Hannah Beth Simmons was crying. Hudson Worth IV watched helplessly as fat tears crept silently down the face of his long-time employee. Hannah Beth had come to work at Hudson's twenty years ago, rising from an office assistant to head of the department store's credit department. In addition to the flagship store, Hannah Beth supervised the lending activity of the other five stores that were scattered across southern Virginia. She was more than a talented and loyal employee; she was one of Hudson Worth's closest friends.
Hudson looked at the twelve employees standing before him. At its peak, Hudson's Department Store had employed nearly four hundred people. The last few years had been a slow but steady death march. For the first time in the history of the company Hudson had been forced to lay off employees. When that proved insufficient he began closing stores, transferring the inventory to the main store. This helped, but not enough to stanch the flow of red ink as sales continued to plummet. The main store and a dozen employees were all that remained of what was once one of the largest and most successful businesses in Shenandoah County.
"I'm sorry," Hudson said in a thick voice. "When I came to work here forty years ago I never dreamed I would be responsible for closing the business my great-grandfather started back in 1940."
Nobody said a word. The air was heavy with emotion as twelve brave souls waited for the end.
"I'm no good at speeches," Hudson continued. "I feel like Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. We've been a family."
He tried to continue, but his chest and throat were clogged. "Good luck to you all," he finally managed in a choked voice as he left the room and hurried out to the parking lot where the remainder of his life was waiting.
"You're late," Janet Worth announced as Hudson wearily closed the front door behind him.
Hudson nodded. "I had some loose ends to tie up at the store. What's for supper?"
"Supper was an hour ago, Hudson. You'll have to fend for yourself."
Hudson took a deep breath. He was too tired to argue.
Janet followed him into the kitchen and watched as he prepared a meal of Cheerios and a ham sandwich.
"So, what comes next?" Janet asked her husband.
"Everything's done," Hudson replied in a dispirited voice. "The giant is wiring the funds today. The money should be in my account tomorrow."
Janet laughed sardonically. Poor Hudson, her husband couldn't bring himself to speak the name of the huge box store predator that had swooped in and paid a fortune for his store and surrounding land. "I mean, what comes next for you, Hudson? What will you do now?"
Hudson gave his wife a strange look. "I'll retire, Janet; what did you think?"
"You can't retire, Hudson. How will we live? Besides, you're only sixty-two years old. Daddy worked until the day he died."
Hudson swallowed a spoonful of cereal and tried to ignore the woman who was standing across the table from him, arms folded, waiting impatiently for a response. He found it difficult to believe they had been married for forty-one years. She had been out of his league in high school -- head cheerleader, homecoming queen, voted Best Looking and Most Popular her senior year. Hudson, on the other hand, had been only marginally popular, and even that was due mostly to the family name.
After high school Hudson had attended the University of Virginia and spent his summers working at the store. He ran into Janet at the Dairy Delight the summer of his junior year. She was going to school at Shenandoah County Community College and working part time scooping ice cream. She had been thrilled to see him and had wrapped him in a tight embrace that produced an immediate and embarrassing physiological response from him.
That should have been a red flag for you, Hudson. I mean, you were casual acquaintances in high school and then, all of a sudden, she's practically ready to stick her tongue down your throat? Were you serious?
They were married six months later and Hudson quickly learned that the Janet Green from his high school days and the Dairy Delight bore almost no resemblance to the woman now known as Janet Worth. She quit school, quit her job at the Dairy Delight, hired a maid, and settled in to a life of luxury.
Hudson didn't mind, not at first, anyway. He came from money and was making an excellent salary as the store's new director of marketing. He wanted to make his wife happy.
Unfortunately, that proved to be nearly impossible. Janet spent her days lunching at the club and participating in a myriad of social organizations and functions that passed for high society in Shenandoah County. She had no interest in traveling, politics, starting a family, or much of anything else. Hudson tried to engage his wife, talking to her about his work, current events, his passion for photography, all to no avail. He realized too late what a vacuous, self-absorbed woman he had married.
Oh, let's be honest, Hudson; it's much worse than that. Janet's a gold digger and always has been. She never loved you. She doesn't even particularly like you.
Hudson spooned more cereal into his mouth and noticed that Janet was still standing there waiting for an answer.
Forty one years of marriage; what a sad life we've made. Janet stayed for the money and I stayed because it was the right thing to do. And now she's wondering how we'll live, as if we don't already possess a lifetime of family and inherited wealth; as if I didn't just sell the family business and property to the giant for four million dollars. Is she really that stupid? Janet certainly admires her father for working himself to death even though she retired from the work force at the ripe old age of twenty-one.
"I'm waiting Hudson."
Hudson rinsed out his bowl and placed it in the dishwasher. He turned and looked at his wife. His face was expressionless. "I'll be gone for a few days, Janet, probably do some traveling and check out some business opportunities."
"That's fine, Hudson; just make sure you come back with a job. I won't have you lying around the house all day."
Hudson made no reply. Fifteen minutes later he came downstairs with a suitcase. Janet was waiting by the front door. Hudson walked past her without a word.
Janet turned and watched her husband of forty-one years walk out of her life.
