House Band, Rebecca

Rebecca Asher turns off Piedmont Road into the parking lot for Ansley Mall, and parks behind the filling station that’s on the corner of Piedmont and Monroe Drive. She’s headed to a show at Smith’s Olde Bar, half a block away. Tonight, she has decided she won’t drink much, because she needs her wits about her. Tonight, she’ll be using some information she gained from an associate to approach a woman who’s intrigued her from the first time Rebecca laid eyes on her. Tonight, she’s planning to make her move. The words of a Patti Smith song she remembers from a record her mother used to play run through her head as she maneuvers her copper-colored Mini Cooper into a space and kills the engine. “I’m going to make contact tonight.”

The past six years haven’t been easy for Rebecca, starting with the death of her mother, Sharon, in June of 1997. At that time, her unmarried and childless aunt, Rachel, became the guardian of Rebecca and her brother, Steven, and instituted what Rebecca terms “her autocratic rule” over the siblings. Rebecca did her best to endure, sometimes shoplifting items from stores in downtown Decatur or Little Five Points, or occasionally directly challenging Rachel’s authority, like when she packed her car, an ancient Toyota her mother purchased for Rebecca to get her and Steven to school, and drove to Florida for Spring Break her senior year, over Rachel’s objections, but largely she tried to promote harmony in the household, mostly for her brother’s benefit, who seemed enamored with their aunt.

Rebecca headed off to college after that, having been accepted into Columbia University, where she planned to major in Journalism, and which she financed with a combination of limited scholarships and student loans. Once there, Rebecca started writing, for school publications, literary journals, extra-curricular student rags, and also took the opportunity to fully explore her attraction for other women. She found herself part of a clique of highly progressive lesbians, who staged shows, sponsored talks, and agitated for change, on campus and around town, where her writing skills served her well, making her an important voice in the movement. Through a friend, she even managed to get an occasional column in the Village Voice which she called “The Frantic Feminist” in which she touted feminist ideals and promoted women’s empowerment. For the first time in her life, she felt free, and unencumbered by the expectations of her friends and family back home, and came to believe she could truly make a difference.

It all came crashing down her junior year, starting with a surprise and very unwelcome visit by her father, Owen, a pilot, who ran out on the family when Rebecca was nine. Following Sharon’s death, Owen suffered an attack of conscience, and felt guilty about losing touch with Rebecca and Steven, and began calling and writing to them. All his attempts were intercepted by Rachel, who let him know his presence was not welcome. About a year and a half after she moved to New York, Rebecca began receiving cards and letters from Owen, who had somehow tracked her down there. Still, she had no desire to initiate contact with him, at least not on his terms, so she’d file away his missives after angrily reading them.

One evening, halfway through her junior year, she returned to her dorm, where she was startled by a familiar voice calling her name as she moved through the lobby. She turned to see a tall, middle-aged, well-tanned man with dark, curly hair approaching her. Though it had been years, she recognized him immediately.

“Owen the pilot,” she said aloud to herself, using her mother’s derogatory term for him. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Hello, Little One,” he said.

Rebecca shook her head furiously. “No. Don’t you call me that. Don’t you ever call me that again. You gave up your right to call me that.”

“Becky, I’m sorry,” he said.

“Sorry?” she said. “You abandoned your wife and children, left us to fend for ourselves while you’re off being a swinging single in San Francisco, and all you can manage is sorry?”

“I guess I deserve that,” Owen said.

“You guess?” Rebecca said.

“Becky, please, I just want to talk,” he said, “to make amends.”

“No. No. Unacceptable,” she said. “You think you can ditch out on your responsibilities then just waltz back in and resume playing Daddy?” She stormed away from him, then swung back around and screamed, “To hell with you, Owen. Just hop back in your damn plane and fly the hell out of here.”

The confrontation had drawn a small crowd. The dorm manager appeared and said, “Is everything okay?”

