Download the Kindle version of Atlanta Stories: Fables of the New South for a special price, $0.99, now until Saturday, March 24, 2018. Listen to an excerpt of Dead Man’s Hat then follow the link to buy.
Atlanta Stories: Fables of the New South (ISBN: 978-0-9848913-6-8) is now available in its second edition. Eight stories featuring people who have come to Atlanta, Georgia to reinvent themselves. Portions of these stories appeared on this blog between 2014-2017. Stories include:
- Journey From Night
- A Debt to Pay
- Dead Man’s Hat
- Bare-Assed Messiah
- Atomic Punk
Selected Reviews, Amazon and Goodreads
“Intriguing, whimsical realism featuring a compelling cast of characters, woven together into a constellation of complex connections…”
“Wonderfully brilliant stories…a rich fabric of Southern culture, with a large city vibe.”
“An author to be on the radar.”
“Lupo is a masterful story writer. “
“Well written and thoughtful.”
Available in print at online booksellers and Kindle from Amazon.
Dan Barton sits in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment in Boston, which is sparsely furnished with a second-hand couch, mismatched chairs, plywood and cinder block shelves, and cluttered with tennis shoes, articles of clothing, open and empty boxes of varying sizes, including a black and white cow print Gateway computer box. He’s been a guest of the residents, Dottie and Leah, sleeping on the couch for several months, since his last roommate moved back to Toronto suddenly, leaving him with a place he couldn’t afford on his own and unable to float the cost while he found someone new. In return for letting him crash there, he picks up the utilities. The trio met a little over a year ago at an improv club in Boston, near Wellesley’s campus, and sometimes, varying configurations of Leah, Dottie, and Dan perform together, though mainly Leah and Dan. He’s seated at the computer, near the center of the room, typing.
“Wow, it’s a speed demon,” he says in an elevated voice, as though speaking to someone in another room. “Whatever you did, Leah, it definitely helped.” Receiving no response, he goes on. “I am so stoked for the show tonight. There’s supposed to be a group from Second City performing.”
“Do you have the graduation guide in there?” Leah calls out.
“Why would I have it?” Dan says. “You forget, my application to Wellesley got lost in the mail.”
“Think it’s in Dottie’s room?” she says.
“That would be a safe bet. What do you need?” he says.
“Which way does the tassel go?” she says.
Dan thinks about it. “I think it goes to the left before the ceremony. That’s how we did it in high school.”
Leah enters wearing a cap and gown in Wellesley’s colors. She models it for Dan.
“What do you think?” she says.
“Look at you, Miss Wellesley graduate,” he says. “Did you hear from MIT?”
“I did,” she says. “You are looking at the latest candidate for an accelerated Ph.D.”
“At least you’re staying in the area, so we won’t have to break up the act,” Dan says.
“Oh yeah, the act,” Leah says. “Wouldn’t want to deprive the world of Dander and Leander.”
Dan shakes his head. “You’re a better improviser than you think.”
Leah puts her hands on her hips and tilts her head to the side. “Which explains why I’m always known as ‘that chick who does improv with Dan’. You’re the one who gets all the invitations to play with other groups.”
“I take you along,” he says.
“At least I get to see a lot of free improv by people who really know what they’re doing,” Leah says.
“Are your folks coming up for graduation?” Dan asks.
“The whole family,” Leah replies. “Mom’s supposed to call me tonight to finalize details.”
“As opposed to every other night when she just calls to chat,” he says with a chuckle.
“So, I’m close to my mother, big deal,” she says.
“No, I think it’s great. I wish I got along with my parents that well,” he says.
“It was really just me and Mom before Alyssa was born,” Leah says. “Well, Dad was there on weekends between tee times.”
“He’s some sort of high roller in Atlanta isn’t he?”
“Real estate,” she says. She looks up as though reading a billboard. “Paxton Walker, the man who gave Atlanta its urban sprawl.”
“Doesn’t that make you a Southern heiress?” Dan says.
Leah rolls her eyes. “Yeah, right.”
The phone rings and Leah answers.
“This is Leah. That you, Mom?” She seems surprised. “Dad? Why are you calling? Where’s Mom?” She puts her hand to her head. “Wait. What did you just say?”
Leah exits into her room. Dan looks after her. “Leah?”
Dottie enters and dumps her bag onto a chair. “Hey, Dan. What’s up?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t know. Leah just got a call from her father and went in her room.”
“From her father?” Dottie says, concerned. “Leah doesn’t get calls from her father.”
Just then, Leah returns, holding the phone, her face wet with tears. Dan rises and Dottie goes to Leah and puts her arm around her.
Dan touches Leah’s shoulder and says, “Leah? Is everything okay?”
