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Tumbleweeds, p.17
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       Tumbleweeds, p.17

           Leila Meacham
 

  He had planned to tell her and John the truth about his… condition when they arrived on campus—the truth he would have spilled to Cathy just before she dropped her bombshell if she hadn’t pressed her fingers to his lips. Too late for confessions, she’d said, and he’d thought she was speaking of his escapades at Miami, which of course she had suspected. Later in the confusion that had raged like hornets in his brain, he’d wondered if his capers were the reason she’d cheated on him, like most girls would have out of vengeance, but that didn’t sound like Cathy, so he’d had to believe she’d simply gone to John for comfort and one thing had led to another and they’d ended up in bed together.

  Too sad, too bad. She should have kept her panties on. She should have waited.

  He couldn’t have confessed his secret before he left Kersey. His pain was too great. Cathy and John had orphaned him again. They’d destroyed the family they’d built, and they deserved to feel the abandonment and loss they’d inflicted upon him. He’d expected them already to be married by the time they reported to campus—or would shortly after they heard his news. Guess what, guys? I’m not the father of your baby, Cathy. You are, John. So you all have a good life—without me.

  And now John had gone off to study for the one vocation that would make his and Cathy’s marriage impossible. Christ! How could everything have skittered so far off course? How could all their dreams and hopes and plans have changed as quickly as a fumble on the goal line and blown the winning score?

  The drawer containing Cathy’s letters was still open, begging to be read, her handwriting conjuring up her trim, small figure, but her memory brought only the bitter resurgence of his feeling of betrayal. How stupid he’d been to believe she was different from any other girl in the world. Women! You couldn’t trust a one. Even John’s mother had strayed, and look at all the damage her adultery had caused.

  He would never read Cathy’s letters. He would not be tempted by sympathy or guilt—or remorse for his own part in the breakup—to take her back, because now there was no way he and Cathy would ever work. But what should he do? Should he tell her and John the humiliating truth about himself before it was too late or… wait? What good would the truth do anyway? As much as John’s loss to the game was nothing short of a tragedy, he had made up his mind to enter the priesthood. What right did Trey Don Hall have to interfere with John’s plans to atone for that day in November? And as for Cathy… she was only eighteen. She would get over him. She was beautiful and smart and determined. Despite the baby, she had a promising future ahead of her. And… as much as she cared for John, she did not love him. Wouldn’t it be wrong to condemn her to marry him for the sake of the baby when later, down the line, she might fall in love with someone she really did love and want to marry?

  He was aware of what his silence would cost—temporarily. Aunt Mabel and Miss Emma would feel some disgrace. They were of the generation where nice girls didn’t get pregnant out of wedlock, but the younger people would shrug. So what? It happened all the time—just not to smart girls like Cathy. He felt a special kick of guilt when he thought of the stigma to the baby. His aunt’s friends would never forget it was born a bastard, and her nephew would be considered one, too, for deserting Cathy, but in time the town would forgive him. It always did its star football players. John probably never would. The priest might forgive him for leaving Cathy to face her situation alone but—though he had no room to point—not the boy who loved her. John should have known his best friend would wake up and reconcile with Cathy, but how could he not have answered the call of his gonads when she was available and willing?

  Trey got up from the bed and closed the drawer. He’d give it a year. If John found he couldn’t stick it out at Loyola and if Cathy was still carrying the torch for him, he’d tell them the truth. The rest would be up to them. If neither was the case, he’d keep his secret and let be what would be.

  He felt better instantly. His tears had dried. The void in him was still there, a painful emptiness that brought back feelings of his days at Aunt Mabel’s parlor windows, but other friends and other girls would come along to fill the space. It would just take time, and he had plenty of that.

  Meanwhile—he picked up a football from his bureau, the feel of the pigskin comforting and familiar in his hands—he had the game.

