Just One Look

Eddie's Attic stage

The stage at Eddie’s Attic, Decatur, GA, 6 October 2016

Rebecca Asher, sixteen, takes a seat at the bar in Eddie’s Attic, and picks up a menu. It’s her first time here, attending an “all ages” show featuring local Atlanta performers. She’s been anxious to visit, since it regularly hosts artists like Michelle Malone and The Indigo Girls, who Rebecca follows on the radio. She doubts either will be in the lineup tonight, since they’re national acts — the Indigo Girls had been on David Letterman — but some of her older friends told her that sometimes big name performers show up to watch the shows, and will go up for a song or two, if asked. Following her friend’s advice, she arrived early, just as the house opened, and has been rewarded with a great seat at the end of the bar, with an unobstructed view of the stage.

The bartender comes over and points at Rebecca. “Can I get you something to drink?”

Rebecca sits up, and in her most adult voice, says, “Bring me a rum and Coke.”

“Sure,” the bartender replies. “Can I see your ID?”

Rebecca sighs. “Bring me a Coke.”

“Coming up,” the bartender says and starts to go.

Rebecca says after her, “No ice”, which the bartender acknowledges, then looks over the menu, deciding on fries, and mac and cheese (Decatur’s Best!) by the time the bartender returns. Her food order handled, Rebecca sips her Coke and turns so she’s facing the stage. There are, at least, three guitars, a small drum set, and keyboards onstage, with a couple of tambourines and a harmonica holder hanging from the mic stands. Rebecca looked at the poster that described the artists performing when she bought her ticket, but other than one called Echo, who she’s not sure is a person or a group, she can’t recall them.

Lately, Rebecca has felt in need of some sort of release. A sophomore at Decatur High School (Class of 1999!), she’s the oldest sibling in her family, which consists of her, younger brother Steven, and mother Sharon. Her father, Owen, a pilot, abandoned the family when Rebecca was nine — “flew right out of our lives,” Sharon always says — and Rebecca has not had any contact with him since. For the past six months, her aunt, Rachel Lawson, has been living with them, having come to look after Sharon, after she was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. It was Sharon who suggested Rebecca have a night out, perhaps correctly sensing her daughter could use a break.

As upbeat and positive as Rachel tries to be around Rebecca and Steven, she’s never sugarcoated the stark facts of Sharon’s illness or chances for survival. Sharon had ignored the symptoms, then put off treatment too long, despite warnings from Rachel, who had been living on the West Coast when Sharon first started complaining of feeling run down. In recent weeks, Rebecca has seen her mother’s energy level further drain away, as Sharon moved from the previous aggressive treatment she’d endured to what Rachel now calls “maintenance of pain”. Rebecca and Steven have both been reluctant to leave the house for fear their mother might slip away while they’re gone, but tonight, Sharon had insisted, giving Rebecca plenty of money to do whatever she wanted, once Steven left to spend the evening with a school mate.

Rebecca’s food arrives, and she starts eating. She tastes the mac and cheese, then douses it with a generous helping of Tabasco sauce, then tries another bite.

“Best gets better,” she says.

As the crowd starts filling in, a tall, shapely, dark-haired woman in her early-20s enters and leans against a stool near Rebecca, who can’t tear her eyes away. The woman sits with her back to the bar, and seems to be watching the door for someone.

Rebecca decides to try her luck. Leaning toward the woman, she says, “Excuse me. Are you performing?”

The woman glances over her shoulder at Rebecca, before returning her eyes to the door. She gives a quick, “No.”

Rebecca considers this, then presses ahead. “I’m Rebecca. Ah, Becky.”

“Good for you,” the tall woman says without looking. She rises, and Rebecca looks to see a tall, slender, dark-haired man, accompanied by a small woman with light, red hair, who looks not much older than Rebecca, headed toward the tall woman.

“We set?” the man says.

“Yeah, I talked to the sound guy,” the tall woman says. “He seems to know what’s what.”

“What, what, what,” the smaller woman says, all the while twisting her head slightly to the left. “Let’s get ready. We’re opening.”

They move away from the bar and toward the stage. Rebecca keeps her eyes on the tall woman. She suspects it could be love at first sight.

