I will never forget his last words to me, in a letter I received when I was living far from home. “I know you are quite familiar with the workings of The Serenade, dear Meredith, but I trust you to follow my business plan until you are strongly on your feet.” The handwriting was strange to me—pained and spidery. “Sam at the bank will be your financial advisor—check in with him often. Charlie and Mona will share my estate equally with you, although you are receiving The Serenade and some bare land, and they are receiving all bare land…”
“Mom?” Grant, my five-year-old son, asks from the back seat, jolting me back to the present. “Is this the place Uncle Duck left you?”
“Yes! This is it!” I say, reaching across the seat behind me to tousle his black hair. I rummage through my purse for the keys Sam Overgaard had sent me.
“Why is it so dark in there, Mom?”
I look back at him, noting worry in his blue eyes, even in the dimness of the car’s dome light. “It’s dark because it’s been closed since Uncle Duck died. Nobody’s in there. But we’re going to change that! I love this place, Grant. I hope you will too.” I open my car door and take a deep breath of the fresh northern Montana air. “Smell the air, Grant—it’s the best in the world!”
“It’s too cold!” he says as he opens his window. Before he closes it he takes a loud, deep breath that I’m sure to hear. “Yep! That’s good air, Mom!” The darkness of this late May night can’t hide the surrounding beauty from me. I know in the light of day I’ll see a wide expanse of prairie, dotted with craggy outcroppings and stubborn patches of deep snow, the magnificent glacier-laced Rockies on the horizon beyond. Close by, red paintbrush, purple bitterroot and yellow sagebrush buttercup will just be beginning to bloom, and ponderosa and quaking aspen around the property will provide shade on the warm summer days to come.
“Well, it’s late, so let’s go take a quick look around inside, and then we’ll carry some things in so we can get settled for the night. There will be time for exploring tomorrow,” I say as I take Grant’s hand to climb the fifteen flat log steps to the hotel entrance. “Now let’s hope Mr. Overgaard had the electricity and phone service turned on for us, like he said he would.”
I separate the hotel lobby key from the others on the ring Mr. Overgaard had sent and unlock the massive double pine doors. Something skitters across the floor in the beam of my flashlight, making us both jump. “Probably just a mouse,” I say, trying to sound confident. I find the switch by the door. “Much better,” I say, silently adding a ‘thank you’ to Mr. Overgaard.
I lead Grant down six steps into the main body of the lobby, and my heart leaps with pleasure that everything seems to be exactly as it was the last time I saw the place. Three enormous unlit chandeliers, fashioned from wagon wheel rims and wreaths of antlers hang suspended over the lobby by sturdy black chains, the air around them bisected by huge round yellow pine beams. A polished river rock fireplace and chimney dominate the left side of the lobby. Groupings of comfy overstuffed chairs and sofas fill the remainder of the room, more worn but still the same pieces I remember. The jewel of this room, though, is the magnificent hand-hewn knotty pine staircase to the second floor, which houses the hotel rooms.
“I’m scared, Mom,” Grant says, squeezing his arms around my waist.
“Hey, honey, there’s nothing to be scared of,” I say. “When business really gets going and this place is full of customers, it’s a lot of fun. You’ll see. Do you want to see the building tonight?” I ask.
“Will it be dark?”
“I don’t think so, but we don’t have to go anywhere that the lights don’t work.”
“Well, okay, then, but only in the light places.”
A few hours later, after a tour of the restaurant, kitchen and hotel, I tuck Grant into his sleeping bag on one of the sofas in the lobby. The odor of mice had permeated the entire place in the year it stood vacant. I imagine a lot of mice families have taken up residence. I’m grateful that rodents and some cracked ground floor windows are the only problems I am aware of as I sink wearily into an armchair next to Grant. I can almost hear Uncle Duck’s jolly, booming voice resonating throughout the establishment, greeting customers and friends. He wasn’t actually my uncle at all, just a dear friend who left me the gift of his beloved Serenade! And now I’ve come back to reopen it! And to try to do it justice after the years of tender care that Uncle Duck put into it. I guess he saw some strength in me that I hadn’t seen in myself.
Of course Pete comes into my mind, as he does every day, unbidden or not. I remember his angular jaw and handsome nose. The cowboy hat he loved to wear which hid his sandy brown hair, and the musky scent of leather and hay that seemed a part of him. His hands were roughened by the nature of his work, but his caresses were tender, and his breath was warm and sweet when he leaned down to kiss me. As I do on so many lonely nights, I imagine his arms around me again, and remember the time we made love.
Crossroads, Montana, is the town I call home. Many of the twelve hundred inhabitants are descendants of the Swedish immigrants who founded it in the eighteen-eighties. It is surrounded by a sea of prairie, which is then embraced by jagged mountains. The highways from Crossroads lead north to Browning and Glacier Park, south to Choteau and Great Falls, west to the Hungry Horse area, and east to Conrad.
