Verbenaby Nanci Kincaid
When Bena's first husband, Bobby Eckert, dies in a car wreck, she's left with their five children, a little mortgaged house, a little
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Set in contemporary small town America, this is the story of Verbena Martin Eckert McHale ("Bena," for short), an indomitable woman who is damned—but not doomed—by the bad behavior and bad luck of her two husbands.
When Bena's first husband, Bobby Eckert, dies in a car wreck, she's left with their five children, a little mortgaged house, a little bit of insurance, and a big empty place in her heart. Not to mention that the hole Bobby left is jagged around the edges—he wasn't in the car alone and Bena hadn't had a clue about his girlfriend.
So now she's a cheated-on widow with five grief-stricken children to finish raising. No matter. No matter that she almost burns the house down when she discovers the marijuana farm in their backyard or that she has terrible, loud crying jags in church. When it gets down to it, Bena's backbone bends minimally and her moral center holds.
By the time she's ready to invest again in romance, Bena know what she wants. When she finds the right man and the right circumstances, she doesn't hesitate—she marries Lucky McHale. And what does he do? He disappears off the face of the earth.
Verbena is the vibrant story of an extraordinary ordinary woman—strong, emotional, headstrong, sexy, funny—an especially American woman, one worth knowing and cheering.
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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- Barnes & Noble
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Read an Excerpt
Looking back, it seemed Bena's life had more or less belonged to her right up until Bobby died and took it away. With Bobby in the grave Bena's life had quickly become doing what Bobby wasn't there to do. Get the lawn mowed, keep the car running, pay off the mortgage, and raise his kids right so that they'd all turn out decent, reasonably athletic, and basically honest--which she'd done. Not a criminal among them. They were serious children--maybe that was true. When Bena looked back she worried that probably they hadn't laughed enough or ever found the pleasure of pure out-and-out silliness and she was sorry about that. But on the other hand, not a one of them was mean.
It was more than five years ago now, but sometimes it still seemed like just last week. The news--which is how they talked about it still. The night we got the news. When he told Mama the news. When the news hit school. Marcus Langley, one of Bobby's fishing buddies, was standing at the door in his Alabama state trooper uniform looking like a total stranger. He had on his official law enforcement expression, which Bena had never seen before. Beside him was his nervous partner whose eyes were darting wildly like he was afraid to take a hard look at Bena under the circumstances.
"Bena, honey," Marcus said. "There's been an accident. It's Bobby. Killed in a rollover. And Bena, now, he was not alone. There was a woman." The news had come at once like that, packaged in sentence fragments.
She'd been at home with the kids that night, the five of them. Eddie, the baby, was almost ten and Sissy, the oldest, was a sophomore in high school. The TV was on and every radio and stereo in the house was blaring out some competing noise. Bena was grading papers at the kitchen table. She had the kind of mind that could cut right through the distractions of life and stay focused on her task. She was a sixth-grade teacher then, a good one. That was before she found out they would pay her better money to fill out government forms than they would to teach the children anything about the government. They'd let her do it in an air-conditioned office too and not a sweatbox classroom where all the papers were turned in wet and smeared since it was way too hot for anybody to get a grip on their pencils--or their thoughts.
Then there came the knock on the door that changed everything. The Alabama state trooper car with its flashing light parked in the yard making their dog, Elvis, howl as if he knew exactly what had happened just by pure instinct. And all five of her golden children wild-eyed and frozen at the news that Bobby Eckerd, their daddy, was dead.
Two afternoons earlier Bobby had told Bena he was going to a meeting in Montgomery. His company was trying to get a bid in on paper supplies for Maxwell, the air force base. He said it would take him a day or two and kissed Bena good-bye. And she had let him go off being believed.
The state troopers said Bobby's car went off the embankment up on that twisty part of Highway 82. They said it looked like he just forgot to take the curve like maybe he thought for a minute his car was an airplane and it would just lift off and sail him through the air, like he was a jet pilot, like he could take wing and fly. There were no skid marks, the state troopers said. No signs of braking. Car rolled over six or eight times. Bobby was killed instantly.
They found the woman in a ravine with her skull mostly crushed. She was still breathing. They took her to Jackson Hospital and called all her next of kin. "We're sorry, Mrs. Eckerd, to have to bring you this news," the nervous officer kept saying to Bena. "We're sorry, ma'am."
The day after the accident the newspaper ran the pictures of Bobby and the woman together, side by side, like a pair. ACCIDENT TAKES LOCAL MAN'S LIFE, the paper said. WOMAN IN CRITICAL CONDITION.
