Dander and Leander

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.”

Leah nods.

Dottie puts her arm around Leah and guides her into her room. “Let’s get you home.”

The Handmaiden

Peace statue, Atlantic Station, Atlanta, GA.

Leah Walker steps up to the door of Rosalind Duchard’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and rings the bell. She’s there to meet with Rosalind and her husband, Paul, about a request they made of her at a previous meeting. Leah is still undecided on what her answer will be, but Rosalind has promised to have a legal agreement drawn up to spell out everyone’s responsibilities and the legal consequences of everything.

She’s met at the door by Paul, a man in his fifties, somewhat overweight, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and a madras shirt.

“Leah,” Paul says, with little enthusiasm. “You’re early. Rosalind isn’t back yet.” He makes no effort to invite her in.

“Can I come in anyway?” Leah says.

Paul considers it. “Oh. Yeah. Sure.”

He steps aside to allow her entry.

In the year since becoming Rosalind’s lab assistant, Leah has come to regard her as a mentor and friend, and Rosalind has successfully wrested from Leah’s aunt, Margaret, the title of “second most important” woman in Leah’s life. Around MIT, faculty, staff, and students recognize that talking to Leah is almost the same as having Rosalind’s ear, and some faculty members prefer Leah’s accessibility to wading through the sea of interpersonal issues they have to navigate to work with Rosalind. Leah and Rosalind spend most of the day together, and many evenings, depending on the time of year, or the grants Rosalind is managing. Their close working arrangement often draws the ire of Rosalind’s husband.

Leah has only had a few interactions with Paul Duchard, but they’ve been icy and uncomfortable. He always greets her with a stern look, and an over abundance of sighs and eye rolls. She’s found his reactions rarely change, regardless of how polite or friendly she tries to be around him. On the occasions they’ve been alone when she’s visiting, any interest she shows in getting to know him is met with monosyllabic responses, and it isn’t out of the ordinary for Paul to excuse himself whenever Leah and Rosalind are talking, even when they’re chatting and not discussing academic matters. Leah suspects Paul may have Asperger Syndrome, but whenever she’s broached the topic with Rosalind, she always dismisses Leah’s suspicions, telling Leah she just needs to get to know Paul better.

Paul leads Leah to the living room, where she sits on the couch. He takes a seat in an overstuffed chair that has a guitar leaning against it.

“You play guitar?” Leah asks.

“Yeah, picked it up when I was in high school,” he says. “Some of my colleagues in the Math department have a jazz band. We play at clubs around town.”

“Really? I never knew that,” Leah says.

“Well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me, Leah,” Paul says. He folds his hands in front of him and glances at the clock. “Rosie should be here anytime now.”

They sit in awkward silence for several minutes.

“Can I ask you something, Paul?” she says. “I mean, since we have a little time.”

“What is it?” Paul asks.

“What exactly have I done to piss you off?” Leah says.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Paul says without facing her.

“Like hell you don’t,” she says. “Almost from the moment I met you, all I’ve gotten is attitude. You’re short with me. You give me a hard time every time I call here for Rosie. I’d just like to know what’s behind it.”

Paul sighs. “There’s no big mystery, Leah. I don’t like you. No reason. You just rub me the wrong way.”

“Perfect,” she says. “Another one of those guys, eh?”

“Those guys?” Paul says. “What does that mean?”

“I’ve been dealing with guys like you my entire life,” Leah says. “You’ve got some kind of bug up your ass about strong women, or women in science, or whatever.”

“My feelings toward you have nothing to do with your being a woman in science,” Paul says. “Do you honestly think I could have married Rosalind Worthy if I’d had any reservations about that? If not for other factors, I’d probably be your champion.”

“What other factors might those be?” Leah says.

Paul stares at her, considering something. Finally, he says, “Your father is Paxton Walker isn’t he — the Walker behind Walker Development?”

“Yes, he is,” Leah says.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” Paul continues, “but after Rosie gave me a few more facts, I pretty well confirmed it.”

