Maggie “Meg” Eades, 21, is a hometown girl aiming for something different in life. Majoring in business in college wasn’t easy, but she saw it through. She’s out to make her mark in the business world, but her conservative hometown has left her with the new bookmobile to drive instead. All of that is about to change.
Alva Coburn, 41, is a successful attorney. A Wabash man with a Phi Beta Kappa key on his watch chain, he’s known Wilma and Henry Eades and their daughter Maggie for years. A hot summer day’s stop to help a stranded motorist is about to change his life forever.
General William Tecumseh Sherman is Alva’s cat-about-town. “Sherman” is a very social little cat and loves to go along with Alva.
Meat, Potatoes and Pie: A Midwestern Love Story
“Hey there! Need a lift into town?” Alva Coburn pushed his straw boater back a bit as he looked over the stranded machine. It was the new “bookmobile” from the public library.
“If you could stop at Myron Feltzer’s garage and ask for a tow, I’d be grateful…”
Alva leapt back—he’d never imagined the driver would be a woman!
A petite young woman in a pleasant blue flowered summer frock stepped out of the driver’s door and flopped a straw cloche hat onto her head. They looked at each other and laughed.
“Oh, Maggie! I had no idea. Henry said you’d found a job …”
“Well, it is employment….”
“Not all you’d like then?”
“Well, how many men with a bachelor’s degree in business would want to drive a bookmobile to Gnaw Bone on a day as hot as this one?” She took off the hat and fanned herself, a pink blush spreading across her face.
“Well, I know you’re right about that. Can’t think of a one.”
They locked eyes briefly before Maggie, or “Meg” as she was known to her college friends, looked away.
A truck stopped and Alva ran over to it. Maggie kept fanning herself, cursing her stupidity in not bringing a jug of water along on this hot June day.
“Much obliged….” Alva said as he waved the man away.
“That was Able Grenfell—has the place next to my farm. He’ll get Floyd Borrow’s team and pull this contraption over to Myron’s. Hop in, I’ll run you back to town. Lordy it’s stinker today.” He too used his hat as a fan.
Alva held the door to his reliable Ford Model T and took her elbow as she stepped into the car.
“Thank you Mr. Coburn….”
“No more of that! An employed college graduate—time you moved up and called me Alva, what do you say?”
“I’d say, thank you very kindly, Alva. I’m Meg—it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Her smile totally disarmed him. He’d know Maggie, or “Meg,” as he’d now think of her, since birth. Her father and mother were among the many narly life-long friends he had here in the small university town of Bloomington, Indiana. And, they were among the very few friends who didn’t push every spinster and widow in a fifty mile radius of Monroe County at him. He’d never liked the term “confirmed bachelor”—it made him feel like a priest. He’d just been busy for the last 20 years. He’d always intended to marry.
Meg looked at the fine hand working the gearshift and caught a glimpse of a Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from Alva’s watch chain. His suit jacket and vest were folded neatly on the seat between them.
“You’ve been over to Brown County then—for court?” She asked, making polite conversation.
“No—not court. Just getting some signatures. New will for a fellow over that way. Anything to get out of the office today. You could fry an egg on my desk! I dropped Luella off—poor soul was about to faint from the heat. That front window, even with the awning, turns into a greenhouse after noontime. She can type up the documents for me tomorrow.”
They drove on in silence, then both started at once.
“Seems to me…”
And then an embarrassed exchange of “after you” and “No, after you….”
“What area of law do you prefer, Alva?” She said this shyly—as though afraid of a reproof.
“To tell the truth—none of it! Twenty years of greedy real estate deals, slick business deals, badly written wills and steady diet of insurance fraud—even with its healthy retainer—along with all the rest have made me wish I’d been a classics professor after all. I tell you, Maggie…sorry, MEG, I’ve come to believe that every crooked horse trader in the Midwest has come to my office in the last year. There are some mighty sad villages out there today, Meg…..” He let this sentence taper off with a knowing look to her.
“They’re pining for their idiot…” Before he could finish she gave out a tremendous peal of laughter.
Alva couldn’t take his eyes off her—she was so darned pretty when she laughed! Those blue-gray eyes just sparkled with mischief.
“Alva, that’s terrible…. So sad. What are we gonna do for them?” She chuckled to herself and he joined in.