Leah shakes her head. “No. Nothing’s okay. Nothing will ever be okay again.” She stares at Dottie. “Dottie?” Leah wraps her arms around Dottie and starts sobbing. Dottie comforts her. After a moment, Leah lifts her head. “That was my father. He said my mother—“ She breaks off. “My mom’s dead.”
“Oh my god,” Dan says.
“What happened?” Dottie says. “When Dan said you were talking to him, something didn’t feel right.”
Leah puts her hand to her head. “He didn’t go into a lot of details. He came home and—“ She wanders aimlessly away from them. “I’ve got to get to Atlanta. Tonight.”
Dan looks at Dottie, who nods. He says, “What can we do to help?”
“I need to—“ Leah starts, then says, “What about graduation?”
Dottie takes her hands. “Don’t worry about that now. You need to get home to be with your family.”
Leah stares at her a moment and nods. “I’ll need a flight out.” She looks in the direction of her room. “I need to pack.”
Dan takes the phone from Leah and says to Dottie, “Okay, listen. You help get her stuff together.” He starts to dial. “My cousin works for American Airlines at Logan. I’ll call her and make the arrangements. If there’s a direct flight out tonight, she’ll get you on it.”
Dottie puts her arm around Leah and guides her into her room. “Let’s get you home.”
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.
Avis Collins is the minister at the Apostolic Awakening Fellowship, a conservative church in Duluth, Georgia. Known as Mother Avis by her church family, she promotes herself as a black conservative who’s opposed to gay marriage, extra-marital sex, race mixing, and government entitlements. She grew up in a mainstream Methodist congregation, but became a fundamentalist following the fallout within her family from the deaths of their parents. Her church promotes family values and economic empowerment, and, in practice, their philosophy is a curious mixture of feeding the homeless while criticizing them for a lack of initiative, promoting Jesus’s teachings, while encouraging church goers to become entrepreneurs, and welcoming members of all races, just so long as none of them try to intermarry. As of 2011, Avis boasts a following of over four hundred parishioners, and their services are a rousing mixture of amplified Gospel, warm, welcoming fellowship, and fiery rhetoric delivered by Mother Avis.
In the late-00s, Avis’s ministry came under scrutiny when it was discovered that a number of the white parishioners in her majority black congregation were active members of the Klan, drawn by her message of racial separatism. This set off a flurry of news reports locally, with people on all sides of the controversy giving interviews, black congregants who stated they would not share the pew with racists, contrasted with those who said that so long as they mind their manners, all are welcome, versus white members, who tried to minimize the situation, citing Mother Avis’s powerful preaching as the reason for their devotion. It all culminated in Mother Avis giving a well-received interview on Good Morning America, where she remained cheerful and positive, and stated the situation demonstrated, “The power of Christ to unite people of all backgrounds and philosophies.
Still, the church remains controversial, with the IRS constantly questioning their religious exemption, some believing them to be more of a religiously-oriented business rather than the classic definition of a church, given the many products they sell, from essential oils and scented candles, to prayer blankets, videos and recordings of the choir and fellowship band, and others suggesting racial motives for the microscopic level of scrutiny they’re constantly under. Mother Avis tries to remain above the fray, with one notable misstep, where she commented harshly on what she termed as “sodomites” in a news report about the PRIDE Festival in Atlanta, which drew protests from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Following these challenges, the church instituted a public relations fellowship, which clears all requests for statements, and carefully monitors any outgoing missives for content, as well as largely shielding Mother Avis from unscripted press appearances.
One of the church’s harshest critics is a blogger known as Lady Midnight, who not only publishes a weekly column, where she tackles religion, politics, and human rights, and often uses Apostolic Awakening as an example of religious excess, but she also frequently posts disparaging criticisms on the message board at the Apostolic Awakening website. She’s consistently the only negative poster to whom Avis will personally reply, and their sometimes voluminous exchanges often betray not only serious animosity, but also a great deal of familiarity between them. In one such exchange, Avis stated, “You should be grateful the Lord blessed you with the opportunity to be an inspiration to others, rather than the sullen, withdrawn shell of the woman you once were.” While most congregants are either spiritually uplifted or totally befuddled by Mother Avis’s attitude toward this irritant, a few of her closest confidants are aware that Lady Midnight also happens to be Avis’s younger sister, Annabelle, with whom Avis hasn’t spoken directly for more than a decade.
Paralyzed in an automobile accident in Cobb County in 1990, Annabelle turned away from religion during her recovery period, breaking the heart of her minister father, and, in Avis’s view, hastening the deaths of their mother, who suffered a stroke in 1998, and spent the remainder of her life in a vegetative state, and their father, who suffered a massive coronary in 2000. Following their father’s death, Annabelle supported their older brother Alfred’s decision to take their mother off life support, which Avis vehemently opposed. The youngest brother, Avery, a singer, rapper, and actor now based in Los Angeles, who calls himself EZ-AC, eventually sided with Alfred and Annabelle, causing Avis to drop her opposition, and sever all ties with her family. Within a year, she began her ministry in a small storefront in downtown Duluth, and began recruiting members by preaching on street corners.