Leah shakes a finger at him. “You’re from Atlanta. Rosie never mentioned that.”

“She knows I went to Tech,” Paul says. “But she doesn’t know much about my early history. I’ve been a little mysterious about that, and she hasn’t really pressed me on it. It’s mutual. There’s quite a bit I don’t know about her past either.”

“Okay, spill it,” Leah says. “What’s your beef with my father?”

“You’re no doubt familiar with Dunkirk Estates?” Paul says.

“It was my father’s first major development deal. It made him a millionaire,” Leah says. “You lived in Dunkirk Estates?”

“No,” Paul replies. “My family and I lived in The Commons, which is what we called the neighborhood your father demolished in order to build Dunkirk Estates.”

“Wow, small world,” Leah says, mostly to herself.

“Yeah, too small, apparently,” he says. “We were sent packing, along with a community of over fifty families after Walker Development greased the palms of county commissioners to have them claim eminent domain on our homes.”

“So, call a lawyer,” she says. “If you had a valid claim to the property, you could have fought the county’s decision.”

“We couldn’t afford that,” he says. “Besides, the bulldozers were out there the following morning. We barely had time to finish packing.”

“What does any of this have to do with me?” Leah says. “I’m not my father. I was a child when he built that development.”

“No. But you benefited from it just the same, didn’t you?”

“For your information, my father and I had a parting of the ways before I started MIT,” Leah says. “He’s not paying for any of this.”

“What difference does it make if you’re being financed directly from him or through your trust fund?” Paul says. “You’ve still gotten all your advantages from his blood money. It’s what got you here.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” she says, “the mastery of coursework and long hours of studying were hardly a factor. Do you even know what my GPA was at Wellesley? That’s not a walk in the park, you know. Plus, I was jointly enrolled here for my last two years.”

“I’m not discounting your intelligence or drive,” he says, “but you’ve had opportunities handed to you most people cannot imagine.”

“You don’t seem to be doing so bad, yourself, Paul,” Leah says. “Whatever your upbringing, you seem to have overcome it.”

“Was there ever any question where you’d go to school?” Paul says. “Any doubt you’d be able to finance it?”

Leah looks away. “No. Not really.”

“Well in my case, there was quite a bit,” he says. “My family couldn’t afford to send me to school. My mother and father both worked outside the home just to scrape together enough to keep a roof over our heads. I’ve had to work my ass off most of my life for opportunities you routinely take for granted. You’re right. I’m doing very well now, and I earned every damn penny of it.”

“What’s that they say about the sins of the father?” Leah says.

“Look, I don’t hold you personally accountable for the things your father did,” Paul says.

“Could have fooled me,” she replies.

“You need to understand,” he goes on, “there were lives connected to every dollar your father made and you benefited directly from all of it.”

Leah stares at him a long moment, then shakes her head and chuckles. “Kind of ironic, isn’t it, the role I may end up playing for you and Rosie.”

“That’s Rosie’s idea, not mine,” Paul says. “I told her I couldn’t care less if our children were Jewish. I haven’t set foot inside Temple since the day I watched them bulldoze the only home I’d ever known.”

“Then why me?” Leah says. “There are at least five Jews on her Wall of Stars. Esther Gershon outshines me in pretty much all her academic accomplishments. She’s not married yet.”

“Rosie insisted,” he says. “She has this criteria in her head; math and science; Jewish; you don’t want children of your own. You seem to meet all her requirements. She calls you her star student, or something like that.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Leah says.

“How should I know?” Paul says. “Rosie says all sorts of crazy stuff. I tried to tell her the edict to marry proper Jewish women was from Ezra, post-exile. It’s not even mentioned in Genesis, but she’s obsessed.”

“Yeah, I wondered about that,” Leah says. “I seem to recall Leviticus has provisions for men carrying on their family line — surprise, surprise — but I don’t recall it being very explicit about women. Well, there’s Ruth.”

“Also Second Temple period,” Paul says.

