In Common: A Novel of Love and Sacrifice by Norma Watkins
ISBN: 9781684339235 (Paperback)
ASIN: B09V1NNLSZ (Kindle edition)
Page Count: 593
Release Date: April 14, 2022
Publisher: Black Rose Writing
Genre: Fiction | Family Life
In Common, a first novel from award-winning memoirist Norma Watkins (The Last Resort, That Woman from Mississippi), is a story of the sacrifices women make for the love of an inaccessible man.
Lillian Creekmore grows up at her family’s popular rural spa. She successfully runs an entire hotel, yet longs for a husband. Then she meets Will Hughes.
Velma Vernon accepts life on a small, struggling farm until a boy she barely tolerates proposes marriage. To accept means duplicating her parents’ hard life. Alone, she leaves for the city and triumphs, not as a wife, but by being the best at her job. Velma is content until the most beautiful man she has ever seen walks into her office.
This moving and darkly humorous novel follows the intertwined lives of women willing to surrender everything to a man more in love with success than any female.
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On Christmas morning in 1933, Lillian Creekmore woke filled with anticipation. Twenty-four years old, dark-eyed and quick moving, she wore her hair bobbed and possessed a petite, small-bosomed body, perfect for the flapper fashions she could not afford.
Dressing hurriedly in the cold room, she brushed her teeth and hair, and ran downstairs. The family hotel had closed for the winter, but the oldest wing, the Warm Part (though the wheezing furnace never made it so), rang with the voices of everyone Lillian loved.
“Christmas Gift,” she called to her sister Maude. If you were the first to say it, you got the good luck. “Christmas Gift” to her sister Ernestine and sister-in-law Faye. “Christmas Gift” to Knox, Ernestine’s sweet husband. You could not be depressed, even during a Depression with the people you cared for close around. “Christmas Gift,” Lillian yelled to her brothers James and Leland.
“Christmas Gift, Angie,” they yelled back. Angie was her nickname, shortened from Aunt Jemima, the pancake mix. As a child, she loved pancakes so much, James and Leland gave her the name off the box.
Lillian had a reason to be excited: her brothers had hinted at a surprise. From the secretive looks she’d seen passing between them, she’d become convinced they’d found her a car. She couldn’t imagine how, but James and Leland were shrewd, maybe shrewd enough to pull off a miracle in the middle of these dark years.
Lillian was the baby, the youngest of five Creekmores, and people had been telling her how darling she was since she could remember. The boys at Ole Miss (where she would have stayed longer if a plummeting economy hadn’t dried up the family finances) certainly thought so. It was harder to stay darling when you were poor and stuck in the middle of nowhere. She needed a way out, and maybe today she would get it.
She opened the swinging door to the kitchen. “Christmas Gift,” to Lena, bent over the pink-hot wood stove. To Lena’s son Johnny and his wife Flora May. To Ellis and Preston, the waiters. When the hotel closed for the season, the servants were sent home, but everyone returned for Christmas Day.
In the dining room around the big table, the family sat down to the traditional broiled quail and grits breakfast. Since quitting college four years before, Lillian had helped her brothers and sisters operate Creekmore Hotel and Spa. Most of their guests were older people taking the mineral water cure (a cure that promised to ward off everything from asthma to warts). Nobody with the slightest romantic possibility. Lillian knew how to charm the ladies and harmlessly flirt with their husbands, but as the years went by, she felt her chances slipping. She wasn’t young anymore. She could still pass for young, but on February 11, she would turn twenty-five, and she didn’t fool herself: twenty-five was practically middle-aged when you weren’t married.
Ellis handed around a basket of hot biscuits. Lillian split one and buttered it. Maude passed her the dish of homemade plum jelly.
Their father died when Lillian was three. He had the brains for business, everyone said so, and the hotel thrived. With him gone, their mother took over. Just after Lillian turned sixteen, a doctor in New Orleans botched a simple appendectomy and her mother died on the operating table. The five siblings had been left to keep the place going. Creekmore was a seasonal hotel and needed to make enough money from May through Labor Day to carry them through the other eight months. They’d done it, and with enough left over to send Lillian to college, until the Crash.
Knox lifted his coffee cup in a toast. “Here’s to us. We may not be celebrating next year if Hitler stays in power.”
A murmur from the men, talk of the last war and worries about the next.
Ernestine tapped her water glass. “Adolf Hitler is a failed house painter. A country with Germany’s deep culture will soon come to its senses. Let us not spoil Christmas.” She paused, looking around the table. “The Lord will provide.”
Lillian smiled into her cup: the implication being, if the Lord didn’t, Ernestine would.
