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.

Mockingbird, Brian

Mockingbird Title Image
Brian Sanger sits in the Starbucks at 1776 Peachtree Street, halfway through a venti, black, dark-roast, Ethiopian coffee, and an almond scone, and looks over a piece of music he’s composing. He typically prefers Caribou to Starbucks, but has no car, since his was totaled in an accident early the previous year, and doesn’t live close enough to the Caribou at Ansley to pop in whenever he feels like it, plus, he’s hooked on the Blue Note blend his friend, Claire Belmonte, convinced him to try a week or so before. He can easily walk from his apartment to the Starbucks on Peachtree, near Coach and Six where he works as a maitre’d, so he stops in every few days to stock up on coffee, try out whatever dark roast they’ve brewed up that day, and work on his music. Certain days, Claire joins him if she’s worked a club nearby.

When Brian arrived in Atlanta, the Braves were in the middle of their “worst to first” season and the city had won the privilege of hosting the Olympics the previous year. While he never considered himself much of a sports fan, aside from high school football games he had to attend with the band, he found himself getting caught up in the fervor surrounding the team, but usually couldn’t afford to attend games, instead watching them when they were on the television at bars he inhabited. He was glad the Major League strike ended the previous season and is happy to be supporting the team again.

In addition to becoming a baseball fan, Brian has spent much of his first first few years in town familiarizing himself with the gay scene in Atlanta and it was here he met Claire, who had gone to work as a bartender at his favorite hangout as soon as she turned twenty-one in ’94. She explained that she’d been working as a waitress in restaurants and bars while attending junior college and had grown tired of the men hitting on her. In gay clubs, they either left her alone, or chatted her up on the topics of the day while she mixed their drinks. Plus, she found, the older men left better tips.

Almost as if on cue, Claire enters and looks around. Spotting Brian, she gives a quick nod, then stops at his table. Brian regards her as a rather formidable woman, very close to his own height of six foot three inches, and well-proportioned, with long dark hair she usually pulls back, especially if she’s working. Today, she’s letting it flow freely. She doesn’t meet the conventional standards of beauty, but Brian still considers her extremely attractive, with expressive brown eyes and a charming smile she only displays to those she knows well. To everyone else, she’s an ice princess.

“What are you having?” Claire asks.

“Today’s dark roast.”

She seems less than enthused and dumps her bag onto the seat beside Brian and goes to check out the pastry counter.

Claire has a non-distinct “Atlanta” accent, which she’s worked hard to cultivate since she arrived there as a teen, but when she and Brian are together, she ditches it in favor of her original middle Georgia vernacular. She grew up less than fifty miles west of where Brian had been raised, far enough away for it to take coming to Atlanta for them to meet. Claire has quite a complicated past, which she’s been gradually revealing to Brian as he gains her trust. He knows she came from a deeply religious family and can easily imagine what that meant for a young woman coming of age in rural Georgia. Her difficulty in trusting people tells him much of the story. Learning more about what Claire has experienced deepens his conviction to bring his sister Charlotte to Atlanta when she finishes high school, hoping to spare her from the fate of their two sisters, already married and starting families.

Brian is the oldest and only son in his family, raised mostly by their mother after his father died in an accident at the agricultural plant where he’d worked most of his adult life. Brian sang in the choir at his church and was the drum major in his high school marching band, as well as playing in the brass section. He’s also accomplished on the piano and organ. When she was a toddler, Charlotte would sit nearby while he was practicing, enrapt by the music. When she got older, and began exhibiting signs of echolalia, Brian worked with her to help her try to communicate and would intercede when one of their siblings or a kid from school made fun of her. When she started writing lyrics as a teenager, Brian set them to music. His background in music and his involvement in their church made it almost inevitable that he’d be approached about taking over the choir when Gladys Phelps, the previous director, retired at age ninety. It was here where Brian gained the attention of Todd, the son of their pastor, Kenneth Williams.