“Yeah. Whatever,” Leah says, waving her hand dismissively. “Look, I’m not terribly enamored with the idea of future offspring sharing your DNA either, though, granted, they’ll definitely kick ass academically. This isn’t about us, though. It’s about Rosie.”

“Agreed,” Paul says.

“It’s not like we’ll be otherwise bound to one another,” Leah says. “If Rosie comes through with the agreement I requested, I’m prepared to wash my hands of the whole affair once the donation is done.”

“I could get behind that,” Paul says. “Plus, I have to agree. Given your academic credentials, any offspring should definitely have a strong math and science foundation. You’re a scientist; your father was an engineer. What did his father do?”

“He was a grocer,” Leah says. “Walker Groceries in Georgia and the Carolinas.”

“Multi-generational privilege, what do you know?” Paul says. “A typical southern tale.”

He picks up his guitar and starts improvising a Jazz riff. “Are you musical?”

Leah shakes her head, with a chuckle. “In high school, I tried trumpet, violin, and saxophone, and was pretty horrible on each one. If I get enough wine in me, I can usually do a mean Blues harmonica, but I doubt Dylan or the Stones will be calling anytime soon. As far as singing, I can usually hold my own in a chorus, as long as there are enough other voices to drown me out.”

“Yeah, I don’t have much of a voice either,” he says. He improvises several more bars on the guitar.

“You’re pretty good at that,” she says. A thought comes to her. “Say, maybe you can explain something to me. What is Rosie’s deal with May 23rd?”

“What do you mean?” Paul asks.

“When I asked her to be my thesis advisor, she didn’t want to take me on without knowing me better,” she replies. “So, I suggested she could hire me as her lab assistant.”

“Right.”

“She was showing me some stuff afterward,” she says, “how she does her grading, what not. The subject of my birthday came up — it was a couple of days away — and when Rosie learned I was born May 23, 1969, she sort of freaked out. Well, as much as Rosie freaks out.”

“What did she do?” Paul says.

“She walked away from me, thinking,” Leah says. “Then she stared at me a long time and confirmed I was born May 23, 1969. After that, she said, ‘Isn’t that something?’ Then she told me she’d reconsidered and agreed to be my advisor after all.”

“That’s odd,” he says. “But, like I say, I don’t know much about Rosie’s past. She’s never mentioned anything about that date. Her birthday is in March, and we were married in June.”

The front door opens and closes.

“Guess that’s Rosie,” Leah says. “Looks like there’s no turning back now.”

“It’s looking that way,” he says.

They face the door, to await Rosalind’s entrance.

Events of 1985, Leah

Computer keyboard

Leah Walker, age sixteen, descends into the basement of her family’s home in Buckhead, in Atlanta, a box of Lucky Charms in her hand, and sits at one of the computers she’s set up. Since it’s Saturday, Leah is wearing her typical household attire, cargo shorts, an oversized rugby shirt with the sleeves pulled up, and white Reeboks. The computers were purchased by her father, Paxton, with the idea they’d be used to connect him to his office, or allow him to work from home, but so far, Leah has been the only one to figure out how to use them, so they’ve more or less become hers to do with as she pleases. Her father still gives her assignments, such as connecting to his office network to post messages, or download files, but these don’t take up a lot of time, so she’s free to pursue her own interests.

Lately, her interests have included connecting to computer bulletin boards on the West Coast. A few months earlier, Leah saw a report on a network news magazine show about teen hackers in California who compromise the phone companies and invade computer networks. Two years earlier, she’d been enthralled by the film War Games, and ever since her father brought home the first computer, a Commodore 64, she’s been trying to tap into groups who could teach her how to pull off some of these tricks.

She switches on the stereo, and the room is filled with the Thompson Twins, from rotation at WRAS 88.5, Georgia State University’s radio station. She sits at the Amiga 1000, which her father recently purchased, and waits for it to power up. On another table is a Macintosh, Leah’s personal favorite for schoolwork, and on a portable stand nearby sits the Commodore 64, which is used mainly for gaming since the Amiga came along, with its new operating system, Windows 1.0, that Leah has been learning on her own, though she’s been badgering her parents to let her take a course at the Learning Annex on the Windows system.

