Leah and Dottie

Ballet Olympia, SunTrust Plaza, Atlanta, GA.

Leah Walker enters her dorm room at Wellesley College and sets her backpack onto a chair. It’s her freshman year, and her roommate, Heather, is visiting family for several days, so Leah’s looking forward to having the room to herself for a long weekend. Leah’s average height, with shoulder-length auburn hair, and steel-blue eyes. She’s wearing her usual attire of baggie warmup shorts, New Balance sneakers, and an oversized MIT sweatshirt. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She drops her keys onto the nightstand and takes a package of red Solo cups from the top drawer, removes one cup, and replaces the rest. From behind the nightstand, she takes out a bottle of Merlot she bought at a package store in Boston which never checks ID, unscrews the top, and pours half a cup. 

Leah’s from Atlanta, and Wellesley is her first time living away from her family. She continued to live in her family’s home in Buckhead after the family moved to Lawrenceville just before the start of her senior year at Pace Academy, but Leah doesn’t count that, since her father, Paxton, was there off and on throughout the week. Leah had objected to the long commute, and both her parents deemed her responsible enough to go it alone for the remaining time before graduation. Since Paxton still had business in town during the week, he would stay at the house evenings when he needed to be at the office early. Leah viewed it as an opportunity to get closer to her father, with whom she’d always had a tense and distant relationship. Unfortunately, the best they managed was a sort of détente, where they’d exchange a few words going or coming, or, a bit of conversation if Paxton happened to be around in the living room while Leah was working on a school assignment. 

She sits on her bed, takes a sip of wine, and picks up a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, a gift from Marla Prentice, an instructor in one of Leah’s core Humanities classes, and with whom Leah’s been spending a lot of time lately. Starting her second week at school, Leah found herself involved in a rather passionate relationship with Marla, which started nearly the moment she entered class, and fell under Marla’s scrutiny. After class, Marla made a point of striking up a conversation with Leah. Marla’s a few inches taller than Leah, and several years older, with a trim, athletic build, and jet black hair, that’s very long, and which she wears in dreads. She always wears short, dark dresses, over tights in various colors, with clogs. Her complexion gives Leah the impression that Marla’s of mixed race, though Leah can’t tell which races went into the mix. Marla’s very economical in the facts she shares about herself. She speaks and moves with a frenetic energy, which Leah finds infectious. They ran into one another a short while later, on a smoke break before lunch, and Marla invited Leah to join her for a bite. They ended up back at Marla’s apartment, just off campus, where things got very heated very quickly. Over the next week, their afternoon dalliances progressed into an intense physical relationship, which surprised Leah, as she’s never before entertained ideas of being involved with another woman. 

The situation excites and troubles Leah, who finds the intimacy thrilling, but wonders what it all means. Throughout high school, she had the usual teen relationships, occasional dates with guys she knew from math class or science club, who’d take her out after school, or sometimes evenings, often with other computer geeks like her, and she had a number of girls she spent time with in school and out, or with whom she played on the lacrosse or softball teams, but she’d never entertained the thought of having a sexual relationship with any of them, male or female, nor could she recall ever having crushes on any of her female teachers, regardless of how attractive they’d been. It worries her that she could be so unaware of such an important aspect of her personality, and wonders what else she might have missed. A few days into the relationship, Leah decided she needed advice from someone more worldly.

She has a great relationship with her mother, Melinda, but she’s not sure how her mother will react to Leah potentially being a lesbian, so, for advice, she decided to sound out her aunt Margaret on the matter. Since childhood, Margaret has been an important influence on Leah, second only to Melinda, with whom Margaret’s been friends since college. Like Leah, Margaret is a first-born daughter, who’s two years older than Paxton, and it was Margaret who introduced Paxton to Melinda when Leah’s mother was still in college. Melinda had traveled to Atlanta from Charleston, South Carolina, to attend Agnes Scott, with the intention of being a teacher, but instead met and married Paxton Walker. As she was getting started back at school, she discovered she was pregnant with Leah, and put her dreams of teaching on hold. Leah has always harbored a bit of guilt, knowing that she prevented her mother from finishing school, but Melinda’s always maintained a cheerful and upbeat attitude about it, telling Leah she’ll head back to school once Alyssa, Leah’s baby sister, who’s twelve years younger, is out of the house. 

Leah phoned Margaret and wasted little time in getting to the point. 

“Margaret, have you ever been with another woman?” Leah asked. 

“In what sense do you mean that?” Margaret said, a bit of discomfort evident in her voice. 

“Seriously?” Leah said. “What sense do you think?”

“Oh,” Margaret said. “Well, if that’s what you mean, then no.”

“Have you thought about it?” Leah said.

“Hmm, let me guess,” Margaret said, “you’re asking because you’ve either thought about it, or—”

“No, I’m way beyond thinking about it, at this point,” Leah said.

“I see. Well. Did you enjoy it?”

“Yes,” Leah said.

“Then what’s the problem?” Margaret asked. “If you had a good time, where’s the harm?”

“But what does it mean?” Leah said.

“Why does it have to mean something?” Margaret said.

“I guess it doesn’t have to,” Leah said. “It just usually does.”

“Look, you didn’t go blind and you weren’t struck by lightning were you?” Margaret asked

“Not yet.”

“Then, we can assume the universe is okay with it,” Margaret said.

“I don’t know if I’m okay with it,” Leah said, “I mean, I like her, but I don’t think either of us is interested in a real relationship.”

“Is it ongoing?” Margaret asked.

