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Tumbleweeds, p.13
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       Tumbleweeds, p.13

           Leila Meacham
The “two-day blackout period,” the reporter went on, was adhered to by everyone in town and had to be experienced to be believed. On late Wednesday and Thursday afternoons when dusk was gathering, you could hear a leaf drop on the streets. As if not to disturb the Bobcats at their rest, merchants and customers spoke in hushed voices, chatter was quiet in places like Bennie’s Burgers, horn toots to summon waitresses for car service at the drive-in were short, and no teenager with loud mufflers dared drag Main.

  Ron Turner was definitely not a man to be bucked. He ruled with the iron hand of deserved respect after six successful seasons as head coach of Kersey High School (though none had included winning the state championship). He took no guff from fathers, armchair quarterbacks, or booster club members who held the keys to the city and the ears of the school board. He lived by the rules he set for his players and eschewed alcohol, tobacco, and profanity. “Mouth filth,” he informed his players, “is the language of the ignorant and insecure. Smoking and drinking are the crutches of the weak.”

  The article stated that he was made to order for a cocky, highly intelligent, fatherless quarterback like Trey Don Hall.

  His face afire with humiliation and embarrassment, Trey read—in addition to being described as “recalcitrant”—of his parents’ early abandonment and how Coach Ron Turner had filled the void of his missing father. Aware of Trey’s sensitivity to his orphan status, Coach Turner apologized for the slant the reporter gave his interview, saying he’d praised Trey as the son he would like to have had. Trey had believed him and was thrilled Coach Turner thought of him that way, but he cringed that now the whole world knew his parents hadn’t wanted him. That night, he held Cathy tighter than ever before.

  Except for residents of the nursing home and a couple of sheriff’s deputies who’d called the wrong side of the coin to determine who would have to stay behind, the town of ten thousand was practically deserted the day of the game. A caravan of assorted vehicles with gray and white window flags flapping and painted with exhortations to DECLAW HOUSTON WHITE had set off at dawn to carry the Bobcats’ supporters to Dallas. On this Saturday in the middle of December, only one man walked the quiet, holiday-decorated streets, his dog limping beside him. He held a transistor radio to his ear and a coiled whip by his side. Far away and long ago had the star of this show stood shivering in his backyard, he recalled, listening to a pregame broadcast. Was the measure he took of the boy that night true for the man to come? Time would eventually tell. For today, the kid had what it took to make the town proud. Tomorrow was another day.

  TEAM CAPTAINS TREY AND JOHN AND GIL BAKER lined up to meet the referees and the captains of the Tigers for the coin toss in the center of the field. Their appearance and bearing during these tense, dramatic moments had already become the stuff of legend. Other teams fooled around at their end of the field in a hodgepodge of footgear as long as their shoes met turf regulations. Since no particular standard dictated uniform socks of high school players, they could wear long, short, or none at all. Length and cut of hair were also the players’ choice. Not so with members of Coach Turner’s team. At his instruction, every aspect of the Bobcats’ game regalia was uniform. Players must wear their jersey sleeves rolled down, knee-high socks tucked under the elastic band of their pants, shoes of the same make and style, hair cut short and neatly trimmed.

  Thus presenting a united front, the three captains stood abreast in respectful silence, their expressions schooled to appear calm and impassive as they waited for the officials to walk out onto the field, the signal for the team leaders to join them for the coin toss. It was quite a moment when Trey and John, topping six-three, with a shorter, stockier, but no less impressive Gil Baker between them, set off in step at an unhurried pace, gazes steady, left arms cradling their helmets, right arms held straight at their sides.

  One sportswriter would write of this contest: “The Bobcats’ captains approached their challengers with the dignity of knights dispatched to confront a company of knaves.”

  Such descriptions set well with Coach Turner. “You wouldn’t shake hands wearing gloves,” he explained to his captains, “and you don’t greet your opponents in your helmets. You show ’em the courtesy of your face. But when the toss is over, you put your helmets on in their presence to let ’em know you mean business.”

