A solid marriage, a thriving business, and the esteem of their close-knit Alabama community—Joyce and Odell Watson have every reason to count their blessings. Their marriage has given well-off Joyce a chance at the family she’s always wanted—and granted Odell a once-in-a-lifetime shot to escape grinding poverty. But all that respectability and status comes at a cost. Just once, Joyce and Odell want to break loose and taste life’s wild side, without consequences . . .
When their new neighbors turn out to be high-steppin’ bootleggers Milton and Yvonne Hamilton, the Watsons plunge headlong into good times and fast living. For Joyce, Yvonne is someone she can show off to—and look down on. And Odell won't introduce crude, unsophisticated Milton to his friends—but is happy to let Milton ply him with free booze.
As much as the Watsons want to get along with their new neighbors, the gradual revelations of Yvonne and Milton’s seedy past make them think twice about how much time they spend together. But the Hamiltons won’t be dismissed so easily. The Watsons soon find them invading every area of their lives and discovering their long-held secrets. Now, the Watsons must tread carefully to keep the Hamiltons from destroying their perfect world . . .
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Other than my parents, I was the only other person at the supper table Sunday evening. But there was enough food for twice as many people. We'd spent the first five minutes raving about Mama's fried chicken, how much we had enjoyed Reverend Jessup's sermon a few hours ago, and other mundane things. When Daddy cleared his throat and looked at me with his jaw twitching, I knew the conversation was about to turn toward my spinsterhood.
"I hired a new stock boy the other day and I told him all about you. He is just itching to get acquainted. This one is a real nice, young, single man," Daddy said, looking at me from the corner of his eye.
I froze because I knew where this conversation was going: my "old maid" status. The last "real nice, young, single man" Daddy had hired to work in our store and tried to dump off on me was a fifty-five-year-old, tobacco-chewing, widowed grandfather named Buddy Armstrong. There had been several others before him. Each one had grandkids and health problems. Daddy was eighty-two, so to him anybody under sixty was "young." He and Mama had tried to have children for thirty years before she gave birth to me thirty years ago, when she was forty-eight. But I hadn't waited this long to settle for a husband who'd probably become disabled or die of old age before he could give me the children I desperately wanted.
I was tempted to stay quiet and keep my eyes on the ads for scarves in the new Sears and Roebuck catalog that I had set next to my plate. But I knew that if I didn't say something on the subject within the next few seconds, Daddy would harp on it until I did. Mama would join in, and they wouldn't stop until they'd run out of things to say. And then they would start all over again. I took a deep breath and braced myself. "Daddy, I work as a teacher's aide. What do I have in common with a stock boy?"
Daddy raised both of his thick gray eyebrows and looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. "Humph! Y'all both single! That's what y'all got in common!" he growled.
"I can find somebody on my own!" I boomed. I never raised my voice unless I was really upset, like I was now.
Daddy shook his head. "Since you thirty now and still ain't got no husband — or even a boyfriend — it don't look like you having much luck finding somebody on your own, girl."
"Mac is right, Joyce. It's high time for you to start socializing again. It's a shame the way you letting life pass you by," Mama threw in. They were both looking at me so hard, it made me more uncomfortable than I already was. I squirmed in my seat and cleared my throat.
"Anyway, he said he can't wait to meet you. He is so worldly and sharp, he'll be a good person for you to conversate with."
"I hope you didn't say 'conversate' in front of this new guy. That's a word somebody made up," I scolded. "The correct word is converse."
Daddy gave me a pensive look and scratched his neck. "Hmmm. Well, somebody 'made up' all the words in every language, eh?"
"Well, yeah, but —"
"What difference do it make which one I used as long as he knew what I meant?"
"Yes, but —"
"Then I'll say conversate if I want to, and you can say converse. It's still English, and this is the only language I know — and it's too complicated for me to be trying to speak it correct this late in the game. Shoot." My Daddy. He was a real piece of work. He winked at me before he bit off a huge chunk of cornbread and started chewing so hard his ears wiggled. He swallowed and started talking again with his eyes narrowed. "I got a notion to invite him to eat supper with us one evening. He is a strapping man, so he'd appreciate a good home-cooked meal. I even told him how good you can cook, Joyce. ..."
