Prologue

Preacher

Jennie leaned against the bar, watching the big, black guy who stood just inside the door, gazing around, waiting to be seated. Tall and stocky, he reminded her of the high school kids who her brother, Si, recruited to play football at the University. Except for his hair. It was turning white on the sides.

He seemed to be out of place.

Not many black men dropped in at the Rusty Anchor, the bar where Jennie waited tables. They were welcome at the Anchor, as the regulars called it, and a couple of those regulars were black, but Jennie had observed that the races tended to separate when they drank, much as they did when they worshipped. Black guys seldom walked through the door alone.

The man wore a coat and a tie. Jennie had never before seen a man wearing a tie in the Anchor. Jeff, the man with whom she lived, and who came into the bar every night, didn’t even own one. Jennie chuckled. Sometimes the guys didn’t even wear shirts.

She took a sip of bourbon and sauntered across the room, swinging her hips a bit, her hair brushing against her bare back above the halter top she had paired with the skin-tight jeans. The man didn’t seem to notice her appearance. Jennie shook her head. When she dressed for the warm Atlanta summers, as she had today, guys would drop by in late afternoon just to see her. The owner swore that she attracted more customers than did his two-for-one specials.

Finally, when she asked what he would like, he requested a menu. The bar was, officially, a restaurant, and they did serve food, as Jennie had once pointed out to her father when he had growled about her place of employment, but in the three years Jennie had waited tables at the Rusty Anchor, she had served only a handful of meals.

She retrieved a menu and bent across the table as she passed it to him, allowing her top to drop away from her chest a little, but his eyes didn’t even flick in her direction. He scanned the menu, then looked up at her face.

"I’ll have the steak sandwich please. With fries."

Jennie almost dropped her pad when he ordered iced tea.

He stayed for almost an hour. As he left, he handed Jennie a tip. Her mouth fell open as she saw the size of it, and she barely managed to thank him. He laughed and told her he had enjoyed his lunch and that he would see her again.

After that, he dropped by two or three times a week, always in the early afternoon. His order never varied. After a while Jennie began to call it out to the cook as the man walked in the door, rather than waiting for him to inspect the menu, and she would hand him his tea as he took his seat. She stopped trying to entice him, and, since there were seldom more than a couple of other men in the room when he arrived, she took time to talk with him, more than simply "What will you have?" or "Have a nice day."

The other men began to tease her about her "boyfriend," but they were careful when they did, fearing that their next drinks would be accompanied by snarls and delivered over their heads, rather than in mugs.

After a month, Jennie discovered that the man was the new minister at the little church up the street, and she nicknamed him Preacher. "Trying to save my soul, Preacher?" she asked him with a smirk.

He smiled. "Always, Miss Jennie, always."

Miss Jennie, a Southern sign of respect. No one would seriously address a barmaid in such a fashion. She studied his face, but she could detect no indication that he was not sincere.

After discovering he was a minister, Jennie began to hide her glass of whiskey behind the bar and to slip a shirt over her top when she saw Preacher approaching. She was not sure why she did these things. Thomas would have told her that she did them because she felt her behavior was wrong.

Jennie snorted. Who cared what Thomas would have said anyway?

Several weeks passed, and Jennie found herself looking forward to their discussions and feeling disappointed when he did not come in. They talked about the weather, politics, the new construction in the neighborhood. Jennie asked about his church, and Preacher invited her to attend.

She nodded. "I’ll do that, Preacher. I’ll do that one day."

One afternoon in late July, he told her about his life. He actually had been the football player she had imagined. He had played pro ball before tearing up his knee. He told her about his wife and his two small children, two little girls. Jennie’s entire body tensed as he talked about his daughters.

"Do you have a family?" Preacher asked.

Jennie’s temper flared. "Yes…no," she snapped. "Mind your own business." She had just come from the kitchen and the platter holding his sandwich clattered as she slammed it onto the table, cursing as a few of the fries tumbled off onto the table. "Anything else?" she demanded.

His expression told her that he felt sorry for her.

Jennie stomped off toward the kitchen. She wouldn’t tell him about her family, the husband who had adored her, the two beautiful little girls who had called her mama.