  Among a sellout crowd, Cathy watched these proceedings wedged between her grandmother and Mabel Church, her eyes glued on Trey. A sober Bert Caldwell stood on the other side of Emma, binoculars focused on the field. Cathy and Mabel held hands, both in the throes of the common fear that had weighed like rocks in their stomachs all football season. The band director had granted Cathy special dispensation to sit in the stands after she’d gone to him with the unorthodox request that she be excused from participation in this final game. Had he not done so, for the first time in her life she was prepared to abandon her part of the whole, inconsequential though it was. In other words, she would resign from the band. She reasoned that the contribution of her flute to the fight song and her marching position during the band’s halftime performance would not be missed. Meanwhile, she’d be sitting with Mabel and her grandmother where she could keep an eye on Trey and never miss a moment of the game or a movement of him on the field.

  This is what it’s going to be like when he’s playing football at Miami and after we’re married and he’s in the NFL, she thought, the tightness in her chest hardly allowing her to breathe. She would live in a daze of anxiety for his safety—a limbo of suspended peace until the season was over. She hated that he played football, but, dear God, he loved the sport and had played at the heart of it since he was old enough to hold a pigskin. People changed when they lost what they had always loved, so what was she to do but support him and nurse his wounds and soothe his bruises until the next week while she prayed that he would survive another game?

  A cheer went up around her. The Kersey Bobcats had won the toss.

  Helmets back on, Trey and John, looking like a double exposure, trotted with Gil to the sidelines. For a brief instant, Trey glanced toward the band section where she was supposed to be sitting. Her heart held. He doesn’t know where to look for me, she thought, gripped by the foolish notion her disappearance might affect his concentration. Don’t be stupid. Nothing can prevent him from keeping his mind on his business out there.

  In the brightly lit locker room before the game, the Kersey Bobcats had gathered around their coach, some kneeling, each supporting himself with a hand on his helmet. The coach’s voice was calm when he delivered his final pep talk to the finest group of boys he’d told reporters he’d ever coached. “They’re bigger than you, we’ve already given them that,” he said, “but you’re smarter, quicker, better coached, and better disciplined. You’ve got integrity and courage, and the biggest hearts in the business. You know what to expect. Be ready for it. To win, they’ll resort to what they are, all they know, but you let them draw the penalties, not you. And boys”—his voice wavered, trembled in his throat, “if you resort to what you are, all you know, you’ll be bringing home the trophy tonight. John, how ’bout leading us in a little prayer?”

  Coach Turner’s prophecy was realized in the final minutes of the game when the Bobcats trailed 21 to 24. Bloodied, exhausted, the offensive line held the Tigers away from Trey to allow him time to fire one of his bullet passes into the magical grip of John Caldwell, who, on his last legs, zigzagged his way around the defense’s desperate grapples to run the final five yards for a touchdown.

  In less than the minute left to play, the ball sailed over the crossbar of the goalpost for the extra point, and the sound of the final whistle was never heard in the ecstatic roar that exploded from the Kersey side of Texas Stadium. Cathy and Mabel sat stunned, their hands entwined, tears of relief rolling down their faces as the townspeople around them thumped their backs in joyous celebration. “It’s over, Miss Mabel, it’s over,” Cathy kept repeating.

  She had no way of knowing how prophetic those
words would prove to be.

  Chapter Twenty

  At the beginning of February 1986, Cathy was notified by mail at her home that she had been selected as a finalist for a National Merit Scholarship, guaranteeing her a spot on the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine’s premed track. In a school ceremony, she was presented with a Certificate of Merit in recognition of her outstanding performance in the competition as well as awarded a full scholarship bestowed through a charitable foundation administered by the First Baptist Church of Kersey, Texas. Both were contingent upon her entering an accredited university in the fall after graduation for four years of uninterrupted study. She wrote Laura Rhinelander, with whom she’d stayed in touch and to whom the news came as no surprise, that she would not be joining her at USC in September.

