I Know I've Been Changed, page 1
The Novels of ReShonda Tate Billingsley are winning critical cheers!
Let the Church Say Amen
#1 Essence bestseller and Dallas Morning News bestseller
“Creating full-bodied characters and a plot that avoids heavy-handedness…Billingsley infuses her text with just the right dose of humor to balance the novel’s serious events…. Will appeal to fans of Michele Andrea Bowen’s Second Sunday and Pat G’Orge-Walker’s Sister Betty! God’s Calling You Again!”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“Her community of very human saints will win readers over with their humor and verve.”
“Emotionally compelling…. Full of palpable joy, grief, and soulful characters.”
—The Jacksonville Free Press
“Amen to Let the Church Say Amen…. [A] well-written novel.”
My Brother’s Keeper
Her award-winning debut novel
“This is a keeper.”
—The Daily Oklahoman
“Poignant, captivating, emotional, and intriguing…. A humorous and heart-wrenching look at how deep childhood issues can run.”
—The Mississippi Link
Also by ReShonda Tate Billingsley
My Brother’s Keeper
Let the Church Say Amen
Four Degrees of Heat
(with Brenda L. Thomas, Crystal Lacey Winslow, and Rochelle Alers)
POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2006 by ReShonda Tate Billingsley
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
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For my girls,
Mya and Morgan
I have been so blessed in my literary endeavors and there are so many people who have made my journey what it is. But first and foremost, thanks to God for opening doors and giving me the faith, strength and talent to walk through them.
It takes a strong man to deal with a woman like me, an I-want-it-all-and-know-I-can-have-it type of woman. Thanks to my strong man, Dr. Miron Billingsley, for weathering the storms and sticking by my side as I carve my niche in the publishing industry.
To my wonderful children, Mya and Morgan. I know I have to bribe you all to get you to deal with Mommy’s constant trips on the road, but know that I do it all for you. And I promise, it’ll all get better.
To the two most special women in my life, my mother, Nancy Blacknell and my sister, Tanisha Tate. For so long it was just us three against the world. Both of you have been in my corner, listening to my stories, reading my work since I was ten years old. Thank you for everything. Mama, maybe I’ll sell enough books to finally buy you some new carpet (smile).
In this business you always hear people complaining about their agents and editors. I have no complaints because I have one of the best agents and editors in the industry. Sara Camilli, thank you for believing in my work and looking out for me along the way. Selena James, thanks for shaping my stories into bestsellers. I also have to say thanks to Brigitte Smith and everyone else at Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books. Thank you so much for believing in me. I hope I make our company proud.
To the best dang publicist this side of the Mississippi (okay, make that the world). Angie Pickett-Henderson, what can I say? You be puttin’ it down. (I wonder if my editor will let my Ebonics slip through?) Seriously, thanks for pushing my career to new heights, and pushing me (even when I didn’t feel like being pushed). What would I do without you?
To my girl, my dear friend and literary colleague, Pat Tucker Wilson, your time is coming. Keep your head up. You are a talented writer and it’s just a matter of time before the world knows it too. To Jihad, thanks for the feedback and motivation in everything from writing to running. Thanks to all the other authors trying to do this literary thang with me and providing inspiration, support and advice along the way: Nina Foxx, Toschia, Victoria Christopher Murray, Zane, Eric Jerome Dickey, Monica Carter, Norma Jarrett, T.J. Butler, Cydney Rax, Yolanda Joe, Carl Weber, Karen Quinones Miller, Eric Pete, Curtis Bunn, my Strebor family and all the members of the Divine Literary Tour.
As always, much love goes to my chapter sorors: Jaimi Canady, Raquelle Wooten, Kim Patterson Wright, Clemelia Humphrey Richardson, Beverly Davis, Leslie Mouton, Kristie King, Trina McReynolds, Finisha Waits, and all of the other illustrious women of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (especially Mu Kappa Omega), who have shown a sista nothing but love since my self-published days. To all of the other Divine Nine, especially the men of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, thanks for supporting my work.
