Tumbleweeds, p.1Leila Meacham
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For you, Ann Ferguson Zeigler, with appreciation for the pleasure of your company on the journey
Our sins, like our shadows when day is in its glory, scarce appear. Toward evening, how great and monstrous they appear.
—Sir John Suckling
The call he’d been expecting for twenty-two years came at midnight when he was working late at his desk. He had a second’s start, the kind of stab he’d experienced often in the first years when the telephone rang in the early hours, but with the passage of time the duties of his office had accustomed him to its ring in the middle of the night.
The name of the caller appeared in the identification screen, and his heart did a flip-flop. He plucked the receiver from its holder before a second ring could disturb the household. “Hello?”
A chuckle, dry and mocking. “The same. You up?”
“I am now. Where are you calling from?”
“I’ll get to that in a minute. How are you, Tiger?”
“Surprised. It’s been a long time.”
“Not so long that you didn’t recognize my voice. I find that kind of comforting. I’m coming home, John.”
John drew up in his chair. “You are? After all this time? What for?”
“I have a few loose ends to tidy up.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little late for that?”
Another chuckle, devoid of mirth. “Still the same old John—guardian of my conscience.”
“I seem to have failed miserably.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
John waited, refusing to rise to the lure the loaded tone invited. After a probing pause, Trey added, “The Tysons are interested in buying my aunt’s house. I told Deke I’d come to Kersey and we could talk about it. I’ve got to do something about Aunt Mabel’s things anyway, arrange for their disposal.”
“The Tysons? I thought they’d moved to Amarillo and Deke had bought a home security business there.”
“They did, but Deke’s retiring and wants to come back to Kersey to live. His wife’s always had an eye on my aunt’s house. A surprising turn of events, wouldn’t you say?”
“Not as surprising as some I’ve known. Where are you?”
“In Dallas. A connecting flight would have gotten me into Amarillo too late for my indigestion. I’ll fly in there in the morning, pick up a car, and meet the Tysons at Aunt Mabel’s around eleven o’clock.”
“As long as my business takes. A couple of days is my guess.”
John asked after a guarded silence, “Where are you staying?”
“Why, I was hoping you would put me up.”
Shocked, John asked, “Here? You want to stay here at Harbison House?”
Another dry laugh. “Why not? I don’t mind a bunch of runny-nosed kids. The Harbisons still with you?”
John answered warily, repulsed at the thought of Trey Don Hall sleeping under the Harbisons’ roof. “Yes… Lou and Betty are still here. They help me run the place.”
“That must be nice for you,” Trey said. “I’ll drive out after I’ve met with the Tysons. That should be in time for lunch. We’ll break a little bread together, and maybe I’ll have the good padre hear my confession.”
“I didn’t think you were planning on staying that long.”
Another chuckle, this one familiar. “Spoken like my man. It will be good to see you, John.”
“Same here,” John said, realizing with an ambush of feeling that he meant it.
“Don’t bet on it, Tiger.”
The line went dead, Trey’s last words raising a tickling sensation along John’s nape. Slowly he replaced the receiver and rose from his desk, aware that he’d broken into a mild sweat. He went to stand before a framed picture on the wall. It was an official shot of Kersey High School’s 1985 uniformed football team. Below was the caption DISTRICT CHAMPS. John had been a wide receiver on the team that had made it all the way to win the state championship, and in the picture he stood beside the tall, grinning quarterback and his onetime best friend, Trey Don Hall. Even then, Trey had been called “TD” Hall, a sports announcer’s moniker that had stuck all through his dazzling college playing days and his subsequent career as a quarterback in the National Football League. There were three other group photos of the team lined along the wall, each representing the Kersey Bobcats’ victories in the following play-off games, but the district contest against Delton High School was the one John remembered the most clearly. It was to that group picture that he most often turned his gaze.
What could be bringing Trey back home after twenty-two years? John didn’t believe for a minute that it had to do with selling his aunt’s house. The place had stood locked up and vacant for the two years since Mabel Church had died and left her nephew the home where he’d grown up, everything still in it but the food perishables and pet parakeet. Trey had no sentimental attachment to his aunt’s things or the handsome brick house where the three of them—he and Trey and Cathy—had hung out all the years of their childhood. He had people who could sell it and dispose of its belongings long-distance. What then? Was he seeking reconciliation and forgiveness? Absolution? Atonement? John might have considered those possibilities had Trey’s tone suggested them, but on the contrary, it had sounded mocking and mysterious. He knew his former friend and football teammate well. TD Hall was coming home for some other purpose, one that most likely would not bode well for anyone. He must warn Cathy.
