It was an unusually hot afternoon in mid-July. Nebraska hot, with rising humidity that made the air feel thick. Maggie leaned against the front porch railing, cupping her hand against her forehead to shield her eyes from the glaring sun. Since she wasn’t expecting company, the fast moving dust cloud on the dirt lane leading to the manor was a source of momentary interest. She took a long drink of iced sweet tea, hoping for a cool respite from the sweltering heat – and then turned her attention once again to the approaching vehicle.
The light blue Ford Fairlane rumbled past where she stood, whipped around the back corner of the house, and skidded haphazardly to a stop alongside the walkway that led to the wrap-around front porch. Maggie walked slowly to the far end of the porch and arrived in perfect time to catch a glimpse of the driver’s side door swinging open. It creaked louder than ever. She wondered if, someday, the old car door might just give way and fall to the ground as if to proclaim a triumphant end to its dismal role. She wiped the perspiration from her hands onto her apron and moved with reluctance to greet her all too familiar, but unexpected guest.
It was Fred. He always arrived in a dusty, abrupt fashion. No advance notice, just him and his little dog. Even though Maggie was averse to speaking it, she had certainly given it ample consideration – that Fred McRae had to be the most presumptuous person on the face of the earth, pleasant enough in conversation but entirely centered upon his overconfident self. Fred’s imposing height, daunting circumference, and replication of chins gave the initial impression of a force to be dealt with, but when he opened his mouth to speak, the notion soon evaporated. His puffed out chest and strange pompadour offered a profile resembling that of an arrogant cockatoo. A harmless, but arrogant cockatoo.
Fred’s Boston Terrier, Mugs, was even more disturbing, busily marking his territory, and claiming ground that clearly was not his own. Maggie didn’t care much for the pesky little dog, but she tolerated him because he had been Fred’s faithful companion for more years than she could count.
All told, it was the good-natured side of Fred that prompted Maggie to continue the welcoming charade and keep a guest room prepared for him on the second floor of the old three-story manor.
Fred was from Bloomfield, Iowa and had worked for thirty-two years as a salesman for Miracle Suds, a cleaning supply company headquartered in Des Moines. He traveled several days a week within his three-hundred-fifty-mile distribution radius, which included stops in Tilden once or twice a month.
Although he had been a bed and breakfast guest for many years, he rarely paid his room and board fees in full. Maggie figured that Fred must have long ago justified in his skewed way of thinking that swapping cleaning product samples for a portion of his billable charges at the manor was an equitable exchange. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that she had grown weary of his business travel stopovers, along with his empty promises to bring current his overdue account, which had now reached astronomical proportions. Maggie was certain that Fred was being compensated by his company for travel expenses because he never failed to ask her for a detailed accounting of charges when he checked out.
Middle-aged widow Maggie Anderson Davis inherited the Victorian-style manor and several acres of land as part of the estate of her deceased parents, as well as a sizable trust established for her and nine-year-old Jenna.
The stately manor that Maggie shares with her daughter, as well as occasional house guests, was built by her paternal grandfather in 1901 and remains a proud landmark in Tilden, Madison County, Nebraska. Following in the family footsteps, she rents two of the six rooms in bed and breakfast fashion to what was once a fairly regular but now transitory clientele.
For several decades, the bed and breakfast business proved to be a lucrative venture for the Anderson’s, and there remained yet a remnant of obligation to continue the long-standing commitment to family tradition. Unfortunately, Maggie also inherited the free-pass situation with Fred, a goodhearted arrangement initiated by her mother.
“Good afternoon, Maggie,” Fred muttered as he struggled with his suitcase and the one-handed process of tucking his shirt into the back of his pants. By the time he reached the front porch landing, he was out of breath and thoroughly exasperated when he finally asked, “How are you today, Maggie?”
“Quite fine, thank you.” Maggie had learned over time that brevity was the best method of dealing with the likes of Fred McRae. A simple, uncomplicated response to his shallow inquiries always seemed to suffice since he wasn’t looking for dialogue – unless, of course, he was the center of it. True to character, Fred’s interests were confined to one-way conversation and meal time.
The only one who seemed to have an uncanny knack for unsettling Fred’s fragile nerves was Lee Osborne. Without a doubt, Maggie’s nosey and strongly opinionated neighbor, who lived less than a quarter of a mile down the road, had also witnessed the familiar dust cloud passing by her own farmstead a few moments before. It was a given that Lee would soon be arriving to ruffle Fred’s cockatoo feathers. She lived for this. The only unknown was whether she’d drive the old Pontiac or hustle on foot down the back lane to the manor. But one thing was for certain – Lee was definitely on her way.
Fred carried in his tattered, brown suitcase, the left side held precariously in place with four strips of gray duct tape. Maggie was certain that the suitcase had far more stories to tell than Fred. He stopped briefly in the living room, glanced around as if drawn into some nostalgic moment, and then, with a quick whistle to Mugs, made his way up the two flights of stairs to his room.