Growing up, Brian had been in several relationships with much older men, usually under the guise of taking private music lessons or performing odd jobs inside the house, always with the utmost discretion, given that these men had far more to lose than him. Todd was the first person close to Brian’s age who had shown any interest in him, and Brian didn’t know how to interpret that, given that Todd was married and had two little girls at home. Todd had been relentless in his pursuit, however, and finally coaxed Brian into a clandestine relationship, which was mostly carried out at Todd’s house on days when his wife was out running errands or attending church functions. Brian suggested that it might not be the best idea to have their encounters at Todd’s home, but Todd insisted they’d have complete privacy. This proved to be wrong when Todd’s wife, Myra Lynn, showed up unexpectedly, after her women’s devotional group ended early, having found the book of Revelation too cryptic to be digested in a two-hour lunchtime conversation. After most of the screaming and yelling had devolved into tears and apologies, during which time Brian hastily pulled on his clothes, he bowed politely to the couple and excused himself with, “I’ll just be on my way now.”

Two hours later, when the call came from Pastor Williams, Brian had already written his letter resigning as choir director, and packed his bags, and loaded up his car, since he knew it was probably best not to stick around. He gave his mother a somewhat expanded explanation about what had happened after she’d already heard an abbreviated version from the pastor, and left a letter for Charlotte, letting her know he’d stay in touch, and renewing his promise to bring her to Atlanta when she graduated. Once his meeting with the pastor was concluded, he hit I-16 west toward Macon, and from there, took I-75 north to Atlanta.

Secrets, Lies, and Home Invasions 

 Non-descript row of houses

Travis Maudlin is a man of many quirks and peculiarities, much of which he keeps to himself, though some of his oddities can’t be so easily contained. On more than one occasion, his coworkers have noted his habit of muttering to himself under his breath; his almost pathological refusal to use anyone’s name in conversation; his notable discomfort whenever anyone gets closer than three or four feet from him, and his curious tendency to wear the same clothes over and over throughout the month, usually without washing them in between wearings. His colleagues in the technical support unit of the enterprise software division of Bickering Plummet Incorporated in Atlanta universally regard him as the quintessential loner, a “quiet man” who may one day snap and arrive at work in fatigues with something concealed under his jacket. They often express amazement at the fact that he is, in fact, married to a lovely, vivacious woman named Heidi, who, in all respects, is the total antithesis of her husband.

Those who refuse to scratch the surface of Travis’ demeanor have no idea of the dark and troubled man underneath. He, too, is surprised at his good fortune at winning a woman like Heidi, though he often regards their marriage as the proverbial double edged sword. Though she has always acted toward him with nothing but the utmost grace and charm, almost every aspect of her character seems designed to play upon his natural insecurities and paranoia. Again, he’s mostly able to keep the more undesirable of his tendencies to himself, but he cannot help but be totally unnerved by her superficial cheerfulness, her unflagging optimism, and her obsessive extroversion. There are no strangers around Heidi.

Perhaps his greatest fear is that he’ll return home one weekend and find that Heidi has invited one of those home improvement shows in to redesign a room for him. Nothing could be more galling to him than the thought of having a camera crew tramping around in his private life, cajoling Heidi to recount some lovable quirk or colorful tendency of his to win lovely prizes, while they systematically destroy some favorite refuge inside his castle, transforming it with a lousy paint job and cheap furnishings. He’ll hate the results but have to pretend he loves it because the cameras are rolling thus denying him expression of his true feelings about the indignity. This is not an irrational fear on his part, because Heidi is obsessed with the home improvement shows she sees on her favorite cable network, and spends far too much of her time watching them while Travis is at work.

This, my friends, is the painful reality of Travis Maudlin, and his life in the midst of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Careful readers will have already deduced that he is, in fact, who they believe him to be; he did do exactly what everyone remembers him as doing in much the manner that it has been recounted. What most don’t know is the sad tale underneath and that is the subject of this discourse, the forces that drove him to that tragic afternoon of September, 2005, to the pleasant neighborhood in Dunwoody where he shared a modest, but exceptionally comfortable home with Heidi, a dwelling which would forever after be inextricably linked with the While You Were Away Massacre.