People told Lillian she had been blessed with a sunny disposition, but behind a cheerful exterior, she fretted. If she didn’t find a husband soon, she would be stuck here, eleven miles from the nearest town of Canton, and thirty-five miles from the capital city of Jackson. She would grow too old to marry, working to keep this crumbling enterprise going. She wanted her chance and she wasn’t asking for much: a decent man to love, a house of her own, and, please God, not to worry about money every single minute.
Ernestine was going on about the Lord again, how grateful they should be for His help in making it through another year.
Nibbling around a tiny quail leg, Lillian returned to her thoughts. She needed a way out, especially during the long, gray winters with the hotel closed. That meant some kind of independent transportation. She didn’t care how old it was or how beat up, as long as it got her to Jackson for weekends with her former sorority sisters and single men. The friends fortunate enough to graduate had gotten engaged during their senior year, married soon after, and were already having babies.
Summers at the hotel were bearable. Lillian didn’t mind hard work, and keeping the place running took all five of them. From May to September, with the sixty-six rooms filled, she ran from the moment her feet touched the floor in the morning until she dropped into bed at night, too tired to brush her teeth. Summers kept her so busy, she didn’t have time to worry about the future, and there was always the possibility a handsome son might arrive to fetch his mother.
At the hotel, the price of a room included three hearty meals. During the height of summer, the dining room filled twice at lunch and dinner. Extra money came from shipping five-gallon jugs of Creekmore’s famous (and evil-tasting) water all over the country. Additional cash was earned discreetly from a two-story building behind the Annex, where Leland oversaw cockfights in a pit downstairs, while James ran roulette, poker, and blackjack tables above.
Set ups were sold at the Fishes’ Club, the “nightclub” at the far end of the Annex. Prohibition had ended in the rest of the country, but Mississippi chose to remain dry. People brought their own liquor and, if they didn’t, a bootleg bottle could be arranged.
In a pasture behind the kitchen, Alan tended a large vegetable garden. Up the hill in the barn, they kept cows for milk, chickens for eggs, and pigs for sausage, bacon, and smoked hams. With all this, the five of them managed to pay the help who did the planting, cooking and serving, while keeping the place in fairly good repair.
Lillian looked around at the plates piled with tiny bird bones. Today felt fun, but come January, with the rooms empty except for family and one or two servants, she might as well be a monk. Her oldest sister Maude told her not to worry. Look at her at thirty-one, perfectly content without a husband. Lillian did not feel reassured. Maude was a saint, everyone said so, and saints were happy with whatever scraps fell off God’s plate. Lillian wanted life to be a feast and if she ever figured a way out of here, she intended to find a place at the table.
Breakfast over, the family gathered around the fireplace in the big parlor to open gifts. Lillian tried to act nonchalant. She praised the satin slip from Ernestine and the red beret crocheted by Maude. She smiled as Leland and James tried on scarves she’d knitted them in Ole Miss’s colors, cardinal and navy. Faye’s son, followed by Ernestine’s, ran in and out of the room, conducting aerial battles with the small tin airplanes Lillian had given them.
Lillian held off opening the lumpy package from her brothers until there were no more presents. Affecting a modest disinterest, she untied the red string and ripped off the white paper.
Out tumbled an envelope and the radiator cap from some kind of car. She’d seen a cap like this one, with a red-line thermometer that told you if the engine over-heated. This was from her car.
“I can’t believe it.” She leapt to her feet, dumping the wrappings on the floor, threw her arms first around Leland, then James. “You are the best brothers in the entire world. Where’s the rest of it?” She slammed out the front door, looking up and down the graveled parking area. James and Faye’s beat-up Chevrolet Coupe stood alone.
“Okay, you two,” Lillian said. “Where’d you hide it? Is it in the carport?” She ran past them, headed through the dining room.
James called her name, puffing along behind. At thirty-two, he was getting fat. She did not stop to listen.
“Wait,” Leland said.
She dashed through the kitchen and out the side door, racing along the frigid open porch and down the stairs by the family’s summer quarters. Her brothers tried to catch up, but Lillian was thin and faster. The low open carport held the hotel’s one and only vehicle, the battered 1925 Packard used for hauling guests and supplies. Lillian stood confused. “Where is it?”
“This was Leland’s idea.” James bent, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.
“Where’s the rest of my car?”
“We knew how bad you wanted one, so we—” James trailed off. “You didn’t open the envelope.” Leland handed it to her.
Lillian tore it open and found a twenty-dollar bill inside. Stabbed by disappointment, she flung the money and the radiator cap into the dirt.
“The radiator cap was sort of a guarantee.” Leland said, “and the money is our first installment. That’s all we could afford this year.”
Seeing her brothers’ forlorn faces, Lillian laughed through her tears. “I hate you both.”
“Please don’t be mad,” Leland said. “We thought you’d get a kick out of it.”