“As of right now, it is,” Leah said.

“Then go with it,” Margaret said. “See where it leads. I’ve never found myself in this situation, so I don’t know how I’d respond. You went away to college to learn, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, part of that is learning about yourself,” Margaret said. “You have an excellent opportunity to explore who you are without the glare of your family judging your every move. Take advantage of that.”

“Perfect. Thanks, Margaret.”

“Anytime, sweetie,” Margaret said. “Let me know how things turn out.”

Leah leans back on her bed and resumes reading the book. She manages about five pages when her reading is interrupted by the sound of someone pounding insistently on the door. An unfamiliar voice follows the first round of pounding. “Open this door, you bitch!”

The pounding resumes.

Leah puts down the book and cautiously approaches the door.

“Who is it?” she says.

“I said open this door,” the voice says, “I’m going to kick your ass, you slut.”

Whoever’s outside sounds drunk. 

Leah looks at Heather’s bed, then says, “Are you here to kick the ass of a brunette or a redhead? Cause the brunette isn’t here.”

There’s a long pause, before, “Kind of reddish brown. Not a brunette.”

“Perfect,” Leah says to herself.

She considers calling campus security, but decides against it. As the next round of pounding begins, she quickly pulls open the door. A young woman, about Leah’s age and height, with curly, dirty blonde hair, and wearing a short, polka dotted dress and slip-on sneakers, comes tumbling into the room. She falls to her hands and knees and seems somewhat confused. Leah takes the opportunity to grab her roommate’s umbrella, which she brandishes as a weapon.

“Who the hell are you and what do you want?” Leah says to the woman. “Apart from what you’ve already stated.”

“I said I’m going to kick your ass, you bitch,” the woman says as she struggles to get her footing and rise. She looks up at Leah, then says, “Yeah. You.” She looks around for something to hold onto. At last, she pulls herself up on a table and stands up straight, but swaying, as she confronts Leah. She’s wearing a slight amount of makeup, but it’s gotten splotchy from crying. Leah holds the umbrella in front of her as she speaks. 

“Okay, I gather that you’re pissed about something,” Leah says. “Why don’t we start with your name. Who are you?”

“I’m Dottie,” the woman says. “Dorothy, actually, but most people call me Dottie.”

“Okay — ah — Dottie,” Leah says, still brandishing the umbrella. “I’m Leah — or do you already know that?”

“How the hell should I know what your name is?” Dottie says.

“You showed up at my door wanting to beat me up,” Leah says, “I assume you’d know my name. What’s this about?”

“It’s about Marla,” Dottie says. 

“Marla Prentice? What about her?”

Dottie begins to reply, but suddenly throws her hand over her mouth and starts to heave. Leah hurriedly points to the bathroom. Dottie quickly stumbles in and kicks the door closed. Leah can hear her vomiting. She puts down the umbrella and sits on her bed until she hears the sounds subside. At last, the toilet flushes, followed by the sound of water running in the sink. This goes on for several minutes before Dottie returns to the room, far more subdued than when she left. Leah motions to Heather’s bed and Dottie sits.

“Let’s start over, shall we?” Leah says. “You want to kick my ass and it has something to do with Marla.”

“You stole her from me,” Dottie says. “She won’t return my calls. Then I saw you with her at our coffee shop.”

“Coffee shop?” Leah says. “You mean Sandusky’s? I took her there.”

“You did?” Dottie says. “She said it was our special place.”

“Yeah, she sort of told me the same thing after our first visit,” Leah says. “When did you start seeing her?”

“Right after classes started,” Dottie says. “About a month after I got here.”

“So did I,” Leah says. An idea occurs to her. “Did she take you to The Jewel of the Nile?”

Dottie nods. “The night we first—”

Leah holds up her hand. “Same here.”

“Why aren’t you upset?” Dottie says. “I just confirmed I’ve been sleeping with Marla. That doesn’t bother you?”

“Not really,” Leah says. “I haven’t figured out exactly what our relationship is yet. I take it you feel a bit more committed?”

“I haven’t felt this way before,” Dottie says. “I was all ready to tell my family I’m gay and she ditches me. Told me I’m getting too serious. I figured there was someone else, so I followed her. That’s where I saw you.”

“Meaning you must have followed me here,” Leah says. 

“Yesterday,” Dottie says. “It took me all afternoon to get up the courage to come over.”

“Speaking of which,” Leah says. “How much did you drink?”

“Bottle, bottle and a half,” Dottie says. She notices the book and points to it. “I suppose she gave you that.”

“She did.”

“I gave it to her,” Dottie says. 

Leah picks it up and looks at the spine. “You’re DG? She said it was on the book when she bought it.”

Dottie nods. “Dorothy Gage.”

“Isn’t that the person in The Wizard of Oz?” Leah says. 

“Oh, that’s original,” Dottie says. “Her name is Dorothy Gale. Don’t change the subject.”

“What makes you think I stole Marla from you?” Leah says. “Sounds to me like she’s been leading us both on.”

“Yeah, it’s starting to look that way,” Dottie says. “There’s this girl in my English Lit class who said she had an affair with Marla last year. I didn’t want to believe her, but then I saw the two of you together.”

“Why didn’t you confront Marla?” Leah says. 

“I tried, but she’s not at her apartment,” Dottie says. 

Leah shakes her head. “She’s never there on the weekend. Hmm. This makes me wonder where she goes.”

Dottie looks down. “Would you mind if I just lie down for a minute or two?” 

