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Bena's Back In Town

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Lovers of good Southern fiction have been waiting nearly two years to learn the fate of Verbena Eckerd. When we last heard from the woman everyone calls Bena, she was reeling from a double-barreled blast of bad news.

After an Alabama state trooper tells her that Bobby, her husband, has been killed in a car accident, along with another woman, Bena is left alone with a family to raise, a job as a sixth-grade teacher, and Bobby's grieving dog, Elvis. Then Lucky shows up.

Lucky is a former football star whose pro career never materialized. Now he's the mailman, and he's married to Sue Cox Miller, the girl everyone envied while growing up -- until her years of drinking took their toll on her, and on her marriage to Lucky.

That's all we knew so far about Verbena when author Nanci Kincaid allowed her work-in-progress to be excerpted in 2000 in Novello: Ten Years of Great American Writing. Now, Kincaid has delivered the rest of the story. It was worth waiting for.

Lucky's attempts to woo Bena are proceeding predictably, and look as if they might end that way, too.

"I swear to God if I don't put my arms around you and hold you and kiss you -- then I think I'll just have to go home and shoot myself. I mean it," he begs. Bena gives in, but that's only the beginning.

Her three girls and two boys find plenty of ways to break their mother's heart, no matter how hard Bena tries to spare her fatherless children any more suffering. When her daughter, Sissy, seems hell-bent on ruining her life, Bena wonders, "Maybe pain is a basic human craving of some kind and there are certain people who never really get enough."

Despite having at her fingertips all the ingredients for a lifetime of

misery, Bena refuses to combine her loneliness, fear and frustration into a recipe for defeat. She's the ultimate pragmatist, one whose ethics may be a little bit slippery but only when necessary: "Sometimes people needed lies in the worst ways. Lies could actually save their lives when the truth might kill them. Bena was not a liar, but had learned the practical value of a useful lie to help get somebody from point A to point B."

The book's jacket text reveals that Lucky will leave Bena, so it's not giving away any secrets to mention it here. When he does disappear, Bena finds support from unlikely sources: a black co-worker who believes in the afterlife, an immigrant family that forges an unexpected bond with Bena's own, and Lucky's ex-wife.

Other than falling for a married man, Bena's worst flaws seem to be her overzealous housecleaning and crying in church. She has one tiny little outburst when she learns her kids have been growing pot behind the house, and readers who want their heroines to show their suffering in all its high drama may be disappointed. But a lack of hysteria is exactly what makes Bena, and her story, so appealing. She's a woman whose determination gets her through the days and nights; she's "the sane woman in a world where other women allowed themselves to go crazy, the calm woman when other women acted wild and ridiculous and sometimes stupid."

Kincaid is the author of other well-received books: the novels Crossing Blood and Balls, and a collection of short stories titled Pretending the Bed Is A Raft. In a recent essay, she reflected on her own family, and how they inspired Verbena.

"If God is not convinced or inclined to answer your prayers, then sometimes you have to find some way to answer your prayers yourself. We are not the kind of people who are ever really able to 'let go and let God.' We never put pressure on God like a lot of Southerners do, leaving every damn thing up to Him. We believe in doing our part."

It's Bena's spirited generosity that readers will likely remember most, and those of us who waited two years to read the rest of her story won't be disappointed. She learns how to forgive but she never forgets, even as she stretches her heart to make room for everyone in her imperfect world. In Nanci Kincaid's hands, the story of Verbena blossoms into something deeply moving and wonderfully surprising. *

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