To my Arkansas family in Smackover, Norphlet, and Mt. Pine, this is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual family members is purely coincidental. I don’t want no drama at the family reunion. Special thanks to Aunt Birdell and Aunt Mel for all your love and support throughout the years.
To my sisters-in-law: Jacqueline McFadden, Della Jones, and Shawn Billingsley, thank you for supporting me and constantly promoting my books. To Xavier Billingsley, Sui, Roscoe, and Queena Jones, thanks for all your help while I was doing my book thing.
To all the book clubs and bookstores…man, I wish I could list you all, but there have been so many that showed me so much love, that it would take another book to list them all. So to those book clubs that had heated discussions over my books, I say thanks. I especially want to say thanks to those who invited me out: Brentwood Baptist Church, Brookhollow Baptist Church, Covenant Glenn, Mt. Horeb, St. Lukes, After-thoughts, North Harris Community College, Cy-Fair Community College (especially Ivra Black), Cush City, Onyx, Cover to Cover, Seasonal Readers, Ladies of Expression, CPT, Go On Girl, Black Orchids, Ivy Readers, Sistahs in Harmony, Coffee, Tea and Read, Divas Who Read, and Kismet book clubs. It was wonderful to hear you talking about my characters like they were real! And to the bookstores, thanks for helping catapult me to the bestseller lists. I hope we can do the same for I Know I’ve Been Changed!
Of course, I cannot forget all my colleagues at Fox 26 News in Houston, especially D’art Bebel, Kathy Williams, Erin Anthony, Linda Drummond, Ray Williams, Ulonda Kirk, Dana Davis, Patti Shieh, Aprille Meek, Bernadette Brown, LaShauna Sewell, Damali Keith, Melinda Spaulding, Isiah “Get Man” Carey, Joe Lanford, John Donnelly, Greg Groogan, Xavier Kirts, Torrey Walker, Todd Smith, Ray Cortez, Carolyn Mungo, Jesse Casteneda, Charles Hobson, Harry Husley, Ruben Dominguez, Joe McGinty, Jose Grinan, Joel Mathaisan, Christina Garza and Lisa Whitlock. A big, big thanks to Rodney “Big Rod” Pearson, for reluctantly giving me story ideas even though he thought we were just talking. (Don’t worry, no one will know which stories are yours unless you tell them).
Also thanks to the Houston Association of Black Journalists and everyone at the Houston Defender.
Saving the best for last…the biggest thanks of all goes to you. The readers who bought my books, passed the word, and continued to show me support. I a
You know, the acknowledgments are more difficult to write than the book itself. That’s because I know I’m forgetting someone and I know I’m going to hear about it. But that’s the beauty of having such wonderful friends, family, and colleagues…If I left out your name, you know to charge it to my head and not my heart.
Until the next book…enjoy and thanks for the love.
I’m outta here and I don’t care what anyone has to say.
Shondella, Reno, Auntie Mel. Even Mama Tee. I don’t need none of them. Tell me I ain’t gonna make it. I’ll show ’em all. They can have this funky town.
Here I was, standing in front of Eddie’s Filling Tank, the lone gas station bus stop in town, with all my belongings stuffed into four tattered suitcases. There was no turning back, not that I’d even want to. I was tired of Sweet Poke and all that it didn’t have to offer. The one-stoplight town didn’t even have a movie theater or a mall. The only three stores in the town were the five-and-dime store, McConn’s, an overpriced old-people clothing store, and Piggly Wiggly. We didn’t even have a freakin’ Wal-Mart. If you wanted a decent pair of underwear, you had to drive twenty minutes to the next town to get it. And the nearest major city, Little Rock, was an hour and a half away. Sweet Poke was simply not a place where you could thrive. And it definitely wasn’t a place for someone like me.