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  In his room, John heard the television come on, his father’s first order of business when he entered the house, followed by the thump of his boots hitting the floor beside his La-Z-Boy, the second indicator he was home. Next came the solid thud of his socked feet to the kitchen for a beer—to which he felt entitled after his sobriety during football season—and then the pad back to his chair, where he settled with an audible sigh of contentment.

  “John! You in your room?” he called loudly.

  “Same!” John yelled back.

  “You getting packed?”

  “Same!”

  “Come out here when you’re through. I’ve got a surprise for you!”

  It was the way they’d always communicated—hollering through walls, from different rooms. John had yet to inform his father that, rather than to the University of Miami in Coral Gables, he’d be leaving for Loyola University in New Orleans in the morning.

  He’d already made the rounds to say good-bye. He’d gone first to see Bebe Baldwin at her father’s gas station, where she was manning the cash register for the summer before she and Cissie Jane Fielding left for the University of Texas in the fall. Bebe was behind the counter when he walked in, her face lighting up at his unexpected visit. He felt the usual twinge that he was unable to return her feelings. Now he had an excuse. Her face dimmed when he told her the news.

  “You can’t be serious,” she said.

  “But I am, Bebe.”

  “But you’re too… virile, too sexy, too gorgeous to be a priest!”

  He’d grinned. “Being a priest doesn’t make a guy less those things, Bebe.”

  “But it’s such a waste! You’ll never be able to beat the girls away from you.”

  “I guess I have to find that out.”

  She’d sighed. “Well, thanks for the memories, John. If you change your mind and want to make more of them, give me a call.”

  Next, he’d driven to Aunt Mabel’s house, an empty and echoing place without Trey, then on for a final visit with Miss Emma at the library, and finally to see Cathy at her grandmother’s. Cathy had stood at the front door with tears in her eyes when he’d left and Rufus had followed on his heels to his pickup, jumping on him before he could get in, his whine begging John to stay. His throat had closed as he’d knelt to bury his face in the collie’s ruff. Take care of them for me, Rufus.

  “Have you heard from Trey?” Aunt Mabel had asked.

  “No, ma’am,” he’d said, noticing the brownish circles beneath her eyes, symptoms of worry and shame. “He’s probably not had time to answer my letter.”

  “Sweet liar,” she’d said, and patted his cheek.

  He’d answered the same to Miss Emma’s similar question and noted the deeper crevices in her lined face. “I just don’t understand it,” she’d said.

  Cathy had not mentioned him. She’d said in French, “Dieu être avec vous, mon ami.” (God be with you, my friend.)

  And he had answered, “Et avec vous aussi, mon cher amie.” (And you as well, my dear friend.)

  He’d telephoned Coach Turner to inform him where he was headed. His change in plans had not had time to get around town. Coach would be surprised and saddened but not shocked. He had been aware of John’s deeper involvement with St. Matthew’s the past year, and he would figure that Trey’s desertion of Cathy had been the deal breaker that had led his All-State wide receiver—“our moral compass” as Coach had described him in the Dallas Morning News—to follow his heart, not Trey’s rear end to keep him out of trouble.

  But John had not expected Coach Turner’s vehemence. “He’s a piece of work, that boy,” he’d said, su
rprising John by the personal bitterness in his tone. “You’re better off without that Judas.”

  Now the only person remaining on John’s farewell list was the man who, for real or imagined, called him his son. Already John found himself wondering if he could ever completely think like a Jesuit and embrace the sanctity of all human beings as children of God, no matter their embarrassment to their Maker, but he would try. Bebe had asked, “When did you slip away from us, John, and none of us saw?”

  He could have said it started the November evening he’d gone to St. Matthew’s to beg God’s forgiveness for his act of that afternoon. He had lit a candle and knelt before the altar and prayed. A lot of afternoons after football practice in the following weeks, he’d driven back to St. Matthew’s without telling Trey. By then his onetime constant companion was with Cathy for the rest of the day. But Trey had guessed. “Say one for me, too, when you’re at St. Matthew’s, will you, Tiger?”