My parents had become obsessed with helping me find a husband. My love life — or lack of a love life — was a frequent subject in our house. One night I dreamed that they'd lined up men in our front yard and made me parade back and forth in front of them so they could inspect me. But even in a dream nobody wanted to marry me.
"What's wrong with this one? Other than him being just a stock boy?" I mumbled as I rolled my eyes.
"Why come you think something is wrong with him?" Daddy laughed but so far, nobody had said something funny enough to make me laugh. If anything, I wanted to cry.
"Because he wants to meet me," I said with my voice cracking. My self-esteem had sunk so low, and I felt so unworthy, I didn't know if I'd want a man who would settle for me. "He's probably homelier and sicklier than Buddy Armstrong." I did laugh this time.
"I met him and I sure didn't see nothing wrong with him," Mama piped in. She drank some lemonade and let out a mild burp before she continued. "He ain't nowhere near homely."
"Or sickly," Daddy added with a snort.
"And he's right sporty and handsome!" Mama sounded like a giddy schoolgirl. I was surprised to see such a hopeful look on her face. Despite all the wrinkles, liver spots, and about fifty pounds of extra weight, she was still attractive. She had big brown eyes and a smile that made her moon face look years younger. Unlike Daddy, who had only half of his teeth left, she still had all of hers. They were so nice and white, people often asked if they were real. She was the same pecan shade of brown as me and Daddy. But I had his small, sad black eyes and narrow face. He'd been completely bald since he was fifty and last week on my thirtieth birthday he'd predicted that if I had any hair left by the time I turned forty, it would probably all be gray. I'd found my first few strands of gray hair the next morning. "I know you'll like this one," Mama assured me with a wink. She reared back in her wobbly chair and raked her thick fingers through her thin gray hair. "You ain't getting no younger, so you ain't got much time left," she reminded.
"So you keep telling me," I snapped.
Mama sucked on her teeth and gave me a dismissive wave. "He got slaphappy when we told him about you. I bet he been beating the women off with a stick all his life."
Mama's taste in potential husbands for me was just as pathetic as Daddy's. But her last comment really got my attention because it sounded like a contradiction. "Why would a 'sporty and handsome' man get 'slaphappy' about meeting a new woman — especially if he's already beating them off with a stick?" I wanted to know.
Daddy gave me an annoyed look. "Don't worry about a little detail like that. And don't look a gift horse in the mouth. You ain't been out on a date since last year, and I know that must be painful. Shoot. When I was young, and before I married your mama, I never went longer than a week without courting somebody. At the rate you going, you ain't never going to get married."
I'd celebrated my thirtieth birthday eight days ago, but I felt more like a woman three times my age. Most of the adult females I knew were already married. My twenty-five-year-old cousin Louise had been married and divorced twice and was already engaged again. "I guess marriage wasn't meant for me," I whined. I suddenly lost my appetite, so I pushed my plate to the side.
"You ain't even touched them pinto beans on your plate, and you ate only half of your supper yesterday," Mama complained. "How do you expect to get a man if you ain't got enough meat on your bones? You already look like a lamppost, and you know colored men like thick women. Besides, a gal six feet tall like you need to eat twice as much as a shorter woman so there's enough food to fill out all your places."
"It ain't about how much I weigh," I said defensively. "Last year I weighed twenty pounds more than I do now, and it didn't make a difference. But ... I wish I could shrink down to a normal height." I laughed, but I was serious. For a colored woman, being too tall was almost as bad as being too dark and homely. I wasn't as dark or homely as some of the women I knew, but I was the tallest and the only one my age still single.
"Well, look at it this way, baby girl. You ain't no Kewpie doll and you may be too lanky for anybody to want to marry you, but at least you got your health. A lot of women don't even have that." Daddy squeezed my hand and smiled. "And you real smart."
I was thankful that I was healthy and smart, but those things didn't do a damn thing for my overactive sex drive. If a man didn't make love to me soon, I was going to go crazy. And the way I'd been fantasizing about going up to a stranger in a beer garden or on the street and asking him to go to bed with me, maybe I had already lost my mind. "Can I be excused? I have a headache," I muttered, rubbing the back of my head.
"You said the same thing when we was having supper yesterday," Mama reminded.