  And on the first Wednesday of February known as Signing Day, amid fanfare from reporters, TV crews, fans, and classmates, Trey and John signed letters of intent to play football for the University of Miami at Coral Gables, Florida. It was official: Trey had a shot at playing quarterback and John Caldwell wide receiver for the Miami Hurricanes. Sammy Mueller—as he had telephoned to congratulate Trey and John after the state play-off game—called to welcome them to the team.

  “What is this?” Bert Caldwell asked John a few days after the signing. Frowning, he held up the college admissions book of Loyola University for explanation. “What’s it doing in our house?”

  John retrieved it from his hand. “I don’t know who had it sent to me. It showed up in the mailbox one day.”

  “You’ve been reading it. There are some pages dog-eared.”

  “I was interested. Father Richard is a graduate of Loyola.”

  Bert Caldwell’s frown deepened. He had not touched a sip of liquor since the district game. His job still called him away for periods at a time, but he came home without his blowsy blondes or temper or the smell of alcohol on his breath. He’d had the house cleaned from stem to stern and, following Mabel’s decorating advice, bought new spreads for John’s twin beds and draperies and slipcovers for the living room and replaced the carpet.

  “You guys can start coming over here and spending a few evenings with your old pop,” he told John, his tone jocular but his gaze like that of a dog hoping to be let in from the cold.

  John and Trey and Cathy parceled out a few forced evenings where they sat around watching television and rehashing play-off games, Cathy praising the snacks Bert had provided. John found himself preferring the old Bert Caldwell before his star stature had given his father a new community standing.

  “That priest better mind his own business,” Bert said. “You’re not going to some namby-pamby Catholic college. You’re going to the University of Miami, and you and Trey Don are going to be the standouts when their quarterback graduates and goes to the pros. You’re going to make yourself somebody.”

  Make you somebody, John thought, but did not say it. He ought to be grateful that the man who referred to him as “my son” had cleaned up his act, no matter for what deluded reason or his mistaken notion that his say would have the least influence on the decisions John made for his future.

  “Father Richard says he didn’t send the book,” John said.

  The next day it disappeared.

  In May, the day after their high school graduation, Trey and John accepted Coach Mueller’s invitation to visit the University of Miami campus, deferred from December of the previous year because of the play-offs. A visit had not been required to convince them that Miami was the place they wanted to go. Cathy had to remain behind. Trey’s and John’s expenses were paid for, but Cathy would have had to bear the cost of hers and Emma had refused Mabel’s offer of financial help.

  “I’d cramp your style anyway,” Cathy told Trey. “This is supposed to be an all-boys adventure, and I’d be bored to death taking a tour of the athletic facilities. I’ll wait my turn until I register for classes in the fall.”

  Two weeks before their departure, Trey submitted to the test Dr. Thomas had recommended he take the year before but which he’d refused. He’d read extensively about the complications that might result from boys’ having mumps at sixteen. “I’m ready to find out, Doc,” he’d told him. “I don’t want to go any longer not knowing.”

  “The procedure is fairly simple,” Dr. Thomas said, and handed him a small plastic cup.

  Dr. Thomas made his pronouncement the day before the boys were to leave. Mabel was not present. Dr. Thomas had thought of calling her in, but Trey was eighteen, well into the age of consent, and the boy had expressed a desire to come alone. Later, with his permission, Dr. Thomas would share his findings with Trey’s aunt.

  “There is semi-bad news and semi-good news, Trey,” he began, showing him a chart of the male genitalia. “Let’s begin with the first.” With his pen, he pointed out the areas of Trey’s testes severely damaged by inflammation from the mumps virus as a result of the delayed treatment of the disease. “You suffered a condition known as orchitis,” he said. “From your biology class, you know that a sperm cell looks like a tadpole that waves its tail. Nonmotile sperm cells lack flagella and cannot swim.”

  “What are you trying to say, Doc?”

  “Your semen analysis shows that your sperm cells are abnormally shaped and cannot swim.”

  “And that means?”