“Hold me now, hold me in your loving arms,” Leah sings along with the radio. She opens the cereal and takes out a handful, which she pops into her mouth, then clicks on the modem software and selects a number from the list. The modem makes its usual wavering and staticky noises as it connects her to a box just outside Los Angeles, which, she’s recently learned, is a meeting point for several hacker groups. She logs in with her handle, JoeMamba, then begins exploring what’s new since her last visit. So far, she’s mainly lurked, following various threads without contributing more than a few questions. Not wanting anyone to suspect she’s a high school kid from Georgia, she’s set up her profile as Lee Johannes, a male college student from somewhere in the Midwest. As she explores the message board, she keeps notes on a yellow pad by the computer.

After about twenty-five or thirty minutes, Leah disconnects, and slides the yellow pad over, so she can see it. For the past several days, there’s been a discussion about a “backdoor” someone left on a server in Texas, and Leah’s anxious to see if she can get in using it. She keys in the modem number and waits for it to connect. Once she gets the prompt, she uses the credentials mentioned on the board, and this allows her access. From there, she has no idea what she’s supposed to do. It’s a Unix machine, and Leah has had even less experience with this type of system, than with Windows. She starts trying out some of the commands she has learned to see what they do.

Her sister, Alyssa, a tiny, blonde girl, four-years-old, appears at the door, standing on her tiptoes, which she’s in the habit of doing when she’s not wearing shoes. She has on a long, My Little Pony nightgown.

“Leah,” she says. “Can I play the bear game on the computer?”

“Sure, Princess,” Leah says. She pats her left knee. “Want to see what I’m doing?”

Alyssa hurries over and climbs onto Leah’s knee. “What is it?”

Leah leans toward one of Alyssa’s ears and says in a low voice, “It’s called hacking, so don’t tell Mom and Dad.”

“Okay,” Alyssa says.

Leah holds the cereal box for Alyssa, and she takes out a handful, which she eats one piece at a time, while she watches what Leah’s doing.

“This is a computer in Texas I’m not supposed to be logging into,” Leah says.

“Why are you doing it?” Alyssa asks.

“I think the main reason is because I can,” Leah says, “but beyond that I’m not real sure.”

“I want to play the bear game,” Alyssa says, sliding off Leah’s lap.

“All right,” Leah says, “it’s still there from last time, but use the headphones, okay?”

“I will,” Alyssa says.

“Remember how to turn it on?” Leah asks.

“Yep,” Alyssa says. She sits at the console, and starts the computer. She loads a program with cartoon bears in it, then puts on some headphones. As she plays, she occasionally hums along with the music in the game.

From the top of the stairs, her mother, Melinda, announces, “Leah, Gita’s here.”

Leah rolls to the door in the swivel chair and yells back, “Tell her I went to the North Pole.”

“She’s standing right here,” Melinda yells back.

“Oh. Don’t tell her that, then,” Leah says. “Are her legs working?”

There’s a pause, followed by Melinda saying, “They appear to be.”

“Well use them, Gita,” Leah calls back. She rolls back to the computer. A minute or so later, Gita, an Indian girl with short, black hair, and wearing sandals, cut-off jeans, and a bulky Frankie Say Relax T-shirt, enters. She stops, regards Leah with frustration, and says, “Why are you screwing around on the computer? We’re supposed to be going to the park.” She glances at Alyssa and says, “Hey, Aly.”

“She can’t hear you,” Leah says without removing her eyes from the screen. “Headphones.” Leah looks at the clock. “It’s ten forty-two. The park will still be there.”

Gitanjali Ramachandra or Gita, as she prefers to be known, is the daughter of the chief financial officer at Bickering Plummet, and has lived in Atlanta since her parents immigrated there when Gita was three-years-old. She and Leah met at school, and their families have gotten to know one another since Paxton’s firm won the bid to design an annex to Bickering’s corporate headquarters scheduled to be completed around the time she and Leah graduate in 1987. She jostles Alyssa’s hair, which prompts Alyssa to look up and say, “Hey, Gita!”

