"Jo Huddleston brought a city boy and a small town girl together in a charming way. She continues to master
her stories of enduring love with charm and humor."
~Marjorie, a reader
Copyright 2017 by Jo Huddleston
October 1959—Birmingham, Alabama
William Wainworth shifted in his chair, stretched his long legs beneath the massive conference table, and braced for the impending reprimand from the CEO. This regular Monday morning meeting of Wainworth Development sales staff had gone on longer than he'd expected.
He would loosen his necktie but doing so would violate the expectations Wainworth’s CEO held for his male employees: wear a coat and tie when representing Wainworth Development. His daddy being the CEO of Wainworth Development, William had that rule ingrained in him from an early age.
Among other stellar traits, his daddy dressed immaculately, and he expected his workforce to follow his example. His appearance had favorably impressed many clients who sat with him in his Birmingham office. Every weekday, he never ventured outside his home without the requisite coat and necktie. William had never seen him wear wrinkled pants or curled-up shirt collars.
Now, Oscar Wainworth stood tall, slender, and good-looking between the head of the table and an easel, his index finger tapping on a sketch positioned there. William moved his attention from his daddy to the sketch, a street-level drawing of storefronts along a sidewalk in Conroy, Alabama.
Wainworth Development sought to purchase that entire block of businesses, demolish the buildings, and replace them with an apartment complex having a bookstore on the first floor. Sitting across the street from a growing college, the location proved ideal for Wainworth’s purpose.
The building plans had received the city’s approval. Wainworth representatives had successfully gained signatures on real estate contracts to acquire all the properties except one. The smallest business on the block refused to sell, despite repeated overtures from Wainworth Development.
Oscar Wainworth faced the dozen or so men seated around the table in chairs upholstered in rich, brown leather. He put his palms on the gleaming tabletop and leaned forward. “Gentlemen, this one small store is the monkey wrench in this whole deal. We’ve bought up all the properties on the block, yet here’s this little hole-in-the-wall ice cream shop smack-dab in the middle that you’ve not convinced to sell. Why is that? Why this one store?”
Mumbled reasons and comments circulated around the massive table. William and Oscar had heard them all before. Oscar Wainworth stood straight, his six-foot-four height menacing, and met the eyes of each salesman. “Yes, the owners are females, and you’ve all probably tried to be gentlemanly in your contacts with them. That’s commendable and appropriate.
“But, men, you need to work with these ladies just as you would any other client. Wainworth Development is a business, and you must conduct yourselves accordingly—doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a man or a woman. However, it’s time to get tough with these women. Understood?”
The men bobbed their heads in sync as if they followed the directions of an orchestra conductor, and his daddy continued. “Do I have to go down there and show you how it’s done? Must I close this deal myself? I assure you I will not be happy if I do.”
His gaze settled on his son. “William, I want you to go down to Conroy and convince the owners to sell. This has become a special case, and if you’ve learned anything from me in your thirty-two years, you’ll be successful. You drive on down there and stay as long as it takes to get the job done.”
“Yes, sir, I will.”
“Get going. Now.” He waved a hand toward the closed door to spur William into motion. “Ask Gloria for the files on this property and be on your way. Check back with me when you get there.”
William pushed his chair away from the conference table and rose. “Yes, sir.” His daddy was a workaholic, especially since his wife, William’s mama, had died five years ago. Oscar Wainworth put in a sixty-hour work week, never leaving a job undone. He expected similar dedication in his staff.
Finally outside the conference room and waiting at Gloria’s desk for her to collect the files, William exhaled. He didn’t mind that his daddy booted him out of the meeting—anything beat sitting in a stuffy roomful of cigar smoke.
Gloria returned and handed him several file folders. “Here are the files you need. Good luck. I hope your trip goes better than those of the other men Mr. Wainworth has sent down there.”
“Thanks. Where did the other guys stay? You got the name of a hotel?”
“Yes, they stayed at the Conroy Hotel. I’ll telephone to reserve you a room. How long will you be staying?”
“Maybe for the remainder of the week.”
Same Day—Conroy, Alabama
William carried his luggage up to a second-floor hotel room, then returned downstairs to grab a late lunch in the hotel’s dining room. When he crossed the lobby, the antiquated wooden floors groaned beneath his every step. Inside the dining room, booths lined one wall and tables covered with white linen tablecloths dotted the floor space.
He asked the hostess for a booth, and she seated him at a high-back wooden booth near the entrance. After a light lunch of steaming vegetable soup and a ham sandwich, he found a pay phone in the lobby and stepped into the booth to call Birmingham.
“Good afternoon. Wainworth Development.”
“Gloria, ring my daddy’s office, please.”
Shortly, he heard his daddy’s voice. “That you, William? How does the lay of the land look down there?”
“Just letting you know I’m here. Haven’t seen the owners yet, but plan to go there now.”
“Fine, fine. How about you call me every morning about ten o’clock to bring me up-to-date with what you’re doing? We’ve got to get this deal finalized.”
“Yes, sir, I’ll do that.”