"I had a headache then, too," I moaned. I rose up out of my chair so fast, I almost knocked it over. With my head hanging low, I shuffled around the corner and down the hall to my bedroom. I'd been born in the same room, and the way my life was going, I had a feeling I'd die in it too.
Branson was a typical small town in the southern part of Alabama. It was known for its cotton and sugarcane fields and beautiful scenery. Fruit and pecan trees, and flowers of every type and color decorated most of the residents' front and back yards. But things were just as gloomy here as the rest of the South.
Our little city had only about twenty thousand people and most of them were white. Two of our four banks had crashed right after the Great Depression started almost five years ago. But a few people had been smart enough to pull their money out just in time. Our post office shared the same building with the police department across the street from our segregated cemetery.
Jim Crow, the rigid system that the white folks had created to establish a different set of rules for them and us, was strictly enforced. Basically, what it meant was that white people could do whatever they wanted, and we couldn't eat where they ate, sleep or socialize with them, or even sass them. Anybody crazy enough to violate the rules could expect anything from a severe beating to dying at the hands of a lynch mob. A lot of our neighbors and friends worked for wealthy white folks in the best neighborhoods, but all of the colored residents lived on the south side. And it was segregated too. The poor people lived in the lower section near the swamps and the dirt roads. The ones with decent incomes, like my family, lived in the upper section.
The quiet, well-tended street we lived on was lined with magnolia and dogwood trees on both sides. Each house had a neat lawn, and some had picket fences. The brown-shingled house with tar paper roofing and a wraparound front porch we owned had three bedrooms. The walls were thin, so when Mama and Daddy started talking again after I'd bolted from the supper table, I could hear them. And, I didn't like what they were saying.
"Poor Joyce. I just ball up inside when I think about how fast our baby is going to waste. I'm going to keep praying for her to find somebody before it's too late," Mama grumbled. "With her strong back she'd be a good workhorse and keep a clean house and do whatever else she'll need to do to keep a husband happy. And I'd hate to see them breeding hips she got on her never turn out no babies." Mama let out a loud, painful-sounding groan. "What's even worse is, I would hate to leave this world knowing she was going to grow old alone."
"I'm going to keep praying for her to get married too. But that might be asking for too much. I done almost put a notion like that out of my mind. This late in the game, the most we can expect is to fix her up with somebody who'll court her for a while, so she can have a little fun before she get too much older," Daddy grunted. "Maybe we ain't been praying hard enough, huh?"
"We been praying hard enough, but that ain't the problem," Mama snapped.
"Oh? Then what is it?"
"The problem is this girl is too doggone picky!" Mama shouted.
"Sure enough," Daddy agreed.
I couldn't believe my ears! My parents were trying to fix me up with a stock boy, not a businessman, and they thought I was being too picky. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. A lot of ridiculous things had been said to and about me. Being "too picky" was one of the worst because it couldn't have been further from the truth.
I had no idea how my folks had come to such an off-the-wall conclusion. I couldn't imagine what made them think I was too picky. I'd given up my virginity when I was fourteen to Marvin Galardy, the homeliest boy in the neighborhood. And that was only because he was the only one interested in having sex with me at the time.
I was so deep in thought, I didn't hear Daddy knocking on my door, so he let himself in. "You done gone deaf, too?" he grumbled.
"I didn't hear you," I mumbled, sitting up on my bed.
"You going to the evening church service with us? We'll be leaving in a few minutes."
"Not this time, Daddy. My head is still aching, so I think I just need to lie here and take it easy." I rubbed the side of my head.
"And it's going to keep on hurting if you don't take some pills."
"I'll take some before I go to sleep."
Daddy turned to leave, and then he snapped his fingers. "I forgot the real reason I came in here. Mother's going to Mobile tomorrow morning with Maxine Fisher to do some shopping and she'll be gone most of the day. If you ain't got no plans for lunch tomorrow and that headache is gone, I'll swing by the school around noon to pick you up and we can go to Mosella's. Monday is the only day peach cobbler is on the menu, and I been dying for some."
"You don't have to drive all the way from the store to pick me up. That's out of your way. One of the other aides has an appointment with her doctor in the same block, so I can ride with her and have her drop me off at the store. I need to pick up a few items anyway."