“You’re not going to throw up again are you? I doubt Heather would like that, and I don’t feel like cleaning up after you.”

“God, I hope not,” Dottie replies. She lies on her side, and pulls her knees up, crossing her arms in front of her.

“I suppose you can kick my ass when you wake up,” Leah says.

“Maybe,” Dottie says as she drifts off.

Leah continues reading while Dottie sleeps. She’s still asleep when Leah goes to bed. The following morning, Dottie is awake and very embarrassed by her behavior. Leah treats Dottie to breakfast at the nearest cafe, and they have a long talk, where they discover a lot of common interests. Leah is fluent in most of the European languages, owing to her family’s many visits to the continent as she was growing up, and she’s pleased to learn Dottie is as well. They switch to speaking German to keep people from eavesdropping on them as they decide what to do about Marla. By the time they part ways, they’ve developed a plan of action. 

A few days later, Leah is sitting with Marla at the coffee shop. They’re discussing The Handmaid’s Tale. 

“Take that lesson to heart,” Marla tells her. “Men are not to be trusted.”

“They certainly didn’t come off very well in the book,” Leah says. 

“Have you read any of Dworkin’s work?” Marla says.

“Andrea Dworkin? I’ve heard of her.”

Marla suddenly focuses on something over Leah’s shoulder and shakes her head. “I don’t believe this.”

“What is it?” Leah says. She looks to see Dottie seated at the lunch counter, wearing dark glasses, situated where she has a good view of Leah and Marla. 

“Nothing,” Marla says. “Just this student who’s been giving me a hard time over a grade.” Marla rises. “Excuse me just a minute.”

She goes over and confronts Dottie in low tones. While she’s gone, Leah slides over and picks up Marla’s bag. She checks to be sure Marla isn’t looking, then she pulls out Marla’s wallet and checks her driver’s license and credit cards. Finished, she replaces the wallet, and puts the bag back where it was. She moves back to her chair, and makes an okay sign to Dottie, who abruptly breaks off her argument with Marla, gathers her things, and storms out. 

“I’m really sorry about that,” Marla says when she returns to the table. “I failed her on a test and she’s been stalking me ever since.”

“Not a problem,” Leah says. “Say, where do you disappear to on the weekends?”

“Where did this come from all of a sudden?” Marla says.

“I’m just curious,” Leah says. “I figured you must be sneaking off to some cozy little bed and breakfast to write and might want some company.”

Marla laughs. “Trust me, if I was, you’d be the first one I’d call.” She reaches over and places her hand on Leah’s. “I’m free for the next hour. Want to swing by my place?”

“I’d love to,” Leah says, “but I have a midterm in chemistry coming up. I’ll take a rain check, though.”

“You’re on,” Marla says. They talk for a few minutes before Leah insists she needs to go. Marla walks her to the door and they part with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, then head off in different directions. Leah walks about half a block, then checks to be sure Marla is far enough away, then ducks down a side street and circles back to the rear of the coffee shop, where she finds Dottie seated on the back deck. Leah sits with her.

“Anything?” Dottie says.

Leah shakes her head. “Her license has her campus address. But it did have a different name, Marla Rogan.”

“Rogan?” Dottie says. “That kind of takes some of the luster off.”

Leah leans forward and says confidentially, “Know anyone who works for the university? If I can get on the computer network, I can probably hack into payroll and find out where they’re mailing her checks.”

“Actually, I do,” Dottie says, “and she spends a lot of time away from her desk.” She rises. “Come on.”

Several hours later, they’re back at Leah’s dorm room with new information.

“Shrewsbury,” Dottie says. “Figures she’d live someplace called Shrewsbury.”

“She’s also listed as Mrs. Marla Rogan in payroll,” Leah says. 

“I can’t believe you got in so easily,” Dottie says. “How’d you know Barb’s password?”

“I didn’t,” Leah says. “I took the chance she used ‘password’ and it worked.”

“So, what next?”

Leah grins. “Marla has classes all morning. How about a trip to Shrewsbury?”

Dottie laughs. “So, I wonder what the husband of the ultimate feminist looks like?”

“Only one way to find out,” Leah says. 

The following morning they hop into Leah’s Karmann Ghia, which Margaret loaned her as she headed off to college, and drove to the address in Shrewsbury, where Marla’s paychecks are being sent. Parked out in front of the brownstone, Dottie says, “You think this is a good idea?”

“Probably not, but I don’t see a lot of options,” Leah replies. “If we just ignore her, she’ll keep doing this.”

“I mean, rather than the dumping part, I did have a good time,” Dottie says.

“Same here,” Leah says. “But she’s taking advantage of impressionable girls when they’re least equipped to handle it.”

“Right,” Dottie says. “We’re just taking a stand. That’s all.”

“Right,” Leah says. She holds up her hand and Dottie grips it and nods.

“Let’s do this,” Dottie says.

They get out and walk up to the door. Dottie rings the bell. A few moments later, a child can be heard yelling, followed by the locks being unlocked. A thin man, probably just under six feet tall, with short blonde hair and tanned, leathery skin, opens the door.

“Yes?” he says. “How may I help you?”

He speaks with the precise phrasing that’s reminisent of someone who’s first language isn’t English, but Leah cannot detect any recognizable accent.

“Hi,” she says, “are you Mr. Rogan?”

“I’m Lance Rogan, yes,” the man says. 

“I’m Dorothy,” Dottie says, “this is Leah. We’re — ah — friends of Marla’s.”