William stepped out of the telephone booth to walk outside the red brick hotel. He stood on the sidewalk, hands shoved into his pants pockets. Without haste, he scanned what he could see of the town—to his left, a bank stood on the corner, and to his right, a drugstore anchored that corner, its front facing away from him.
Not many folks moving around, and from the casual dress of those passing by him, then had to be college students. He glanced at his polished shoes and creased dress pants—shades of Oscar Wainworth. He’d stand out like a palm tree at the North Pole among these young people. Might as well put a sign on his back saying, Here I am from the big city. I want to buy your property.
He returned to his hotel room, tugging off his necktie as he opened his luggage. Later, again on the sidewalk, dressed in blue jeans with his long-sleeved dress shirt now open at the neck, his black leather bomber jacket, and loafers, William breathed in the fresh air. A satisfying change from the pollution that filled the air over Birmingham.
Turning to his right, he sauntered west until he reached the corner and stopped. He faced the street in front of the drugstore and read the signpost: College Street. Some committee must have worked many hours to come up with that original name—the street sliced through downtown Conroy, Alabama, between the college and the town. The next block to his left held the businesses Wainworth Development had bought. Except for the ice cream shop. Might as well head on down there.
He crossed the street when the traffic light changed. Again on the sidewalk, he passed the stores that would soon disappear once Wainworth had acquired all the properties.
Before he reached his destination, the clock tower atop a lofty red brick building across College Street tolled the hour. Three o’clock. A spattering of foot traffic moved across the manicured lawns of nearby campus buildings. Probably class-changing time.
A short distance farther, William stood outside the building whose purchase depended on him. The sign above the door read: Stewart’s Ice Cream Shop.
Inside, William verified that his daddy had been correct when he referred to the business as a hole-in-the-wall place. With about only 400 square feet, the twelve-foot wide, deep room measured about thirty-five feet from the entrance to a closed swinging door in the back. Along the right wall, chairs occupied the length of the room, stopping at a pay phone attached to the wall and a display case that faced the entrance.
The tile floor shone, and on his left stood three ice cream cases, each about eight feet long. Their fronts were white and spotless, and no fingerprints smudged the glass through which sat numerous opened tubs of ice cream. The sweet, pleasant scent of ice cream filled the room and drew William to follow the customers already in the shop.
He fell in line with a few college students awaiting their turn to be served. The kids weren’t impatient, but rather they calmly shuffled toward the cash register. He’d skipped dessert in anticipation of his visit to the ice cream shop, and the various flavors listed on the wall tempted him.
An attractive woman probably in her late forties with dark hair and a pleasant face worked efficiently behind the counter. Another female stood behind the tall display case near the rear of the room. He could only see the back of her head and didn’t have a clue to what she did. Soon William stood first in the line.
“May I help you?” the woman asked.
“Yes, ma’am. I’d like a cone—two scoops, please.”
“Vanilla and chocolate. Would you please put the vanilla on the cone first and then the chocolate?”
The woman dipped his ice cream onto a cone while William read the flavors painted on a wooden board hanging above a counter behind her. “You certainly offer a lot of flavors here.”
“And yet you choose our trusty standbys—vanilla and chocolate.”
“Yes, ma’am. Always been my favorites.”
William paid for his treat and took a seat in the last chair against the wall. From there he had an unlimited view of the business except for the area behind the display case to his right. His attention fell to the contents of the case. Behind the glass sat numerous delicious-looking desserts—artfully decorated cakes and pies waiting to be personalized with someone’s name, a tray of individually-wrapped ice cream sandwiches, and two log rolls made of chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream.
Everyone had been served, and either left with their ice cream or taken seats along the wall to eat their treats. The woman who had served him sauntered toward where William sat. She stopped at the empty counter space across from him, reached underneath it, and brought out a large piece of flat cardboard decorated with balloons of red, blue, green, and yellow and the name of the ice cream shop.
While the woman worked with the cardboard, she spoke to the girl behind the display case near him. “Did any Wainworth people contact you before I came to work?”
William angled his body toward the entrance, pretending lack of interest in what the woman had said. He watched the traffic outside the front window but kept his attention on the conversation before him.
The girl behind the display case joined the woman assembling the cardboard into a cake box. “No, ma’am. No one has come by or called, which is unusual for a Monday. For weeks now they’ve been persistent, showing up here almost every day.” The girl had on a white basic bib apron, as the older woman did, over her skirt and blouse and wore blue Keds on her feet.
“Maybe you’ve finally convinced them you mean it when you say we don’t want to sell.”
“Mama, I hope so, but I doubt that.” The two could be sisters, as attractive as they were, rather than mother and daughter. Probably the owners. The girl reached beneath the counter and pulled out another sheet of cardboard to give the older woman. “I’ve talked with some of the other business owners, and it appears we’re the only holdouts on the block.
“If that’s the case, rather than give up, Wainworth Development will increase their pressure on us to sell. I cringe every time someone dressed in a suit and necktie come through the door. All the Wainworth people think they can make us sell—they’re so arrogant and expect us to roll over and play dead when they wave money in front of us.”
Good thing William had changed clothes before visiting their shop.
“Their money would be nice, Jean. We could pay off the mortgage here and have some left over. I could get used to not working outside the home again.”