"You’re a lucky man, fella," a customer sitting across the room called. "Last guy to make her angry became a soprano." He and the other men at the table roared with laughter.

Jennie flung an empty beer mug in the man’s direction, just missing his head. It shattered against the wall behind him as the kitchen door slammed behind her.

When Preacher was ready to leave, Jennie slapped his check on the table. "You think I’m an awful person." She glared at him.

"No I don’t think that, Miss Jennie."

"Why not? Because God loves me?" she asked derisively.

"I’m sure that he does, but a few cuss words don’t put a black mark on your soul. It takes a lot more than that to make you an awful person."

"How about whiskey?" She was holding her glass and took a sip, daring him to tell her it was a sin.

"The Anchor serves mighty good whiskey," he replied. "Jim Beam used to be my favorite."

Jennie looked into his eyes as she took another sip. "Carl is going home with me in a few minutes." She motioned to a tall man standing by the door, his arms crossed over his chest.

Preacher nodded. "You get off after lunch on Thursdays, don’t you?"

Jennie stared at him, imagining that she was having this conversation with the minister at her father’s church. He would have said that she stood on the slimy slope to hell when she had cursed at him. He would have told her that when she drank she was skidding down that hill, and that taking Carl home with her would send her tumbling into the flames that tormented sinners in the valley below.

"Miss Jennie, you’re not an awful person." Preacher handed her two bills, a five and a ten, several dollars more than his bill. "Have a nice day, now. I’ll see you later."

Jennie opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out. . If she were to tell him that two years ago, on a beautiful Saturday morning, she had turned her back on her family, walking away without a second thought, without a single glance over her shoulder, then he surely would despise her.

"Never seen Jennie at a loss for words." The men sitting across the room cackled.

Jennie gave them a nasty look and turned away so that they could not see the tears rolling down her cheeks.

A few minutes later, she left for home, alone.

Locking the door to the bedroom, her mind went back to that Saturday morning. She remembered some of what had happened, but so much was unclear. It had really started the afternoon before.

"Hey Jeff." Jennie opened the door and threw her arms around him, for a long, lingering kiss.

"Coast is clear?" Jeff glanced around the apartment. "You alone?"

Jennie looked toward the porch where Alexis and Christa were playing. "Just the brats. Hubby will be home late."

"Perfect." Jeff pulled her toward him for another kiss. "I brought refreshments." He held up a bottle of Jack Daniels. "Want to be refreshed?"

"I was really thinking of something that would tire me out." She pretended to pout.

Jeff poured two glasses.

"In good time. In good time."

"I want to be really tired." Her eyes sparkled as she sipped her whiskey.

"You’ll be exhausted. But happy."

Jennie giggled as they plopped onto the sofa.

"Bottoms up," Jeff said as he drained his glass. He poured another round for them both.

He kissed her again.

"Uncajeff must be hot." Alexis’s voice startled her.

"Why is that?" Jennie smoothed her shirt as she turned around.

"He must be hot. He’s taken his shirt off."

"Just preparing, Honey dew, just preparing. It’s going to be scorching in just a few minutes." Jeff and Jennie both laughed.

"Go back outside." Jennie pointed toward the porch. "And stay there. Do you hear me? Don’t bother me for anything. I mean it."

"Yes ma’am." Alexis toddled away. Jeff took a last gulp of his drink and pulled Jennie into her bedroom.

She couldn’t remember exactly what had happened next.

Well, she was pretty sure what she and Jeff had done next, for a couple of hours at least, but at some point, Alexis had knocked on the door and called her name.

Jennie slipped on a robe and yanked the door open, confronting her daughter, her hands on her hips.

"I told you to leave me alone," she snapped. "We’re busy."

"Christa pooped in her diaper, Mama."

Jennie glared down at her. She could smell the diaper.

"You’re four years old. Change it."

"But it’s really stinky."

"Won’t kill you. Now, go." When Alexis did not move, she leaned over, shook her by the shoulders, and shoved her toward the porch. "I said go. Bother me again and I’ll beat your tail."

As Alexis began to cry, Jennie turned her back and slammed the door. "Children," she snorted. "They expect you to do everything."

Jeff laughed.