“Want some cereal?” Leah says, offering the box to Gita.

“Lucky Charms?” Gita says, with a sour look.

“Hey, they’re magically delicious,” Leah says, withdrawing her offer. “Never mind, then.” She eats another handful.

Gita plops down in an overstuffed chair nearby and sighs.

“Is that the Amiga?” Gita says.

“Yeah. My father likes to be on the cutting edge of the computing revolution,” Leah says. “The only problem is he has no idea how any of this works. That’s where I come in.”

“That’s convenient,” her friend says.

“It’s practically the only time Dad talks to me, when he needs something done on the computer,” Leah says. “Have you ever heard of the Arpanet?”

Gita shakes her head. “What is it?”

“Near as I can figure, it’s this gigantic network that connects the military with colleges and government agencies,” Leah says.

“Why would they need to be connected like that?” Gita says.

“I don’t know,” Leah says. “I guess schools that do research need to connect with the places that fund them. I read someplace the Arpanet was built to withstand a nuclear war.”

“That’s helpful to know,” Gita replies with more than a hint of sarcasm.

Twenty minutes later, Gita has shifted in the chair, so her feet, sans footwear, are over the back, and her head is hanging back over the seat. “How long are you going to be screwing around on that computer?”

“Sorry,” Leah says. “Once I get going, it gets addictive.” She disconnects from what she’s doing and shuts down the Amiga. She rises. “What’s the plan, Piedmont Park?”

Gita maneuvers in the chair so her feet are on the ground, then slips on her sandals, and stands. “That’s what I thought.”

“Anyone meeting us?” Leah says.

“I said something about it to Stewart,” Gita says.

“Stewart, the ass wipe who calls you Rama-lama-ding-dong?” Leah says. “Honestly, Gita, what do you see in that guy?”

“He’s cute,” Gita says. “Besides, he said he’d stop calling me that.”

“When’s he going to start? Monday?” Leah says.

Gita rolls her eyes.

“Why are you even looking at Stewart, anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be getting married?” Leah asks her.

“Not before I’m twenty,” Gita says.

“I cannot believe there’s a guy sitting over in India waiting for you to come over and marry him,” Leah says.

“No. Raja’s in Canton,” Gita says. “His family moved here five years ago.”

“Still, what do you know about this guy?” Leah says.

“Our families go way back,” she says. “They matched us up when we were six months old.”

“Well, good luck with that,” Leah says. “I’m never getting married.”

“What about Mitchell?” Gita says. “You’ve been seeing him for a while.”

“He’s okay, but creepy,” she says. “Always pestering me to come over to his house. Says he wants to show me something.”

“Like what?” Gita says.

“Oh, take a good guess.” Leah takes the cereal and goes over to Alyssa, who’s engrossed in her game. She pulls one of the headphones away from Alyssa’s ear, and sets the cereal beside the keyboard.

“You’re on your own, Princess,” Leah says, then bends down and kisses Alyssa on the forehead.

Alyssa laughs. “Okay. Bye, Leah. Bye, Gita.”

“Did you drive?” Leah asks as they head into the hallway toward the stairs.

“I just live across the street,” Gita says.

“Perfect!” Leah says. “Maybe we can get the Mercedes, then.”

They go upstairs into the kitchen, where Melinda is sitting at the counter reading the Constitution. A cigarette is burning in an ashtray nearby.

“Is Dad using the Mercedes today?” Leah says. She goes to the counter and takes a draw from the cigarette. Melinda takes it from her, and gives her an aggravated look, then puts it back in the ashtray.

“What’s wrong with Margaret’s car?” Melinda says.

“The Karmann Ghia doesn’t have a phone,” Leah says.