He had nowhere to go. Hudson knew he couldn't go back home; Janet had given him an ultimatum. Hudson was surprised to find how little he cared about his wife and her ultimatums. He felt liberated.
The parking lot was deserted, of course, and the store was dark. Hudson unlocked the door and felt his way through the empty, cavernous building back to his office. The giant would be coming in a few days to begin renovating the building and paving over the adjacent land. Until then, the store was all his.
Hudson dropped his suitcase in a corner of the office and sat down on the floor. The place was darker than a coal mine at midnight. Hudson felt forty years of memories, his entire adult life, closing in, threatening to suffocate him. A crushing weight sat on his chest and refused to budge.
A gust of wind rattled the window and caused Hudson to shiver. The power in the building was off and spring was still a month away. The night would be long and cold. He emptied his suitcase and piled the clothes into a makeshift pillow. Hudson stretched out on the floor and huddled against the wall. The wind continued to blow, masking the sound of the sixty-two year old man crying alone in the dark.
"Hey, Hudson," a familiar voice called. "How are you?"
Hudson turned and smiled at the sight of Hannah Beth Simmons. They hugged each other for a long moment until Hannah Beth stepped away and looked at her former boss with concern. "Are you okay?"
"Sure," Hudson replied with forced enthusiasm.
Hannah Beth remained silent.
"No," Hudson admitted in a strangled voice.
They walked together to the Dairy Delight. "I'm amazed this place is still here," Hudson said, "especially in this economy."
Hannah Beth smiled and shrugged. "I guess people take comfort in the small things even when times are tough. They may not be able to buy a new car or make the mortgage payment, but they can treat themselves and their families to an ice cream cone or a milkshake. We sell a lot of ice cream cones and milkshakes."
Hudson looked at her in surprise.
Hannah Beth laughed. "I work here, now. Actually, I'm the manager. Sammy, the owner, is semi-retired. He just comes in to collect the receipts and make the bank deposits."
Hudson nodded and tried to think of something to say.
"What's wrong, Hudson? Tell me."
He told her everything.
Tears glistened in Hannah Beth's eyes.
Hudson cleared his throat. "Janet can be difficult," he said.
"She's an unrepentant harpy who should be thrown off a cliff or boiled in a vat of hot oil," Hannah Beth observed.
Hudson laughed, nearly choking on the ice cream cone he was eating. "That, too," Hudson said.
He stood up to leave. Hannah Beth drew him close and wrapped her arms around him. "Promise you'll come see me here every day, Hudson. I don't want anything to happen to you."
Hudson walked to his car feeling twenty years younger. The feeling was fleeting. As he started the car he realized he had nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Maybe I should just get a gun and get this over with. I've had a good life; nobody lives forever. Janet would be happier if I was out of her life for good.
He pulled away from the curb and headed for the store. The giant was coming tomorrow. One way or the other this would be his last night at Hudson's.
The answer struck him like an epiphany. It had been right in front of him the whole time. Hudson checked his watch. It was three o'clock in the morning.
He stuffed his clothes in his suitcase, made his way out of the store, and raced across the parking lot to his car. Dawn was still over two hours away when he reached his destination. Hudson settled back in his seat and waited for the break of day.
"What do you mean you're not coming home?" Janet screamed.
Hudson winced and held the phone away from his ear as he struggled to suppress a smile. He had been looking forward to this call.
"You worthless bucket of slime, I'll call my lawyers and take you for every cent you've got."
"Okay," Hudson replied equably.
That stopped her in her tracks. Hudson jumped into the silence. "Listen to me carefully, Janet, because this is the last conversation I'll have with you. I have almost nothing left; nothing."
"If you call the bank," Hudson continued, ignoring the interruption, "You'll find that I've opened an investment account in your name and deposited two million dollars into it. I have donated most of the remainder of my money to the School of Business at the University of Virginia for the purpose of providing an annual scholarship to a graduating high school senior from Shenandoah County."
"How will you live, Hudson?" his wife asked in a querulous voice.
"I can start drawing early social security and live in my car," Hudson replied cheerfully. "Goodbye, Janet. Have a nice life."
Hudson hung up and gazed at the smiling face across the counter.
"You didn't tell her about the shop," Hannah Beth said.
Hudson shrugged. "Anything under six figures doesn't register with Janet. She certainly wouldn't be interested in operating a little ice cream store; that would be too much like work."
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" Hannah Beth asked.
"Yes, I am," Hudson replied; "Probably for the first time in my life."
Hannah Beth searched his face and without another word leaned across the counter and kissed him on the mouth. "I've wanted to do that for a long time," she whispered.
"I've wanted you to do that for a long time," Hudson said in a shaky voice.
He looked at his watch. "I wonder what Sammy is doing now?"
"He's probably half way to Florida by now," Hannah Beth laughed.
"I'm going to need some help learning the ropes," Hudson smiled.
"I'll be happy to help the new owner of the Dairy Delight," Hannah Beth said in a playful voice.
Hudson looked at the woman across the counter.
God, she's beautiful. Am I dreaming? Am I really getting another chance?
"We should open soon. How much time do we have?" He watched as she came around the counter and stepped into his hungry arms.
"All the time in the world, Hudson; we have all the time in the world."