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.

Rain Maker

High Museum, Atlanta, GA, 26 July 2017

High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, 26 July 2017.

Leah Walker is seated in the reception area of the office of David Cairo, the leading venture capitalist in Atlanta. She’s been working as an independent contractor with firms around town, starting a few months after finishing up work on her second doctorate, which she earned from Georgia Tech, in Internet and Web Security. To drum up business, Leah hacked into the servers of several of Atlanta’s top companies, gathering facts which she used to compile dossiers on ways the companies could protect their Web assets. Her approach met with mixed reactions, with several companies threatening litigation, but a few, such as Bickering Plummet, were impressed, and put Leah under contract to help them sort out their online safety.

While working with Bickering Plummet, Leah learned of the site where the government announces requests for proposals to perform work for them, and began visiting it regularly. Between jobs, she found an announcement which caught her attention. The National Security Agency (NSA) is looking for a firm to develop methods for protecting the phone system in the event of a terrorist attack, and a special stipulation is that the contract must go to a minority-owned or woman-owned business. That same day, Leah logs onto the Georgia Secretary of State’s corporations website, and registers “L. J. Walker Security, LLC” and then sets out to secure financing. While she knows her father could supply her with funds, Leah doesn’t feel that’s the best way to make an impression, and instead schedules an appointment with Cairo.

In the mid-1990s, David Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro, like the Georgia city), an Atlanta native, like Leah, left his job as a Web designer at Bickering Plummet, and founded Cairo Enterprises, which he took public in 1997, during the high tech boom that was transforming the economy in Atlanta and elsewhere. Overnight, he had become a multi-billionaire, both exciting and confounding the business elite in the city. As the nineties drew to a close and the tech bubble burst, Cairo Enterprises initiated a merger with Bickering, which became one of the largest financial transactions of the new millennium, leaving Cairo even wealthier, and, by most accounts, much more eccentric. While he was awarded a seat on the board at Bickering, he relinquished it after only a few months, and began providing funds for innovative entrepreneurs, with a stated preference for brick and mortar operations with limited online presence.

Leah is somewhat wary of dealing with Cairo, who has a strained history with the Buckhead business community, in particular, her father, Paxton. On more than one occasion, while still CEO of his own firm, Cairo had been highly critical of Walker Development, Paxton’s company, barely concealing his contempt for its role in transforming Atlanta from what Cairo termed “a quaint Southern city” into “a monstrosity of glass and steel with no soul or charm”. Leah has heard such criticism about Walker Development throughout most of her life, particularly after becoming an adult, but Cairo made it personal, going so far as to compare Paxton, a multigenerational Georgian, and a proud graduate of both Tech and UGA, to General Sherman, whose forces torched Atlanta in 1864. In the late-90s, when Cairo was honored by the Buckhead Coalition, Paxton was very conspicuous in his absence. By courting Cairo’s support, Leah realizes she’ll most likely be severing all ties with her father.

Leah arrived at 12:55 for her 1:00 appointment, and it’s now 1:32. When she arrived, the receptionist, Tracey McIntosh, a woman in her early-fifties, who appears to be of mixed race, with a generous portion of Chinese or Korean as part of the mix, buzzed Cairo to let him know Leah was there, receiving acknowledgement and thanks from Cairo. About twenty minutes later, she buzzed him again, and this time, her entreaty was met with a terse, “Acknowledged.”

Not quite twenty minutes following the last announcement, the intercom buzzes, and Cairo’s voice comes through the speaker. “Tracey, I have this nagging feeling that I have an appointment scheduled.”

Tracey looks up at Leah, then punches the button. “L. J. Walker is still waiting to see you. Her appointment was for 1 p.m.”

“L. J. Walker?” Cairo replies with a note of surprise in his voice. “You don’t mean Leah Walker, do you? Dr. Leah Joanna Walker, Ph.D?”

“Yes, Mr. Cairo,” Tracey says.

“Why was I not informed of this?” Cairo says.

“I’ve notified you twice that she’s here,” Tracey says.

“This is outrageous,” Cairo says. Movement can be heard in his office, then his door flies open. He appears, then throws both hands over his mouth, wearing a look of consternation.

The man who greets Leah appears to be in his early-forties, but looks the farthest from a business professional as one can. His brown hair is shoulder length, and pushed back away from his face without the benefit of a comb. He’s not quite six feet tall, and appears to be carrying around at least twenty pounds of extra weight, and dressed in jeans and Reebok sneakers, with a buttoned down, striped, Arrow shirt, untucked, with the sleeves rolled up well above his elbows, and loose, wire-framed glasses, which he occasionally pushes up by applying equal pressure to each side. He looks like he hasn’t shaved in a few days.