Our first morning in town, there is a sharp rapping at the hotel doors, and I jolt awake, reminded suddenly that Crossroads is like any other small town, where news and gossip travel at the speed of light.
“Who do you think it is, Mom?” Grant asks, his voice hoarse with sleep.
“I don’t know, but I will in a minute,” I say. I’ve slept all night in the chair, and I need to stretch out and have more sleep, not visitors, after our long drive. I hoist my sleeping bag up and wrap myself in it, then trudge barefoot, freezing my feet, across the lobby to one of the many-paned windows. Drawing back a gingham curtain, I peek out at the parking lot. “It’s Dave!” I run to the doors and yank one open. “Oh my goodness! It’s so good to see you!” I shout, joyfully throwing my arms around him.
“Hey, Meredith, great to see you!” Dave Bunsen, Crossroad’s police chief, is a large man in his mid-thirties. He hugs me back in a great big bear hug. I pull back from him and see him surveying the lobby behind me until he sees Grant, a lumpy cocoon on a sofa.
“That’s Grant,” I say. “I imagine you’ve heard I have a son now?”
“Yes, I did!” he says.
“Grant, can you wake up enough to come meet my friend Dave? He’s a policeman here,” I add.
“I…I guess so,” Grant stammers, unzipping the sleeping bag. In a few moments he’s standing next to me, his toes curling up off the cold floor, while he looks up at Dave curiously.
“I’m happy to know you, Grant,” Dave says good naturedly. He sticks his hand out to Grant, who answers with a small handshake.
“Do you want to go warm up?” I ask Grant, to which he nods and runs back to his sleeping bag.
“We got in late last night and it took a while to get situated, so we were sleeping in,” I say, knowing that I must look pretty messy. “I slept in a chair all night—just fell asleep there!”
“I’m sorry I disturbed you,” Dave says. “Sam Overgaard told me you’d be coming in, and I wanted to be the first to greet you.”
“I’m glad you disturbed us,” I said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve really missed you and Roma,” I say, referring to his wife who was one of my high school friends. “How is she? Is she still teaching kindergarten here in town?”
“She’s doing well, thanks, and yes, she’s still teaching,” he says. “I’m guessing Grant is about kindergarten age?”
“Yes, he is. So Roma will be my son’s teacher!” I grin. I love it that one of my old friends will be teaching my son.
“Sam said he told you about those real estate developers who were here last year, after Duck got sick? That was really something. Duck sure got tired of their pestering! He told them he already knew who he was leaving the place to. So of course everyone was speculating about who it would be,” he explains. “I thought it would be Mona or Charlie,” he adds.
“Well, Uncle Duck was always surprising people, wasn’t he?” I say, not wanting to discuss the terms of the will.
“Yes, he marched to his own drummer, and he didn’t care what other people thought. I sure do miss him,” he says.
“Me too,” I say.
“I’m glad you decided to move back,” Dave says, “but I’m sure it was difficult to pull up stakes out there in Oregon to come on home.” There’s an awkward pause while he waits for me to say something, but I don’t. I’m happy to see him, but I feel cotton headed from fatigue, and I’m not ready for a lot of talk. “Anyway,” he continues, “people will be glad to get their old jobs back if you’ll have them. Some of them are driving to other towns for work now.”
“Uncle Duck did suggest it as an option in the business plan he left for me. I want to have this place open by the Fourth of July at the latest. That’s what I’m aiming for, anyway.”
“It’ll be great to have The Serenade open!” he exclaims, then grasps me by the shoulders and holds me at arms’ length, looking me over. “You look good, Meredith. Healthy. I guess being away hasn’t hurt you, but I hope things’ll work out for you so you’ll want to stay home.”
“I hope so too,” I say. I want to find out if he knows anything about Pete, but I don’t want to bring that up in front of Grant.
“Well, I have to get on back to the office now. It’s great to see you,” he says again.
“You too! Don’t be a stranger, now,” I say, hugging him again before he walks out the door.
I turn to see Grant snoring peacefully, so I burrow my way down into the seat sprung chair and doze off too, awakening later to a beautiful blue skied Sunday morning.
When Grant wakes up we munch on some cold cereal, then go outside. I show him the bark of the ponderosa trees which comes off in chunks resembling jigsaw puzzle pieces. Then I point out the quaking aspen trees, and a grove of scrubby, pungent junipers behind The Serenade.
“This will be a great place for you to play when the weather is good,” I tell him, imagining him making roads and little towns between and under them, pushing his toy trucks and equipment to imaginary destinations. We walk around outside the building, and I point out the nearest part of the acreage Uncle Duck left me, which begins at the edge of the junipers. “Look at the mountains!” I exclaim, pointing to the snow covered range in the distance. “Those are the Rockies! Isn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, Grant?”
“It just looks cold to me, Mom,” he says.
“I don’t suppose I thought much of the view when I was five, either,” I say. “I guess you have to be older to appreciate it.”