For more than a year, Rebecca has been trying to come to terms with the feelings she’s been having for some of her female classmates. She’s well aware of the implications, having been exposed to the topics in human sexuality class, but had not anticipated that it would affect her in a personal sense. Still, she concludes, if it’s how she is, there’s nothing much she can do about it, so she might as well learn to live with it. She doubts her mother or Steven will mind, and has considered broaching the topic with Rachel, but Rebecca isn’t sure how much she trusts her aunt. Rachel isn’t quite what Rebecca was expecting from her mother’s description of her older sister.

Sharon has always described Rachel as a “classic free spirit” and always seemed a bit in awe of her slightly older sister. Rachel moved to California in the 70s right out of high school with her best friend, and her life there has been shrouded in mystery. From what little she’s been told, Rebecca knows Rachel’s friend died, and Rachel became a nurse, but Sharon hasn’t spoken much of what Rachel was doing during the 80s. Prior to Rachel’s arrival, Rebecca formed this image of this wild party girl, hobnobbing with celebrities and cruising LA in a hot sports car. The woman who appeared at the house this past November was totally different, more “new age” than Rebecca expected, with few stories of her exciting Hollywood lifestyle.

The trio of the tall woman and her two companions are now on stage, the man behind the keyboards, and the smaller woman holding a guitar. The tall woman appears to be helping with setup, communicating with the person in the booth as the smaller woman strums the guitar. The lights dim, and the tall woman takes a seat to the right of the stage. A man who identifies himself as Eddie comes to the stage, tells the audience to “hush up” while the singers are performing, and introduces the first act, Echo.

The smaller woman tells the crowd she’s Charlotte, and introduces her brother, Brian on the keyboards, then launches into a song that leaves Rebecca blown away. For such a small person, Charlotte has a huge voice, that floods into every corner of the room, and puts Rebecca in mind of Alison Moyet or Annie Lenox. At one point, midway through the forty-minute set, the tall woman goes to the booth and speaks to the man running sound. She spends the remainder of the performance stationed in front of the booth, listening.

Afterward, Rebecca heads to the lobby between the music room and the patio, where Charlotte is speaking to some audience members, and signing people up for Echo’s mailing list. Brian and the tall woman are packing up their instruments.

“I enjoyed your performance,” Rebecca says, as she’s adding her name to the list.

“Thanks,” Charlotte says. “We’re going to be working on an album real soon.” Her speaking voice reminds Rebecca of how her father’s relatives around Macon talk.

“Is that other woman your sister?” Rebecca asks.

“Sister, sister, sis–” Charlotte begins, giving Rebecca an idea of where the group gets its name. “No, that’s our friend, Claire. She does our sound and helps set up.”

Brian enters and joins Charlotte, who introduces Rebecca.

“Always nice to gain a new fan,” he says as he shakes Rebecca’s hand.

“Is Claire waiting?” Charlotte says, to which Brian nods. She looks back to Rebecca. “It’s great meeting you, Becky. Hopefully we’ll get some stuff out to the mailing list about our next show.”

“I’ll look for it,” Rebecca says.

Once Charlotte and Brian leave, Rebecca goes back to the music room and settles her tab. She hangs out for a couple more performers, but can’t stop worrying about her mother, so she decides to call it a night and heads home.

Rebecca makes a mental note to try and keep up with Echo, but in the meantime, life intrudes. Less than a month later, Sharon Asher loses her battle with cancer. 

House Band

Garden Club, Norcross, GA
Claire Belmonte maneuvers her Jeep Wrangler into the side driveway at the home of Manny and Deanna Savage in Norcross, and parks by the red Nissan that belongs to Brian Sanger. She’s there to help Brian and his sister, Charlotte, plan out the sound requirements for an upcoming show at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta. She’s worked with the duo, who call themselves Echo, for seven years, since their earliest shows, which included open mic events at venues such as Smith’s and Eddie’s Attic, after Charlotte came to Atlanta in the summer of 1996. In addition to the planning, Claire has a huge favor to ask her friends. 

Charlotte lives in the small guest house behind the Savage residence with her son, Ishmael, but instead of going there, Claire walks around to the front of the main house and rings the doorbell. She’s greeted by Gloria, the middle of Manny and Deanna’s three children, an early-teen girl with dark blonde hair, wearing sweat pants, and a Ramones T-shirt, with red and black checkerboard sneakers. 

“Hey, Glo,” Claire says, giving Gloria a hug. “I see the Volvo’s missing. I guess that means your folks are gone.”

“Mom took Prudie to get a dress for a talent show she’s in,” Gloria says. “Dad’s in the kitchen.”

