The morning air dripped with thick dew, to put a simple description to the humidity hanging low on the Saturday before Memorial Day 1983. But it didn’t cloud Leon Smith’s bird’s-eye view of the corner of North Louise and Main Street. The location left little in the way of privacy for both himself and anyone traveling in the intersection of Nowhere and Going Somewhere, and it WAS his self-appointed duty to keep a watch on the comings and goings of Atlanta.
The Smith House, called so by the prominent citizens who had been deemed worthy of a Sunday afternoon invite, occupied the exact center of a prime acre of commercial-zoned real estate in downtown Atlanta. Leon had prevented any commercial development, easy enough; nothing had been built in that part of town in decades. And since he sat on the building code board (he sat on all the Atlanta city code boards and anything else that needed to be sat upon in the town) the likelihood of the Smith House being demolished to put in a Taco Bell would be slim.
Across the street and kitty-cornered from Leon’s shiny office window sat the First Methodist Church. The long-established entity of religious circumcisions, of which he maintained a tight observation on its comings and goings as well from his law and accounting office, had been centered in the town. From that point, in space and history, all of Atlanta emanated out from the church’s central position.
Graduating with a double major in law and accounting from Southern Methodist University meant Leon Smith could file your taxes and when he screwed them up—why hell, neighbor!—he could represent you to the IRS, if you so chose.
The house had belonged to his daddy, Leon Sr., whose daddy, Dorset Smith, erected the monstrosity on the prime corner in his own honor of being the richest man in town. Leon Sr. had been a prominent lawyer and a Methodist preacher, which in some rumors would have been a strange combination of contradictions, but when you sat and thought on it a while, it seemed pretty righteous. Leon Smith Sr. spent his Sundays saving your soul under the red-bricked Methodist pretense of the Bible’s teachings, and come Monday he’d be in Linden at the courthouse sending your deadbeat ass to jail.
Preachers and lawyers ran in the family all the way back to the Mayflower—except for Dorset, who had the practicable sense of wanting to make money instead of stealing it. Leon Sr. had a habitual verse he recited—claiming their blue-blooded American heritage genealogy—that he was of the Smiths who had arrived with the first colonists.
Floreen McAdams proved Leon Sr. wrong when genealogy research became popular, tracing the Atlanta Smiths ancestry. The Smiths had been no more prestigious than any of the other poor Brits who worked off their indentured servitude.
When she let out her profound news, Floreen McAdams grinned like she had won big at bingo, That old busybody broad promptly fanned herself, with a printed Jesus paper fan as a witness, voluntarily right out of Leon Smith’s congregation.
Leon Sr. had continued his ideology to any newcomer at the First Methodist Church sitting kitty-cornered from the Smith mansion on land donated by the Smiths. It didn’t take long for new folks to figure out Leon Smith Sr.
A skinny man rubbing a nervous eye twitch and jiggling his lame leg wanting to make sure you knew Jesus personally before you left Leon’s good graces, all the while figuring out how much of a monthly tithe you could afford.
The younger Leon had grown rotund, built like Babe Ruth with a batting arm to match, living the good life on what Dorset had given him. Leon didn’t give a flip about where he had come from, but he did want to know where he would be heading. Planning made Leon’s world rock.
Leon sat in his picture window as the sun rose on another glorious God-given day.
Waiting on Beau.
The Chevelle’s engine, a 396 with a high-rise Edelbrock manifold, four-barrel carburetor, and tuned exhaust headers, vibrated a whole block from the corner of North Louise and Main.
The rumble activated Leon.
He perched his lip on the rim of his coffee cup, making nasty sucking noises, pouring in the last of his sugared half-and-half dashed with a splash of coffee and daubed the corners of his mouth with a cloth napkin—no paper napkins in his house.
He straightened his skinny black tie and checked his starched white shirt for coffee stains. Rising from his dustless desk, he pushed his straight back chair on the lush carpet, padded to the closet where he kept his street shoes, slipped off his house mocs, putting them in their assigned house shoe slot, and wiggled his way into a pair of custom Italian leather shoes he bought in good ol’ anonymous New York City. Life had never been anonymous enough for Leon Smith in Atlanta.
He clicked the door closed with the slightest sound so as not to wake Suzanna.
He breathed in, judging how far away Beau would be, feeling the deep rumble of the engine, which had become one of Leon’s best security systems.
The sun flashed, breaking its way through the lush pecan trees lining the yard, and he stopped, positioning himself in a single illuminating ray.
Beau rolled the Chevelle to stop on Leon’s smooth concreted drive, not the usual messy gravel ruts most of the houses had in Atlanta. The Smith house had set the standard for the good people’s homes, and the requisite required a concrete drive.