“I’ll ‘preciate it when I’m older, too, okay?” Grant says, looking up at me.
“Okay,” I say. I survey the land around us, pointing out and naming some of the spring wildflowers.
“They’re nice. I ‘preciate those already!” he says, making me chuckle.
“I guess we better go inside,” I say. “We have a lot of things to do to get this place ready. I lead him inside the hotel lobby and upstairs to the two adjoining suites that will be our home. Each suite has a small bedroom, sitting room, and bathroom—plenty of space for the two of us. I help Grant get started unpacking his things.
When he is happily sorting through his box of toys I go down to the hotel and start looking over the list of names of employees Uncle Duck left for me. There are twenty-eight, including waitresses, hostesses, cashiers, busboys, cooks, bartenders, desk clerks, hotel maids, laundry workers, and a handyman. The hotel is only busy during the tourist season, primarily inhabited by vacationers on their way to or from Glacier National Park. Most of the hotel employees I hire will only stay on for the season, except for a few, who will be offered jobs in the restaurant, because it operates more to capacity year-round. With the exception of bookkeeping and the handyman’s job, (although I can turn a wrench and drive a nail), I’ve worked in every position at The Serenade, so I’ll be able to jump in anywhere that I’m needed.
Uncle Duck built a successful enterprise, and I know he wants me to be successful too, so I read and re-read the detailed business plan he left for me. It’s overwhelming. I wonder what on earth Uncle Duck was thinking when he decided to leave The Serenade to me. He didn’t have children to leave it to, but I wonder why he thought I was a good choice. I’m honored, and I’ll do my best not to let him down, but I’m scared to death.
I can’t wait to talk to Charlie and Mona, who were both with Uncle Duck from the beginning of this enterprise thirty years ago. Charlie was the first cook Uncle Duck hired, and Mona the first waitress. I doubt that either of them wants to work anymore, but I feel comfortable asking for their help, even if they turn me down. I hadn’t been back for several years, and being a single working parent, I had only had time for the rare phone call to old friends. I guess I never even imagined something happening to Uncle Duck—that he could get sick and die.
“Duck didn’t want to disrupt your life,” Mr. Overgaard had told me on the phone. “He didn’t want you to see him sick and weak. He was so proud of the way you turned out—smart, considerate and loving. He always said if he had had a child of his own, he would have wanted one just like you. That’s why you have been left this inheritance,” he explained while I wiped away tears with my sleeve and tried to choke back sobs. “He trusts you to carry on with The Serenade. It will provide a good living for you, if you want to put the effort into it.”
I told Mr. Overgaard I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to manage a business, but he assured me that he would advise me, just like Uncle Duck had said in his letter. Uncle Duck had left money earmarked just for operating expenses, and if I didn’t want the challenge, I had the option of selling out or hiring someone else to run it.
“It’s a tough decision, Mr. Overgaard,” I had said. “I have to think of how this is going to affect us. I mean, I have a job here and Grant loves his babysitter…”
“Take your time, Meredith,” he’d said kindly. “This isn’t a decision to be hasty about. Why don’t you think it over for a few weeks, and get back to me.”
The next two weeks I mentally sorted out whatever reasons there were for either moving back to Montana, or staying put. I wasn’t sure at all that I could do Uncle Duck proud, but I thought from the beginning that I should try. I was also hopeful that Pete might come back into my life, even though that was a long shot. Grant and I would be giving up some good things we had gotten used to in Oregon, too: the mild winters, day trips to the beach, and some good friends we had made. But the biggest reason to stay away from Montana was that my stepfather, Raymond, still lived there. And if I never saw him again, it would be too soon.
“Meredith! Are you really back?” Mona exclaims when I call her. “I thought for the longest time that you had dropped off the face of the earth, then outta the blue I hear from Sam that you’re splitting Ducks’s estate with Charlie and me!”
“I know, I can’t believe it myself,” I say, not sure how to talk about it.
“I bet you ‘bout fell over when you heard,” she says.
“Yeah. But we lost Duck, and that’s what I can’t believe the most.”
“I know,” Mona agrees.
“I wanted so badly for him to meet Grant,” I say, “and now it will never happen.”
“Is Grant your husband? You actually gave up on Pete?”
“No, no. Grant is my son,” I say. “He’s five. Nobody told you?”
“Your son? I doubt many people know about him, if I don’t,” she says, and I’m sure she’s right. “Well, congratulations! I would have said it sooner if I’d known,” she says, and just by the way she clips her voice at the end of the sentence, I know her feelings are cut to the core.
“I’m sorry, Mona. Someday I’ll explain it all to you—why you and nearly everyone else didn’t know about Grant. But anyway, I haven’t given up on Pete,” I say, hoping to change the subject. “In fact, I’m hoping I’ll see him. Maybe at our grand reopening, even.”
“Wait a minute, back the truck up. Why can’t you tell me about Grant now?”
“It’s a long story,” I explain. “I’d rather tell you in person.”