Cairo fixes his gaze on Leah and lets out a low moan. “Dr. Walker, my deepest apologies for this appalling oversight.” He goes to her, bowing deferentially, “If only I had known you were waiting.” Cairo spins about and points at Tracey, and, in mock outrage, says, “Clean out your desk, Tracey. You’re done here.”

“Yes, Mr. Cairo,” she says blandly, and begins removing items from her drawers. Catching Leah’s eye, she twirls her finger beside her head, and mouths “Crazy”.

“Please, please, Dr. Walker,” he says, indicating his office. “Please join me in my office.”

He leads Leah into his office, closes the door, and indicates the chair in front of his desk. “Make yourself comfortable, Doctor.” As he moves behind his desk, he goes on, “Now, do you go by Dr. Walker or Dr. Doctor Walker?”

“Doctor’s fine,” Leah says with a bit of a sigh.

Cairo sits and folds his hands on the desk. “You understand, Doctor, that I’m taking quite a risk in meeting with you, given that litigation is still pending against you from a certain soft drink manufacturer in town.”

“We’re in a cooling down period,” she says. “Which is all I’m at liberty to say on the matter at this time.”

“The pause that mediates,” he says dramatically. “I must say, Doctor, your exploits have been very thrilling to see and hear about. You had the movers and shakers in this town quaking in their boots. Bickering’s IT chief was screaming for a security audit from top to bottom, and all you did was to play a few parlor tricks on them. It was a sight to behold.”

“In retrospect, I probably should have handled a few things differently,” she says.

“Bet Daddy Leroy didn’t take it well, did he?” he says.

“He was a little annoyed,” she says. “I did get called on the carpet by him after he had to field some calls. But, to his credit, he told them to hire me.”

“Speaking of dear old Dad, I must say, I was very surprised to see you’d scheduled an appointment with me,” Cairo says. “You’re not upset that I compared your father to Sherman?”

“No. Actually, I thought that was pretty funny,” she says, “and kind of justified.”

“Damn right it was. Everytime a charming piece of this city’s character was demolished and replaced with more glass and steel, there was usually a Walker Development sign out front,” Cairo says. “If it had been up to your father, we wouldn’t still have the Fox Theater.”

Leah shakes her head. “No. That wasn’t Dad.”

“It wasn’t?” Cairo says.

“No. Dad wanted to level the Georgian Terrace,” she says.

“Oh, right,” he says. “Alex Cooley shot that one down, I believe.”

They both sit and contemplate this a moment. Finally, Cairo says, “Oh well, enough pleasantries. Why are you here? Daddy Leroy couldn’t cough up enough funds for you?”

“I didn’t ask my father for money,” she says. “I don’t discuss my business plans with him.”

“He doesn’t know you’re here, does he?” Cairo asks. Leah shakes her head. Cairo claps his hands together and says, “He is going to go ballistic when he hears about this.”

Leah rolls her eyes. “Probably.”

“That, alone, is worth the price of admission,” he says. “How much do you want? I’ll cut you a check this minute.”

“Don’t you want to see my business plan first?” Leah says, lifting her briefcase into her lap.

“No need for such trivialities. I know you’ve done your homework.” He puts his feet up on his desk and says, “They don’t hand out Ph.Ds from Tech or MIT for participation. What would you say to five hundred thousand dollars?”

“I’d say it’s probably way more than I need,” Leah says.

Cairo waves dismissively. “Nonsense. It’s a drop in the bucket. You’ll need space, furniture — computers.”

“I was planning to work out of my home at first,” she says.

He shakes his head. “Bad move. You need to show you can walk the walk. People are investing in a concept as much as a person. They pay more for the illusion of competence.”

“Is that how you wowed them?” Leah says.

“Idiots. Every single one,” he says. “All they wanted was to be on the Web. Never mind they had no idea what it was or why they had to be there. In reality, I didn’t know any more than they did, but they thought I did, and that’s what brought in the big bucks.”

Leah chuckles. “World Wide Web — the greatest cyber swindle of all time.”

“Exactly,” Cairo says. “Paying us tens of thousands of dollars to ‘establish their web presence’ when all they had to do was hire a few high school kids with some HTML coding under their belts.”

“I still can’t believe you got away with it,” she says.

“I can’t believe we got away with it,” he replies. “Nowadays, everyone’s too embarrassed to call anyone on it.”

He removes his feet from the desk and swivels around, then leans on the desk. “Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? You’re here because you want to compete for the NSA contract but you don’t want it to look like Daddy’s buying it for you as a graduation present.”

“I’m not sure I’d put it like that,” she replies, “but yes, I do want that contract.”

“How much of your soul are you willing to sell for it?” Cairo says.

“Did you really just ask me that question?” Leah says. He shrugs. “Is that what it comes down to?”