On the night of January first, 1979, two hours into the New Year, Emma Benson saw a cross on the moon. Wrapped in her old flannel robe, awakened by a strange disquiet, she stepped outside her clapboard house in the town where she’d lived all her life, deep in the Texas Panhandle, and stared up at the unearthly sight, disturbed by a sense the cross was an omen meant personally for her.
The next day, she was informed that her last surviving child and his wife had been killed in a car accident coming home from a New Year’s Eve party. The caller identified himself as Dr. Rhinelander, a neighbor and close friend of Sonny and her daughter-in-law. He and his wife would keep the couple’s eleven-year-old daughter, Cathy, with them, he said, until the courts or whoever was in charge decided what to do with her.
“What do you mean—the courts?” Emma asked.
She heard a painful sigh. “I’m speaking of foster care, Mrs. Benson.”
Foster care. Her granddaughter, blood of her blood, growing up under the roof of strangers?
But who else was there to take her? Where else could she go? There were no family members left. Emma’s daughter-in-law had been an only child, adopted by a couple long past childbearing years and now deceased. Her other son, Buddy, had been killed in Vietnam. She was the only surviving blood connection to the child, but she was someone the little girl had met only once and had probably forgotten, since Emma suspected her name and family place were rarely, if ever, mentioned in her son’s household.
But she heard herself say, “If you’ll allow Catherine Ann to stay with you until I arrive, Dr. Rhinelander, I will bring her h
Emma, who had never flown in an airplane and had ridden the train only twice in her youth, booked a flight from Amarillo to Santa Cruz, California, and in the confining six hours in the middle seat of her row—cotton inserted into her ears to block the petulant whining and fractious misbehavior of the four-year-old boy behind her—worried to what extent her second son’s genes had infected his daughter. Her observation had been that, nine times out of ten, first daughters took after their fathers, not only in physiological structure and temperament but also in character, whereas firstborn sons echoed their mothers’. Her first son, Buddy, had proved no exception.
But Sonny, coming along later, hadn’t a drip of sap from the family tree running in him. Vain, materialistic, self-entitled, with a capacity for empathy no bigger than the eye of a needle, he had felt designed for a more exalted plane than the one on which he’d been born. “I was cut out for something better than this,” Emma could remember him stating, wounding her profoundly, and at the first opportunity he had taken off to correct the mistake that nature had made. He had rarely come home again, and after his marriage to a woman who shared his temporal values, only once. He said he’d come to introduce Emma to his wife and daughter, but he had come to borrow his brother’s life insurance money paid to her when he was killed. She’d refused. Sonny’s disaffection for her continued, abetted by his stylish wife who had barely been able to conceal a sniff at the surroundings in which her husband had grown up. Emma had read her disdain to mean that hell would freeze before she exposed her daughter to the place of her father’s birth and the stern, no-nonsense woman who had raised him. And as Emma had correctly interpreted, they’d never come again, nor invited her to their home in California. But she remembered well the delicate, feminine, startlingly pretty little four-year-old who almost from Emma’s hello had crawled into the safety of her daddy’s lap and refused to have anything to do with her.
Emma had thought her lamentably spoiled. You had only to look at the expensive clothes and toys, to hear the cooing and baby talk, to observe how her parents stood at the ready to grant her every wish and desire, to know that when she grew up she’d have the substance of a cube of sugar. Still, she was an enchanting little thing with her father’s curly blond hair and big blue eyes, gazing—shyly or coyly, Emma couldn’t tell—from beneath long lashes that in sleep lay like downy feathers on the sweet, creamy curve of her cheeks. Emma had a picture of her from that time displayed on her bedside table.
Catherine Ann was now eleven years old, perhaps a legatee of the chemical unit that carried hereditary characteristics from parent to child, her attitudes already formed by her upbringing and the ways and lifestyle of her native state. How did you transplant such a child from palm trees and ocean and permissive parenting to prairie and scrub brush and the care of a grandmother who still maintained that children should be raised to understand they were precious but not the center of the universe? That little boy in the seat behind her was a good example of the new child rearing. Heaven forbid that, despite his confinement, he should be expected to respect the eardrums of those around him.
There were bound to be fundamental conflicts, perhaps never overcome, but Emma understood her duty and, at sixty-two, was prepared to put her heart at risk for the loss of yet another child.
Here we are, Catherine Ann,” Emma Benson said, striking a light tone as she drew into the garage of her house in Kersey, Texas. “It won’t take long to get the house warm, but we’ll hurry it along with a cup of hot chocolate. Would you like that?”
As had been the case since their meeting in Santa Cruz, her granddaughter’s answer was an inscrutable stare, but Emma could guess what was going on behind those blue eyes now that Catherine Ann had gotten her first glimpse of her new home. “I’ll take that as a yes,” Emma said, and hurried to unlock the kitchen door before the child was too long exposed to the freezing temperature in a coat too thin for Panhandle winters. “Oh blast!” Emma said. The key would not turn—another blow to first impressions—and now she’d have to go out into the wind and sleet to the front door to let them in.