“Mama, please don’t go soft on this. We’re not going to sell! Daddy started this business, and we’ll do everything we can to keep it going.”
Jean’s mama put the assembled boxes underneath the counter and started toward the cash register to help new customers. The girl returned to whatever kept her busy behind the dessert case.
William left his chair and stepped nearer the display case, continuing to enjoy his ice cream cone. Bending at the waist and peering inside at the cakes, William didn’t notice the girl behind the case had approached him. A female voice drew his attention. “May I help you with something from the dessert case?”
He straightened and turned toward the voice. When their eyes met, hers were the color of the deepest part of the Gulf of Mexico waters and turned him into a bumbling adolescent. “Ah, well, no, thank you. Just, uh, looking. Did you make all these pretty cakes?”
She smiled, apparently enjoying his discomfort. “Yes, I did. See something you like in there?”
Not in the dessert case, he didn’t. But he wouldn’t mind getting to know the dark-haired woman standing next to him. “No, thanks. Guess I’ll just finish this cone I’ve started.”
“I recognize our regulars, the college kids, but I don’t believe you’ve been in here before. You new in town?”
“Yeah, you could say that. I’m, er, I’m doing some work on the college campus.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Uh, helping one of the professors with some research.”
“Then welcome to our town. I’m Jean Stewart.”
“Thanks. I’m Will….” Beyond her shoulder, he saw the wooden board where they listed their ice cream flavors. “…Will Woods.”
She took a few steps toward the cash register and pulled a handful of napkins from a dispenser. “Here, I think you need these.”
“Yes.” She nodded toward his ice cream cone.
William’s forgotten ice cream had melted and run across his hand, dripping onto the floor. He quickly licked around the top of his cone to slow the flood. Then he took the napkins from her and hurried to wipe his hand clean, then stooped to clean up the ice cream from the floor. “Wow, what a mess I’ve made. Sorry about that.” He searched for someplace to dispose of the soggy napkins.
She reached and took the napkins from him. “Would you like to wash your hands? We have a sink behind the dessert case.”
He followed her as she moved to her work area, tossed the napkins into a waste basket, and pointed out the sink to him.
William dumped his ice cream cone into the waste basket, then let warm water run over his hands and through his fingers. What must she think of him? He’d regressed into a clumsy simpleton. At least he’d had enough sense not to give her his real name. If he had, he suspected he’d already be out on the sidewalk.
He turned off the faucet and reached for a paper towel. “You have a neat working place back here. Are those cakes and pies in the case made with ice cream?”
“Yes, they are. It’s a challenge to work with them before they melt.”
“I can attest to that.” He raised the hand he’d just cleaned from melting ice cream. “Y’all do a lot of dessert business?”
“Enough to keep me as busy as I want to be. Mama manages the front and the workers, and I keep this case full.”
He feigned ignorance. “So, who owns the shop?”
“We do—Mama and I own the business.” She shrank back from his words and crossed her arms over her chest. “Why do you ask?”
He’d hit a nerve with his last question. He tried to backtrack. “You said your mama managed the front. I assumed—”
“Didn’t anybody teach you never to assume?”
“Yeah, sorry.” He needed to change the subject. “You do a great job with your cake decorations. If I needed a birthday cake, I’d sure come here to get it.”
A slight smile replaced her frown. “Thanks. When’s your birthday? I’ll make an extra special cake for you.”
“Now that you mention it, my birthday’s Saturday.” He’d planned to be back in Birmingham for his birthday, but now he wouldn’t mind spending it with Jean Stewart. He just might need more than a week to close this deal for his daddy. “By the way, does your daddy help in the shop or is he with the college?”
Her face took on a faraway look, and she waited a lengthy amount of time to answer him. “This business was Daddy’s dream. He always said a man would never amount to much working for somebody else. His heart and soul are in this place.”
“You said this place was his dream.”
“Yes, he passed away in my last quarter of college. A sudden heart attack.”
“I’m sorry. How long ago?”
“Thanks. Almost ten years.”
“Where did you go to college?”
She waved toward the front of the shop. “Across the street, Conroy College, and I lived at home. I majored in accounting, with plans to get my CPA and move to a big city. I’d worked here in the shop since high school, so when Daddy died, I taught Mama the ropes and settled here in Conroy. I look after the business end of things, keep the books and all.”
“Your mama’s fortunate you could help her.”
“Why didn’t y’all sell the business and then you could have chased your dream?”
Jean bristled again. Talk of selling sure did agitate her. She moved behind the counter where her mama had assembled the boxes earlier. He followed her, and they continued their conversation, the worktop surface between them. “You sound like those Wainworth people. I don’t want to sell the shop. This business was Daddy’s dream. This place is not for sale!”
William put his hands up in mock surrender. “Hey, everything’s okay.”
“Oh, my, I apologize for that. Sorry. I’d better get back to my cake orders.” She extended her hand in a professional gesture. “Nice to have met you, Will.”
He took her hand in his and held it a moment longer than he should have. “It’s been my pleasure, Jean.”
©2017 Jo Huddleston All Rights Reserved