Glad she could make herself useful, Willie Mae cared for the house and garden while her parents traveled. She even did laundry for herself and Ina Rae. Most of her high school friends were at college or working on farms, so she often felt at loose ends during the week, but still went to parties and the movie theater on Saturday.
One day when she and Mama went into the Baker Hannah Hardware Store, they were both struck with the dark good looks of the man behind the counter.
Mama was never at a loss for words. “Are you new? I hope Mr. Baker is well. I‘m Mrs. Cummings. This is my daughter, Willie Mae.”
The young man acknowledged them with a nod of his head. “How do you do. I’m Fred Jenkins and yes, I’m new in Floydada. Mr. Baker, my mother’s cousin, hired me to manage the store. He’s well, but is ready to slow down a little. I just finished business school in Abilene and am grateful to have this job.”
“My brother, Clyde, went to business school in Abilene.” Willie Mae stopped, realizing she was almost shouting. It had been years since Clyde finished school and she felt foolish. Not many new people moved to Floydada. Fred Jenkins looked like a movie star in a gray business suit with a starched shirt and bow tie. A well-trimmed mustache decorated his upper lip.
He turned to her, flashing a brilliant smile. “Is that right? Where is he now, Willie Mae?”
She blushed and lowered her eyes, “Everyone calls me Bill.”
Her mother spoke up. “He works in the post office on Galveston Island. Welcome to Floydada, Mr Jenkins. Have you found a church home here?“
“I’m afraid I haven’t had time yet.” Fred Jenkins looked regretful.
“Well, then, you’re invited to the Church of Christ, where our family goes. It‘s just down Park St. two blocks.” She pointed. “If you can go Sunday, we’d like to have you join us for dinner after church.”
“Why, thank you, Mrs. Cummings. That’s very kind of you. Please call me Fred. I’ll meet you at church and then follow you home. People in Floydada are certainly friendly and hospitable, just as my mother said they’d be.” He was speaking to Susie, but smiling at Willie Mae.
That evening, Willie Mae went into her sister’s bedroom. “Oh, Shorty, there’s a new young man in town. He works in the hardware store, and Mama invited him for dinner on Sunday. Wait till you see him. He’s so handsome.”
“Let’s plan what you’re going to wear, Bill.” Ina Rae went into her sister’s bedroom and looked through her closet. She pulled out a blue crepe dress with white trim around the collar, cut slender with a flare at the hem, which also was trimmed with white. “You look great in this. Whoever this handsome dude is, he won’t be able to resist the way this color makes your eyes even bluer.”
Blushing, Willie Mae laughed. “When he sees you, he won’t look at me any more, although he did seem interested today.”
“I don’t care how handsome he is. I really like Jim Dougherty. We’re going with a bunch of other kids to the movie tomorrow night. Want to go?”
“No, thank you. Your friends are nice, but since I’m not in school, I don’t fit in any more.”
On Sunday, Fred Jenkins waited in front of the church when the family arrived. He introduced himself to Dad, shook hands with Mama, nodded to Ina Rae when she was introduced, then turned to Willie Mae, offering his arm. She placed her hand in the crook of his elbow and they followed her parents and sister into the church. There wasn’t room on the same pew for all of them, so Willie Mae led him into the one behind Mama and Dad. She felt like everyone was staring, but ignored the feeling, smiled into Fred’s handsome face and whispered small talk until the service began.
Fred was not the only guest at the Cummings’ home for dinner. Mr. and Mrs. Orman and their son Otto joined them.
After the meal, the adults went to the parlor to visit. Ina Rae and Willie Mae washed and dried the dishes while Otto and Fred Jenkins watched from the wide arch between the dining room and kitchen. Otto spoke up. “I wish we could make ice cream like we used to.”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” Ina Rae laughed. “If you ask Mama, she’ll probably let us.”
The girls listened as the young men asked their mother.
Mama smiled, “That would be nice, but we don’t have extra ice and the ice house closes early on Sunday.”
“I can bring some from the store,” Fred offered. “We have an ice box in the back, and I can get enough to make a freezer of cream, if you’d like.”
Everyone looked to Mama for approval. “Very well,” she laughed. “Mrs. Orman and I will mix the cream while Mr. Jenkins gets the ice.”
The girls finished in the kitchen and walked out onto the porch, following Fred and Otto. Fred’s roadster was in front of the house. He turned to Willie Mae. “Would you like to go with me?” Looking at the others, he apologized. “Sorry, Otto and Shorty, there’s only room for one passenger.”