“Well, I’ll tell you what I wanna to do—want to nail that crook I’m opposing in a few weeks. Swindled a widow—she’s a sharp lady, too. I can’t work out the swindle. Puzzled over it all the way out to Nashville. Guess I’ll run it by Sam Guessweiler at the bank….”
“Tell me more—I love a good swindle.” She laughed. “Business school wasn’t all economics you know. I’m an accountant—not a bookkeeper, but an accountant. In the fall, if I haven’t found a better position I’ll finish the course work to be an actuary as well—only a couple more courses.”
“Well now, is that a fact? Alright—grab my satchel down there and pull out the Waverly file. See what your take on it is. I admit I’m usually pretty good at spotting the mess. When I can’t, well Sam and I have worked out a few others over the years. He has a certain type of ‘tea’ they’re real fond of in Scotland….” He chuckles.
Meg laughed again. “That would be the ‘tea’ Daddy likes when you men play poker in that room above the Guesswieler’s garage, I’m sure…”
“Indeed it is! Only Sam has to pay…well…shall we say a great ‘import duty’ on his? This silly prohibition….But, Meg, you must know we prefer the term ‘prayer meeting,’ to poker! Poker sounds so sordid. Plus we do meet on Wednesday night.” Alva groaned then gently applied the brakes as they came into town. “Anywho, it makes all the difference to my accounting acumen.”
“Oh, I’m sure it does!” Meg agreed with a laugh. “Though, if I remember correctly, why a Wabash man would need such inspiration is beyond me.” She turned a beguiling half smile on him with devastating effect.
“How do you think I made it to graduation?” He laughs at this and shakes his head—it was all so long ago.
“Why don’t you just go straight to our house—we can sit out on the porch and I’ll look it over—I’m sure Mother won’t mind a little extra company. Daddy’s at the farm of course. But it’s bound to be cooler than down on the Square at your office.”
“Sure thing. I don’t envy Henry out in the fields today! I’ll be heading out to my farm in the morning. Had enough of town for a while. Louella can run the show for a few days.”
He navigated up the West boundary of the University and on to the little house on Cottage Grove.
Meg smiled—she loved the little house she’d grown up in. A front porch, parlor, dining room, kitchen and two bedrooms at the back and a small bathroom carved out of much of the sun-porch. The backyard showed her mother’s artistry. Peonies, roses, huge coxcombs, pansies and bachelor’s buttons swayed in the breeze. A substantial vegetable garden and a small chicken coop made the yard almost a small homestead.
“Come on up on the porch. If you don’t mind, I’ll go and freshen up first and see what Mother needs—there’s plenty of time before we start dinner though.”
“Thank you, I hope Wilma’s got some iced tea. I could drink like a camel at an oasis.”
“You and me both! Need some of Daddy’s ‘tea’ to go with that?” She gave him a wicked little smile.
“Not till the sun passes the yard arm. Can’t have the Presbyterians think I’ve become an Episcopalian.”
“That would never do…” Meg said. ‘Goodness—did I just flirt with him?’ Meg decided she didn’t’ care—he was just fun. Besides those warm brown eyes just plain invited flirting.
Just then a sleek gray tabby cat arrived on the porch. He looked as though he was panting—like he’d screeched to a halt.
“You’re late!” Alva said. The cat looked away.
“Well, hello there kitty.” Meg said with a smile.
“So you two have met?” Alva asked looking from the Meg to the cat.
“Oh sure! This gentleman pays court at Mother’s back door every morning.”
“Traitor…” Alva said to the cat. “Miss Meg, allow me to introduce my housemate. Miss Meg Eades, General William Tucemseh Sherman. General Sherman, may I present Miss Margaret Eades.”
“Oh! So you are ‘Shermie’ then? I always wondered about your name. What a sweetheart…” Meg bent her knees gracefully to demurely reach down and stroke the preening tabby.
“Shermie???” Alva was outraged. He turned to the cat. “You’re supposed to be a fighter, not a lover….”
“Oh, but he IS a love—a big, sweet love. Isn’t he Mother?” She asked as Wilma Eades came out with a basket of green beans and a large pan.
“Oh he’s friendly, that’s for sure. Never refuses the offer of breakfast either.” Wilma giggled. “Hot enough for you Alva?” She set the things down on a small wicker table. “Tea or lemonade? Or a cold glass of water?’