The red birthmark on her forehead must be showing. It blazed forth when she got angry. “Only you two would treat me this bad.”
James tried to hug her. “We’ll get you a car, you know we will, as soon as we find the money.” He picked up the radiator cap and the twenty-dollar bill.
“When things get better,” Leland said.
Lillian shook her head. “I’m not ready to forgive you.”
James handed her the money. “Put this away and we’ll add to it.” They looked like hound dogs, wet-eyed, begging for reassurance.
She could not stay mad. Forgiveness was one of her best qualities. Walking back toward the hotel, she linked arms with them. “Let me see if I have this straight. I’m getting this car one piece at a time.” She poked Leland in the ribs. “A chunk each Christmas. By the time I have the whole thing, I’ll be so old you’ll have to wheel me to the driver’s seat.”
James pulled her closer. “You’re our baby sister and we’ll always take care of you.”
She knew they would, which almost made up for being an orphan with no hope of escape.
After a late afternoon dinner of turkey and dressing, ambrosia and coconut cake, Lillian went upstairs to her room. Christmas had been splendid, but she’d had enough. She kicked off her shoes and crawled under the quilt in her clothes. This might not be the life she dreamed of, but it was not a bad life. How many girls had older brothers like James and Leland, and a sister as good as Maude? She might have no money or prospects, but she was rich with love.
A soft knock on the door. “It’s me—Faye.”
Lillian sat up. She loved James’s wife. Faye was like a blood sister, only better because she wasn’t.
Faye crawled under the covers next to Lillian and took a hammered metal flask out of her purse.
“This is why I adore you,” Lillian said. “You’re the only woman I know with a flask.”
“Men shouldn’t have all the fun.”
Faye was six years older, tall to Lillian’s short, and languorous compared with Lillian’s energy. James married her when she was sixteen, so Faye had never finished high school, much less college. She gave birth to one baby, declared the experience horrible, and told James not to plan on more. They named him James Junior, but everyone called the child Jimbo, after Jumbo the elephant. He weighed nine pounds at birth, and at twelve was twice as large as Ernestine’s Knox III.
Lillian loved Faye for being pretty and lazy, and not caring what Ernestine or anyone else thought. James adored her. He called her “baby” and treated her like a precious, breakable object.
“Have a swig.” Faye held out the flask.
The whiskey went down hot and Lillian shivered. She didn’t really enjoy the taste of straight bourbon, but she loved the way it made her feel. “I’m going to be stuck at this hotel for the rest of my life.”
“The boys would have given you a car if they could.”
Lillian took another swallow. “I know.”
“And you’re not stuck. You’re too cute to get stuck anywhere. If this were Ernestine we were talking about—” She poked Lillian and they laughed.
Ernestine was the most proper member of the Creekmore family. She knew the right way to do everything, and didn’t mind correcting your manners or your grammar. It felt good to laugh at her.
“Ernestine’s already got a husband,” Lillian said, “even if he is short and nearly bald.”
“You are going to meet someone so wonderful.” Faye stretched her long legs under the covers. “I can feel it in my bones. All you’ve got to do is keep your eyes open and recognize good fortune when he shows up.”
“What about love?”
“You know what I say.”
“It’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one.” “Easier.” Faye tapped a cigarette out of her pack of Pall Malls and offered Lillian one. Her lighter clicked and they sat back on the pillows, inhaling with satisfaction.
“But you love James and he’s not rich.” Lillian made a smoke ring and watched it rise toward the ceiling.
“Not yet, but he has prospects. I could see that in him, even at sixteen. You know he’s been buying and selling cotton?”
Lillian got out of bed to fetch an ashtray. “I know he’s spending more time in Canton than here at the hotel. Makes Ernestine furious.” “He’s good at brokering cotton. It takes a knack and James has it. If this pans out, he’ll be more help to you than working here. There’s good money in cotton.” Faye ground out her half-smoked cigarette.
“That dinner knocked me out. I’m going to my room for a nap.”
The door closed behind her. Lillian took a final puff, made sure both cigarettes were out, and set the ashtray on the floor. Faye thought she had a chance, which felt comforting. Comforting under a comforter. She closed her eyes. Nice to hear wood crackling in the corner fire place. This was her favorite room. Out there somewhere, a wonderful man waited. Behind her closed lids, Lillian tried to picture what he might be doing as they traveled toward each other in time.
Excerpt from In Common by Norma Watkins.
Copyright © 2022 by Norma Watkins.
Published with permission.
All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Raised in the South during the civil rights struggles, Norma Watkins is the author of In Common and two memoirs: The Last Resort, Taking the Mississippi Cure (2011), which won a gold medal for best nonfiction published in the South by an independent press; and That Woman from Mississippi (2017). She lives in northern California with her woodworker husband and three cats.
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