Leah learned how to drive in her aunt Margaret’s Karmann Ghia, and she’s been letting Leah drive it ever since Margaret purchased a sedan. One of the stipulations of Leah using it is that she service it herself, since Margaret doesn’t trust mechanics in the area, and Leah has become adept at most repairs.

“I think he’s golfing at noon,” Melinda says, “but I’m not sure if he’s driving or riding.”

“Let’s just take the convertible,” Gita says.

“Oh, all right,” Leah says. “But if we get stuck someplace and can’t call for help, don’t blame me.”

“What’s Alyssa doing?” Melinda asks.

“Playing that bear game for the five thousandth time,” Leah says.

“I’ll check on her in a minute,” Melinda says. “What are you girls doing today?”

“Piedmont Park,” Leah says. She kisses Melinda on the cheek. “Love you, Mom.”

“Have fun,” Melinda says.

Leah and Gita head out to the garage.

Ned Branch

Edward Abraham Branch, III, called “Ned” by his family to distinguish him from his grandfather, “Big Ed” and his father, still called “Eddie, Jr.” despite the elder Edward being dead for ten years, carried on the fine tradition of Branch men playing football at UGA. A quarterback, Ned was a natural player, and, as such, had not been much in the habit of working very hard in high school, despite his winning record on the field. When he arrived at the University, he found he could no longer get by on talent alone, and spent his first year on the bench, developing a work habit that would, eventually, earn him a starting spot on the team. His coaches recognized him as a solid, if not stellar player, who could be depended upon to go the distance, and elicit enough occasional brilliance to pull out the wins. About the same time he gained his starting spot, Ned married his high school sweetheart, Lindsay Maddox, who was also taking classes at UGA in financial planning. They decided to forego starting a family until their studies were behind them.

Ned’s attendance at UGA had been cast in doubt, when a local girl, Charlotte Sanger, identified him as the father of a child she was carrying. Charlotte was considered a mousy little thing, who was mostly known for singing in her church choir, and for being the sister of that guy who’d been caught fooling around with the son of the pastor at their Baptist congregation. She also had some weird disorder that caused her to repeat things people said to her, which earned her the nickname Echo at school. She’d befriended Ned and Lindsay their senior year, which led to her unexpectedly being named Homecoming Queen. Not wanting to involve the family in any messy controversy, Eddie, Jr. called Ned’s coach, Harold Ricketts, into his office at the car dealership, and impressed upon the coach a need for him to handle things. Coach Ricketts came up with a sweet plan to shift responsibility away from Ned and onto a teammate, but Charlotte made the issue moot by sneaking off in the middle of the night one evening, leaving behind no trace of where she’d gone.

In the Fall of 2000, Ned and Lindsay, expecting their first child together, move to Suwannee, in the Metro Atlanta area, where Ned, a fourth-round draft pick for the Falcons, is beginning his tenure as the backup quarterback. It’s here the couple learns what became of their friend, Charlotte, as they discover that the singers who’ve been invited to perform the National Anthem at the season opener are Charlotte and her brother, Brian, who call themselves Echo. The team does not interact with the opening duo, but Lindsay finds herself in the Skybox with them, and after a few awkward moments, during which she meets the boy Charlotte introduces as her son, they reconcile, and Lindsay promises to have the family over to their home in Suwannee. When Lindsay tells Ned of the encounter, he’s secretly somewhat relieved to learn Charlotte did not name the boy fully after him, as he has no intention of being the father of Edward Abraham, IV.

Ned finally meets the boy, Edward Ishmael, who his family calls Izzy, when Charlotte, her brother, Brian, and Izzy visit a few weeks later. In their discussions leading up to the visit, it was decided that they weren’t going to hide the fact that Ned is Izzy’s father from the boy, but when they introduce Ned as such to Izzy, he seems to take it in stride, being far too young to realize the implications of it all. Izzy turns out to be an energetic child, with a natural curiosity about the world around him, and no shyness toward new people. He and Ned hit it off immediately, and Brian and Ned spend nearly an hour chasing him around the yard and playing catch with him, while Lindsay and Charlotte chat in the kitchen.