“As Bobby Zimmerman says, you gotta serve somebody,” he says. “This is where we get down to the brass tacks and find out what L. J. is really made of.”

“What exactly does that mean?” she says.

“Everyone’s salivating over that NSA contract,” he says. “Marty Devore at Bickering would sell his first born for a crack at it, but rules are rules. The government says it has to go to a minority or woman-owned business. Am I right?” She nods. “So, everyone’s waiting to see who’s got the guts to go after it. The government doesn’t care about guts, though. They care about procedure. They want to see who’ll give them the most bang for their buck.”

“I assume you can tell me how to do that,” Leah says. “What do you want from me in return?”

“Aside from ten percent of your revenue for the next five years, I want you to lose the know-it-all attitude,” he says. “You need my expertise more than you need my money. You think you can get by on daring and learn as you go like you’ve always done. Well this is the big time, sweetie. Daddy Leroy can probably tell you a thing or two about how the world works, but nothing you learned at Wellesley, MIT, or Tech has prepared you for this. Win this contract and you cannot imagine the power you’ll wield. Every tech firm in the country will be lining up to lick your boots.”

Leah sits back. “I’m listening.”

“Good,” he says. “The government is nothing but rules and regs. You play by their rules, they’ll give you the keys to the kingdom. Fail, and you’ll most likely get filed away in their discard pile, never to be heard from again. What are the specs of the RFP?”

“It says they’re looking to thwart cyber-terrorism, in particular, they want to protect the phone system,” Leah says.

Cairo nods and sorts through some business cards. He takes one out and hands it to Leah. “Here’s an individual you’d find very useful in such an endeavor.”

She takes the card and looks over it. “Roscoe Delahunt? I know that name.”

“You probably encountered Scoey at Bickering,” Cairo says. “He sometimes manages their product support team when they don’t piss him off. We go all the way back to Cairo Enterprises. When you meet him, you’ll think I’ve played a massive practical joke on you, but he has much to teach, Grasshopper.”


“He knows more about hacker culture and phreaking than anyone I’ve ever encountered,” Cairo says. “His online address book alone is enough to get him investigated by every cyber terrorism squad on the planet.”

“Perfect,” Leah says.

Cairo pushes the intercom button. “Tracey, what are you doing right now?”

Tracey’s voice comes back, with a sarcastic edge, “I’m cleaning out my desk as you insisted.”

“Well stop that and come in here,” he says.

A moment later, Tracey enters and presents herself to David, who addresses Leah. “Avert your eyes, Dr. Walker, for you are in the presence of true greatness. Tracey helped Bickering Plummet win twenty-two government contracts, totaling over five trillion dollars.”

“You don’t say,” Leah says, impressed.

“They didn’t appreciate the asset they had, so I lured her away with a four-day work week and triple the salary just because I could. To this day, Marty Devore still won’t return my calls.” He motions toward Leah. “Tracey, as you probably recall, this is L. J. Walker.” Tracey nods to Leah. “She’s hell bent on winning the NSA contract. I want you to teach her everything she’ll need to know to get it.”

Tracey looks at Leah. “Gladly. Provided you understand, I don’t work on Fridays.”

“Not a problem,” Leah says. Tracey sits on the couch near Leah. To Cairo, Leah says, “You sure you can spare her?”

“My days of begging coins from Uncle Sam are far behind me,” he says.

“Perfect,” Leah says. “What else?”

“What else do you need?” Cairo says. “Scoey can help you realize the scope of the work involved and Tracey can help you wrap it all up in a pretty little package for Uncle Sam.”

“Won’t I need staff?” Leah says. “Programmers, database people.”

“No, no, no,” he says. “Personnel brings baggage and baggage equals costs. Costs are very, very bad if you’re competing for contracts.”

“Very bad,” Tracey echoes.

“You’ll need a partner,” Cairo says. “Someone with a vested interest but who can’t compete on their own.”

“Bickering Plummet,” Leah says.

“Ding, ding, ding, ding,” he says. “They have the warm bodies and are just itching for an in. All you need is the plan. Of course, you’ll probably need a receptionist. You don’t want people walking right into your office. Otherwise, outsource all the costs. Makes accounting a breeze.” He turns to Tracey. “Who’s their contracts person these days?”

“Barbara Millican,” Tracey says.

“Excellent,” Cairo says. To Leah, “Do you know Barb?”

“Heard the name,” Leah says.

“No worries,” Cairo says. “You’ll get on swimmingly. Tracey, if you’ll be so kind as to set things in motion.” He holds up his hand for her to wait, and says to Leah, “You’ve filed with the state, correct?”

“L. J. Walker Security, LLC,” Leah says.

“Great,” Cairo says. “Tracey, work your magic.”