“Ah, yes,” Lance says. “Marla’s not here currently. I believe she’s teaching today.”

“We know,” Leah says. We’re not here to speak with her.”

“More to speak about her,” Dottie adds.

“I don’t understand,” Lance says. He opens the outer security door. “Please come in.”

As they enter, Leah notes a black woman, wearing a uniform and holding the hand of a small boy.

“Nina, would you take Alexander to the play room?” Lance says to her. 

“Of course, Mr. Rogan,” Nina says in what sounds, to Leah, like a Jamaican accent. 

“Please have a seat in here,” Lance says, directing the women to the living room. “Can I offer you something to drink?”

“Water would be great,” Dottie says, to which Leah nods.

Leah and Dottie sit on the couch. A moment later, Lance returns with a pitcher and two glasses on a tray which he sets on the coffee table in front of them. He takes a seat in a leather chair facing them. 

“Now, how may I help you ladies?” he says. “You say this is about Marla?”

Leah and Dottie look at one another and Leah says, “Mr. Rogan, there’s probably no easy way to say this, but Dorothy and I have been — involved with Marla.”

Lance continues to look at them displaying no emotion. “I see. Why have you brought this information to me? Are you here for money?”

“Oh, no. No. Nothing like that,” Dottie says.

Leah slides to the edge of the couch. “She’s right. We’re here because we feel we’ve been taken advantage of and we wanted to let you know.”

“Please, tell me your stories,” Lance says.

First Dottie, then Leah tells Lance about their relationships with Marla. Throughout both stories, his expression does not change, nor does he display any reaction, other than to occasionally nod. When Leah finishes her story, they sit for a long moment in silence.

Finally, Lance says, “What is it you wish me to do about this? That is, if you are certain you’re not here for money.”

“We don’t exactly know,” Leah says. “To be honest, we didn’t really think this part through very well before coming here.”

“I see,” Lance says with the hint of a smile. “Well, I do not wish to share intimate details of my marriage, since I know nothing about either of you. However I will say that I am aware Marla has certain needs that I’m not able to address. If you have been harmed in any way I apologize.” He rises. “I’ll have a talk with her when she gets in this evening, and we’ll decide together how best to handle this situation.”

He motions toward the door. Leah and Dottie rise and follow him back to the front door.

“I trust you will be making no further trips to visit us?” he says.

Leah and Dottie look at one another.

“Definitely not,” Dottie says. Leah concurs.

“Very good,” Lance says. “I will appreciate your continued discretion on this matter, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” Leah says.

“You ladies have an nice afternoon,” Lance says as he lets them out.

Back in the car, Dottie says, “What just happened in there?”

“I have no idea,” Leah says. “Let’s get lunch somewhere.”

“You’re on.”

The following day, when Leah shows up for her Humanities class, Marla isn’t there. The instructor filling in for her explains that Marla has taken a leave of absence for “family reasons”. Neither Leah, nor Dottie, see or hear from her again.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Dottie says as she and Leah are lying on the bed in her dorm room. “You think she’s okay?”

“Hard to tell,” Leah says. “That’s an odd family.”

“We make a pretty good team,” Dottie says. “I have this feeling you and I are going to get into lots of trouble together.”

“I think you’re right,” Leah says. “Still planning on telling your famly you’re gay?”

“Nah, I’ve gone back to questioning,” Dottie says. “Why limit myself? My family can figure it out on their own.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Leah says.

“Hey,” Dottie says, sitting up. “What do you think about getting an apartment?”

“Now?”

“No,” Dottie says, “over the summer. You know, just stick around Boston instead of going home.”

“Summer’s a long way off,” Leah says.

“I know. But it doesn’t hurt to plan,” Dottie says. “If we strike at the right time, we could get a great deal.”

“Oh, trust me, I know real estate,” Leah says. “My father’s the man who gave Atlanta its suburban sprawl.”

“Good to know,” Dottie says.

From that point on, not a day goes by that they don’t spend time together. As summer comes along, they move off campus into a nice apartment. 

A Soldier’s Story

My great-grandparents, James David and Sarah Ella (Harp) Lupo. In all probability, my great-grandfather had no memory of his father, who died in the Civil War at age 25, when my great-grandfather was three.

Note: This essay is reprinted from The Cheese Toast Project available from online bookstores, and in Kindle format from Amazon.com. An earlier draft appeared on this blog 5 August 2014.

On the freezing morning of Sunday, 29 November 1863, Union soldiers defending Fort Sanders in Knoxville, Tennessee leveled their rifles at advancing Confederate soldiers and fired, killing or wounding more than eight hundred, and thus set in motion a chain of events that would lead to my birth, not quite a century later. One of the Confederate soldiers who died was Nathaniel G. Lupo, my great-great-grandfather. Nathaniel may have died from a single shot, a barrage of bullets, or a mortar blast. He may have been tripping over the baling wire that had been strung between tree stumps to slow down any assault, attempting to scale the frozen wall of the fort with a stand of colors, or struggling in the ditch surrounding the fort, while, above him, Union gunners rained down bullets on him and his comrades. The exact circumstances of his final moments have been lost to history, though one can be certain they were chaotic, and undoubtedly horrifying, with death and devastation surrounding him on all sides. The poorly planned assault on Fort Sanders, carried out by troops serving in the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia under James Longstreet, lasted approximately twenty minutes and gained absolutely nothing for the Confederate cause. The only certainty is that Nathaniel’s death altered the course of his family, affecting every generation since, including my own.