"That'll work," Daddy said, rubbing his chest. "I'll see you around noon then?"
It was still light outside, but I went to bed anyway. Each day I slept more than I needed and wished I could sleep even more. At least then I wouldn't have to talk to people and walk around with a fake smile on my face.
I was so anxious to get back to work, I couldn't wait for tomorrow to come. I'd only been on my new job at MacPherson's for a week. It was a dyed-in-the-wool country convenience store with benches inside for people to sit on when they needed to take a break from their shopping. Regular customers could expect a complimentary pig foot or some lip-smacking pork rinds on certain days. I could already tell that this was the best job I ever had. It was a nice family-friendly business, and I was really looking forward to the experience, especially since I'd be working for colored folks. Mr. MacPherson didn't pay me that much to start, but as long as it covered my rent I didn't care. I was a born hustler, so I knew I'd find ways to cover my other expenses once I got a toehold on my new situation. Stocking shelves was much better than dragging along on farms and other odd jobs I'd done all my life. The small building where MacPherson's was located sat on a corner next to a bait shop. There was a sign printed in all capital letters in the front window that said: WE SELL EVERYTHING FROM APRONS TO MENS' PINSTRIPE SUITS. But they never had more than six or seven of each item in stock at a time. When inventory got low, the MacPhersons immediately replenished everything and gave their customers discounts when they had to wait on a certain item. The customers were happy because this kind of service kept them from having to make the eight-mile trip to nearby Butler where there was a Piggly Wiggly market and much bigger department stores.
People kept complaining about the Great Depression we was going through, but it didn't even faze me. Like almost every other colored person, I couldn't tell the difference because we'd been going through a "depression" all our lives. Some of the white folks who used to have enough money to shop at the better stores started shopping at MacPherson's. On my first day, me and Mr. MacPherson had to help a nervous blond woman haul a box of canned goods, some cleaning products, produce, toys, and even a few clothes to her car. The whole time she'd belly-ached to him about what a disgrace it was to her family that they had to shop where all the colored people shopped, something she'd never done before. In the next breath, she complimented him on how "happy-go-lucky" he was for a colored man, and because of that he was "a credit to his race."
One of the things I noticed right away was how loosey-goosey the MacPhersons ran their business. Like a lot of folks, they didn't trust banks, especially since so many people had lost every cent and all the property they owned when the banks failed. One of the richest white families I used to pick cotton for had ended up flat broke and had to move to a tent city campground with other displaced families.
Excerpted from "One House Over"
Copyright © 2018 Mary Monroe.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Neighbors - Book 1,
Chapter 1 - Joyce,
Chapter 2 - Odell,
Chapter 3 - Odell,
Chapter 4 - Joyce,
Chapter 5 - Odell,
Chapter 6 - Odell,
Chapter 7 - Joyce,
Chapter 8 - Odell,
Chapter 9 - Joyce,
Chapter 10 - Odell,
Chapter 11 - Joyce,
Chapter 12 - Odell,
Chapter 13 - Joyce,
Chapter 14 - Odell,
Chapter 15 - Joyce,
Chapter 16 - Odell,
Chapter 17 - Odell,
Chapter 18 - Odell,
Chapter 19 - Joyce,
Chapter 20 - Odell,
Chapter 21 - Joyce,
Chapter 22 - Odell,
Chapter 23 - Odell,
Chapter 24 - Joyce,
Chapter 25 - Odell,
Chapter 26 - Joyce,
Chapter 27 - Odell,
Chapter 28 - Joyce,
Chapter 29 - Joyce,
Chapter 30 - Odell,
Chapter 31 - Joyce,
Chapter 32 - Odell,
Chapter 33 - Odell,
Chapter 34 - Joyce,
Chapter 35 - Odell,
Chapter 36 - Joyce,
Chapter 37 - Joyce,
Chapter 38 - Odell,
Chapter 39 - Odell,
Chapter 40 - Joyce,
Chapter 41 - Odell,
Chapter 42 - Odell,
Chapter 43 - Odell,
Chapter 44 - Joyce,
Chapter 45 - Joyce,
Chapter 46 - Odell,
Chapter 47 - Odell,
Chapter 48 - Joyce,
Chapter 49 - Odell,
Chapter 50 - Odell,
ONE HOUSE OVER,