“On it now,” she says as she rises, then turns to Leah. “Nice to be working with you.” She exits.

Once she’s gone, Leah says, “Now, about that half a million.”

“What the hell?” Cairo says. “Make it a million. I can afford it.”

“That’s an awful lot of money,” Leah says.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I bet Daddy Leroy drops more than that on his dry cleaning,” Cairo says.

“You seem to have a skewed view of how much he’s actually worth,” Leah says. “Granted, we weren’t hurting for money.”

“No, I bet you weren’t,” Cairo says. “When I got my piddling job with Bickering Plummet in ’94, I started out making about two thousand dollars more than my father was making after twenty years with the city of East Point, and when I was growing up, he was the sole wage earner in our family. How my parents raised three kids on that, I’ll never know.” He turns to face the window behind him. “Tell me something. How old were you when your father made his first million?”

Leah leans forward. “Seven. Dad took me, Mom and my aunt to Disney World to celebrate. He spent the whole trip meeting with investors while we explored the park.”

“You know he’s going to be very cross with you over taking money from me,” he says.

“I doubt our relationship could get much worse,” she says.

“My father was from down South,” Cairo says. “We didn’t get along all that well either.”

“If memory serves, he died before you went out on your own, right?” Leah asks.

“You’ve been checking up on me,” he replies. “No. Dad never saw any of this. He died thinking I’d never amount to anything more than just another corporate drone. Has he really been gone for nine years?”

Cairo swings back around toward her. “Marry me, Leah Walker.”

“Excuse me?”

“Come on, together you and I could conquer this city,” he says.

“Haven’t you already conquered it?” she says with a laugh.

“Yeah. You’re right. Never mind,” he says.

Tracey returns. “I just got off the phone with Barb.” To Leah, she says, “You’re meeting with her next Tuesday to make your pitch.”

Leah rises. “I’d better get to it, then. How hard is it to get in touch with Delahunt?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he could meet with you now,” Cairo says. “What part of town are in?”

“Kirkwood,” Leah says.

“How convenient, he’s in East Atlanta,” David says. “You and Tracey can work out a schedule. Let me also recommend you get yourself an office right away. Always looks better on the business cards.” He looks out the window and points uptown. “I’ve heard Colony Square’s reasonable these days.”

“Wow. So much to do,” Leah says.

“Better get to it, then,” he says.

“I’ll walk out with you,” Tracey says. “We can figure out a schedule.”

They start for the door. Cairo calls after them, “Doctor Walker.” Leah turns. “Kick their ass.”

Leah nods. “Will do.”

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.

Just One Look

Eddie's Attic stage

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca sighs. “Bring me a Coke.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Best gets better,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

“We set?” the man says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian enters and joins Charlotte, who introduces Rebecca.

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

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

“I’ll look for it,” Rebecca says.

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

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

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.

Leah and Dottie

Ballet Olympia, SunTrust Plaza, Atlanta, GA.

Leah Walker enters her dorm room at Wellesley College and sets her backpack onto a chair. It’s her freshman year, and her roommate, Heather, is visiting family for several days, so Leah’s looking forward to having the room to herself for a long weekend. Leah’s average height, with shoulder-length auburn hair, and steel-blue eyes. She’s wearing her usual attire of baggie warmup shorts, New Balance sneakers, and an oversized MIT sweatshirt. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She drops her keys onto the nightstand and takes a package of red Solo cups from the top drawer, removes one cup, and replaces the rest. From behind the nightstand, she takes out a bottle of Merlot she bought at a package store in Boston which never checks ID, unscrews the top, and pours half a cup.

Leah’s from Atlanta, and Wellesley is her first time living away from her family. She continued to live in her family’s home in Buckhead after the family moved to Lawrenceville just before the start of her senior year at Pace Academy, but Leah doesn’t count that, since her father, Paxton, was there off and on throughout the week. Leah had objected to the long commute, and both her parents deemed her responsible enough to go it alone for the remaining time before graduation. Since Paxton still had business in town during the week, he would stay at the house evenings when he needed to be at the office early. Leah viewed it as an opportunity to get closer to her father, with whom she’d always had a tense and distant relationship. Unfortunately, the best they managed was a sort of détente, where they’d exchange a few words going or coming, or, a bit of conversation if Paxton happened to be around in the living room while Leah was working on a school assignment.