After the meeting with Izzy goes well, Ned discusses with Lindsay the possibility of Ned formally acknowledging Izzy as his son. Lindsay voices no objections, though she is concerned the timing might overshadow the arrival of their child, who, they’ve learned from the ultrasound, is also a boy. Ned agrees to discuss it with the team’s legal counsel, and to bring Charlotte into the discussions before they go very far. They both agree, however, to leave his family back home out of the conversation, until after decisions have been reached, since they would almost certainly object and cause difficulties.

Lawyers for the team outline the process of acknowledging paternity, but caution Ned that he should confirm with a paternity test that he is Ishmael’s father. Ned doesn’t believe Charlotte will appreciate this step, since he believes she’s telling the truth about Ned being the only man who could be the father, but agrees to broach the subject with her. Officials with the team express concerns over the publicity such a move might bring, but Ned argues that his position on the team will only become more visible as time goes on, and Charlotte can be counted upon to be discrete, especially if she’s respected throughout the process. Acknowledging this, the team gives him leave to quietly pursue the matter.

Ned leaves it up to Lindsay to approach Charlotte with the idea, since the two of them get along a bit better than he and Charlotte do. As it turns out, Deanna Savage, the mother of the family Charlotte’s living with is a social worker in Gwinnett County, and is well-acquainted with the process. Charlotte arranges a meeting with Deanna where she and the Branches discuss the matter in more detail. During the meeting, Ned mentions the idea of a paternity test, and Deanna agrees it would help establish Ned’s role as the father. While she doesn’t totally feel it’s necessary, Charlotte agrees to it, as well as amending Ishmael’s birth certificate to add Ned and to change Ishmael’s name to Branch. Deanna recommends several attorneys who specialize in such cases. After some discussion, everyone agrees Izzy’s name will become Edward Ishmael Sanger Branch.

Before any of this can take place, Lindsay goes into labor, and delivers a healthy baby boy, who she and Ned name John Isaac, though, from the start, they nickname him “Ike”. Izzy is thrilled to have a baby brother. Ned’s family is disappointed the child isn’t named after his father, but otherwise welcomes his arrival. Shortly after Ike’s birth, Charlotte receives the results of the test, which yield no surprises, and Ned completes the Paternity Acknowledgment form, has it notarized, and sends it off to Vital Records. Over the next several years, Ned and Lindsay have two daughters, Ansley Mae, and Emily Kaitlyn.

A year and a half into his contract, Ned, who’s being considered for a trade to Buffalo, gets his first and only start, in an away game against the Dolphins in Miami. He leads the team to a respectable 24-20 score, but in the final drive of the game, he gets tackled hard by a defensive end, just as he’s completed a long pass for a touchdown. The momentum of the opposing player, along with the angle Ned hits the ground, combine to give him a serious head and neck injury, which proves to be career-ending. Fortunately, Lindsay had the foresight to insure Ned has good personal injury coverage, over and above what the league provides, plus she’s been very prudent in investing his guaranteed earnings, which are considerable. As his rehabilitation begins, wheels start turning behind the scenes to capitalize on his popularity in the community. Officials with both political parties send out feelers to gauge his interest in running for local or county office. At no point is mention made of Ishmael’s existence.

Worthy 51, The Phone Call

Rhiannon Worthy enters her home in Seattle, Washington, and slips out of her Crocs, then pads across the living room, sorting through her mail. She’s been on a 48-hour rotation at the hospital, where she’s a nursing supervisor, and she’s looking forward to some down time. It’s been a week since her daughter, Abigail and niece, Genevieve left for Atlanta, and Rhiannon is hoping for a phone call updating her on their progress later this evening. While Genevieve has gone there to possibly start school at Georgia Tech, Abigail tagged along for moral support, and will most likely be back in a week or so.