  Father Richard had noticed his comings and goings and sat down beside him on the pew one afternoon before the state play-off game.

  “Are you praying to win the game?”

  The thought had never occurred to him, but rather than offer another explanation, he had remained silent.

  Father Richard had given him an understanding smile. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for direction around and through the obstacles that would prevent us from reaching our goals.”

  Father Richard had been speaking of John’s opponents, but he had taken the larger meaning and had begun to pray for a direction in his life that would allow him to atone for what he had done and bring him peace. He began to feel a pull toward the priesthood and the Order of the Society of Jesus, in particular—the Jesuits—but he had read enough of the formation steps to ordination to realize that he might not be cut out for the ministry. At Loyola, he planned to get his bachelor’s degree in business and go through the candidacy program that was designed to help the candidate decide if he wanted to become a Jesuit. Acceptance into the program carried no obligation, and he could withdraw from it at any time.

  His last bag packed, John walked to the door of the living room and stopped short. His father was sitting in his easy chair wearing a green and orange and white baseball cap with MIAMI HURRICANES stitched across the crown. A huge grin spread across his face. “I’ve got one for you, too,” he said. “It’s in that box on the table. I ordered two. I figured we could wear ’em when I take you out for a little celebration supper tonight.”

  “Dad…” He hadn’t called Bert that since he was eight years old. “I have something to tell you. Maybe you’d better turn off the TV.”

  “Well, sure, Son.” Bert hurriedly clicked off the remote, John wincing from shame at his father’s eagerness for the chance to chat with him. He withdrew his socked feet from the ottoman and pushed it toward John. “Have a seat and tell your old dad what’s on your mind. But first, are you all gassed up to get off to Coral Gables in the morning? It’s a long stretch between filling stations until you get out of the Panhandle.”

  “I’m all gassed up, but I’m not going to Coral Gables, Dad. I’m driving to New Orleans.”

  Bert blinked. “New Orleans? But aren’t you supposed to be at Miami for fall practice two days from now?”

  “I was, but I’m not going to Miami. I’m enrolling at Loyola University in New Orleans.”

  “What?” Bert’s eyes bulged. He wriggled to a straighter position in his chair. “To hell you are! You’re going to Miami, where you have a scholarship, and play football!”

  “I’ve turned down the scholarship. I’m going to Loyola to consider preparing for the priesthood.”

  Bert gaped at him like a landed fish. Furiously he pushed himself up from his chair and glared down at John. “It’s that goddamned fuckin’ Father Richard that’s done this to you, hasn’t he?”

  “He has nothing to do with this.”

  Bert punched the air with his fist. “He has everything to do with this. Johnny, listen to me—” Bert sat down again and drew toward John. “Do you realize what you’re giving up: the chance to be one of the greatest receivers in college football, to go to the NFL, to make tons of money, to live the kind of life that most of us can only dream about—”

  “Yes, Pop, I know,” John said, getting up from the ottoman, “but I don’t want that anymore. I need something else. I’m going to Loyola.”

  Bert looked up at him, his lip curling contemptuously. “To live without sex the rest of your life? What’s wrong with you?”

  “Lots. That’s why I’m considering the priesthood. The first step to becoming a Jesuit is to know you are a sinner.”

  “Oh, hogwash! Johnny—” Bert’s face twisted from his effort to get through to John. “You’re a good boy, the best I know. You don’t need no ‘freshening up.’ You don’t need to sacrifice yourself to make yourself better.”

  “I wouldn’t do it for that reason. I’d do it to make other people’s lives better.”

  Bert scowled at him, disgust and disappointment molding the look he’d wear when he thought of him from now on, John suspected. “I don’t suppose we’re going out for that celebration supper,” he said.

  “Hell, no!” Bert sailed the baseball cap across the room. “I’m going to get drunk.”

  John spent the rest of the evening with Father Richard in his study going over details for his admission into Loyola University.