Once she heard the last of his heavy-footed steps at the top of the stairs, she announced, “Dinner will be ready at six o’clock, Fred.”
He responded with a winded acknowledgement, “I’ll see you then, Maggie.” The guest room door opened and closed.
Maggie stood for a moment at the base of the stairs, allowing the soft, steady hum of the oscillating fan to become the catalyst for whisking her to a pleasant place of memory. She could easily get lost in this glorious, spacious room with a small adjoining parlor. Her recollections were many, and for the exception of a few complimentary furnishings that she and Jenna added to the interior, very little had changed throughout the years. Her grandfather spared no expense, using only the finest of building materials; baseboards, chair railings, staircases, spindles, hand railings, crown moldings, and doors were all handcrafted with rich cherry wood.
Apart from chicken frying on the stovetop and biscuits baking in the oven, everything else had been gathered from the garden: fresh green beans, red potatoes, sweet corn, and vine ripened tomatoes. The cumulative aromas coming from the kitchen had roused the slumbering giant and his little dog, which was Maggie’s cue to set the table and get mentally prepared for Fred’s incessant prattle.
The screen door slammed on the back porch and the door into the kitchen swung open. It was Lee, and she was more than ready to spar with the house guest. “So, where’s the big freeloader?”
Maggie had a deep fondness for her spirited neighbor and was grateful for her longtime friendship and loyalty throughout the years. On the other hand, Lee was overtly critical of Maggie’s more passive and gentle nature, seldom missing an opportunity to advise her in the art of speaking her mind. Although she rarely pointed it out, Maggie was astutely aware of Lee’s inability to recognize her own personal failings.
“Lee, maybe you should consider giving Fred a reprieve this evening.” Maggie’s suggestion sounded more like a plea than a statement. “Maybe just this once.”
“Lord have mercy, why on earth would I do that?” Lee appeared totally bewildered by Maggie’s proposal.
“Well, I guess so he can enjoy his dinner in peace,” Maggie countered while reaching into the cupboard for a serving bowl.
“Oh, I see. Is that by chance the free dinner, that’s thrown in with the free breakfast, and the free one night stay?” At this point, Lee was past concealing her irritation. “If Fred is that strapped for cash, he should go to the shelter in Newman Grove.” Lee seemed genuinely pleased with her off-handed solution. “Now, if it’s peace he’s looking for, may I kindly recommend Brockhaus-Harlan Funeral Home?” She smiled ever so slightly at her own wittiness, but Maggie’s expression remained the same.
“Lee, do you suppose you might give me a hand with setting the table?” Maggie no sooner spoke, than Fred appeared in the kitchen entrance, looking like an odd, life-sized photograph framed out in the doorway.
Lee rattled on as though she were entirely unaware of Fred’s presence, “I don’t understand why you’re using the good dishes, Maggie. She slowly and methodically arranged the plates on the table before adding, “China should be reserved for paying guests.”
Fred’s face reddened and a neck muscle twitched involuntarily, but he readily accepted Maggie’s invitation to be seated at the table as a timely diversion. It was clear that he had no intention of allowing Lee Osborne the pleasure of spoiling his hearty appetite. Although she had not been invited to stay for dinner, it mattered little, and Lee went about the business of seating herself directly across the kitchen table from him. It was no secret that Fred cared little for Maggie’s meddlesome neighbor, but he wasn’t intimidated enough by Lee’s sarcasm that he should forego enjoying his meal or telling his many colorful stories, most of which Maggie had heard countless times before.
Only taking a short breath between forkfuls of his dinner and Lee’s occasional prickly comments, Fred was seemingly quite comfortable draining the very life out of the room. “I don’t suppose I ever told you about the time I ran out of gas just on the other side of Omaha?” He stuffed the last of the butter laden biscuit in his mouth before continuing in a garbled tone, “It’s a good thing help arrived soon because all I had in the car was a bag of corn chips.”
Lee rolled her eyes and sighed deeply. “I seriously doubt you were in any imminent danger of starvation, Fred.”
By eight o’clock, everyone was exhausted, with the exception of Fred. Even Mugs finally dropped to the kitchen floor from what Lee was swift to identify as unadulterated boredom. Fred finally excused himself to go upstairs, happily accepting Maggie’s offer for a few homemade chocolate chip cookies on a nearby plate. He smiled, picked up the plateful of cookies, and swaggered out of the kitchen. Lee shook her head in total disbelief and wasted no time in expressing her utter annoyance. “See what I mean? He has more nerve than a canal horse.”