Rebecca hurried to him and said, “No.” She pointed to Owen. “This man’s harassing me. Call the cops.”

“Becky, you don’t have to do this,” Owen said. To the dorm manager, he said, “I’m her father.”

“Non-custodial,” Rebecca emphasized. “You can verify with the district attorney in DeKalb County, Georgia. There’s a restraining order against him, sworn out by Rachel Lawson, my aunt.”

“Sir, you’re going to need to leave,” the dorm manager said, assuming a protective posture between Rebecca and Owen. Over his shoulder he said to the desk attendant, “Call NYPD.”

Owen threw up his hands. “That won’t be necessary. I’m sorry I bothered you, Rebecca. I hope we can talk some other time.”

With that, he left. After assuring the dorm manager she was okay, and refusing the offer to speak with police, she headed up to her room, still shaking, where she polished off a bottle of wine she and her roommate stashed there. The following month and a half was a blur for her, as she sank into a deep depression and dealt with it using alcohol and marijuana. When she finally sobered up, she learned she had missed her finals and was on academic probation after failing all her classes. Feeling control of her life spiraling away from her, she packed her car, and headed for home.

Back in Atlanta, the situation didn’t improve. Using her experience with publications in New York, she was able to find work with Creative Loafing and several other outlets around town, but her drinking and recreational drug use increased. Her relationship with her aunt, strained before she left for school, now reached the breaking point, as she began staying out until all hours, wandering home intoxicated, angrily rebuffing attempts by Rachel to talk or insist she seek help. At last, Rachel changed all the locks on the doors, and Rebecca showed up one afternoon, drunk, to find all her belongings packed up on the porch. Since then, she’s drifted from friend’s couch to friend’s couch, sometimes sleeping in her car, remaining just coherent enough to hold down her job, reporting on cultural events around town, until several weeks ago, when she recognized the name of a favorite band appearing at Blind Willie’s, and attended the show, where she was once again confronted by someone with whom she’s become obsessed.

One of her favorite haunts is the club scene in Atlanta, and it’s here she first heard of a red hot female deejay who bills herself as CC Belmonte. Almost a mystical presence in the clubs, CC cuts a massive figure — some say she’s over seven feet tall — with long, dark hair and a total badass bitch attitude, who spins some of the tightest House mixes in all of North Georgia. Rebecca has acquired several of her compilations. Given her height, there’s a rumor rampant in the gay clubs that she’s actually a drag queen, but Rebecca has confirmed through reliable sources this isn’t the case, though information on her is fleeting, fueling the mystery.

Then came the show at Blind Willie’s, where Rebecca was catching up with the brother and sister duo, Echo, who she’s been following since she was in high school, and working the board for them was none other than CC Belmonte herself, who’s also an in-demand sound engineer. It took Rebecca a while to confirm it, since CC had ditched her club attire for jeans, a Steely Dan T-shirt, a backwards baseball cap, with her hair pulled back, and slip-on Vans, which de-emphasized her height, but once she purchased an Echo CD, and read the engineering credit, Rebecca knew for sure that this woman the band occasionally addressed as “Claire” was the deejay who has come to dominate Rebecca’s every waking thought. She couldn’t stick around after the show at Blind Willie’s, but enlisted the aid of an acquaintance with mad research skills, who she’s used for background on stories, to run down info on the elusive Ms. Belmonte. Armed with the results, Rebecca heads into Smith’s Olde Bar, ready for Round Two.

She camps out at the bar downstairs, where she can smoke, and watches the entrance to the upstairs music room. Echo has a new album and tonight is the official release event and Rebecca is covering it, and also looking forward to reviewing their new CD. While she’s waiting, Rebecca notices an older woman, wearing a faded polka dot dress, denim jacket, and a railroad cap peering into one of the windows. She looks, to Rebecca, like a refugee from Cabbagetown. She seems confused when she first comes in, then focuses on the bar and leans against it, near Rebecca.