 

A Streetcar Named Delusion 

Note: This article has been updated and expanded in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.

A Streetcar Named Desire is heralded as one of the greatest theatrical works of the twentieth century and is one of the best known and most performed works by Tennessee Williams. It sets up a classic confrontation, the flamboyant yet fragile Blanche DuBois versus the menacing and unpredictable Stanley Kowalski. The tension begins the moment Blanche enters the household and builds to it’s shattering climax with Blanche and Stanley’s final confrontation. The moment Blanche meets her brother-in-law, his fuse is lit, and the question becomes how long it will be before Stanley explodes. Caught between them is the hapless Stella, who tries her best to mediate between two very demanding antagonists without much success. The play also features a decisive shift in power as the first half largely belongs to Blanche, while the second part is clearly dominated by Stanley. While I have seen this play performed recently, this article is not intended as a review of a specific performance, rather an analysis of the play as a whole.

At its heart, Streetcar is a thinly veiled metaphor for the Civil War and Reconstruction. The generation of Southern writers who included Tennessee Williams, Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner were the children and grandchildren of Confederate veterans, and no doubt grew up hearing horror stories of Northern aggression and the noble Southern gentry who made a valiant but ultimately doomed stand in the face of it. Stanley is the perfect stand-in for the unrefined, egalitarian North with its melting pot willing to assimilate just about anyone, while Blanche represents the genteel and pure-bred South, which existed more in myth than actuality. Everything about Blanche is phony, as was the myth of noble Southern gentry whose fortunes were built on the backs of the slaves and poor whites they exploited. It speaks to Williams’ skill as a playwright that neither character emerges as the hero of the piece. Blanche is portrayed as delusional and elitist, while Stanley is brutish and violent. Stella comes across as the tortured heroine, caught between the empty myth of the “old South” and the harsh reality of the modern industrial North now in control of the South’s destiny. That the play takes place in New Orleans, perhaps the most eclectic of old Southern cities, merely enhances the dichotomy of the two extremes.

In many respects, Stella and Blanche are two sides of the same coin, the only difference being that Stella has made compromises Blanche is unwilling or incapable of making. Stella seems the more realistic of the two sisters, seeing the future as grim but manageable with the right attitude, whereas Blanche is unwilling to accept anything but her version of reality. Ironically, it’s Blanche who has been treated to the harshest dose of reality, early on losing her husband to suicide, then having to care for the aging members of her family while watching the family’s fortunes evaporate due to mismanagement. Blanche’s delusions are rooted in the naive hope that a protector will arise to return her to the gentility she remembers from her youth, whereas Stella’s delusions are rooted in her acceptance of the notion that her fortunes are bound to those of her husband. Everything will be fine as long as she does what Stanley tells her. Until Blanche shows up calling into question the relationship Stella has with Stanley, it never occurs to Stella that anything’s wrong with her marriage. Blanche is the one to see how controlling Stanley can be and perhaps Blanche’s greatest frustration comes from being unable to convince Stella how oppressive this relationship may become.

The challenge of Streetcar is that there’s no one within the context of the story that the audience can champion. Blanche is self-centered and delusional, while Stanley is a narcissist, already showing signs of becoming an abusive spouse. Stella simply floats between the two, not knowing for certain which of the powerful presences she should placate. With the exception of Mitch, none of Stanley’s friends rise above the level of caricature, and the women surrounding Stella do little more than encourage her to stick by her violent and aggressive spouse. For her part, Stella transforms Stanley into her rugged protector, just as Blanche attempts to transform Mitch into the type of gallant Southern gentleman she thinks will save her. Neither is successful, but at least Stella is able to convince herself that Stanley’s failings are more a result of his situation rather than genuine character flaws. The reality is, Stanley needs Stella, and Stella needs Stanley, regardless of how unhealthy their symbiotic relationship may be in the long-run. Stella realizes, though, that as long as she remains within the boundaries set for her by her husband, things will work out for her, while Blanche is determined to push those boundaries, much to her detriment.

