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.
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.
- Journey From Night
- A Debt to Pay
- Dead Man’s Hat
- Bare-Assed Messiah
- Atomic Punk
Release date: August 1.
Available at online bookstores and direct from the author.
Zachariah made it clear to Selma that caring for the baby did not take priority over her responsibilities as a wife, so often, Christine was neglected as Selma saw to the needs of her husband. Despite this, Christine thrived, always large for her age. Doctors who examined her thought she was several months older than she actually was and sometimes insisted on seeing her birth certificate to confirm. As she grew, she spent much time with her uncle Alvin’s family in another county whenever her father would declare he was tired of looking at her and as Christine gained awareness of her situation, she was thankful for the warm and loving environment her uncle provided, versus the cold and cruel confines of her father’s house. On numerous occasions, Alvin insinuated that he and his family would be happy to let Christine stay with them on a permanent basis, but Zachariah always said no.
“The girl’s my responsibility,” he’d say. He never called Christine by name, always calling her “the girl” or just “girl” when addressing her directly.
One person who took a lot of interest in Christine was Deacon Frederick, who was his usual warm and accepting self. In Christine’s case, he was especially so, and always had a piece of peppermint candy for her, and took a genuine delight in whatever story she would tell. Christine came to wish that Deacon Frederick was her father and that she could go live in his fine house in town, rather than the modest and unadorned household her mother maintained at Zachariah’s insistence. For his part, Deacon Frederick always felt a closeness to Christine that was different than what he felt for all the other children in the congregation. He frequently scolded Messner for not showing more affection toward his daughter.
“You got you a fine little girl there, Zachariah,” Frederick said once. “It’s just not right to treat her like you do.”
“The Lord has given me this burden to endure and I shall endure it as I see fit,” was Messner’s reply.
Whenever Frederick would raise the issue with Selma, she would get quiet and change the subject quickly.
“He’s my husband,” she’d say of Zachariah. “I must yield to his judgment.”
At age thirteen, Christine was considered awkward and pudgy, with full, rosy cheeks, very long feet and short, dark hair. Zachariah rarely spent any money on her, other than for food and what he paid for upkeep on their house. He especially didn’t want to waste funds on things she’d only outgrow in a year or so, so her clothing was a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs from kindly neighbors with older kids, or tidbits Selma picked up at the local thrift shop for less than a dollar. The kids at school often teased her about her clothes, but despite this, Christine remained outwardly cheerful and friendly, often laughing along with the other kids, though sometimes when she was alone, she’d cry because of their taunting. Her best friend was Jodie Newcombe, and Christine often spent the afternoon at Jodie’s home, studying and doing their homework, since Zachariah forbade her from reading anything other than the Bible under his roof.
In school, Christine was mostly studious and polite, but in one class, English, she earned a reputation for being disruptive, prompting her teacher, Mr. Standridge, to keep her after school a lot. Mr. Standridge noticed, however, that when Christine was in detention, she never acted out, but was always polite and courteous.
“Is it okay if I read, Mr. Standridge?” Christine asked the first time she showed up after school.
“You may work on your assignments, Christine,” he replied. “That’s fine.”
“No. I was hoping I can read some of them books on that shelf,” she said, pointing to the literary works he assigned to the older students.
“If you’d like,” he said.
For the next few days, Christine would report for detention, and sit, quietly reading books from the shelf. The rate at which she finished them astonished Mr. Standridge, who began to recognize a pattern.
“Christine, can I ask you a question?” he asked her one afternoon.
“Yes sir, Mr. Standridge.”
“Why are you always acting up in my class?” he says. “I’ve spoken to the other teachers and they say you’re a model student in their classes. Why not mine?”
Christine lowered her head. “I don’t mean no disrespect, Mr. Standridge. I just wanted to read some of your books and figured if you kept me after class, I could.”
“If you like to read, I can loan you the books.”
“No sir. My father don’t want me reading at the house.”
“You can’t read at home?”
“No sir. My father only lets me read the Bible at home. I have to leave my book bag at my friend Jodie’s at night. He won’t even let me bring my school books in.”
“I’ll tell you what, Christine,” Standridge said, “I’ll let you come here in the afternoon and read all you want. You can tell your parents whatever you need to as to why you stayed after school. I won’t count it against you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Standridge,” Christine said, very excited.
From then on, Christine was a regular presence in Mr. Standridge’s classroom after school. While she normally would greet him when she entered, read for a while, then say goodbye as she exited, sometimes they’d have brief conversations. He came to enjoy having her there, and admired her studiousness.
“Is that your family?” Christine asked about a photo on his desk.
“It is. My mom and dad, brother Rex, and sister Claire.”
“You still close with your sister?”
“I was. She died when we were children,” he said.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Christine said. “Was she in an accident or something?”
“No, she had a rare heart condition. Now they have a surgery that might have saved her, but they hadn’t developed it back then. Such a shame.”
“Bet you miss her.”
“I do, Christine. Very much.”
“Why ain’t you married, Mr. Standridge?” Christine asked.
“Aren’t, Christine. The proper way to say that is, ‘Why aren’t you married’.”
Christine laughed. “Okay, Mr. Standridge. Why aren’t you married? I mean, you’re a good-looking guy. Lot of the older girls got crushes on you.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that.”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she said. “I’m just wondering.”
“Not every man is marriage material Christine. I’m still young, though, so, who knows?”