Her granddaughter stood shivering beside her, silent, stoic, expressionless as she’d been all week. Selective mutism, Dr. Rhinelander had termed her condition, claiming to be only a pediatrician and no child psychiatrist, but Catherine Ann demonstrated every one of its symptoms. “It’s usually a temporary disorder associated with anxiety or trauma and is characterized by an inability to speak in certain settings,” he’d explained. “Right now Cathy is mute to all but those she knows and trusts.” He’d given Emma’s six-foot, unadorned, rawboned figure a quick, clinical glance. “I mean no offense, Mrs. Benson, but you look a formidable woman, and Cathy has gone mute in your presence because she doesn’t feel safe with you. You are a stranger to her. She chooses to remain silent because, considering everything that’s happened, she finds safety in silence. She’ll speak when she trusts you.”
Emma gave the key another try. “The darn key won’t work. I don’t know when I last locked this door. Not in years, I reckon. In this town, we don’t lock doors.” She gave up the effort and turned to Cathy. “Tell you what. You get back in the car to stay warm until I go through the front of the house to open the door from inside. Okay?”
Resolutely the little girl stepped to a shelf in front of the garage and stood on tiptoe to take down a can of motor oil. She brought it to Emma. Try that, she said with her eyes, her tool of communication in the last seven days. Emma took the can, heartened at even this small exchange. “Aren’t you the clever one!” she said. “Why didn’t I think of this?”
A little dab on the key and they were inside the kitchen within seconds. Emma bustled about to turn on the stove and a wall panel heater while the little girl stood motionless, rigid from the cold, the knot of her balled hands visible in her coat pockets. She probably thinks she’s been dropped into a rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland, Emma thought, feeling the child’s bewildered gaze inspect her outdated kitchen. The Santa Cruz kitchen, like the rest of the house, had been large and sunny and as state-of-the-art as the latest layout in Better Homes and Gardens.
“Would you like to go into the den and sit while I make us that cocoa?” she asked. “You’ll be more comfortable in there once the room warms up.”
The child replied with a brief nod and Emma led her into a comfortably shabby room where she watched television, read, and did her needlework. The child flinched at the sudden whoosh and flash of fire behind the grill when Emma turned on the wall heater. Cathy’s home in California boasted central heating, of course.
“Would you like to watch TV?” Emma asked.
A head shake, also barely perceptible. The child, still in her coat, sat in a chair close to the heater and turned around to inspect Emma’s book collection that occupied an entire wall. A librarian by profession, she had organized the books according to interest rather than by author. Catherine Ann removed The Little Prince from the shelf of young people’s books. Her gaze returned to Emma. May I?
“Of course. You’ve never read that book before?”
Her granddaughter held up two fingers. Twice.
“Oh, you’ve read the book two times? The Little Prince is certainly worth reading more than once. It’s always good to return to familiar things. They can remind us of happy times.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Emma saw a flicker deep in the blue eyes as if a memory had surfaced, and a veil of sadness fell over the child’s delicate face. She returned the book to the shelf. “Well, then,” Emma said, swallowing quickly, “I’ll just get that cocoa.”
In the kitchen, she slumped against the counter, giving in to a feeling of overwhelming helplessness. She’d thought she was adequate for the task at hand, but how was it possible, considering all that her granddaughter had lost and what little Emma had to give, to fill the gap left in that little girl’s life? How could she ever be a substitute for her parents? How could the
How could Emma rescue what was left of her childhood?
“Give her time,” Dr. Rhinelander had told Emma. “Children are so resilient, Cathy more than most. She’ll come around.”
Was the man insane? In the course of a week, Catherine Ann’s parents had been killed and her home gone on sale. She’d been parted from her best friend, her piano, the progressive private school she’d attended since kindergarten, the pretty town she’d lived in all her life—from everyone and everything dear and familiar to her—to go live in the Texas Panhandle with a grandmother she did not know.
And today the region had never looked bleaker. When Emma had turned onto Highway 40 out of Amarillo toward Kersey, the child’s eyes had dilated, speaking louder than words her panic that she’d been carted to the end of the earth. Emma could hardly disagree with her impression. The prairie in winter offered nothing to crow about. It stretched dead and brown into a vast, endless nothingness, broken now and then only by a distant farmhouse or a knot of cows huddled miserably against the wind-driven sleet. The little towns they passed through off the interstate looked especially dismal this gray Sunday afternoon with their main streets deserted and store windows dark and forlorn Christmas decorations still strung from lampposts, beaten about by the wind.
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