Claire follows Gloria through the house and into the kitchen, where Manny is carefully measuring and placing lumps of cookie dough onto a greased baking sheet. Manny Savage is forty, with dark, unruly hair, which is currently stuffed into a ridiculous looking chef’s hat, and a powerful upper body with very broad shoulders. He normally has a heavy five-o-clock shadow, but today looks like he hasn’t shaved in a couple of days. Looking up as Claire enters, he says, loudly and enthusiastically, “CC!”

“How ya doing, Manny?” Claire says. Not wanting to interrupt his baking, she rubs his back, rather than hugging him.

“I hope you’ll stick around for some cookies,” he says. “We’re making three dozen.”

“I can probably help you out with a few,” Claire says.

“So, getting set for the big show at Smith’s, are you?” Manny says.

“You know it,” Claire says. “I’ll stop back in for some cookies later.”

Claire exits into the back yard and stops to play with the Savages’ dog, Lex, a medium-sized mongrel, with brown, shaggy hair, that the family rescued from animal control a few years earlier. As she approaches the door to the guest house, she can hear Charlotte’s contralto voice singing a tune Claire recognizes from their upcoming album, accompanied by Brian on piano. Claire lets herself in. Charlotte and Brian acknowledge her without pausing. Once they finish, they both greet Claire with a hug. Brian is a couple of inches taller than Claire, and his hair is the same dark color as hers. Claire towers over Charlotte, whose head barely reaches Claire’s chin. For the past few years, Charlotte has been wearing her strawberry blonde hair in dreadlocks, and has a fake nose ring she puts on. She also likes wearing round, wire-framed, rose-colored sunglasses, especially onstage. 

“Where’s Izzy?” Claire says.

“He’s visiting his father and brother this afternoon,” Charlotte says. “Ned’s taking Izzy and Ike to see the Gwinnett Braves.”

“Sounds like fun,” Claire says. 

Echo is releasing a new album and having a CD release show upstairs at Smith’s in a little under a week. It’s a venue they’ve played many times before, so most of their meeting deals with the requirements of several songs on which Brian and Charlotte will be using some new instruments they’ve not played in concert before. Deanna Savage has been teaching Charlotte to play the banjo, and Brian will be playing a saxophone, which he’s used in the studio, but never live. After about an hour, they have a good handle on what’s needed, so Claire decides to approach them with the favor she needs.

“Recently, a family I’m close to lost their father,” Claire says. “Brian, you attended the funeral with me, Jack Standridge.”

“Right, I remember,” he says. “They struck me as good people.”

“They are — the best,” Claire says. “Jack’s death has been really tough on his wife, Nancy. She’s all alone in this huge house and misses her grandkids, who now live in Florida.”

“Florida, Florida,” Charlotte repeats. “Is there something we can do for them?”

“Maybe,” Claire says. “Nancy has decided to put the house on the market and move down near her son, Rex and his family.”

“What does it have to do with us?” Charlotte says. 

“I’m hoping you’d consider making an offer on the house,” Claire says. “Walker Development has been buying up property around the area. They want to tear down the houses and build these monstrosities that will drive up the property values and tax assessments.”

“How’s the neighborhood reacting to that?” Brian says. 

“Split fifty-fifty,” Claire says. “Many of the older residents just want to sell out and leave. The other half, mostly families with school-age kids, want to fight it.”

“I’m happy where we are, Claire,” Charlotte says. “Izzy’s happy. I like being with the Savages. The school system suits us — and I especially like having babysitters right next door.”

“DeKalb has a good school system, too,” Claire says. “It’s a larger house, with a huge back yard, and has a small, wooded area. Izzy would love that.”

“Charlotte would love that,” Brian says, to which Charlotte nods. 

Claire leans toward them. “This place has a lot of sentimental value for me. The Standridges were there when I really needed them, I lived there for nearly three years. In some ways, you could say my whole life started over there.”

Brian touches Charlotte’s hand, and says to her, “It won’t hurt to meet with them. Take a look at the place. Decatur’s got a great music scene, too, and we’d be right near the thick of it in Avondale.”

“Avondale, Avondale,” Charlotte says. “We can meet with them and take a look. The woods do sound tempting. Just don’t get your hopes up, Claire.”

Claire nods. “That’s all I ask.”

There’s a knock at the door, followed by Gloria looking in and saying, “Dad said to tell you the latest batch of cookies just came out of the oven. Actually, he told me to look in and yell ‘Cookies!’ like Cookie Monster, but I’m not doing that.”

They all head over to the main house.

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.