Christine Messner was a large baby, nearly ten pounds, and Selma was in labor with her for twenty-seven hours. Zachariah forbade her from accepting anything for the pain, owing to Genesis 3:16, so Selma was in quite a bit of distress throughout. While the doctors had not known the gender, based on how much weight Selma had gained, she and Zachariah assumed the child would be a boy.
When she learned she had a girl and Zachariah had left the hospital, Selma took this as a bad sign. She wondered if, perhaps, her husband had done the math, or if, maybe the news that his new child wasn’t the son he had prayed for so vigorously throughout her pregnancy was too much for Messner to bear. In any event, his lack of enthusiasm signaled to Selma that the worst was still to come.
She had to call her brother Alvin to come pick her up and take her and the baby home. As she expected, Zachariah wasn’t there. He was most likely at work or the church, which is where she could count on him being when he wasn’t at home.
In fact, Zachariah had taken a drive into Macon to a strip club he sometimes visited when he felt he needed to renew his purpose. He wasn’t titillated by the dancers or their bodies and never interacted with them. He just sat away from the action, observing, judging, filling his mind with images of fire and brimstone, and all the inhabitants swimming in a lake of fire. If he ordered any food, he’d pay for it without leaving a tip then venture forth, back into his existence fueled by his hatred and disgust.
See, Zachariah had already determined that he hated the girl. He knew this from the moment the words left the nurse’s lips at the hospital. His hatred for her knew no depths, but he chose to take a pragmatic approach to the situation and ask himself why God had chosen to test him in this manner. He resolved that he would not be found lacking and at first, imagined himself some evening after Selma had gone to bed, placing a pillow over the child’s face and holding it there as she stopped squirming. As he drove, however, a new idea replaced this one. Smothering her would be too kind, too easy, and he wanted to be sure nothing for her would ever be easy.
Zachariah Messner was a stern and pious man, a deacon at the Messianic Holiness Congregation, a small church in Houston County, Georgia, near Perry, with no known affiliations to any of the recognized Christian denominations. A man with few pleasures in life, he believed himself to be head of his household and insisted his wife arise at least a half hour before him to start breakfast and would not allow a morsel to be consumed before the morning prayer was said. He started and ended each day with a reading of the Bible, and was always mindful of how those around him perceived his and his family’s actions. Those who knew him often commented on his steadfastness and piety. He clung to his beliefs, not because he felt them in his heart, but because they made the world manageable for him.
In this same congregation, was another deacon, James Frederick, and there was no one more different than Messner. Frederick was a jovial man, who enjoyed the presence of others and made those with whom he interacted feel comfortable and more certain in their beliefs. While Messner was rigid and unyielding in his faith, Frederick could read between the lines and recognized the subtle shades of gray that existed in all interactions. One could claim Frederick’s motto was “always forgive” while Messner’s was “never forget”. Frederick also opened each day with a prayer, but while Messner’s tended to be shallow and self-serving, Frederick concentrated on those in the congregation most in need of guidance and assistance. Needless to say, the two were frequently at odds over church doctrine, with Frederick an unapologetic believer in the Apostle Paul’s message of love and fellowship, while Messner called for a rigid adherence to dogma.
In his thirties, Messner met and married Mylene Tucker, an attractive woman twelve years his junior, with a good heart and a pleasant disposition which contrasted sharply with that of her husband. Despite this, their marriage seemed happy as they anticipated starting a family. Within a few months, Mylene announced she was pregnant, but just two months in, she miscarried. Nevertheless, the couple persisted and six months after her first conception, Mylene was expecting another. This one, too, ended abruptly, establishing a pattern that would recur again and again. As it became a predictable occurrence, Messner took to blaming Mylene, attributing her inability to carry a child on some moral failing he had yet to ascertain. Her once cheery disposition withered, as Zachariah found more and more ways in which she failed in her devotion.
The end finally came in the ninth year of their marriage. Zachariah found some lipstick she had purchased and severely chastised her for catering to her vanity. She swore she only did it to help out her friend who was selling cosmetics, and had no intention of using it. Still, Messner was merciless in his condemnation, and ordered her to spend the day reading the Bible and atoning for her selfishness. That evening, when Messner arrived home, he found Mylene dead in the bathtub having cut her throat using one of his straight razors. On the mirror, written in the lipstick, were the words, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”. Messner wasn’t long in finding another wife and less than four months after burying Mylene, he married Selma, the thirty-five-year-old spinster sister of Alvin Porter.
Theirs wasn’t a particularly loving marriage. For one thing, changing wives had not changed Messner’s fortunes in starting a family. Just as Mylene before her, Selma endured numerous difficult pregnancies, which all ended within the first two to three months. Rather than look inward and wonder if, perhaps, he was the cause, Messner instead blamed Selma’s lack of devotion on their misfortunes. As a result, Selma became despondent, and finally sought out Deacon Frederick for advice and counsel. He invited her to his home so he could counsel her in private. After this had gone on two or three times a week for nearly a month, Selma once again found she was pregnant. When she made it past four months, Messner’s spirits were raised, and when Selma made it to term, Zachariah was certain the Lord had finally given him the son he hoped to mold into the perfect Christian warrior.
At last, Selma announced the time was at hand and Messner drove her to the regional medical center, where he waited in the maternity ward for news. Finally, a nurse emerged and called his name.
“Congratulations, Mr. Messner. You have a daughter.”
“A girl,” Zachariah said with little enthusiasm.
Zachariah took in the news, shook his head and walked out of the hospital. Selma named the girl Christine.