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  I’ll sell the house,” her grandmother declared. “The money from Buddy’s insurance policy will give you more than enough to see you through until the baby comes, and by then the house will have sold and you’ll have another grant. I’ll move to Miami to look after the baby while you go to school. I have to retire at the end of the year anyway….” They were huddled around the kitchen table a few days before Cathy was to be at the University of Miami to register, their anxiety hanging in the air like smog. “Cathy, honey, there is no other solution—”

  Cathy put up her hands to end the argument. “No,” she said. “I’m not going to allow you to sell your house and move from your friends and the town you’ve known all your life because of my dumb mistake—make that two dumb mistakes.”

  The first was getting pregnant. The second had to do with her decision at the beginning of the year to accept the full four-year scholarship awarded her through the First Baptist Church. Upon its acceptance, the recipient had to forfeit all other scholarships with the exception of the National Merit Scholarship, which, while prestigious, would cover only a fraction of her college costs. As a result, Cathy had relinquished several she’d been offered that would have made a considerable difference in the financial dilemma she now faced. Because of a morals clause, the full scholarship from the church she’d attended since she was eleven years old had been rescinded.

  It had been the hardest decision she’d ever made to report her condition to her pastor. She’d weighed the pros of waiting to disclose her unmarried state until she was at Miami and her pregnancy became obvious (there was always the chance that Trey would come around once they were on campus together), but if he didn’t, she’d be in a deep financial pickle and forced to come home if the church yanked her scholarship in the middle of the first term.

  The minister had bestowed a word of warning after he’d asked if her predicament was generally known. When she’d told him no, he said, “I’m afraid that once I inform the board of deacons of the change in your… er, status, news of… your situation will come out, Cathy. People talk, you know, no matter that they’re charged to silence. The board meets the middle of September. You have a few weeks’ grace period before it does.”

  In her panic, every bit as mind numbing as Cathy’s, her grandmother had overlooked several obstacles to her resolution of the crisis—one that Cathy had even thought of herself until she realized that selling the house offered no salvation even if she’d been selfish enough to agree to it. The house needed costly, unaffordable repairs before it could
go on the market, and with its limited appeal and lack of house buyers in Kersey it could sit for a year, probably longer, before it sold—if ever. Her grandmother’s old Ford was on its last wheels and would soon have to be replaced. There would also be medical bills to pay. Financially, there was no choice but for Cathy to remain in Kersey and get a job until she could apply for grant money that would allow her to go to a school in state next year—that is, if Trey did not come for her.

  Her expectation that he’d come in time to save her from the discovery of her pregnancy lessened each day. But late was better than never. The more she thought about it, the more she found hope and comfort in the fact that Trey hadn’t asked her to have an abortion or put the baby up for adoption. That surely meant he was giving himself time and space to come around to the idea of marriage and fatherhood.

  “I’ll ask Dr. Graves for a full-time job and stay here until the baby comes,” she said. “That will give me enough time to figure out what to do and make plans. Meanwhile, I’ll make the best of it.” Cathy took her grandmother’s hands, speared once again by guilt for the extra worry lines she’d put on her old face. “I’m so sorry for putting you in this predicament. I know it’s what you always feared….”

  “Yes, I did, but I believed that even if it happened, what was the problem? You and Trey would marry, raise your baby. Life would go on, not in the way you’d planned, but maybe even better.” She shook her head. “I don’t understand it. As crazy as Trey has always been about you, I never dreamed he’d behave like this. I look back on the way he looked at you the night of the junior prom, and—even as young as you were…” Her voice trailed off.

  “You thought we’d be together forever,” Cathy finished for her. “I did, too.” Her throat burned. Of all the memories, the night of the junior prom was the best. Only a year ago last May had Trey promised to return her more beautiful than ever, and he had. Now it felt like a lifetime since the boy in the tuxedo had given that assurance to the grandmother of the girl in the blue chiffon.

 
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