Bena's daughter Ellie, who was eleven, brought the newspaper into Bena's bedroom to show it to her. "Mama," she said, "you want to see what the woman looked like?" Bena sat up in bed and studied the picture of the woman. Her name was Lorraine Rayfield. She was only twenty-four. Bena had never laid eyes on her before. Her hair was dark and curly and Bena remembered thinking she probably dyed it to get it so black. Bena's own, once auburn, hair was a noncolor brown. Bena searched the woman's face and decided that her people might be foreign or something. Italian maybe. Or Puerto Rican. She had the looks of a stranger just passing through on her way someplace else. It was clear she was not someone who belonged in Bena's--or Bobby's--life.
"She's not as pretty as you, Mama," Ellie said.
"Pretty is as pretty does," Bena said.
"I bet she's not as nice as you either."
"There's more important things than being pretty--or nice, Ellie. You remember that, okay?"
"Yes, ma'am," Ellie said. "Like what?"
"I don't know for sure right this minute. You'll have to ask me later, okay?"
"Like being alive," Ellie said. "It's more important to be alive. Right?"
Bobby's funeral was well attended because nearly everybody loved Bobby Eckerd. His children were scrubbed and good-looking and behaved in a way that would make any father proud. His wife, Bena, was composed and gracious. Anybody that pitied her was wasting time--at least that's what she told herself at the time. Bena had entered the church with her two sons and three daughters flanking her like clear skinned, blue-eyed soldiers, and she had felt strong in the midst of them. What Bobby Eckerd had needed with Lorraine Rayfield Bena might never know. But she was not going to let her children become ashamed of their father. She was going to insist that they look beyond the obvious. That's what she had always tried to do herself.
Bena's own daddy had died when she was fifteen. Afterward once a month she and her mother had gone to his grave with garden shears and spray cleaner. Her mother washed the bird droppings off his marker while Bena clipped the grass from around his grave. They never talked during this time. Bena liked to think it was a labor of love they'd shared.
Bena's mother died the year after Bena and Bobby married. She was buried beside Bena's daddy, her name etched on the other half of his marker. Bena and Bobby had moved to Baxter County by then so Bena had had to let the tending of their graves go. It didn't bother her though, since it didn't seem as sad, her two parents together again in the bowels of the earth, where their late-life child had no choice but to let them rest in peace. Bena had been a surprise baby. Her mother was forty-seven and childless when she thought she was going through the change--and she was. The change was the baby she'd stopped wanting years before. She named her Verbena because the verbena was in bloom then. Bena had always thought it was an old-lady name, which made sense because her mother was an old lady when she named her. It was her daddy who'd call her Baby Bena, the second part of which stuck. Thank goodness. A half name suited Bena better. Once when she was a little girl Bena remembered hearing a lady at church tell her mother, "My verbena is giving way to weeds."
"This is my Verbena." Her mother patted Bena's head.
"You're named after a pretty little flower, honey," the lady said. "It grows wild lots of places. Same as a weed."
Bena had thought then that her name was misleading. She'd never felt like a flower. From the beginning she'd felt more like a weed that had sprung up hearty and uninvited. Bena's mother was old enough to be a grandmother--or in Alabama even a great-grandmother --when she delivered Bena. She was hospitalized over a month after the birth, just from the shock of it all. She'd tried to be a thankful and loving mother, but mainly she was tired and very disappointed in God's imperfect sense of timing. It made her question His divine plan.
Bena's parents had been each other's entire lives until Bena burst onto the scene screaming and needing--disturbing the peace and order her parents had fine-tuned in their long, sterile years together. It had never seemed possible to her that the product of a loving union could be the very thing to destroy that loving union. What kind of plan was that? She'd always felt like a rude interruption in her parent's very polite lives. It was a terrible way to think about herself. An accident, living an accidental life.
Then the proof came: her daddy's heart attack--or drowning. They'd found him floating facedown in a lake and both things had happened. One, they said, had caused the other. Accidents lead to accidents. Afterward her mother had medicated herself into an early death. The past had started swirling through her head, and everything got out of order like a family album with all the photos spilled on the floor. She could take a pill and there was no present anymore--no future either. She couldn't recall whether or not she'd taken her medicine. The more she took, the less sure she was. Bena sorted her medicine and wrote out a schedule for her, tried to call and remind her, but then there was the day her mother didn't answer the phone. Bena was pregnant with Sissy when she watched the ambulance carry her mother away with a pink bedsheet pulled up over her head.
Now, for the first time since they'd been laid to rest Bena wished for her parents. She wanted them to put their arms around her and promise that everything would be okay--something they'd never really done. She wanted them to kiss her children and hold their hands and be strong and wise for them--because she might not be able to be either. It was odd that on the day of Bobby's funeral instead of wishing for him, she was wishing for her dead parents, who'd been gone such a long, long time. On this day, more than any other, Bena desperately longed to be somebody's much loved child.