I know very little about my great-great-grandfather. While I have vague memories of my grandfather, who died when I was ten, and knew my great-uncle reasonably well, my interest in the history of our family had not yet manifested itself, and by the time I started asking questions, neither of them, nor my great-aunt, were around to supply any answers. My father claimed to know very little about his ancestors, but if I asked him specific questions, such as whether or not his great-grandfather fought and died in the Civil War, he usually knew the answer. The Roster of the Confederate Soldiers of Georgia, compiled by Lillian Henderson, lists four Lupos who fought in the war for Georgia, two brothers, one close cousin, and one distant cousin.

What I know of Nathaniel mainly comes from the few official records he left behind. Given his age on the census, he appears to have been born around 1835, most likely in Houston County, Georgia. He appears on the 1850 census, living in the household of Robert D. Sinclair, a physician and large land owner in Dooly County, Georgia. On 2 November 1854, he married Sarah Amanda Cone, and by 1860, Nathaniel, his father David, wife Amanda, and uncle Giles, and their families, had moved to Jackson County, Florida. A letter from David Lupo, dated 1 April 1860, mentions Nathaniel, and reports the activity surrounding their farm. Nathaniel and Amanda had three children listed in their household in 1860, Nancy T, age 5, William, age 3, and my great-grandfather, James David, who was about eight months old. There is a story in my family, told to me by one of my older cousins, that Nathaniel was a fiddle player, which would be interesting, considering his ancestors were as well, but I have no other information with which to confirm or refute this.

In 1861, Nathaniel and his family, returned to Dooly County, where on 22 June 1861, he enlisted for service in the Georgia Volunteer Infantry. His company, dubbed “The Dooly Light Infantry” and headed by Captain Joseph Armstrong, was sent to Cobb County for training, and later to Virginia, where they became Company I in the 18th Georgia Regiment, which was initially part of John Bell Hood’s “Texas” brigade. In 1864, Hood would be the general who surrendered Atlanta to Sherman, but in 1861-62 the youthful Hood was just establishing his reputation for being a fierce and reckless commander. His Texas brigade, including the 18th Georgia, was responsible for breaking the Union line at Gaines Mill, and turning the tide in the Seven Days campaign, where Lee drove McClellan from Virginia. The battle-hardened 18th Georgia was later transferred to Thomas R. R. Cobb’s Georgia brigade (later led by William Tatum Wofford), where they continued to be a part of the shock troops, first in, and last out, in many of the battles in which they participated. The 18th Georgia played a decisive role at Second Manassas, fought at Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history, and was stationed behind the Stone Wall on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, which was an absolute bloodbath for Union troops attempting to take the position. The First Corps under James Longstreet, including the 18th Georgia, which was heavily engaged in the Peach Orchard, participated during the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg. Records show that shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, Nathaniel was admitted to the hospital in Virginia, but the cause isn’t given.

In short, Nathaniel didn’t just serve in the war, he was front and center at some of the bloodiest and most brutal fighting of the bloodiest war in America’s history. Having never served in combat myself, I cannot begin to imagine what participating in such carnage can do to a man’s psyche. Records show, in addition to the aftermath of Gettysburg, that Nathaniel spent time in hospitals following several battles, including Antietam, without the cause being reported. The 18th Georgia was among the troops who accompanied Longstreet on detached service in Tennessee and Georgia in fall and winter of 1863, though the 18th did not participate in the Battle of Chickamauga, the one battle the First Corps fought on Georgia soil. Longstreet didn’t get along very well with Braxton Bragg, who was in command of forces around Chattanooga, and left to conduct independent operations in Eastern Tennessee, which brought the First Corps to Knoxville by early November.

Surviving accounts of the battle in which Nathaniel lost his life are marred by the fact that in the aftermath of the assault, Longstreet brought charges against several of his subordinates, including Major General Lafayette McLaws, who was in command of the division which included the 18th Georgia. Longstreet accused McLaws of not providing proper equipment to carry out the assault, while McLaws pointed the finger at Longstreet for providing him with faulty reconnaissance. The main point of contention appears to center around how much of an obstacle the ditch surrounding the fort would be, and McLaws stated he was assured by Colonel E. P. Alexander, artillery commander and a military engineer, and by Longstreet himself that they had witnessed a soldier crossing the ditch without difficulty at the point where the attack was to occur. McLaws confirmed that the majority of soldiers who died were killed in the ditch. A report by opposing General Ambrose Burnside, stated that casualties were left in the ditch overnight in freezing conditions, with the wounded calling out for help, until the following morning, when Burnside proposed a truce, which Longstreet accepted, allowing the Confederates to tend to their wounded and bury their dead. Burnside reported that ninety-two bodies were turned over to the Confederates. Nathaniel was most likely among them.

I do not know if I would be here, had Nathaniel lived. In all probability, I would not be, given that his death is the main event which started my family on their journey through the next century. Nathaniel’s actions, returning to Georgia, and enlisting for service, probably felt obvious to him. He may have felt he had no choice in the matter, yet every step of the way, he made the choices, up to and including where he stood in formation in preparation for the assault on the fort on 29 November. Just as I do not know the exact circumstances of his death, I also do not know what became of his body. In all likelihood, he was buried in a mass grave on the battlefield, and left behind as the army moved on. His name does not appear among those re-interred in the city cemetery after the battle, though recently, the grave of his commanding officer, Solon Z. Ruff, has been located and marked in Knoxville, by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Reports of the battle indicate Ruff died in the ditch surrounding the fort while cheering on his men, and since he was commanding Wofford’s Brigade, which included the 18th, most likely, that’s where Nathaniel died as well. Most of current day Knoxville, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, was built over top of the battlefield. In 1982, I went there with two friends to attend the World’s Fair, with no idea of the importance the city had in my family’s history. While I’m not a believer in signs, I will report that the first day we were there, it rained the entire time.