“Where’s that band playing?” the woman says.

“Upstairs,” the bartender says and points to the entrance. “Doors open in about twenty minutes.”

“Listen, I ain’t here to see no show,” she replies. “I just need to give a message to one of them people with the band.”

The bartender shrugs. “I think they’re doing the sound check now. They might let you up. You can try.”

The woman nods and goes to the door. Finding it open, she heads up. Rebecca doesn’t see her come back before the light goes on, letting the crowd know doors are open. Once she gets to the music room, Rebecca sees the woman seated near the far end of the room, nursing a drink in a styrofoam cup.

Guess she changed her mind about the show, Rebecca thinks.

This will be the first time Rebecca has seen Echo live in several years. She’s kept up with them via their mailing list, and on the Internet, while away at college, and she has all but a couple of their CDs from the early-00s, but nothing quite matches her memory of hearing Charlotte sing in person. She takes a seat at the bar, and debates whether or not to get a drink. By the time the bartender arrives, she’s decided against it for now.

“Let me start with water,” she says. When it arrives, she leaves a dollar tip on the bar. She’ll definitely drink something later, especially just before she’s ready to approach Claire, but she decides to at least hear the first few songs with a completely clear head. She glances back toward the sound booth and sees Claire is ready. The lights dim, and in the darkness, Rebecca sees the band getting in place. The announcement for them comes over the loud speaker, and they start playing as the lights come back up.

Ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many were there?” Claire says.

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

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

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

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

“Water under the bridge,” Messner says.

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

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

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

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.

Mommy Issues

Fan Dance, Dolls Head Trail

Fan Dance, Dolls Head Trail, Constitution Lake, Atlanta, GA.

It was early evening, June 1996, at the Clermont Lounge in Atlanta, Georgia. Selma Messner, now calling herself Irene Castleberry, leaned on the bar and looked out at the sparse crowd. She was dressed in a sleeveless yellow blouse, jeans, and work shoes, none of which were new, so she didn’t worry about spills. A large, black woman was dancing on a platform, to the amplified sounds of “Jump” by Van Halen, and was surrounded by a few patrons, but otherwise business was slow. There were only a few smokers inside, but the room still reeked of cigarettes, and body odor, and beer. The real crowd didn’t start showing up until eight or nine, and usually later, and, on weekends, often got younger as the evening wore on. Selma couldn’t understand why college kids would want to hang out in a place like this, but she welcomed their tips, when they gave them, and otherwise, they weren’t much trouble for her. She had a little hardwood club, fashioned out of an old stool leg, positioned strategically under the bar if a patron got a bit too rowdy, and if things really got out of hand, she could give a sign to the bouncer and he’d handle the situation promptly.

Selma had been employed there for nearly two months, since just after she’d confronted her daughter, Christine, outside a hotel in Buckhead, where she was going to some sort of meeting with a fellow Selma took to be her boyfriend, a handsome young man named Brian. Selma had seen him at the Clermont once since. Christine left home when she was sixteen-years-old and came to Atlanta, after several troublesome incidents in Perry, where they lived, and since that time had taken on a new name, Claire Belmonte. Selma hadn’t been in touch with her daughter since that time, but had recently left her husband and didn’t have many places she could go. Claire had given her money to leave town, but Selma decided to stick around, adopt a new name herself, that of her maternal grandmother, and try out life in the big city. Claire had not been happy to find Selma was still in town, but Selma rarely gave much currency to what her daughter wanted or didn’t want, so Selma decided to stay on until she could think of something better to do. She didn’t make a huge salary busing tables or tending bar, but she was paid in cash, and the tips often made up for the shortfall. She’d always considered herself a godly woman, but had to admit, the wages of sin were sometimes quite lucrative.

