemetery. When she went to investigate, the name on the stone caused Jodie’s knees to nearly buckle, and she hurried home and called Claire in Atlanta to be sure her friend was all right. A few days later, Claire, accompanied by her former teacher, Lawrence Standridge, visited Jodie, and she, Lawrence, Jodie and her parents visited the cemetery. From that point on, Claire has come down every year to pay her respects.

She arrives around ten-twenty in the morning, alone, places two white roses, crossed, at the grave of James Frederick, then goes to Christine’s grave, where she places a bouquet of red carnations in the vase on the headstone. Claire bows her head and mouths a silent prayer. Finished, she crouches down and runs her finger over the letters of Christine’s name. She hears a car pull in and rises, then looks to see a familiar black, Buick Regal parking. She shakes her head. “You have got to be kidding me.”

Zachariah Messner exits his car and approaches Claire. He is much thinner than the last time she saw him, and leaning heavily on a cane. He doesn’t look to be in good health. “Well now, look who we have here. It’s been a while, Miss Belmonte.”

“What are you doing here?” Claire says. “Can’t imagine it’s to tend the grave.”

“It has been noted that around this time each May, someone places flowers here,” he says.

“Noted, yeah,” Claire says. “How is Selma these days, by the way?”

“She is as she always has been,” Zachariah says. “More or less.”

“I knew she was exaggerating about what you’d do to her,” Claire says. “You’ve always been more smoke than fire. She carried out all your violence.”

“Selma can be a troublesome individual,” he says. “But she’s there.”

“Since I’m certain you didn’t just stop by to chat, I have to assume something’s on your mind,” Claire says. “Perhaps we should just skip to that, or should I be on my way?”

“We are only allotted so much time on this Earth,” he says. “Sometimes a man takes stock of the time he has, and wonders if, perhaps, his efforts could have been better utilized.”

“Oh, give me a break,” she says. “Soul searching doesn’t suit you.”

“There comes a time when that’s all one has left,” he says. “Since turning my business over to an associate, I’ve had much time for reflection.”

“Don’t come out here pretending you’ve ever cared for anyone other than yourself,” she says. “Least of all me. If you’re trying to apologize, save it. It’s meaningless at this point.”

“I have no feelings for you one way or another, Miss Belmonte,” Messner says. “You served your purpose.”

“My purpose was not to lead a good man astray,” she replies.

Messner chuckles. “There are those within the congregation who might take issue with that particular characterization.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Claire says.

Messner doesn’t respond right away. He looks toward the sky, contemplating something. At last, he says, “I believe you were in school with Davis Franklin’s boy, Ernest, were you not?”

“He was a year or two ahead of me, but I remember him,” she says.

“He’s a rather tall young man, as I recall,” Messner says. “Doesn’t look much like either of his folks.”

Claire considers this. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“One hears rumors,” Messner says. “There were always whispers about those who had received the Deacon’s private counseling. Selma didn’t just come up with the idea on her own.”

“How many were there?” Claire says.

“Hard to say,” Messner says. “More than a few, if memory serves.”

Claire shakes her head. “Deacon Frederick should have been held accountable under the law for what he did. His victims had the right to confront him. You took that away from us — away from me.”

“It was not my will that was served,” Messner replies.

“You don’t really believe that and you know it,” Claire says. “It was a vendetta, plain and simple.”

“Water under the bridge,” Messner says.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” she says. “Why are you here?”

“There is no answer,” he says. “I’m here because I chose to be here. That’s all.” He puts his weight onto the cane and begins to slowly move toward his car. “You take care of yourself, Miss Belmonte.”

She turns and watches him walk away, aware that it will be the last time she’ll ever see him. This thought neither fills her with relief nor regret. In fact, she finds that she feels nothing at all for him. Claire watches as he shambles back to his car, gets in, and drives away, then she resumes erasing all trace of him from her memory.