One cannot speak of Confederate ancestors without invoking the memory of the cause for which they fought. Let me be clear, I do not honor the Confederacy as a governmental entity, nor do I believe in what the politicians of the Southern states attempted to accomplish by breaking away from the Union. Secession was a horrible idea in 1860, and those in the South who invoke the specter of secession for their own political ends today, merely perpetuate the arrogance and ignorance of those who led the South to secede, leading to thousands of needless deaths in the resulting conflict.

Since the end of the war, states which made up the Confederacy have attempted, and largely succeeded, in changing public perceptions about the war, shifting the cause from slavery to states’ rights. None of this matters. We don’t need to speculate on why Georgia seceded because the people who made the decision to secede spelled out in fairly clear terms why they were doing it. Georgia’s declaration of secession gives a comprehensive outline of the animosities between slave states and non-slave states and makes it clear that those who drafted the document believed owning slaves was a Constitutionally protected right that the non-slave states had violated. Lincoln’s election was cited as a culmination of the non-slave states’ efforts to disenfranchise the slave-holding states and was listed as a direct cause of secession. The drafters of Georgia’s declaration stated that had protections for slavery not been written into the Constitution, the slave-holding states never would have ratified it. Further, the United States government’s inability to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is mentioned as a mitigating factor. That’s about as explicit as one can get on the issue. In fact, slave-holding states had called upon the United States government to nullify laws in states such as Massachusetts which prevented slave owners from reclaiming slaves who’d run away, and granted freedom to any slave who happened to travel there with the slaveholder.

As to why the individual soldiers signed up, in the absence of correspondence from them, we cannot know their specific motives, but, most likely, Nathaniel, and others like him, signed up for service because he thought his home and family were threatened by a potential invasion of the state. Nathaniel returned to Georgia, volunteered for Georgia, was trained and equipped by Georgia to fight for Georgia, and instead, he and other volunteers immediately found themselves shipped out to Virginia to protect the Confederate capital, leaving Georgia’s defenses in disarray. In a dispatch to the Confederate War Department dated 11 November 1861, Georgia’s governor, Joseph E. Brown, specifically requested return of three brigades including Wofford’s, which comprised the 18th Georgia, because of a feared invasion by enemy forces. This wasn’t a trivial matter given Georgia’s extensive coastline. Dispatches show considerable apprehension among the governor and mayors of several cities of an invasion targeting Savannah, Brunswick, or Augusta. The request was denied by the Confederate war department, as were other requests by Governor Brown. At the time, there was tension but no outright hostilities in Virginia, and the 18th Georgia had been assigned to picket duty around Richmond.

Regardless of Nathaniel’s motives in taking up arms against the United States, it is pointless to ignore or downplay that aspect of my family’s history, as it plays so great a part in it, just as my ancestors played their part in the history of this country. While I do not always agree with the decisions my ancestors made, I cannot deny those decisions played a part in the circumstances which eventually led to me being here. Had Nathaniel lived, he may have decided to take his family west, as many did in the wake of the war; or returned to Florida; or traveled elsewhere in Georgia. Records show that his death had a devastating effect on his young family. Other than her listing on a record of widows who received a salt ration in 1864, no records whatsoever have been found on his widow, Amanda, until she applied for a pension with the state of Georgia in the 1890s, and the fate of their daughter, Nancy, is unknown. Their son William shows up on the incomplete census of 1870, in Dooly County, living near the family of Nelson Moye in or near Pinehurst, Georgia, and in 1880, their son David can also be found near the Moyes in Pinehurst, living away from Nathaniel’s brothers and sisters in and around Vienna.

References:

  1. Henderson, Lillian, Roster of the Confederate Soldiers of Georgia, 1861-1865, Georgia State Division of Confederate Pensions and Records, Longina & Porter 1960.
  2. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, United States War Department, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1880-1901.
  3. Georgia Declaration of Secession, Official Records of Georgia, Serial IV, Volume 1, pp. 81-85, text found online at the website for Yale University’s Law School.

Discarded Items

A sampling of some of the items I’ve found left behind during my early morning walks along the South Peachtree Creek PATH and Stone Mountain.

6 August 2017, Discarded Garter, South Peachtree Creek PATH.

4 August 2017, Discarded Blue Bird Toy, South Peachtree Creek PATH.

31 July 2017, Discarded Green Shorts, Stone Mountain, GA.

30 July 2017, Discarded Yuki-Ball, Medlock Park, Decatur, GA.

27 July 2017, Discarded Dead Baseball, Medlock Park, Decatur, GA.

12 July 2017, Discarded Orange Sippy Cup, South Peachtree Creek PATH.

7 July 2017, Discarded Blue Pacifier, South Peachtree Creek PATH.

6 July 2017, Discarded Shades, South Peachtree Creek PATH.

5 July 2017, Discarded Patriotic Vans, Medlock Park, Decatur, GA.

Atlanta Stories Available August 1


Coming soon! Atlanta Stories: Fables of the New South. Eight stories about people coming to Atlanta to reinvent themselves. Stories include:

  1. Mockingbird 
  2. Journey From Night
  3. A Debt to Pay
  4. Dead Man’s Hat
  5. Remains 
  6. Bare-Assed Messiah 
  7. Atomic Punk
  8. Phoenix 

Release date: August 1.