She sits on her bed, takes a sip of wine, and picks up a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, a gift from Marla Prentice, an instructor in one of Leah’s core Humanities classes, and with whom Leah’s been spending a lot of time lately. Starting her second week at school, Leah found herself involved in a rather passionate relationship with Marla, which started nearly the moment she entered class, and fell under Marla’s scrutiny. After class, Marla made a point of striking up a conversation with Leah. Marla’s a few inches taller than Leah, and several years older, with a trim, athletic build, and jet black hair, that’s very long, and which she wears in dreads. She always wears short, dark dresses, over tights in various colors, with clogs. Her complexion gives Leah the impression that Marla’s of mixed race, though Leah can’t tell which races went into the mix. Marla’s very economical in the facts she shares about herself. She speaks and moves with a frenetic energy, which Leah finds infectious. They ran into one another a short while later, on a smoke break before lunch, and Marla invited Leah to join her for a bite. They ended up back at Marla’s apartment, just off campus, where things got very heated very quickly. Over the next week, their afternoon dalliances progressed into an intense physical relationship, which surprised Leah, as she’s never before entertained ideas of being involved with another woman.

The situation excites and troubles Leah, who finds the intimacy thrilling, but wonders what it all means. Throughout high school, she had the usual teen relationships, occasional dates with guys she knew from math class or science club, who’d take her out after school, or sometimes evenings, often with other computer geeks like her, and she had a number of girls she spent time with in school and out, or with whom she played on the lacrosse or softball teams, but she’d never entertained the thought of having a sexual relationship with any of them, male or female, nor could she recall ever having crushes on any of her female teachers, regardless of how attractive they’d been. It worries her that she could be so unaware of such an important aspect of her personality, and wonders what else she might have missed. A few days into the relationship, Leah decided she needed advice from someone more worldly.

She has a great relationship with her mother, Melinda, but she’s not sure how her mother will react to Leah potentially being a lesbian, so, for advice, she decided to sound out her aunt Margaret on the matter. Since childhood, Margaret has been an important influence on Leah, second only to Melinda, with whom Margaret’s been friends since college. Like Leah, Margaret is a first-born daughter, who’s two years older than Paxton, and it was Margaret who introduced Paxton to Melinda when Leah’s mother was still in college. Melinda had traveled to Atlanta from Charleston, South Carolina, to attend Agnes Scott, with the intention of being a teacher, but instead met and married Paxton Walker. As she was getting started back at school, she discovered she was pregnant with Leah, and put her dreams of teaching on hold. Leah has always harbored a bit of guilt, knowing that she prevented her mother from finishing school, but Melinda’s always maintained a cheerful and upbeat attitude about it, telling Leah she’ll head back to school once Alyssa, Leah’s baby sister, who’s twelve years younger, is out of the house.

Leah phoned Margaret and wasted little time in getting to the point.

“Margaret, have you ever been with another woman?” Leah asked.

“In what sense do you mean that?” Margaret said, a bit of discomfort evident in her voice.

“Seriously?” Leah said. “What sense do you think?”

“Oh,” Margaret said. “Well, if that’s what you mean, then no.”

“Have you thought about it?” Leah said.

“Hmm, let me guess,” Margaret said, “you’re asking because you’ve either thought about it, or—”

“No, I’m way beyond thinking about it, at this point,” Leah said.

“I see. Well. Did you enjoy it?”

“Yes,” Leah said.

“Then what’s the problem?” Margaret asked. “If you had a good time, where’s the harm?”

“But what does it mean?” Leah said.

“Why does it have to mean something?” Margaret said.

“I guess it doesn’t have to,” Leah said. “It just usually does.”

“Look, you didn’t go blind and you weren’t struck by lightning were you?” Margaret asked

“Not yet.”

“Then, we can assume the universe is okay with it,” Margaret said.

“I don’t know if I’m okay with it,” Leah said, “I mean, I like her, but I don’t think either of us is interested in a real relationship.”

“Is it ongoing?” Margaret asked.

“As of right now, it is,” Leah said.

“Then go with it,” Margaret said. “See where it leads. I’ve never found myself in this situation, so I don’t know how I’d respond. You went away to college to learn, right?”


“Well, part of that is learning about yourself,” Margaret said. “You have an excellent opportunity to explore who you are without the glare of your family judging your every move. Take advantage of that.”

“Perfect. Thanks, Margaret.”

“Anytime, sweetie,” Margaret said. “Let me know how things turn out.”

Leah leans back on her bed and resumes reading the book. She manages about five pages when her reading is interrupted by the sound of someone pounding insistently on the door. An unfamiliar voice follows the first round of pounding. “Open this door, you bitch!”

The pounding resumes.

Leah puts down the book and cautiously approaches the door.

“Who is it?” she says.

“I said open this door,” the voice says, “I’m going to kick your ass, you slut.”

Whoever’s outside sounds drunk.

Leah looks at Heather’s bed, then says, “Are you here to kick the ass of a brunette or a redhead? Cause the brunette isn’t here.”

There’s a long pause, before, “Kind of reddish brown. Not a brunette.”

“Perfect,” Leah says to herself.

