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Tumbleweeds, p.18
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       Tumbleweeds, p.18

           Leila Meacham

  “The baby will be fine here until I can get us on our feet,” Cathy said. “Then she and I will move before she’s old enough to feel… shame.”


  Cathy allowed the wisp of a smile. “I have a feeling it’s a girl.”

  Rumors flew at the breakup and questions arose when Cathy did not leave for college as expected.

  “Cathy, what in the world are you still doing here?” Dr. Graves asked when she appeared in his clinic on the day she was supposed to leave for Coral Gables. “I thought you’d be on your way to the University of Miami by now.”

  “I’m not going to college this year, Dr. Graves. That’s why I’ve come, to ask for my job back—full-time, if that’s possible.”

  “Not going to college! Why not?”

  “I… It’s personal,” she said, hardly able to meet his gaze. She’d caught a knowing streak of perception in it, though the board of deacons would not meet until next week.

  “Come back to my office,” he said quietly.

  He closed the door and said, “I heard that you and Trey had a pretty serious tiff. Would that have anything to do with your decision not to go to college and honor your scholarships?”

  “Dr. Graves, forgive me, but that’s my business.”

  “I ask, Cathy, because… when a girl like you—who has everything going for her and no reason in the world to refuse the opportunities she’s been given—suddenly cries off from them, well… that can mean only one thing, unless your grandmother is ill and you must stay behind to care for her.”

  “She’s not ill.”

  “I see.” Silence fell. “Cathy, you’ve put me in an awkward position….” Dr. Graves gestured toward a chair and Cathy sat on its edge while he explained. If it were up to him, he’d hire her without a second’s thought, he said, his tone genuinely sorrowful. She was the best assistant he’d ever had, but he had to consider his wife…. She wouldn’t take kindly to an unmarried pregnant girl in her husband’s clinic. She’d feel Cathy’s presence would send the wrong kind of message to other young girls, and… well, in this economic climate, he had to think of his business, that others might view the situation in the same light. Cathy understood, didn’t she? He wished it could be different, but… he lifted his shoulders regretfully.

  Cathy did understand. She thanked him for seeing her and left, and only when she’d driven Emma’s car around the corner did she stop and allow herself a good cry over the steering wheel.

  Dr. Thomas, to her surprise, was the first to show his overt disappointment. A kindly man, he didn’t seem the sort to pass judgment, but he examined her without his usual warmth. “You’re two months along, I’d say. The sonogram will tell us for sure. I’ll send my nurse in to perform the procedure and to instruct you in prenatal care.” He pulled off his gloves and threw them into the waste bin in patent disapproval. “I suppose one never gets too old for surprises,” he said, and left the room.

  By letter, she notified the chairman of the National Merit Scholarship committee that she would not be attending college in the fall as planned and received a courteous reply of regret that the scholarship would have to be withdrawn.

  Mabel, bewildered, appalled at her nephew’s behavior, said, “Now, see here, Emma, you must let me help. That’s my great-nephew Cathy is carrying, and I have every right to meddle and interfere. At least let me pay the medical bills, and you can use Buddy’s insurance money to buy a new car. You’re going to need a good set of wheels. What if the time comes for Cathy to have the baby and that old Ford of yours won’t start?”

  Emma refused. The bottom had fallen out of Texas’s petroleum industry, and her old friend’s oil stocks had taken a hit. Emma would not allow Mabel to sell them far below their value and lose the dividends that supplemented her Social Security. They would get by, Emma assured her. One of the jobs for which Cathy had applied in town was bound to come through.

  None did. The advertised positions for a bank teller, secretary in a local insurance agency, and receptionist in the county agent’s office were filled by other applicants, presumably because they would not become a social embarrassment to their employers. Weeks passed and hiring possibilities in the county dwindled or dried up because of the slump in the oil-based economy.

  Cathy’s small, narrow figure showed evidence of her pregnancy early, further condemning her chances of “white-collar” employment, and at the beginning of her fourth month she parked Emma’s dilapidated Ford in front of the HELP WANTED sign she’d noticed displayed for several weeks in the window of Bennie’s Burgers.

  She shut her eyes and swallowed hard at the thought of working in Bennie’s. She liked the proprietor, a short, burly, jovial man in his fifties who wore a beard and was rarely seen without his prominent middle covered by a food-stained chef’s apron. He had inherited the business from his father, Benjamin, who’d established Bennie’s Burgers in the fifties, and took great pride in calling it the only “family-owned” hamburger place in town. Unmarried, Bennie lived with his reclusive mother and her cats in a house behind his establishment, but he regarded his place of business as his home and its customers as his family.

  But Bennie’s Burgers was what her grandmother called a dive—dark and smoky, loud with jukebox music, the tacky menu limited mainly to greasy breakfast fare and hamburgers and fries. “A haven for cockroaches,” Emma would sniff, disapproving of the high school’s senior crowd (the only members of the student body allowed off campus for lunch) preferring Bennie’s to the more modern and clean Whataburger across town. Some of Cathy’s fondest high school memories had been made with Trey and John and Bebe in the scarred pine booths of Bennie’s—but as a student, not an employee.