"Where were we, now?" She smiled as she climbed back into bed.

The next morning, Jennie had awakened at ten, tossing back the last shot in Jeff’s bottle before wandering into the kitchen. She’d been asleep when her husband had arrived home, and he’d heard a sketchy account of the afternoon from Alexis. When he’d asked her what had happened, she’d become angry.

Jennie wasn’t sure what had happened next. Had she thrown her coffee cup against the wall? Did she hit Alexis? Call her names? Or was it Christa? Although she was not sure exactly what she had said, she had definitely screamed obscenities at her husband. Thomas was no prude, but the image of the shocked expression on his face was her one truly clear memory of that morning.

She did recall leaving home. She had driven to Jeff’s, pounded on his door, and they had picked up where they’d stopped the day before.

She’d not seen her family since.

Jennie cradled her head in her arms and sobbed.

The next Sunday, she tumbled out of bed early.

"You’re going where?" Jeff asked sleepily. "To church? Why in the world…?"

She was not sure how to answer. She had promised Preacher that she would come someday. Maybe she just didn’t want to disappoint him. Maybe she wanted to find out if she would still be welcome.

Jennie wandered into the little church right before eleven o’clock. A tall black woman met her at the door.

"You must be Miss Jennie. The preacher told me to be looking out for you. Come in. Come in."

Jennie’s was the only white face in the room. It was not like her parents’ Baptist church in west Georgia, nor like the Episcopal church she had attended with Thomas. People sang and shouted and spoke in what she knew they called other tongues. It was not what Jennie wanted. But Preacher’s sermon about forgiveness moved her.

On Tuesday, when he was the only customer, she sat at his table and told him about her life, about shacking up with Jeff, about the other guys, and the booze. She cried when she told him about her husband and their two little girls.

He took her hands in his and looked into her eyes. "You’re a good person, Miss Jennie. I’m going to help you. You’re going to do fine."

Chapter One

Ten Years Later

Jennie followed the county road for three miles through the pine forest that covered much of northwestern Georgia. Rounding a curve, she spied Saint Paul’s Church, rising in a clearing on the ridge to her left, its cemetery spreading around it on three sides. She turned up the red clay path that served as a driveway and pulled to a stop a few feet from the front steps.

Peering through the windshield, she admired the white wooden building, a fresh coat of paint glistening in the winter sun. She bent forward to gaze up at the new steeple, her eyes tracing its lines as it ascended into the clear blue sky.

She had to give the residents of Whitesburg credit for keeping the building in good repair. Regular church services had not been held at Saint Paul’s in almost fifty years, although an annual homecoming attracted hundreds of descendants of the families who had once lived nearby.

People came for the preaching—three sermons some years—for the singing, and for the dinners at both noon and six. Jennie closed her eyes, and her mouth watered as she pictured the fried chicken, green bean casserole, yeast rolls, and apple pie—food which she thought must taste better than that which was served anywhere short of heaven. The people came to see family, to greet old friends, to reconnect with the past.

She stepped out of the car and up the front steps. White bows were tied to the railings around the little porch. One had fallen to the floor and she picked it up, smoothed the ribbon, and laid it on the small bench which stood to one side of the door. There must have been a wedding over the weekend, she thought, smiling. A surprising number of brides, some whose families had moved away generations earlier, chose to have their weddings at Saint Paul’s.

Some suggested that they were married at the church because no one charged them to use the building, not even for electricity or for clean up, but Jennie doubted that explanation. Whitesburg was not near anywhere—Carrollton, the nearest city, was over twenty miles away. Atlanta and Birmingham—many of the brides came from those cities—were each a ninety-minute drive. No one came to Whitesburg by accident, and no one dragged a wedding party there to save a few dollars.

Jennie thought that they came for the same reason they came to homecoming. Saint Paul’s symbolized family. On an important occasion such as a wedding, many felt the need to honor the past, to carry on tradition, to celebrate the continuity of life. Exchanging vows in the place where your parents, their parents, and their parents’ parents had all been joined in marriage linked a couple to their history, to the army of ancestors who had lived before and who stood ready, it was said, to support them in their lives ahead.

