It was a sweltering afternoon in mid-July, with steadily 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 interest. She took a long drink of iced tea, hoping for a cool respite from the blistering Nebraska 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 sideways to a stop alongside the walkway that led to the wraparound front porch. Maggie sauntered to the far end of the porch and arrived just in time to catch a glimpse of the driver’s side door swinging open. It creaked loudly. She wondered if, someday, the old car door might give way and fall to the ground as if to proclaim a triumphant end to its dismal role. Maggie wiped the perspiration from her hands onto her apron and moved with reluctance to greet her all too familiar but unexpected house 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 indeed 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 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 travel companion for several years.
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 seventeen 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 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 the overdue account current. Maggie was sure that his company fully compensated Fred 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 associated with the impressive estate of her deceased parents, as well as a sizable trust established for her and nine-year-old daughter Jenna. Her paternal grandfather built the grand manor in 1901, and still, it remained a proud landmark in Tilden, Madison County, Nebraska. Following in the family footsteps, Maggie also rented two of the six rooms in bed and breakfast fashion to what was once a regular but now transitory clientele.
For several decades, the bed and breakfast business proved to be a lucrative venture for the Anderson’s. There remained a remnant of obligation to preserve the longstanding commitment to family tradition. Unfortunately, Maggie also inherited the free pass situation with Fred, a goodhearted, though short-sighted 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?”
“Quite fine, thank you,” she answered, having 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 a one-way conversation and mealtime.
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, also witnessed the familiar dust cloud passing by her 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 Pontiac or hustle on foot down the back lane to the manor. But one thing was for sure—Lee was on her way.
Fred carried his tattered, brown suitcase, the left side held precariously in place with four strips of gray duct tape. Maggie was sure 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.
“Dinner will be ready at six o’clock, Fred,” Maggie announced once she heard the last of his heavy-footed steps at the top of the stairs.
“I’ll see you then,” he responded, quite winded from overexertion. 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 place of pleasant 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. Maggie’s grandfather spared no expense, using only the finest of building materials for baseboards, chair railings, staircases, spindles, hand railings, crown moldings, and doors—all handcrafted cherrywood.
Apart from chicken frying on the stovetop and biscuits baking in the oven, Maggie had gathered everything from the garden; fresh green beans, red potatoes, sweet corn, and vine-ripened tomatoes. The cumulative aromas coming from the kitchen soon 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 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 passive and gentle nature, seldom missing an opportunity to school 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, you should consider giving Fred a reprieve this evening.” Maggie’s suggestion sounded more like a plea than a directive. “Perhaps just this once.”
“Lord have mercy, why on earth would I do that?” Lee appeared bewildered by Maggie’s proposal.
“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 for Fred’s apparent financial woes. “Now, if it’s peace he’s looking for, may I kindly recommend Marshall-Harlan Funeral Home?” She smiled ever so slightly at her wittiness, but Maggie’s expression remained the same.
“Lee, will you please 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.
“I don’t understand why you’re using the good dishes, Maggie,” Lee rattled on as though she were entirely unaware of Fred’s presence. She slowly and methodically arranged the plates on the table. “China is typically reserved for paying guests, isn’t it?”
Fred’s face reddened, and a neck muscle twitched involuntarily, but he readily accepted Maggie’s invitation to be seated at the table—he no doubt considered the offer a timely distraction. It was clear that Fred had no intention of allowing Lee Osborne the pleasure of spoiling his hearty appetite. Maggie had not extended a formal dinner invitation to Lee, but it mattered little, and she went about the business of seating herself directly across the table from him. It was no secret that Fred cared little for Maggie’s meddlesome neighbor. Still, 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 both women had heard countless times.
Only taking a short breath between forkfuls of his dinner and Lee’s occasional barbed 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 on the other side of Omaha?” He stuffed the last of the butter-laden biscuit in his mouth before finishing his story. “It’s a good thing help arrived soon because all I had in the car was a bag of corn chips and some dry dog food.”
“I seriously doubt you were in any imminent danger of starvation, Fred.” Lee rolled her eyes and sighed deeply.
By eight o’clock, everyone was exhausted, except 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 entire plateful of cookies, and swaggered out of the kitchen. Lee shook her head in total disbelief and wasted no time expressing her utter annoyance at Fred’s presumptuous nature. “See what I mean? He has more nerve than a canal horse.”
Anxious for some light-hearted dialogue with Maggie once Fred departed to his room for the rest of the evening, Lee was quick to ask, “When does Jenna return?” She was suddenly aware of the spirited young girl’s absence. “It seems a little too quiet around here.”
“Well, we can always invite Fred back to the table,” Maggie suggested, suppressing a smile.
“That’s not exactly what I had in mind.”
“Anyway, to answer your question, the Bouchard’s are driving her home tomorrow afternoon.” Maggie sighed wistfully. “It’s been a long week without her.”
They cleaned up the kitchen while chatting about Jenna’s trip to visit mutual friends, Doc and Anna Bouchard. After several decades of living in the small, close-knit community of Tilden, they had recently moved to Omaha’s suburbs to be closer their son William. Doc was fairly close-mouthed about the transition, but Anna had been more forthright concerning their struggle to adjust.
Although Lee had little to substantiate her ill feelings about Doc and Anna’s son, she refused to whitewash her opinion. “Pray tell, I wouldn’t live a cow pie’s throw from him.” She shook her head at the very thought of William Bouchard. “Plain and simple, they need to move back to Tilden where they belong.” Lee leaned forward in her chair, more for emphasis than comfort. “William always looks like the cat that 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 and then reached to the second shelf to retrieve a small plate of chocolate chip cookies that she had squirreled away from 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 several heartwarming stories about the Bouchard’s until they both started yawning.
“Maggie, do you remember that little black Cocker Spaniel they had that growled and showed his teeth whenever we looked at him?” Lee chuckled at the childhood recollection.
“What I remember is that we teased the poor thing unmercifully,” Maggie returned.
“What was his name?”
“He was a cranky old dog.”
Lee finally pushed 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?” Then, with a remarkably straight face, she added, “Besides, I probably shouldn’t be left alone with the likes of Fred McRae.”
Lee glanced at her with a stunned expression. “There is no way I could handle a dose of Fred first thing in the morning, so I guess you’re simply on your own.” 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 town 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 gulped the glass of orange juice while simultaneously taking an opportunity to admire her shapely profile. “My, it sure is a 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 let the griddle cool?” Maggie struggled to keep her annoyance with his comments at a manageable level.
It was evident that Fred felt more at ease without Lee’s formidable 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 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, Maggie. He’s manipulative,” Lee stated flatly. “God rest her sweet soul, but your mother should have been horsewhipped for allowing him to skip out on his bill the first time. Pray tell, he’s left cleaning samples for well over fifteen years instead of paying what he owes.” She hesitated for a moment as if trying to come up with a prime example of why Fred should be banished from the manor forever. “Besides, that bar soap is terrible,” she grumbled. “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 following close behind, 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 her. She wasn’t sure if he felt bad that he wasn’t taking care of his full obligation or if he simply disliked parting with his money. 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 contemplated the feeble gesture. Fred and his promissory notes.