Anxious for some lighthearted dialogue with Maggie once Fred had departed to his room for the rest of the evening, Lee was quick to inquire, “By the way, when does Jenna come home?” She was suddenly aware of the spunky, young girl’s absence. “It seems a little too quiet around here.”
“Well, we can always invite Fred back to the table.”
“That’s not exactly what I had in mind.”
“Anyway, to answer your question, the Bouchard’s are driving her home tomorrow afternoon. Maggie hesitated a moment before wistfully adding, “It’s been a long week without her.”
They cleaned up the kitchen while chatting about Jenna’s trip to visit mutual friends and longtime neighbors, Doc and Anna Bouchard. After several decades of living in the small, close-knit community of Tilden, they had recently moved to the suburbs of Omaha to live near their son William. Doc was fairly closemouthed about the transition, but Anna had been more forthright with Maggie concerning their struggle to adjust – and why.
Although Lee had little if anything to substantiate her ill feelings about Doc and Anna’s son, she refused to whitewash her opinion. “Pray till, I wouldn’t live a cow pie’s throw from William. Plain and simple, they need to move back to Tilden where they belong.” She shook her head at the very mention of William Bouchard. “He always looks like the cat that just swallowed the canary. Mark my words, when you look guilty, you usually are.”
Maggie stacked the last of the blue dinner dishes in the cupboard, reaching to the second shelf to retrieve a small plate of chocolate chip cookies that she had squirreled away from view of Fred’s greedy self. Turning to Lee with a fun loving smile, she asked, “Would you like a little more coffee to dip your cookies in?” The two friends sat around the kitchen table and shared a couple of heartwarming stories about the Bouchard’s until they both started yawning.
“Do you remember that little black Cocker Spaniel they had that growled and showed his teeth whenever we made eye contact with him?” Lee chuckled at the recollection.
“What I remember is that we teased the poor thing unmercifully.”
“What was his name?”
“He was a cranky old dog.”
Lee finally moved her chair back from the table after glancing at the clock. “Lord have mercy, I need to get myself home.”
Traditionally, after a late visit, Lee remained overnight at the manor, and Maggie was always quick to suggest it. “Why don’t you just stay and go home in the morning?”
Lee glanced at her with an incredulous expression before stating flatly, “There is no way I could handle a dose of Fred first thing in the morning.” She shuddered at the thought, picked up a couple of chocolate chip cookies, and made her way out the back door toward home.
Fred was up earlier than usual the following morning, partly because he had an appointment in Tilden at ten o’clock, but more so because he smelled breakfast. He wasn’t that complex; in fact, Maggie concluded that ulterior motives were probably too deep for him.
“This is a delicious breakfast, Maggie.” Fred hungrily attacked the pancakes, eggs and sausage like a Neanderthal after an extended food shortage. Oblivious to her look of disbelief, he stuffed an oversized bite of pancake into his mouth, and then mumbled, “You’re a fine woman, Maggie.” He noisily gulped his orange juice while simultaneously taking an opportunity to admire her shapely profile. “My, it’s a sure wonder that someone hasn’t come along and plucked you right off your feet.”
“You know, a man.”
“Fred, would you like any more pancakes before I turn off the griddle?” Maggie struggled to keep her aggravation at a manageable level.
It was obvious that Fred felt more at ease without Lee’s challenging presence in the mix. She frequently set him on the defense and caused his neck muscles to twitch against his will. That said, Maggie was certain that Lee’s personal assessment of Fred was accurate – especially when she recalled the conversation they had the night before around the kitchen table.
“Fred is not good-natured, he’s manipulative,” Lee remarked. “God rest her sweet soul, but your mother should have been horsewhipped for ever allowing him to skip out on his bill the first time. Pray till, he’s been leaving cleaning samples for twenty five years instead of paying what he owes.” She paused for a moment, as if summoning forth a prime example for why Fred should be banished from the manor forever. “Besides, that bar soap is terrible. It gave me a fierce rash the first time I used it, and not in a good place either.”
With his ragged brown suitcase in tow and Mugs standing close beside him, Fred was ready for checkout. As usual, he requested a detailed receipt of his room and board charges and then slowly handed Maggie a few dollars to put towards his bill. Fred’s pained expression at checkout always puzzled Maggie. She wasn’t sure if he felt badly that he wasn’t taking care of his full obligation or if he simply disliked parting with any money at all. He left pretty much the same way he arrived, in a cloud of dust.
Maggie turned her thoughts to cleaning the vacated guest room before the Bouchard’s and Jenna returned to the manor in a couple of hours. Fred’s signature trademark, a handwritten note expressing his appreciation and promising to settle his debt the next time around was propped conspicuously against the antique dresser mirror – along with two sample bottles of Miracle Suds dishwashing liquid. This time he left an empty cookie plate, as well. Maggie slipped the token of gratitude in her apron pocket and wistfully considered the feeble gesture. Fred and his promissory notes.