Shondella, my jealous older sister, had laughed when I’d first announced my intention to leave and go work in Tyler, Texas. She said I would probably end up hooking on the street. Then there was my great-aunt Mel, who had helped my grandmother raise me since my no-account mama had decided she didn’t want to be a mama anymore and left me, Shondella, and my twin sister and brother, Jasmine and Justin, at this very bus stop. Auntie Mel had prayed over me like I needed to be exorcised or something. Mama Tee wouldn’t even say good-bye. She just acted like I was goin’ to the corner store or something.
I glanced at my watch. The bus was over an hour late and the wind was kicking my tail, messing up the $40, spiral-curl hairstyle that I’d had to sleep sitting up to maintain. People were always telling me I looked like former Miss America Vanessa Williams, so I’d tried to copy the hairstyle she always wore.
Some of the dust being kicked around by the wind got lodged in my throat and gave me a coughing fit.
“Just another reason to get out of this place,” I muttered. Sweet Poke, Arkansas, was known for its twisterlike dirt clouds. And that about summed up all this town had to offer. On the list of progressive places in the country, Sweet Poke would rank at the very bottom. That’s why I had to leave. Ever since junior high school, I’ve known I was bigger than this place. My family, friends, Reno, none of them could ever understand that. Some of my relatives called me uppity, but they just didn’t understand. It wasn’t only the slow pace that was driving me insane. I simply couldn’t live in poverty. Since the average salary in this town of three thousand people was just over $14,000 a year, poverty was very real. Growing up, we were dirt-poor, although you’d never know it because Mama Tee was always hollering ’bout we was rich in spirit. Yeah, right. Tell that to the light company. They ain’t trying to hear nothin’ ’bout no spirits.
No, my future would be nothing like my past. I refused to be like Mama Tee, struggling to make ends meet, yet still singing every church song in the book. Forget that. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t completely stopped believing in God, I just don’t think He makes frequent stops in Sweet Poke. If He did, everyone here wouldn’t live such miserable lives.
I used to pray that God would make things better for us, that he would bring my mama back. That was a pipe dream. All the nights I cried, all the nights I prayed for hours, begging God to bring my mother back didn’t make a bit of difference. I wanted, no I needed my mother in my life so much I tried to bargain with God, saying stuff like I’d get straight A’s and never trouble Mama Tee again if He would just bring her back. Yet, it never happened. So despite what Mama Tee is always saying, to me it don’t look like God answers prayers. Least he ain’t never answered none I sent up.
That’s why I stopped waiting on God to change my situation and set out to change it myself. I was headed for bigger and better things. I was going to show the world that I wasn’t some discarded little girl.
I pulled my scarf over my hair. I definitely didn’t want any dirt getting in my hair. After I was sure I had it adjusted to where it was covering my entire head, I stepped out into the parking lot and peered down the road. “Finally,” I mumbled as I noticed the big gray bus making its way through the clouds of dust.
For the first time that day, a smile crossed my face. I watched the Greyhound bus pull into the service station, wishing it would just slow down long enough for me to jump on board, then keep going.
“Evening, ma’am,” the portly bus driver said as he stepped off the bus. “Will you be joining us?”
“Naw, I’m just standing out here in a dust storm for my health,” I snapped.
The driver narrowed his eyes. “No need to get smart, little lady.”
“No need to ask dumb questions.” I was not in the mood for cordial exchanges. I was anxious to get out of Sweet Poke, the place I’d called home most of my life. “Yes, William,” I said, reading his nametag. “I’m waiting on you. I’ve been waiting for the last hour and a half.” I thrust my ticket toward him.
William forced a smile and shook his head. “They don’t pay me enough for this,” he mumbled as he took the ticket.
“What?” I asked, my hands firmly planted on my hips.
“Nothing,” William responded. “We’ll be taking a five-minute break, then we’ll be heading out.”
“Fine.” As irritated as I was, I had waited all my life for this. What was another five minutes?
The driver rolled his eyes, then made his way over to where my luggage sat and began loading it on the bus. My entire life, stuffed in four pieces of unmatching, frazzled luggage. One was a Samsonite I had borrowed from Auntie Mel, and the other three cheap pieces were Mama Tee’s. She’d probably gotten them on sale at a thrift store.