She hears a delivery truck pulling up near her home, but thinks little of it, until her doorbell rings. She answers to find a Fedex driver outside with a medium-sized parcel. “Rhiannon Worthy?” She signs for it, and thanks the driver, then takes the package to the dining room table. She does not recognize the shipping address, which appears to be a realty office in Massachusetts.

Rhiannon gets a utility knife, and opens the box. Inside, she finds an off-brand cell phone with its charger, sitting on top of an envelope addressed to her, and two individually-wrapped packages. There’s a post-it on the phone that reads, “Start here”. The phone is dead, so she plugs it in. Once it comes on, she checks the directory and finds a single phone number programmed in. She hesitates a moment, then clicks to dial. After six or seven rings, a man answers, “Ms. Worthy. So glad you called.”

“Who is this?” Rhiannon says.

“My apologies,” he says. “This is Marcel Duchard. Paul’s brother. We met, once, years ago, at Rosalind and Paul’s wedding.”

“I remember,” she says. “You’re not in the US are you?”

“No, I’m in Mozambique these days,” he says. “My Portuguese is still a bit rusty, but I like the climate. I won’t elaborate further on my whereabouts, for obvious reasons.”

“Why have you contacted me?” she says.

“I realized I had some unfinished business with regards to Rosalind’s estate, so I had the package sent to you with a means of contacting me,” Marcel tells her. “Once I’ve explained everything, you’ll never hear from me again.”

“Okay, why all the cloak and dagger?” Rhiannon says.

“I apologize for the intrigue,” he says, “but, as you might imagine, I need to be somewhat discrete in my dealings within the US. It’s for your protection as much as mine. The cell phone you’re using is a burner, and I strongly recommend that you discard it once our call is done.”

“Fine,” Rhiannon says. “What’s this all about? What do you mean by unfinished business?”

“You’re Rosalind’s executor,” he says, “and have probably noted, her estate was fairly straight forward. Everything goes to Genevieve.”

“Right,” she says.

“Well, there’s one piece of property she left out of the copy of her will that you have,” he says. “That, she left to you. In the package, the very next item will be an envelope with your name on it. That contains an updated copy of her will, with details on the property. I suggest you file that as soon as possible.”

“What property?” Rhiannon says.

“It’s an old waterfront warehouse Rosalind paid five thousand for around 1972,” he replies. “Rather astute move on her part, actually. The building’s part of a riverfront development now. Worth millions.”

“Rosalind owned that?” Rhiannon says.

“Yes. She’s been leasing it out to an art academy since she’s had it,” Marcel says.

“I don’t understand any of this,” Rhiannon says. “Why wasn’t this in her original will?”

“She didn’t want you to know about it until she was gone, for reasons known only to her,” he says. “Again, I apologize, as I should have gotten this to you sooner, but news is sometimes hard to come by when one is running from authorities. I only learned of Rosalind’s death when I tried to contact my neice a month ago. By the way, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks,” she says.

“The other packages contain information which should tell you everything you need to know,” he says. “They’re Rosalind and Regan’s diaries.”

“Regan?” Rhiannon says to herself.

“Rosalind left them with me for safekeeping,” Marcel goes on. “When I had to leave, I gave them to an attorney friend of mine. She saw to it they were delivered to you, along with a method for contacting me. She can also put you in touch with the witnesses to the will.”

“Why didn’t Rosie just give them to me?” Rhiannon says.

“I’m afraid I’ve told you everything I can.” he says. “As you know, Rosalind could be rather mysterious in her dealings for no good reason. She set this up with me about a year after Paul died, and as her attorney, I couldn’t disclose anything about it until the time was right.”

“Okay, thanks,” Rhiannon says.

“Now, if there are no more questions, I’ll conclude our business,” Marcel says. “If you should speak to Genevieve, send her my regards. I’d contact her myself, but the last time we spoke, she told me she’d turn me in if she knew my whereabouts. I was a bit disappointed, but I understand.”

“What if I have other questions?” she says.

“I’m afraid you’re on your own,” he says. “I plan to lose this number as soon as I conclude this call, which I’m doing now.”

With that, the line disconnects.

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.