In all the productions I’ve seen, Stanley rarely comes across as likable. While he does have humorous moments, there’s a strong sense that the audience is laughing at his oafish ways rather than with him. The turning point comes when he strikes Stella. This is both the point at which Blanche is shown the dark side of Stella’s relationship with Stanley, and when the audience realizes how out of control Stanley can become when his authority is challenged. Obviously, we’re not seeing Stanley at his best, and Blanche certainly brings out the worst in him, but the violence is there to be mined. He didn’t suddenly turn into an arrogant jerk just because his sister-in-law paid a visit. Stella mentions that Stanley does not give her a regular allowance and generally handles all the bills, both classic traits of a spouse who contrives to make his partner totally dependent upon him. It’s clear from his first appearance in the play that he’s firmly in charge in his household. Somehow, though, Stella does not seem to mind, instead relinquishing all her autonomy. Like Blanche, she wants someone strong on whom she can depend to support her and make all the decisions, and Stanley is all too willing to fulfill this role. It’s entirely likely that their life together has been reasonably pleasant before Blanche shows up with the first real challenge to Stanley, and he doesn’t handle it well. Whether or not Blanche’s reemergence in Stella’s life will have any long-term impact is unknown, but given how she reacts to having Blanche around, it’s likely that Stella is ultimately glad her sister leaves at the end, regardless of how that comes about.

Much discussion has centered around Stanley and Blanche’s final showdown near the end of the play, and in many of the productions I’ve seen, it’s strongly implied, if not outright depicted that he rapes her. This seems largely dependent upon how the director and cast choose to interpret the scene, though whether or not Stanley actually forces himself on Blanche, it’s fairly clear that she does not submit to him out of a sense of mutual desire. By this point in the play, most of Blanche’s delusions have been shattered, and one could argue that Mitch’s rejection of her has as much, if not more impact on her mental state than anything Stanley does. The balance of power has shifted, and the last safe harbor Blanche was counting on, being with her sister, has not provided her with the solace she needed. Surrendering to Stanley is the final indignity, and a case could be made that Blanche has already gone off the deep end by this point, so nothing Stanley does can have much more of a detrimental effect on her. Stanley has stripped Blanche of all her pretensions, and thus destroyed the illusion which was the basis of her self image. She submits because she has nothing left to lose.

It is important to note, however, that even though Blanche seems defeated at the end, she does not appear to have completely abandoned the delusions she’s used to bolster her self-esteem throughout. Her final line, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers” sounds suspiciously like she believes the person to whom it’s said is genuinely doing her a favor. One can imagine Blanche convincing herself that the convalescent home where she’s being taken is some elegant chalet arranged for her by a mysterious benefactor, and once she’s had time to rest and recuperate, she may well be able to fool the staff into thinking she’s safe to release, allowing her to once again return to the belief that she’s in control. I strongly suspect the Kowalskis haven’t heard the last of Blanche DuBois.

Minds of Their Own

Many years ago, when I was in high school, I saw a film talking about Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which contained a quote from Ibsen on why Nora leaves at the end. While I don’t recall the exact quote, he essentially said that once he knew the character, he knew leaving was her only course of action. At the time, I recall disagreeing, believing that since he was the writer, he could make the characters do whatever he wanted. I now have a clearer understanding of what he meant.