She considers calling campus security, but decides against it. As the next round of pounding begins, she quickly pulls open the door. A young woman, about Leah’s age and height, with curly, dirty blonde hair, and wearing a short, polka dotted dress and slip-on sneakers, comes tumbling into the room. She falls to her hands and knees and seems somewhat confused. Leah takes the opportunity to grab her roommate’s umbrella, which she brandishes as a weapon.

“Who the hell are you and what do you want?” Leah says to the woman. “Apart from what you’ve already stated.”

“I said I’m going to kick your ass, you bitch,” the woman says as she struggles to get her footing and rise. She looks up at Leah, then says, “Yeah. You.” She looks around for something to hold onto. At last, she pulls herself up on a table and stands up straight, but swaying, as she confronts Leah. She’s wearing a slight amount of makeup, but it’s gotten splotchy from crying. Leah holds the umbrella in front of her as she speaks.

“Okay, I gather that you’re pissed about something,” Leah says. “Why don’t we start with your name. Who are you?”

“I’m Dottie,” the woman says. “Dorothy, actually, but most people call me Dottie.”

“Okay — ah — Dottie,” Leah says, still brandishing the umbrella. “I’m Leah — or do you already know that?”

“How the hell should I know what your name is?” Dottie says.

“You showed up at my door wanting to beat me up,” Leah says, “I assume you’d know my name. What’s this about?”

“It’s about Marla,” Dottie says.

“Marla Prentice? What about her?”

Dottie begins to reply, but suddenly throws her hand over her mouth and starts to heave. Leah hurriedly points to the bathroom. Dottie quickly stumbles in and kicks the door closed. Leah can hear her vomiting. She puts down the umbrella and sits on her bed until she hears the sounds subside. At last, the toilet flushes, followed by the sound of water running in the sink. This goes on for several minutes before Dottie returns to the room, far more subdued than when she left. Leah motions to Heather’s bed and Dottie sits.

“Let’s start over, shall we?” Leah says. “You want to kick my ass and it has something to do with Marla.”

“You stole her from me,” Dottie says. “She won’t return my calls. Then I saw you with her at our coffee shop.”

“Coffee shop?” Leah says. “You mean Sandusky’s? I took her there.”

“You did?” Dottie says. “She said it was our special place.”

“Yeah, she sort of told me the same thing after our first visit,” Leah says. “When did you start seeing her?”

“Right after classes started,” Dottie says. “About a month after I got here.”

“So did I,” Leah says. An idea occurs to her. “Did she take you to The Jewel of the Nile?”

Dottie nods. “The night we first—”

Leah holds up her hand. “Same here.”

“Why aren’t you upset?” Dottie says. “I just confirmed I’ve been sleeping with Marla. That doesn’t bother you?”

“Not really,” Leah says. “I haven’t figured out exactly what our relationship is yet. I take it you feel a bit more committed?”

“I haven’t felt this way before,” Dottie says. “I was all ready to tell my family I’m gay and she ditches me. Told me I’m getting too serious. I figured there was someone else, so I followed her. That’s where I saw you.”

“Meaning you must have followed me here,” Leah says.

“Yesterday,” Dottie says. “It took me all afternoon to get up the courage to come over.”

“Speaking of which,” Leah says. “How much did you drink?”

“Bottle, bottle and a half,” Dottie says. She notices the book and points to it. “I suppose she gave you that.”

“She did.”

“I gave it to her,” Dottie says.

Leah picks it up and looks at the spine. “You’re DG? She said it was on the book when she bought it.”

Dottie nods. “Dorothy Gage.”

“Isn’t that the person in The Wizard of Oz?” Leah says.

“Oh, that’s original,” Dottie says. “Her name is Dorothy Gale. Don’t change the subject.”

“What makes you think I stole Marla from you?” Leah says. “Sounds to me like she’s been leading us both on.”

“Yeah, it’s starting to look that way,” Dottie says. “There’s this girl in my English Lit class who said she had an affair with Marla last year. I didn’t want to believe her, but then I saw the two of you together.”

“Why didn’t you confront Marla?” Leah says.

“I tried, but she’s not at her apartment,” Dottie says.

Leah shakes her head. “She’s never there on the weekend. Hmm. This makes me wonder where she goes.”

Dottie looks down. “Would you mind if I just lie down for a minute or two?”

“You’re not going to throw up again are you? I doubt Heather would like that, and I don’t feel like cleaning up after you.”

“God, I hope not,” Dottie replies. She lies on her side, and pulls her knees up, crossing her arms in front of her.

“I suppose you can kick my ass when you wake up,” Leah says.

“Maybe,” Dottie says as she drifts off.