I huffed and was just about to board the bus when I heard someone say, “So you really gon’ do this? Raedella Rollins is really gonna just up and leave?”
I stopped and turned toward Reno, my boyfriend of six years. Make that ex-boyfriend. We’d broken up two months ago after I’d caught him coming out of the only motel in Sweet Poke with Ann Paxton, the town tramp. I was hurt by his actions, mostly because he knew in a town as small as Sweet Poke, he wouldn’t be able to cheat and get away with it. Still, he did it anyway. In fact, it was my sister who had come running home, out of breath, to tell me Reno was at the motel. The motel clerk had called somebody, who called somebody, who called my sister. Since we mix like oil and water, Shondella took great pleasure in bringing me the news.
“I guess you thought I was joking,” I responded as I made my way to the side of the bus where he was standing. “I told you, Reno, I’m outta here. I’m destined for bigger and better things.”
“This is about Ann, isn’t it? I told you she don’t mean nothing. She kissed me.” Reno smiled that crooked smile that had captured my heart when I was just a freshman in high school. His eyes twinkled as he stood there in his Dickies overalls, holding a can of Coca-Cola. I’d known Reno since I was a little girl. But he’d moved away when he was nine years old, after his parents divorced. When he returned to live with his father, he came back a handsome young man who had every girl within a hundred miles of Sweet Poke feenin’ for him. Even now, he was as handsome as he was the day he’d first stepped foot in my freshman English class. His honey-brown complexion, short-cropped hair, enchanting eyes, and deep dimples almost made me think twice about my decision to leave. Almost.
“Whatever, Reno,” I said, snapping out of the trance his eyes were luring me into. “That was your tongue down her throat, not the other way around. Anywa
Reno displayed a big, cheesy grin. I used to believe Reno was one of the good guys. He went to church all the time. He was loving, attentive, and honest, or so I thought. That’s why his cheating hurt me so much. I never saw it coming. He tried to give me some line about Ann claiming she had dropped something down the sink in that motel room and needed his help to get it out. I told him he must think I was Boo-Boo the fool if he expected me to believe that.
Reno reached out and tried to take my hand. “But we’re a team. Always have been, always will be. Even when you tried to play hard and break up with me, I knew where your heart was. We belong together.”
“Save that crap for your next victim,” I said, jerking my hand away. “We broke up months ago. And this is about me wanting more than this two-bit town can offer. So Ann can have you because I don’t want you.”
“Tell that to someone who doesn’t know you.” Reno laughed, infuriating me.
“Let me explain something to you,” I said, wiggling my neck. “You are a country bumpkin, a low-down, stank dirty dog. That’s why I wouldn’t get back together with your broke behind. And you have no aspirations to leave this place. You’re happy working your minimum-wage job at the railroad. But me…CNN is calling, baby.” I stood with my head held high.
Reno narrowed his eyes, looking at me like I was crazy. “Shondella told me you’re going to Tyler, Texas. That’s a long way from CNN.”
“But it’s on the way!” I was sick of people degrading my decision to take a job as a reporter in Tyler. Auntie Mel said I was just jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire by leaving one small town to go to another. Both she and Mama Tee had blasted me for going away to a town where I didn’t know a single soul. But I’d let my family talk me out of going away to college, even though I’d desperately wanted to leave this place. Between being broke and madly in love with Reno, I’d been suckered into commuting to college at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway, which was about thirty minutes from Sweet Poke. Still, I stayed focused, earning my degree in broadcast journalism and sending out audition tape after audition tape until I finally got a job offer in Tyler. “I have to pay some dues. Anyway, I’ll only be there a few months before some big-time television station snatches me up.”
Other author's books:
- More to LifeReal As It GetsSeeking SarahThe Book in Room 316Drama QueensI Know I've Been ChangedBlessings in DisguiseWhat's Done In the Dark
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