  “It means that you are presently sterile. In other words, your sperm cells cannot move forward from the vagina to the uterus after ejaculation, but your current condition may not be a lifetime sentence. Thirty-six percent of adolescents can still have abnormal sperm up to three years after recovery from the mumps.” Dr. Thomas set the drawings aside and clasped his hands, his look sympathetic. “If you’d come to me at the first symptoms of the mumps…”

  Trey had come expecting the worst, but he was Trey Don Hall, charmed boy wonder. He eluded the consequences of his actions. “You sound like I fall in the sixty-four percent range,” he said.

  “I won’t lie to you, Trey. Your testicular tissue was severely compromised. You’re two years into this and… improvement appears highly unlikely.”

  “What’s the semi-good news?”

  “You have no testicular atrophy, but…”—he spread his hands apologetically—“that’s not to say there won’t be down the line.”

  “What are the odds of that happening?”

  “One-third of the boys who get orchitis caused by mumps after puberty will have a shrinking of one, perhaps two, of the testicles. You’re young and strong. You live a healthy lifestyle. You’ve been well looked after. It could be you’ll at least have escaped that bullet.”

  One out of three. Every morning for the rest of his life, he’d be checking his balls. The cold shock of reality hit him, numbing him. He’d never have a son… a daughter. He’d never be a father. Catherine Ann would never be a mother—not by him. She was the kind of girl—of orphan—who would want children. She’d want to have a family.

  “How many people need to know about this?” Trey asked.

  “Nobody, unless you give permission. It’s a matter of doctor-patient confidentiality.”

  “Good. I want no one else to know.” Trey rose on numb legs, reading the question in Dr. Thomas’s regretful gaze if that included Cathy.

  They had new clothes for the trip. Mabel had insisted on buying Trey a linen sport coat and trousers to wear on the plane, and Bert had surprised John with an expensive Hickey-Freeman navy-blue blazer and slacks to “let those Florida folks know my boy is no hick.” Looking at them in the airport—so tall and strapping and handsome in their fine new clothes—Cathy marveled at how nature had favored them. No blessing had passed them by. Yet a strange apprehension played beneath the surface of her excitement for them. Something had come over Trey in the last twenty-four hours, beyond the moods that could sometimes strike him. He’d begged off seeing her last night, saying he had packing to do. Mabel usually did his packing. Noticing the admiring looks they drew from other passengers, she cau
ght herself thinking—the thought like an ice-cold bullet to her brain—Come back to me, Trey.

  They drew aside for a private parting before he and John boarded. She waited expectantly for Trey to recite their usual farewell, but he did not. “I’ll miss you,” he said instead, and kissed her between the eyes—a first when they were parting.

  It was she who said, “Don’t forget me while you’re gone.”

  “How could I?” he said, and added, “I leave you my heart.”

  That spring, the season had hardly sprung before it succumbed to the hottest temperatures on record. The wildflowers died before they bloomed, and the tender green of the prairie grasses bleached in the dry, hot winds that parched the ground. The heat, like the below-freezing days of winter, drove the adults inside. It was an interim in which only the young could find pleasure.

  “Do you feel something different in the quality of the atmosphere this spring, Emma?” Mabel asked.

  “Yes, Mabel. Triple-digit temperatures.”

  “No, it’s more than the unprecedented heat. There’s something else.”

  “Sadness. Our children will be leaving us.”

  “Yes, there’s that… but there’s something else, too….”

  Mabel was having one of her fey moments, but Emma shared her sense that something, not yet seen, had entered their universe. Perhaps it was loneliness that perched like a big black bird waiting to swoop upon them when Cathy and Trey and John were gone. Even Rufus felt it. He whimpered without cause and followed closely at Cathy’s heels wherever she went. He’d prop his head on first Trey’s knee, then John’s, when they dropped by, his expressive eyes sad as if some instinct had warned him of their ultimate departure.

  Trey and John were gone five days. Mabel had surprised them with the money to rent a car and see something of Miami when their two-day introduction to the campus was over. They planned to book a motel room and play tourist. They ended their stay by having seen little of the city. There was too much to see and do on the university campus.

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