Leah continues reading while Dottie sleeps. She’s still asleep when Leah goes to bed. The following morning, Dottie is awake and very embarrassed by her behavior. Leah treats Dottie to breakfast at the nearest cafe, and they have a long talk, where they discover a lot of common interests. Leah is fluent in most of the European languages, owing to her family’s many visits to the continent as she was growing up, and she’s pleased to learn Dottie is as well. They switch to speaking German to keep people from eavesdropping on them as they decide what to do about Marla. By the time they part ways, they’ve developed a plan of action.

A few days later, Leah is sitting with Marla at the coffee shop. They’re discussing The Handmaid’s Tale.

“Take that lesson to heart,” Marla tells her. “Men are not to be trusted.”

“They certainly didn’t come off very well in the book,” Leah says.

“Have you read any of Dworkin’s work?” Marla says.

“Andrea Dworkin? I’ve heard of her.”

Marla suddenly focuses on something over Leah’s shoulder and shakes her head. “I don’t believe this.”

“What is it?” Leah says. She looks to see Dottie seated at the lunch counter, wearing dark glasses, situated where she has a good view of Leah and Marla.

“Nothing,” Marla says. “Just this student who’s been giving me a hard time over a grade.” Marla rises. “Excuse me just a minute.”

She goes over and confronts Dottie in low tones. While she’s gone, Leah slides over and picks up Marla’s bag. She checks to be sure Marla isn’t looking, then she pulls out Marla’s wallet and checks her driver’s license and credit cards. Finished, she replaces the wallet, and puts the bag back where it was. She moves back to her chair, and makes an okay sign to Dottie, who abruptly breaks off her argument with Marla, gathers her things, and storms out.

“I’m really sorry about that,” Marla says when she returns to the table. “I failed her on a test and she’s been stalking me ever since.”

“Not a problem,” Leah says. “Say, where do you disappear to on the weekends?”

“Where did this come from all of a sudden?” Marla says.

“I’m just curious,” Leah says. “I figured you must be sneaking off to some cozy little bed and breakfast to write and might want some company.”

Marla laughs. “Trust me, if I was, you’d be the first one I’d call.” She reaches over and places her hand on Leah’s. “I’m free for the next hour. Want to swing by my place?”

“I’d love to,” Leah says, “but I have a midterm in chemistry coming up. I’ll take a rain check, though.”

“You’re on,” Marla says. They talk for a few minutes before Leah insists she needs to go. Marla walks her to the door and they part with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, then head off in different directions. Leah walks about half a block, then checks to be sure Marla is far enough away, then ducks down a side street and circles back to the rear of the coffee shop, where she finds Dottie seated on the back deck. Leah sits with her.

“Anything?” Dottie says.

Leah shakes her head. “Her license has her campus address. But it did have a different name, Marla Rogan.”

“Rogan?” Dottie says. “That kind of takes some of the luster off.”

Leah leans forward and says confidentially, “Know anyone who works for the university? If I can get on the computer network, I can probably hack into payroll and find out where they’re mailing her checks.”

“Actually, I do,” Dottie says, “and she spends a lot of time away from her desk.” She rises. “Come on.”

Several hours later, they’re back at Leah’s dorm room with new information.

“Shrewsbury,” Dottie says. “Figures she’d live someplace called Shrewsbury.”

“She’s also listed as Mrs. Marla Rogan in payroll,” Leah says.

“I can’t believe you got in so easily,” Dottie says. “How’d you know Barb’s password?”

“I didn’t,” Leah says. “I took the chance she used ‘password’ and it worked.”

“So, what next?”

Leah grins. “Marla has classes all morning. How about a trip to Shrewsbury?”

Dottie laughs. “So, I wonder what the husband of the ultimate feminist looks like?”

“Only one way to find out,” Leah says.

The following morning they hop into Leah’s Karmann Ghia, which Margaret loaned her as she headed off to college, and drove to the address in Shrewsbury, where Marla’s paychecks are being sent. Parked out in front of the brownstone, Dottie says, “You think this is a good idea?”

“Probably not, but I don’t see a lot of options,” Leah replies. “If we just ignore her, she’ll keep doing this.”

“I mean, rather than the dumping part, I did have a good time,” Dottie says.

“Same here,” Leah says. “But she’s taking advantage of impressionable girls when they’re least equipped to handle it.”

“Right,” Dottie says. “We’re just taking a stand. That’s all.”

“Right,” Leah says. She holds up her hand and Dottie grips it and nods.

“Let’s do this,” Dottie says.

They get out and walk up to the door. Dottie rings the bell. A few moments later, a child can be heard yelling, followed by the locks being unlocked. A thin man, probably just under six feet tall, with short blonde hair and tanned, leathery skin, opens the door.

“Yes?” he says. “How may I help you?”