Available at online bookstores and direct from the author. 

Inferno, Christine


Zachariah made it clear to Selma that caring for the baby did not take priority over her responsibilities as a wife, so often, Christine was neglected as Selma saw to the needs of her husband. Despite this, Christine thrived, always large for her age. Doctors who examined her thought she was several months older than she actually was and sometimes insisted on seeing her birth certificate to confirm. As she grew, she spent much time with her uncle Alvin’s family in another county whenever her father would declare he was tired of looking at her and as Christine gained awareness of her situation, she was thankful for the warm and loving environment her uncle provided, versus the cold and cruel confines of her father’s house. On numerous occasions, Alvin insinuated that he and his family would be happy to let Christine stay with them on a permanent basis, but Zachariah always said no.

“The girl’s my responsibility,” he’d say. He never called Christine by name, always calling her “the girl” or just “girl” when addressing her directly.

One person who took a lot of interest in Christine was Deacon Frederick, who was his usual warm and accepting self. In Christine’s case, he was especially so, and always had a piece of peppermint candy for her, and took a genuine delight in whatever story she would tell. Christine came to wish that Deacon Frederick was her father and that she could go live in his fine house in town, rather than the modest and unadorned household her mother maintained at Zachariah’s insistence. For his part, Deacon Frederick always felt a closeness to Christine that was different than what he felt for all the other children in the congregation. He frequently scolded Messner for not showing more affection toward his daughter.

“You got you a fine little girl there, Zachariah,” Frederick said once. “It’s just not right to treat her like you do.”

“The Lord has given me this burden to endure and I shall endure it as I see fit,” was Messner’s reply.

Whenever Frederick would raise the issue with Selma, she would get quiet and change the subject quickly.

“He’s my husband,” she’d say of Zachariah. “I must yield to his judgment.”

At age thirteen, Christine was considered awkward and pudgy, with full, rosy cheeks, very long feet and short, dark hair. Zachariah rarely spent any money on her, other than for food and what he paid for upkeep on their house. He especially didn’t want to waste funds on things she’d only outgrow in a year or so, so her clothing was a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs from kindly neighbors with older kids, or tidbits Selma picked up at the local thrift shop for less than a dollar. The kids at school often teased her about her clothes, but despite this, Christine remained outwardly cheerful and friendly, often laughing along with the other kids, though sometimes when she was alone, she’d cry because of their taunting. Her best friend was Jodie Newcombe, and Christine often spent the afternoon at Jodie’s home, studying and doing their homework, since Zachariah forbade her from reading anything other than the Bible under his roof.

In school, Christine was mostly studious and polite, but in one class, English, she earned a reputation for being disruptive, prompting her teacher, Mr. Standridge, to keep her after school a lot. Mr. Standridge noticed, however, that when Christine was in detention, she never acted out, but was always polite and courteous.

“Is it okay if I read, Mr. Standridge?” Christine asked the first time she showed up after school.

“You may work on your assignments, Christine,” he replied. “That’s fine.”

“No. I was hoping I can read some of them books on that shelf,” she said, pointing to the literary works he assigned to the older students.

“If you’d like,” he said.

For the next few days, Christine would report for detention, and sit, quietly reading books from the shelf. The rate at which she finished them astonished Mr. Standridge, who began to recognize a pattern.

“Christine, can I ask you a question?” he asked her one afternoon.

“Yes sir, Mr. Standridge.”

“Why are you always acting up in my class?” he says. “I’ve spoken to the other teachers and they say you’re a model student in their classes. Why not mine?”

Christine lowered her head. “I don’t mean no disrespect, Mr. Standridge. I just wanted to read some of your books and figured if you kept me after class, I could.”

“If you like to read, I can loan you the books.”

“No sir. My father don’t want me reading at the house.”

“You can’t read at home?”

“No sir. My father only lets me read the Bible at home. I have to leave my book bag at my friend Jodie’s at night. He won’t even let me bring my school books in.”

“I’ll tell you what, Christine,” Standridge said, “I’ll let you come here in the afternoon and read all you want. You can tell your parents whatever you need to as to why you stayed after school. I won’t count it against you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Standridge,” Christine said, very excited.

From then on, Christine was a regular presence in Mr. Standridge’s classroom after school. While she normally would greet him when she entered, read for a while, then say goodbye as she exited, sometimes they’d have brief conversations. He came to enjoy having her there, and admired her studiousness.

“Is that your family?” Christine asked about a photo on his desk.

“It is. My mom and dad, brother Rex, and sister Claire.”

“You still close with your sister?”

“I was. She died when we were children,” he said.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Christine said. “Was she in an accident or something?”

“No, she had a rare heart condition. Now they have a surgery that might have saved her, but they hadn’t developed it back then. Such a shame.”

“Bet you miss her.”

“I do, Christine. Very much.”

“Why ain’t you married, Mr. Standridge?” Christine asked.

“Aren’t, Christine. The proper way to say that is, ‘Why aren’t you married’.”

Christine laughed. “Okay, Mr. Standridge. Why aren’t you married? I mean, you’re a good-looking guy. Lot of the older girls got crushes on you.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she said. “I’m just wondering.”

“Not every man is marriage material Christine. I’m still young, though, so, who knows?”

