Jennie Bateman screamed at her daughters, cursed her husband, turned her back on her family, and walked away. Twelve years later, she petitions the family court for visitation with her daughters, Alexis and Christa. Unless she can convince a judge to allow her to see her children, unless she can convince her children to allow her to be their mother, she will not be able to find the peace she desperately wants.
Her attorney tells her that, ordinarily, she could not imagine that a mother would not be allowed to see her children, but, she warns, the situation is hardly ordinary.
True, Jennie suffered from a bipolar disorder when she began to drink heavily, abandoned her family, and moved in with another man. True, she has turned her life around: leaving her boyfriend, returning to school, entering therapy, taking medication, finding a job, and joining a church.
But she pressed no claim for her children when her husband divorced her, and she has made no attempt to contact them in any way since then. Her daughters, now sixteen and fourteen, live four hundred miles away. They have busy lives that do not include her, lives that will be totally disrupted by the visitation that she requests. Their father is engaged to be married to a woman who has taken the role of their mother for a decade. Alexis remembers nothing good about Jennie. Christa recalls nothing at all.
Conflict ensues as soon as Jennie’s petition is served: her former husband does not want to share his children with the woman who deserted him; her children have no interest in knowing the mother who abandoned them, and her father insists that she is being timid and ought to demand full custody, not simply visitation.
As court convenes, Jennie’s past is dredged up− the desertion, the men, her drinking, her mental health − and paraded before the judge. Her claim to now be a different person is attacked.
The judge is reluctant to grant Jennie’s request, but ultimately orders three trial visits. Jennie fears that if persuading the judge to let her see her children was difficult, then convincing them to allow her to be a part of their lives may be impossible.
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What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I like stories with love and conflict. In this case, it is a mother’s love for her children. She made a very bad mistake early in their lives and she wants the opportunity to make things up. If I were one of her children, I know that I’d be reluctant to trust her!
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
It has been suggested that there are, at most, thirty-six unique plot lines and that every story is simply a variation of one of these. As a result, Romeo and Juliet, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and Westside Story are simply variations on the theme of young lovers whose families are implacable enemies. Cinderella and The Great Gatsby each recounts a story of an impoverished person who falls in love someone in a higher social class.
So, where do I get the specific variation that is my story? The specific events, the conversations, the locations, the characters, where do I find them?
Well, I don’t know. It is sort of like magic!
In the Second Chance Café, the author writes of a young woman who weaves beautiful scarves. They sell in upscale stores around the country and are often seen wrapped around the bodies of movie stars and celebrities. Each scarf is unique. How does she decide on the colors, the pattern, for a new scarf? She describes the process in this manner:
“I don’t know how you do that,” her father said, looking at the collection (of yarn) she held and shaking his head.
Honestly, neither did she. To this day, she could not explain how the colors came together in her mind. How one flowed into another as she sat at her loom. How the different strands of story became a whole. “I just see it. I don’t know where it comes from. Any of it. It’s just there.”
This is how it is with writing. The author doesn’t know where the specific events come from. Any of them. The author begins to write − and they’re just there.
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.”
“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.”
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