He speaks with the precise phrasing that’s reminiscent of someone who’s first language isn’t English, but Leah cannot detect any recognizable accent.

“Hi,” she says, “are you Mr. Rogan?”

“I’m Lance Rogan, yes,” the man says.

“I’m Dorothy,” Dottie says, “this is Leah. We’re — ah — friends of Marla’s.”

“Ah, yes,” Lance says. “Marla’s not here currently. I believe she’s teaching today.”

“We know,” Leah says. “We’re not here to speak with her.”

“More to speak about her,” Dottie adds.

“I don’t understand,” Lance says. He opens the outer security door. “Please come in.”

As they enter, Leah notes a black woman, wearing a uniform and holding the hand of a small boy.

“Nina, would you take Alexander to the play room?” Lance says to her.

“Of course, Mr. Rogan,” Nina says in what sounds, to Leah, like a Jamaican accent.

“Please have a seat in here,” Lance says, directing the women to the living room. “Can I offer you something to drink?”

“Water would be great,” Dottie says, to which Leah nods.

Leah and Dottie sit on the couch. A moment later, Lance returns with a pitcher and two glasses on a tray which he sets on the coffee table in front of them. He takes a seat in a leather chair facing them.

“Now, how may I help you ladies?” he says. “You say this is about Marla?”

Leah and Dottie look at one another and Leah says, “Mr. Rogan, there’s probably no easy way to say this, but Dorothy and I have been — involved with Marla.”

Lance continues to look at them displaying no emotion. “I see. Why have you brought this information to me? Are you here for money?”

“Oh, no. No. Nothing like that,” Dottie says.

Leah slides to the edge of the couch. “She’s right. We’re here because we feel we’ve been taken advantage of and we wanted to let you know.”

“Please, tell me your stories,” Lance says.

First Dottie, then Leah tells Lance about their relationships with Marla. Throughout both stories, his expression does not change, nor does he display any reaction, other than to occasionally nod. When Leah finishes her story, they sit for a long moment in silence.

Finally, Lance says, “What is it you wish me to do about this? That is, if you are certain you’re not here for money.”

“We don’t exactly know,” Leah says. “To be honest, we didn’t really think this part through very well before coming here.”

“I see,” Lance says with the hint of a smile. “Well, I do not wish to share intimate details of my marriage, since I know nothing about either of you. However I will say that I am aware Marla has certain needs that I’m not able to address. If you have been harmed in any way I apologize.” He rises. “I’ll have a talk with her when she gets in this evening, and we’ll decide together how best to handle this situation.”

He motions toward the door. Leah and Dottie rise and follow him back to the front door.

“I trust you will be making no further trips to visit us?” he says.

Leah and Dottie look at one another.

“Definitely not,” Dottie says. Leah concurs.

“Very good,” Lance says. “I will appreciate your continued discretion on this matter, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” Leah says.

“You ladies have an nice afternoon,” Lance says as he lets them out.

Back in the car, Dottie says, “What just happened in there?”

“I have no idea,” Leah says. “Let’s get lunch somewhere.”

“You’re on.”

The following day, when Leah shows up for her Humanities class, Marla isn’t there. The instructor filling in for her explains that Marla has taken a leave of absence for “family reasons”. Neither Leah, nor Dottie, see or hear from her again.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Dottie says as she and Leah are lying on the bed in her dorm room. “You think she’s okay?”

“Hard to tell,” Leah says. “That’s an odd family.”

“We make a pretty good team,” Dottie says. “I have this feeling you and I are going to get into lots of trouble together.”

“I think you’re right,” Leah says. “Still planning on telling your family you’re gay?”

“Nah, I’ve gone back to questioning,” Dottie says. “Why limit myself? My family can figure it out on their own.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Leah says.

“Hey,” Dottie says, sitting up. “What do you think about getting an apartment?”


“No,” Dottie says, “over the summer. You know, just stick around Boston instead of going home.”

“Summer’s a long way off,” Leah says.

“I know. But it doesn’t hurt to plan,” Dottie says. “If we strike at the right time, we could get a great deal.”

“Oh, trust me, I know real estate,” Leah says. “My father’s the man who gave Atlanta its suburban sprawl.”

“Good to know,” Dottie says.

From that point on, not a day goes by that they don’t spend time together. As summer comes along, they move off campus into a nice apartment.

Atlanta Stories Available August 1

Coming soon! Atlanta Stories: Fables of the New South. Eight stories about people coming to Atlanta to reinvent themselves. Stories include:

  1. Mockingbird 
  2. Journey From Night
  3. A Debt to Pay
  4. Dead Man’s Hat
  5. Remains 
  6. Bare-Assed Messiah 
  7. Atomic Punk
  8. Phoenix 

Release date: August 1.

Available at online bookstores and direct from the author.