Jennie had chosen Saint Paul’s for that very reason. Athens would have been a more convenient location for her wedding, but Saint Paul’s meant home.

She opened the door and peeked inside. In her mind, she saw the garland-wrapped candles she and her sister had mounted at the end of each pew, the bridesmaids in their pale pink dresses, her five-year-old twin cousins who had preceded her down the aisle, tossing rose petals into the air.

She walked down the center aisle, stopping in front of the altar where she and Thomas had joined their hands, looked into each other’s eyes, and taken their vows. She bit her lower lip

as she fought back tears, wondering how many of the marriages that had been celebrated here were happy ones, and how many had fallen into ruin as hers had.

She turned away from the building and marched down the hill, into the cemetery. She gazed up at the bigger-than-life marble angel, a cross held triumphantly in one hand, standing guard over a plot in which rested twenty-five or thirty souls. BATEMAN, Jennie’s last name, was inscribed across the marble slab on which the angel stood. The bodies of her ancestors lay in these graves, members of every generation stretching back almost two hundred years, to the time when the land was ceded to the state by the Cherokees and had been distributed to white settlers by lot.

Saint Paul’s Church symbolized family to Jennie, and she had driven out on this chilly December afternoon because, like the brides and those who came to homecoming, she needed to reconnect with her past.

She carried a pot of bulbs to place on her grandparents’ graves. She had brought them to replace the amaryllis she had left before Christmas. Hopefully, they would survive and bloom. Some years they did. Other years, they did not.

Reaching their graves, she placed the pot carefully between the two markers. Then, she sat down on the brown grass beside her grandmother’s and sighed.

During their session yesterday Dr. Wilson, her therapist, had asked again about her children. Christa would be fourteen now, she decided. Alexis, two years older, would be sixteen. Strange that she would have to think about their ages, but she had not seen them in almost twelve years, not since Christa was two and Alexis was four. She couldn’t believe it had been that long. Twelve years since she had cursed her husband, packed a bag, and driven away.

They had been living in the garage apartment in Atlanta, a couple of blocks from the university where Thomas, her husband, was completing his dissertation on some obscure English poet. Thomas wanted to be an English professor and an author. He had already published his first novel. He needed the PhD before a college would offer him a job.

The day that she left she had been out of bed rather early for her, at ten o’clock, and she had taken her first sip of whiskey by ten-ten. Thomas had been in the kitchen, cleaning up after cooking breakfast. He had saved a plate for her.

Jennie frowned. There had been an argument, although she couldn’t recall what it was about. She had stormed onto the porch, screaming at one of the girls, Alexis she thought. Thomas had followed. She remembered screaming at him too, a string of obscenities, before stomping into the bedroom, throwing clothes into a duffle, and marching through the door. Both girls had been crying and Jennie’s head had been pounding. She had just wanted them to be quiet. As she had reached her ninety-six Honda, she had tossed the bag in the back, gunned the engine, and roared away, never looking back. She had shacked up with Jeff, one of her favorites from the Rusty Anchor.

She had been beloved at the Rusty Anchor. She had flirted with the guys, laughed at their dirty jokes and, on occasion, drank them under the table. She had listened to the sad stories they told, consoled them when they were down, called their wives when they were too drunk to drive, and she had done whatever she deemed necessary to keep them happy.

Her temper, though, had been legendary, flaring without warning. Woe to the cheapskate who believed in a ten-percent tip. Woe to the guy who talked trash about his wife or the one who idealized his wife, depending on Jennie’s frame of mind. Woe to the customer who made a pass at her, unless the pass was welcomed. One newcomer had patted her backside and had quickly

found himself lying on the floor with a fork pressing against his neck. Regular customers knew to tread carefully, knowing that her mood could change on a dime.

But life goes on. Things change.

Jennie smiled as she thought about Preacher, how he had wandered into the bar one afternoon looking for something to eat. If not for him, she’d still be waiting tables, sleeping around, and drinking like a fish. She still wrote to him occasionally, and she wanted him to be proud of her. She would not want him to know that she had not seen her children in over a decade.

Jennie shivered and crossed her arms, gazing absently at the white clouds that now scudded across the sky.