As far as endings go, Jack Standridge had one of the best. He simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up the next morning. A Marine, who served in Korea, he came home to Decatur, Georgia, where he found a job with his father’s insurance agency, eventually taking over the business when his father retired. Along the way, he married Nancy Belmonte, a lively woman he met at Georgia State, and together, they had three children, two sons, Rex and Lawrence, and a daughter, Claire, who they lost at age eight to a congenital heart defect. Just before the kids started school, he and Nancy bought a nice home in Avondale Estates, now devoid of all but the two of them, though the day before the house had been filled with family, Rex, his wife and four kids, stopping in on their way from Florida to Chattanooga.
Nancy, always an early riser, discovers when she comes to rouse him for breakfast, that Jack is cold, not breathing, but wearing his customary smile. She mostly remains calm, allowing herself only a few sniffles as she goes into another room to summon the authorities, then begin the process of alerting the family. Grief will come later, when it’s official, when all the details have been ironed out. Then she will mourn.
By eleven that morning, Lawrence has arrived from Ansley Park, where he lives with his partner Elijah Parker, who’s in Washington until the end of the week, and Claire Belmonte is there. Claire came to their home at age sixteen, after running away from a nightmare situation in Middle Georgia. The Standridges welcomed her into their home and family, and Claire remained with them for nearly four years, taking Nancy’s family name as her own, completing her high school equivalency, and starting junior college as a sound technician. Though she moved into Atlanta just prior to her twentieth birthday, she remains close with the family, stopping in at least once a month, and her relationship with the Standridges has been more like that of an adopted daughter. By the time Lawrence, then Claire arrive, the medical examiner has come and gone, verifying what Nancy already knew, that Jack passed, quietly, in his sleep the night before, and transporting him to the coroner.
There’s already a small crowd there, mainly close neighbors alerted by the police cars and coroner’s van that something wasn’t right, and universally complimentary of the man now gone. Nancy alerted Rex, but insisted he and his family continue their brief vacation, and come by on their way back, when arrangements will be more formalized. Having finished most of her self-appointed duties, Nancy now finds herself seated on the couch, surrounded by Claire, and Barbara Stewart, her next-door neighbor, who have taken over the roles of chief comforters, Barbara constantly assuring Nancy that “Jack’s in a better place”, and Claire inquiring frequently if Nancy needs anything. From here, Nancy entertains a continuous stream of well-wishers as word of Jack’s passing filters throughout the enormous community of those who knew him. She finally relaxes, and settles into the role of grieving spouse, knowing fully well that she will need to make many difficult decisions in the days to come. The most difficult arrives a few days following the funeral, in the person of an agent representing Walker Development, inquiring about Nancy’s plans for her property, and promising a competitive offer on the home.
Depending upon one’s point of view, Walker Development is either a dynamic force for revitalization around Atlanta, or an unfeeling corporate behemoth, mercilessly dotting the landscape with gaudy, overpriced McMansions that only the super-wealthy can afford. As young people from the suburbs of the Atlanta Metro area have moved back into town, fueling gentrification in formerly minority neighborhoods, Walker, among others, has been there, encouraging them to demolish the older structures in favor of new, more upscale dwellings, which the developers will, of course, design and build. The previous residents, many of whom have lived in the neighborhoods their entire lives, suddenly find the costs of taxes and utilities becoming unbearable, and always, the developers are there, offering low-income residents just slightly more than the “book value” of the property, to encourage them to move on quickly. Once they’re gone, the modest homes are replaced with vastly more elaborate structures, which sometimes sell for a thirty to fifty times the cost to the developer, and which increase the stress on the crumbling infrastructure the city or county maintains. Along the way, old neighborhood names, kept alive by the elderly black residents, who learned them from their parents and grandparents, get resurrected, as the Fourth Ward becomes The Old Fourth Ward, and the areas south of the tracks from Chandler Park and Lake Claire become Kirkwood and East Atlanta Village. Once-quiet little neighborhoods find themselves overrun with coffee shops and corner bars, and choked with increasing traffic, as non-residents flock there, sometimes from as far away as Bartow or Henry County, to sample the local ambience.
The representative from Walker is a first contact, a young woman, who’s very deferential and self-effacing, complementing the home, and expressing sincere condolences for Nancy’s loss. She doesn’t stay long, and leaves a few brochures for Nancy to look at “when the timing is right”. Nancy knows, however, that once she’s on their radar, the contacts will increase, and become more insistent, phone calls, mailings, and visits, not just from Walker, but from any number of developers or real estate agents. She doesn’t relish the thought of having her family’s memories demolished, but without Jack, staying no longer seems desirable for her.