Bobby's mother wept uncontrollably through the funeral. There was a sort of anger in her grief that was frightening. Bobby's daddy had taken off years ago--nobody knew where. Afterward, for a while, Bobby's mother had focused on Bobby, her oldest son, nearly smothering him in love and expectations. Then his stepdaddy, Kyle, came along and distracted her. Kyle owned a construction company. He moved Bobby's mother into a big, fine house and put the boys to work in the summertime to keep them out of trouble. One by one they'd begun to call Kyle Daddy. Several years back he'd moved the business to Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Now they only rarely saw them or heard from them. Two of Bobby's brothers still worked for Kyle though. But to this day they insisted Bobby was their mother's favorite. It had become a family joke. Mama, if we were on a ship and it was sinking, who would you save after you saved Bobby?
Kyle brought Bobby's mother by the house before the service. Bena was lying down in the bedroom with the lights off. Bobby's mother eased into the room and sat down on the bed beside her. She shook her head no, no, no, and wept into her handkerchief. Bena had tried to comfort her the best she could.
"You don't understand." Bobby's mother blew her nose. "Bobby wasn't happy. That's what breaks my heart. He wouldn't be off with a young girl--not if he was happy at home. On some level, Bena, you have to know that."
"It might not be like it seems," Bena said.
"That's the trouble with the truth," Bobby's mother said. "Nobody wants to tell it--and nobody wants to hear it."
"You don't know the whole story," Bena said. "Nobody does."
"I know Bobby is dead," she sobbed. "I know he was searching. He wasn't at peace."
"Maybe he was," Bena said. "He got saved."
Bobby's mother closed her eyes and shook her head. "You don't understand, do you? It was the same when Bobby's daddy left us. I didn't want to admit it either."
"That something was missing."
"What was it?" Bena asked. "What do you think was missing?"
Kyle knocked on the door. "I pulled the car around," he said. "It's time to go."
Bobby's mother squeezed Bena's hand and looked at her, "We got to live with this the rest of our lives," she whispered. "Bobby's unhappiness." She shook her head as if she was furious about it. "You okay, honey? I know this isn't easy for you either."
It rained when Bobby was laid in the ground. Black umbrellas surrounded the grave like gnats clustered on a wound. It was muddy and messy and the coffin slipped and sank while the men tried to steer it into place. Amen, people said. Bena watched it all as if she were a person in the audience at a really sad movie.
That night her son Joe said, "Daddy ruined everything, didn't he, Mama?"
"He changed everything," Bena said. "We're not going let things be ruined."
Meet the Author
Nanci Kincaid is the author of two previous novels, Crossing Blood and Balls, and a collection of short stories, Pretending the Bed Is a Raft. She lives in Hawaii with her husband. They have four grown children.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I agree with another reviewer who said that Lucky behaved totally out of character. Lets face it...he stays throughout the entire time with wife #1 and then he goes off in a different direction. I was blindsighted and had a hard time accepting this of him, he is so devoted and in love with Bena. But i went along with it and glad the writer brought him home. Good characters. Benas children even were a bit strange and that was a curveball given that you knew that she brought them up right. But in the end a really great book. Well written...but not too much dialog which i needed more of. I wished Bena had had some happiness though...husband #1 issues....children issues...husband #2 her chance for happiness, gone. I wanted more than anything to see her happy.
VERBENA is outstanding until it undercuts itself when Lucky acts totally out of the character Kincaid has established. He lies AND disappears. Now, unless his disease had progressed far enough for his brain to be afflicted (it hadn't), he KNOWS that this will destroy the good he's done for his new family. And, for his sister to go along with this charade further stretches a bad development. Speaking of which, no one in the book (I'm reading it again to make sure) connects Bobbie Eckert's odd fatal cruise off the highway with the fact that he MIGHT not have wanted to destroy his family with this news of his illegitimate child...? Not exactly a creditable decision, but still something to think about. I sure hope there's a sequel where everyone stays true to their character. However much that character changes, it's gotta stay believable.
I thought this book was wonderful. I would recommend it to anyone. It was full of insight and always kept you guessing. The characters were quirky and so much fun.
Nanci Kincaid is a creator par excellence; she creates strong, robust Southern women who may be down on their luck but never defeated. Happy to say this is the case with Verbena Martin Eckert McHale, known as 'Bena.' Being widowed with five children is bad. It is worse when that widowhood is caused by a fatal car accident, a car occupied by your husband and a woman half his age. Thus, Bena is forced to not only mourn her dead husband, but also to wonder what her marriage had really meant. However, there's precious little time for musing as there are children to be cared for, a mortgaged house to maintain, and a public school 6th grade teaching job. If fortune were fair, Bena would be in for some good years. Not so, one offspring plants a marijuana field on their property, and two daughters run away with a ne'er-do- wells. Things look up when Bena meets mailman Lucky McHale, and she thinks he's the answer. They marry, but her happiness doesn't last as he disappears after two short months. At its heart this is a story of survival related with honesty, authenticity, and humor. Bena is a woman many will be glad to know.