“Oh tea please, Wilma—bring the pitcher. Lordy what a scorcher.” He began to fan himself with his hat again.
“You know it—sheets were dry by the time I had them hung out this morning. You can about hear the corn growing.”
“When’s Henry due in—or is he staying out at the farm?”
“No, he’s got the School Board meeting at 7—he’ll be in early enough to eat and clean up. We’ll go out and stay tomorrow though. Maggie and I’ll be needed to get the jam done—strawberries out our ears here and at the farm. Here Alva– Yank the cord there and let the blind down, why don’t you? Give us a little more shade. Excuse me while I’ll get the tea.”
Alva let the straw blind down then made himself comfortable on the folded old quilt that served as a pad for the old porch swing. Boy-like, he kicked his hot shoes off then tore off the socks with their garters still attached. He politely set them on the bottom step and hopefully down wind.
Meg came out in a clean house dress looking cool and happy. She gave Alva a slow little smile as she pulled up a wicker chair.
“All right, counselor, hand over the evidence.” She stifled a laugh as she saw his bare feet.
Alva shuffled some papers before handing over a clipped pile of pages hand copied from a ledger, the date and time of the copy clearly penciled at the top of each page along with the ledger number.
Meg took them, removed the clip and began to pour over them. She made little ‘mm-hmms’ now and then and dragged her finger back and forth thru the columns. Wilma returned with the tea, but seeing Meg reading, just quietly set them down along with the pitcher. Alva drained his glass as Meg reached for hers.
“Something is just….’off’…but I can’t put my finger on it.” Alva shook his head.
“What type business?”
“General manufacturing—make galvanized pails and washtubs, horse troughs—that sort of thing. Family owned. Over in Terre Haute—Waverly Manufacturing.”
“I know them. Hank Waverly was a few years ahead of me at I.U.”
“That’s the nephew. He’s gone off to work for a steel company for a few years—get some experience with that end of it.”
Meg had grown quiet, but was clearly examining each line of the ledger. She turned to the second, then the third hand copied page.
“Seems simple enough. I’m only estimating in my head. Seems he’s added to the tax rate. He’s done it carefully—an odd percentage. Not huge for the business even over time, but compared to his likely salary it’s at least a couple of years’ salary….yes—I’m fairly sure that’s a part of it. It does add up quite nicely with patience. Let me get a pencil and paper….” She went into the house after her supplies, still puzzling the matter in her mind.
Alva stared at the papers. ‘I’ll be damned….’ When Meg came back with the paper, Alva looked her over again and this time all he saw was a very competent accountant in a darned nice package. “I’ve studied this thing for days—almost a week! You looked at it for, what? Half a second? Well done, Miss Meg. I mean that.” He gave her an appreciate nod.
“Well, let’s see if I’m right…..” She made some calculations. “Yes…..if, as I assume, this has been going on for a while—say since ’09, then he’ll have had a nice piece of change. Just enough to be actionable, but not enough to raise suspicions is what I see. Probably got a bit too greedy and ran it just long enough for you to find it. The owner never saw it? But, I do wonder what else he’s done.”
“The part I figured out soon enough was from a hunch the owner told me—they were getting complaints of poor quality and she guessed he was putting down a higher grade of materials, then using cheaper and keeping the distance. Not a tough one to figure out, but he got away with it for a good few years. That’s why Hank’s off with the steel company—keeping an eye out. That has been stopped, but there was still more missing. Your estimate is the missing piece. Good work!”
“You’d have spotted it eventually. I was just a set of fresh eyes….”
“How would you like a better project? I get a lot of requests to help struggling businesses—sole proprietors mostly—often, but not always, widows. The coffee shop near the feed store—she’s struggling and can’t get a handle on it. Want to take it on?”
“Of course I do! I love analyzing companies. It’s exactly why I wanted to study business and not teaching. So much more interesting.”
“Good. I’ll send Louella over with the files in the morning.”
Over the next few weeks, Meg’s life took on a new excitement as she began working with the coffee shop owner after her day with the bookmobile. Finally she had a chance to prove the business school had been right to accept her. Soon after, Alva had another small firm approach him for help and Meg was sent another file. She nearly fainted when she read the hourly fee for the ‘consulting’ services of M.J. Eades! She was beginning to form the career she’d planned back when she’d fought to be admitted to the study of business.