Inferno, The Birth of Christine 


Christine Messner was a large baby, nearly ten pounds, and Selma was in labor with her for twenty-seven hours. Zachariah forbade her from accepting anything for the pain, owing to Genesis 3:16, so Selma was in quite a bit of distress throughout. While the doctors had not known the gender, based on how much weight Selma had gained, she and Zachariah assumed the child would be a boy. 

When she learned she had a girl and Zachariah had left the hospital, Selma took this as a bad sign. She wondered if, perhaps, her husband had done the math, or if, maybe the news that his new child wasn’t the son he had prayed for so vigorously throughout her pregnancy was too much for Messner to bear. In any event, his lack of enthusiasm signaled to Selma that the worst was still to come. 

She had to call her brother Alvin to come pick her up and take her and the baby home. As she expected, Zachariah wasn’t there. He was most likely at work or the church, which is where she could count on him being when he wasn’t at home. 

In fact, Zachariah had taken a drive into Macon to a strip club he sometimes visited when he felt he needed to renew his purpose. He wasn’t titillated by the dancers or their bodies and never interacted with them. He just sat away from the action, observing, judging, filling his mind with images of fire and brimstone, and all the inhabitants swimming in a lake of fire. If he ordered any food, he’d pay for it without leaving a tip then venture forth, back into his existence fueled by his hatred and disgust. 

See, Zachariah had already determined that he hated the girl. He knew this from the moment the words left the nurse’s lips at the hospital. His hatred for her knew no depths, but he chose to take a pragmatic approach to the situation and ask himself why God had chosen to test him in this manner. He resolved that he would not be found lacking and at first, imagined himself some evening after Selma had gone to bed, placing a pillow over the child’s face and holding it there as she stopped squirming. As he drove, however, a new idea replaced this one. Smothering her would be too kind, too easy, and he wanted to be sure nothing for her would ever be easy. 

Inferno 


Zachariah Messner was a stern and pious man, a deacon at the Messianic Holiness Congregation, a small church in Houston County, Georgia, near Perry, with no known affiliations to any of the recognized Christian denominations. A man with few pleasures in life, he believed himself to be head of his household and insisted his wife arise at least a half hour before him to start breakfast and would not allow a morsel to be consumed before the morning prayer was said. He started and ended each day with a reading of the Bible, and was always mindful of how those around him perceived his and his family’s actions. Those who knew him often commented on his steadfastness and piety. He clung to his beliefs, not because he felt them in his heart, but because they made the world manageable for him.

In this same congregation, was another deacon, James Frederick, and there was no one more different than Messner. Frederick was a jovial man, who enjoyed the presence of others and made those with whom he interacted feel comfortable and more certain in their beliefs. While Messner was rigid and unyielding in his faith, Frederick could read between the lines and recognized the subtle shades of gray that existed in all interactions. One could claim Frederick’s motto was “always forgive” while Messner’s was “never forget”. Frederick also opened each day with a prayer, but while Messner’s tended to be shallow and self-serving, Frederick concentrated on those in the congregation most in need of guidance and assistance. Needless to say, the two were frequently at odds over church doctrine, with Frederick an unapologetic believer in the Apostle Paul’s message of love and fellowship, while Messner called for a rigid adherence to dogma.

In his thirties, Messner met and married Mylene Tucker, an attractive woman twelve years his junior, with a good heart and a pleasant disposition which contrasted sharply with that of her husband. Despite this, their marriage seemed happy as they anticipated starting a family. Within a few months, Mylene announced she was pregnant, but just two months in, she miscarried. Nevertheless, the couple persisted and six months after her first conception, Mylene was expecting another. This one, too, ended abruptly, establishing a pattern that would recur again and again. As it became a predictable occurrence, Messner took to blaming Mylene, attributing her inability to carry a child on some moral failing he had yet to ascertain. Her once cheery disposition withered, as Zachariah found more and more ways in which she failed in her devotion.

The end finally came in the ninth year of their marriage. Zachariah found some lipstick she had purchased and severely chastised her for catering to her vanity. She swore she only did it to help out her friend who was selling cosmetics, and had no intention of using it. Still, Messner was merciless in his condemnation, and ordered her to spend the day reading the Bible and atoning for her selfishness. That evening, when Messner arrived home, he found Mylene dead in the bathtub having cut her throat using one of his straight razors. On the mirror, written in the lipstick, were the words, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”. Messner wasn’t long in finding another wife and less than four months after burying Mylene, he married Selma, the thirty-five-year-old spinster sister of Alvin Porter.

Theirs wasn’t a particularly loving marriage. For one thing, changing wives had not changed Messner’s fortunes in starting a family. Just as Mylene before her, Selma endured numerous difficult pregnancies, which all ended within the first two to three months. Rather than look inward and wonder if, perhaps, he was the cause, Messner instead blamed Selma’s lack of devotion on their misfortunes. As a result, Selma became despondent, and finally sought out Deacon Frederick for advice and counsel. He invited her to his home so he could counsel her in private. After this had gone on two or three times a week for nearly a month, Selma once again found she was pregnant. When she made it past four months, Messner’s spirits were raised, and when Selma made it to term, Zachariah was certain the Lord had finally given him the son he hoped to mold into the perfect Christian warrior.

At last, Selma announced the time was at hand and Messner drove her to the regional medical center, where he waited in the maternity ward for news. Finally, a nurse emerged and called his name.

“Congratulations, Mr. Messner. You have a daughter.”

“A girl,” Zachariah said with little enthusiasm.

“That’s right.”

Zachariah took in the news, shook his head and walked out of the hospital. Selma named the girl Christine.