Dr. Wilson and Jennie had been talking about her children for over a year, discussing Jennie’s wish that somehow she could be reunited with them. On Monday Dr. Wilson had suggested that her delay in making some decision about whether to proceed with a petition in family court might reflect an attempt to avoid facing the pain she had caused to people she had loved.

They had made a list: Thomas, Alexis, and Christa, were at the top. There were her parents and Thomas’s mother. And there was Jeff. Dr. Wilson had raised an eyebrow when she’d added his name.

"Jeff?"

"I did hurt Jeff." Jennie had nodded. "I didn’t love him. I used him for support and for pleasure, but I let him think I was his forever."

She had left Dr. Wilson’s office no closer to knowing what she should do than she had been when she had arrived.

Jennie looked down at her grandmother’s marker. "Jennifer Williams Bateman," she read aloud, her voice catching on the first name. She had been named after her grandmother, and the two of them had always been close, closer even than a mother and a daughter. When she was a child, it was her grandmother to whom Jennie had turned for counsel, and she still sought her out, driving to the church to talk with her and to ask her advice whenever life left her confused or fearful. She had driven from Atlanta when she wanted to stop drinking. She had talked with her before the first session with her counselor. She had come when she was afraid of going back to school.

She brushed a tear from her eye. She should have talked with Grandmom before walking out on her husband and her two daughters. She had thought of it, but she was so messed up at the time—drinking, cheating on her husband, neglecting her children—that she was afraid her grandmother would be ashamed of her, so she had stayed away.

She didn’t believe in communing with the dead—to Jennie, her grandmother was not dead, just living somewhere else. She was not sure whether her grandmother actually gave her advice or whether talking with her simply helped her to think clearly. In any case, after telling Grandmom her problems, she always had some direction.

"What should I do, Grandmom?" she whispered. "I want to see my girls. I want to know they are all right. I want to make sure that they don’t turn out like I did."

She sat in silence for almost ten minutes, chills spreading across her arms, as a hawk wheeled in the sky above her. She watched as it made several passes over the churchyard, and she felt, again, the cold wind blowing across the cemetery, heard the faraway sound of a locomotive.

Feeling her grandmother’s presence, she began speaking again. "I’ll have to go to court, Grandmom, and a lot of people are going to be angry. A lot of people may be hurt. My girls may end up hating me." She wiped away a tear. "I want them to know that I love them."

Finally, she bent and caressed her grandmother’s marker. "I miss you so much. I remember how I could talk to you about, well, about anything, ask you anything, and you never led me in the wrong direction. I love you, Grandmom. I want my daughters to feel the same way about me."

Jennie stood and walked back toward the church. Should she do it, she wondered, or should she not? She leaned against the car and gazed at the sky. Smiling, she felt her body relax, the tension draining away much as it did when she slipped into a warm bath. She still was not sure which road to take, but she felt certain that Grandmom would show her the way.

She climbed into her car, drove down the long curving road, and bumped across the railroad tracks, pausing as she reached the highway. Whitesburg, her home, lay to the left. To the right, the highway ran to Carrollton, where she had an appointment to talk with an attorney.

It would be so easy to turn left, go home, take that warm bath, sit in front of the fire with a cup of hot chocolate…

Who was she trying to fool? Those girls had no clue who she was, she thought. No way they would ever love her like she loved Grandmom.

As she turned the wheels toward home an old Chevy, just like one her father used to drive, crept down the highway and turned onto the road to Saint Paul’s. The driver waved as he passed, and Jennie waved back.

In her mind, she saw herself as a child, sitting next to her grandmother in the back seat of her father’s car. At the time, Jennie didn’t know where they were, but the car was stopped at a traffic light in front of a college. She had looked through the tall metal arch standing at the entrance to the campus. She saw the white buildings and the huge yard, covered in thick, green grass. Two students, a boy and a girl, walked through the arch, hand in hand.

"I’m going to school there one day," she had said. Her father had laughed until he had cried, but Grandmom had put an arm around her and hugged her.

"Don’t mind him," she had said. "If you really want something, then you go after it. You may not always get what you want, but you certainly won’t get it if you don’t try."

A man in a blue pickup rolled in behind her and tooted his horn. Jennie took a deep breath and turned right.

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