Beau considered Leon’s stance, shook his head, and killed the engine.
Leon smiled his best welcoming smile, a smile he reserved for new clients and idiots. Beau popped open the Chevelle’s long driver’s side door.
“I see the fish-monger has arrived late for his appointment!”
Beau unfurled from the SS.
“Daddy,” he said, standing and leaning on the Chevelle’s door.
“Son!” Leon said, smooth and reserved, his jaw popped in a molar-cracking stare.
Leon had practiced his disappointment in a full-length mirror. He combed each strand of hair, greased into perfected place, as he, like an unkissed girl, watched his face, the line of his lips, the droop of a shoulder, turning side-to-side preening and practicing his disapproval art from all angles, making sure his scowl projected its exact meaning. To be a true master of the art of disappointment, able to deal a crushing blow without a single swipe of a hard fist, took years of learning and observations of other masters. Leon practiced his skills on his clients, his wife, and his only living child. Like mastering judo or braille, he had become a skilled swordsman with words and looks, cutting and slicing while his victims waited for his delicate cuts to bleed.
He raised a fist halfway. Beau ducked in a flinch, but Leon stopped the strike short of hitting him. He practiced his move, knowing the blow he did not fall would be feared more than any he landed.
He sniffed the air bloodhound style, leaning into Beau. “What’s that smell? Ah, yes. A fish from Queen City. Or? Is that dead chicken?” He didn’t laugh.
Beau wiped his palms on his T-shirt, the sweat and grime of being alive sticky on him.
“Give me a break, would ya? I wanna go pee.”
“A break. You want a break? That makes me laugh. Do you know what it means to be disappointed? Do you? Can you even imagine what life means when you fail?” His voice flattened like his perfect concrete.
“Yes, I do.”
“You have to go pee? I feel like you have pissed on me ever since the day you were born. Do you know what it feels like to be pissed on by your own child?”
“No.” Beau’s shoulders drooped; he closed his eyes. “Do you have to do this here? We are—”
“In the middle of town?” Leon jabbed fingers in quick jerks in all directions pointing out the brevity of always being caught at an intersection. Spittle spattered in tiny wet drops on Leon’s smooth uncracked cement, spreading between Beau’s Nikes.
“I have to go!” Beau sidestepped an arm’s-length out of Leon’s reach.
“I’m so disappointed in you,” Leon said. Moving back into his smooth reserved for idiots voice, his head vibrating in a volcanic palsy.
He took a step toward the Chevelle, looked down the sides, the fenders, taking it slow, glancing at Beau’s face. He worked his way to the hood, where Bitzy and Beau had scooted and jackrabbited naked while lightning flashed over their white skin. He leaned, staring at the briny water drops made by the dirty rain, squinting with one eye closed, and he ran a finger along the hood’s seams without a white glove.
He glanced up. “You’ll not see that slut ever! A Queen City slut has marred my child. How dare you cross those tracks?” His voice rose above the clanging of the cross-arms going down over the railroad tracks less than fifty yards from his plate-glass windows.
The proverbial tracks of Atlanta cut Leon’s view of his whole life in half. On one side of the tracks sat the Smith’s house and red-bricked church occupied with prominence. And on the other side sat ordinary shops like Dot’s purple eyesore, the City Pharmacy, the hardware store, a hand-me-down resale shop, a beauty shop where the farm women got their hair permed, and a used-book store behind the Chevron station on the corner. There was a small engine and boat repair business tucked in behind the Savings and Loan frequented by everyone in need of chainsaw and mower repairs. Simply a small town, with people who were rugged and used, and who didn’t really give a flip about Leon Smith’s opinion.
The original train station had been taken out by a derailment in the ‘30s and rebuilt in that same Methodist Church Smith brick company red, and now the train whistled through town at regular intervals—6:32 a.m. An alarmingly early time. Trains didn’t stop in little side-watered places like Atlanta anymore, and except for a few hardened riders, the only things on trains were new cars and toxic chemicals.
Beau ducked by Leon, slamming the door on the same rant Leon had used on him before, at 6:33 a.m.
Leon’s lips flapped for several seconds more, drowned out by the whack-whacking sounds of steel train wheels crossing the metal safety ties at the crossing arm.
He glared at the train for making an untimely interruption of his chastisements. Bells rang, and the crossing arm rose, freeing the two idling motorists at the stop.
“I bet that train is going to New York City,” Leon said of the southbound train. He lifted the hood on the Chevelle, his Super Sport, and strong-armed the distributor cap out off the Edelbrock with a happy jerk; he did have control over his SS.
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