Around 7:15, Selma turned toward the entrance and was surprised to see Claire enter and head to the bar. Claire was tall — at least six feet — with long, black hair, and portional to her height. She was usually fairly sullen when dealing with Selma, but as she headed toward the bar this night, she seemed to have a bounce in her step. It was Claire’s second visit in as many weeks, the first being to confirm and complain that Selma was still in town. Claire leaned against the opposite end of the counter, a curious smile on her face, and Selma moved toward her.

“Well, hello there, Ms. Belmonte,” Selma said. “You here for a drink, or did you reconsider that dancing position?”

“You really like it here, don’t you?” Claire said. “I never pictured you in an establishment like this.”

“It ain’t bad,” Selma said. “I mean, the folks is usually nice, and I get some good tips. I can take it or leave it, I guess.”

“You really think I’m just going to stand back and let you hang out in Atlanta?” Claire said, the curious smile still glued to her face.

“I don’t see what choice you got, really,” Selma said. “Ain’t but one person can do anything about it, and there’s no way you’d ever call him.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Claire said, pushing away from the counter and standing back from the bar. “Just so happens I was down that way a few days ago.”

The smile on Selma’s face vanished. “No. You’re lying. Ain’t no way–”

In response, Claire looked over her shoulder, toward the entrance. “Mr. Messner, would this happen to be the person you’re missing?”

There was a long pause, during which Selma almost convinced herself Claire was bluffing, then around the corner stepped a smallish man, with salt and pepper hair and beard, wearing jeans and a work shirt, with black work shoes — Selma’s husband, Zachariah Messner.

“Why, Ms. Belmonte, it is indeed,” he said.

Selma could do nothing more than exclaim, “No!” She stepped back from the edge of the bar and her eyes shot to Claire. “How could you do something like this?”

“It was actually pretty easy, once I set my mind to it,” Claire said, her voice slipping into the vernacular of Middle Georgia. “We had a nice little chat one morning and I was moved by his sad tale. I swore I’d do all I could to reunite him with his wayward spouse.”

Zachariah stared at Selma for several long seconds, then said simply, “Time to come on home, Selma.”

Selma remained frozen behind the bar. She caught the eye of the bouncer, who walked over. “Irene, everything all right here?”

“No, it ain’t,” Selma said to him. “Get these people out of here. They harassing me.”

The bouncer moved so he was between Selma and the pair. “I believe the woman asked you folks to leave.”

Claire looked at Zachariah, who appeared on the verge of speaking. She held up her hand to silence him. In a voice brimming with emotion, she addressed the bouncer. “Sir, this woman is my mother, and this is her husband. She’s been having some mental issues, and claiming to be someone she’s not. I learned she ran off and was hiding out here. We’re only here to try and get her the help she so desperately needs.”

“Is that right, sir?” the bouncer said to Messner.

Zachariah lowered his head, and replied with deference, “Yessir, as embarrassed as I am to admit it. What she’s said is true.”

The bouncer looked back and forth from Selma to Claire and Messner, then threw up his hands. “I’m not getting in the middle of some domestic situation. Sorry, Irene.” He walked away. Selma watched him with trepidation.

“I think that settles the matter,” Claire said. “Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Messner?”

“I believe you’re right,” Zachariah said. “Get your things, Selma. We got a long drive back.”

Selma lowered her head and moved out from behind the bar. “My stuff’s upstairs. Won’t take long.” She glared at Claire. “I never imagined you could be in cahoots with him.”

Claire leaned in and said in a harsh voice, “Never underestimate me again.”

Selma led them outside and into the hotel. It took her about fifteen minutes to shove all her clothing into her bags. She and Zachariah carried them down to his car.

Once Selma was seated on the passenger side, with her seatbelt on, Zachariah turned to Claire. “I thank you again, Ms. Belmonte. If you’re ever back down our way, be sure to stop in and say hello.”

“I think we both know there’s not a chance in hell of that ever happening,” Claire said.

Messner chuckled. “Well all right, then. You take care of yourself, Ms. Belmonte.”

He got in and drove away. Clare stood for a long time staring after them, before heading off to wait for her bus.