Willie Mae told her parents that Fred had invited her to go with him, expecting one or the other to object. Mama smiled broadly. “Go along. Enjoy yourself,” Dad looked doubtful.
Willie Mae didn’t wait for Dad to speak. She ran out and jumped into the passenger seat and the roadster sped away. Ina Rae rolled her eyes at Otto. “So Bill has an admirer.”
“He seems nice enough,” Otto said, watching the car drive away. “Great car.”
Willie Mae enjoyed the ride in the flashy Chrysler. They parked in the alley behind the hardware store. “Come in with me,” he insisted. The dark hallway seemed a little creepy until Fred opened the door to the office and turned on a light. In the hallway, right next to the door, was a large ice box. When Fred opened it, there were two blocks of ice, one large and one that had melted to half-size. As Willie Mae looked inside, he turned, held her face between his hands and tried to kiss her.
She pushed his hands away, turned and went out the door, saying, “I’ll wait in the car.”
Fred came out with the ice wrapped in brown paper, strapped it to the pull-down luggage rack on back of the car, and got in beside her. “Sorry, Bill. You’re so pretty, I just couldn’t resist.”
“You’re a little fast for me. I hardly know you.”
“Don’t worry. You will.”
* * *
For the next few months, Fred asked her out every weekend and visited her at home during the week.
“Still,” she complained to Ina Rae one night as her sister was helping her wave her hair, “I feel I hardly know him. He acts like a perfect gentleman in front of Mama, who thinks he hung the moon. When we’re alone all he really wants to do is pet, and you-know-what.”
Ina Rae arranged Willie Mae’s hair into deep waves held with curved metal clamps. “Do you think you might marry him, Bill? You make such a cute couple. You’re so fair and he’s so dark. All my friends have a crush on him.”
“I don’t know why, Shorty, but I don’t trust him.” She picked up a framed photo from her dresser and read the inscription: To Bill, With all my love, Fred Jenkins. “Who signs a love note with his last name? I admit he's exciting and I like being seen with him, but something about him isn’t right.”
A few days later, when the family sat down for dinner, Mama raised her eyebrows at Willie Mae. “Have you talked to Fred this week?”
“Not since we went to the movies Saturday night.”
“I’m sorry, Daughter, but I have bad news. When I asked after Fred in the hardware store, Mrs. Baker took me aside and whispered that her husband discovered that Fred embezzled money from the store.”
“Oh, no.” Willie Mae gasped. “Is he in jail?”
“No. The Bakers decided not to go to the law. But when they confronted him, he confessed to them that he’s supporting a woman and child in Abilene.. Imagine that! I thought he was such a fine young man.” Mama’s voice trembled.
Willie Mae flushed. “Well, I think you liked him better than I did, Mama. I feel furious.” She rose from her chair abruptly, making it fall to the floor behind her, and ran to her room.
When Ina Rae followed, she found Willie Mae with Fred’s picture in her hands, the frame on the floor. “This is what I think of all your love, Fred Jenkins.” She tore the picture into small pieces and dumped it into a trash can beside her dresser. “Oh, Shorty, I’m so embarrassed. How can I show my face in Floydada after going with such a skunk? What am I going to do?” She sat heavily on the bed, her face in her hands.
Ina Rae sat and embraced her. “It’ll be okay, Bill. Our wise brother A.D. says the truth is always good news. They sat there for awhile trying to think of options for Willie Mae’s future. Finally, Ina Rae went to her own room to do homework and Willie Mae, feeling miserable, went to bed.
The next day, as if in answer to an unuttered prayer, a letter addressed to Willie Mae arrived. It was from her brother Ennis, who farmed with his wife Jewell in Friona, Texas.
Our friend, Orville Putnam, is looking for someone to accompany
his wife, Charlotte, to Hot Springs, New Mexico, to take mineral baths
in the hope it will strengthen her legs. A blood clot has rendered her hardly
able to walk. The doctor isn’t sure the baths will help, but don’t think they
will hurt. Orville will pay your passage, room and board plus a small salary.
Please let me know if you want to take this position and when you could
be here. Please give my regards to Mama, Dad and Shorty.
Below Ennis’s signature, Jewell had written, “Bill, when you get back from Hot Springs, you can stay with us as long as you like. We can use your help and would enjoy having you. Love, J.”
Two days later, Willie Mae hugged her Ina Rae and her parents goodbye and caught a bus going northwest.