When I was working on my novel The Long-Timers, which is the basis for my current series The Long-Timer Chronicles, my intention was for Charles and Renee Fox, a couple who have been married for more than eleven hundred years, and who were once members of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, to be the main characters. I also created a secondary character, who was murdered by someone posing as Jack the Ripper, who would come back to life and provide a subplot for the main story about the Foxes. Once I started writing, the character who started out as Vickie Seely and became Victoria Wells, began to grow and develop until she completely took over the whole story. Charles and Renee are still very important characters, and the focus of the second book in my series, called Crazy Like the Foxes, but in the original novel, Victoria Wells was definitely the main character and the main focus of the book. She’s also one of my favorite characters that I’ve created.

Writing is a process of discovery for the writer, and as a work progresses, the characters sometimes take on minds of their own. This was certainly the case with Victoria, who started out as a victim, but grew into a strong and independent woman perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Charles and Renee are, largely, the way I initially envisioned them, but since I started with a blank slate with Victoria, she grew along with the novel and finding new facets of her character was one of the great joys of writing the book. What I ended with was certainly not what I imagined when I began writing, and I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

The same has been true of other characters I’ve created. In my full length play, Rebecca, Too, which started out as a script for a short film that was never produced, the title character of Rebecca didn’t even appear in the earliest draft I wrote. When I sat down to expand the short script into a full-length play, I had a lot of notes I’d written on what Rebecca does, but not who she is. As she developed, her character took on new and sometimes dark aspects, all part of becoming a fully formed individual — on paper at least. As writers, we should not be afraid to let our characters become who they should become. We should abandon our preconceptions and constantly ask ourselves is this action true to who he or she is and are there aspects I’m missing?

I would imagine the process is akin to becoming a parent. When a child is born, parents have ideas about how they’d like the child to develop, or the type of person he or she should grow into. As the child matures, however, new aspects of his or her character may emerge the parent wasn’t expecting. The challenge is knowing when to intervene, to correct potentially damaging behaviors or attitudes, and when to step back and allow the child to discover his or her own path in life. This notion is tied to the general human tendency to categorize and define those with whom we associate, making judgments on how a person thinks and feels, based solely on his or her outward behavior. Scratch the surface and a completely different individual may emerge, which is why someone can have a friend one has known since childhood, without ever realizing that person enjoys ballroom dancing or can speak multiple languages.

As a writer, one should never be afraid to explore aspects of a character that diverge from one’s initial notion of who the character is. As a person, one should never simply assume that those with whom one associates share the same beliefs or have the same attitudes as oneself. Sometimes friendship or courtesy may dictate that another person hides aspects of his or her character, believing them to be uncomfortable or potentially disruptive to the friendship. The challenge for us, as individuals, is to be willing to see those we call friends as they truly are, not simply as we would like them to be. While we may learn truths we find discomforting, we may also be laying the groundwork for an even deeper and more meaningful friendship. We all have minds of our own. We should learn to appreciate the fact that those around us do as well and not be afraid to look beyond the outward facade. Who knows what we might discover?

Artistry

Landing on the way down to the Hertz Stage at the Alliance Theatre; 11 March 2014. Taken with a Nokia Lumia 1020, and cropped in Photoshop.

Landing on the way down to the Hertz Stage at the Alliance Theatre; 11 March 2014. Taken with a Nokia Lumia 1020, and cropped in Photoshop.

A chilling wind blows by outside.
Scattered gusts enter
the window of the small studio,
fighting back the faint warmth
of an overworked radiant heater.
A young man stands before his easel
reproducing on canvas
the gaunt, hollow-eyed,
skeletal figures
which attack him in his dreams.

Five floors below
the people of the city
are just leaving their jobs,
headed home from another day of
phone calls, and meetings,
and endless paperwork.
He doesn’t notice.
The blues and blacks on the canvass
consume him.

A mouthful of coffee
helps him regain his perspective.
One step back, then
a swirl of the brush brings out
maroon figures dancing across
the bleak landscape, then
a streak of white for contrast.

Another pause, he tries
to see it like the viewer might.
He scratches his nose,
leaving a red mark,
which matches the blue one
he made an hour ago.

And as he works into the night,
the darkness on the canvass
begins to take shape,
becoming both his masterpiece and
his mirror.