  “You want a job here, Cathy? As a waitress?” Bennie Parker looked thunderstruck.

  “I know I haven’t any experience, but I’ll learn fast, and—”

  “Whoa!” Bennie held up a dishwasher-roughened hand. “You don’t have to sell me. I know you learn fast. You’re the smartest girl in town. That’s why I’m going to say no. This job isn’t for you.”

  “Bennie…” Her voice dropped out of hearing of several coffee drinkers at the counter. “It’s… the only one I can get.”

  His glance dropped to her abdomen, the denim boyhood shirt her grandmother had kept of Buddy’s hiding its telltale bulge for now. Emma had cut the sleeves to elbow length and trimmed the hems and shirttail in white rickrack to make a maternity smock. It went perfectly with Cathy’s white cotton slacks.

  “Is that so?” Bennie said, his tone indicating disgust. “Then I guess it’s no use telling you to try the First Methodist Church. I hear the pastor’s secretary is moving to Ohio.”

  Cathy continued in her undertone, “The job’s already been filled.”

  Bennie made a face. “Their loss. Okay, you’ve got the job. I wish it were something more your speed, but we’ll be good to you. When can you start?”

  It was September. Classes had begun at the University of Miami and Loyola and the University of Southern California, where Laura had enrolled in premed. By now, she and Trey and John would have bought their books, met their professors, settled in to get on with their futures. Tomorrow, Cathy would begin hers as a waitress in Bennie’s Burgers.

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Fall football practice began. The University of Miami’s athletic dorm filled up, football jocks occupying one end; participants in other sports, the other. Returning gridiron players—the starters—shared rooms with starters, the rookies with rookies. As everyone settled in, Trey was surprised that no one showed up to take John’s berth. He kept quiet about it in case the dorm proctor brought up the oversight to the housing department. In his ever-present mood, sharing the room with a stranger—having to adjust to his habits and ways (what if he played rap music?)—was abhorrent to him. Trey found himself craving privacy and solitude and peace to cry and mope and throw things without consideration for anyone else.

  From the get-go, even fr
om the starters, he was accorded a respect not shown the other freshmen. The Miami Hurricanes had recruited only one quarterback to add to its roster, and Trey knew if he did not prove himself, that respect would vanish as quickly as footprints in a sandstorm. It was strange walking out onto the field without John at his side. The feeling of being without an essential piece of equipment persisted during the first week of preseason practice, but it did not affect his performance, a concern of the watching coaches he laid to rest in one of the first morning sessions. Trey and a veteran center, along with a skeleton crew of freshman backs and receivers—“Seven on Seven”—were pitted against the starting corner backs, linebackers, and safeties. After the summer break, the drill was to help the veterans regenerate their confidence and timing at the rookies’ expense.

  “Okay, Trey, show ’em what you got,” Frank said, smacking his bottom as he sent him out onto the field.

  Trey complied by showing an uncanny ability to lay back, observe what was happening on the field, then, with no more than a flick of the wrist, let fly the ball to the exact spot the play called for. The freshman pass receivers sometimes dropped the ball, but through no error of Trey’s execution. The most spectacular demonstration of his accuracy came when he dropped back to elude a linebacker’s serious intent to rush him, bounced up on his toes twice, and threw the ball sixty yards, a long, arching spiral that settled like a baby into his receiver’s hands in the end zone.

  Attempts to break Trey’s concentration failed. He was not seen to blink when he was in charge of the action. He refused to fall for the veteran defense’s most sophisticated “disguise coverage”—tricks to deceive him into throwing the ball to the wrong spot. In the huddle, trust grew in his ability to execute the play as planned and in his aptitude to figure out exactly what man was covered and who would be open to receive his pass. The tension of competition mounted as the chain marker advanced for Trey’s group, and more than once a starting defensive back exchanged a look of surprise from behind his face guard with another veteran. The seasoned center grinned from across the scrimmage line and taunted, “You boys enjoying your lunch?”

  On the sidelines, Frank let slip his cautious reserve of blue-chip quarterbacks and pumped his arm in jubilation. By the start of the season, the recruit from the Texas Panhandle had completely put at ease the offensive coordinator’s anxiety that he could not make it without John Caldwell. Privately, though, and a little sadly, Frank sensed Trey Don Hall had learned to play his position with a missing limb. The boy had still not recovered from whatever had gone amuck back in Kersey, Texas.

  FROM HIS FIRST IMPRESSIONS of the place in June, Trey was finding that little he’d expected to enjoy about the University of Miami and the surrounding area was panning out. The school was a private research university set in a tropical garden located in what was touted as one of the most beautiful and exciting cities in the country, but the tightly packed high-rises, blocked horizon, and noise and traffic gradually began to get under his skin. The weather was all he’d hoped for, but despite the open green spaces of the magnificent campus and the occasional breezes from the Atlantic, the humidity of the summer days induced a mild but persistent form of claustrophobia. The feeling had started after he’d left the treeless plains traveling south, alone, on Interstate 40. As he worked his way down through Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, the horizon he’d grown up seeing was eventually lost in the dense pines and kudzu-covered trees crowding the road, finally becoming tunnels that forced him to take deep gulps of air and gave him the sensation of drowning in a swamp. The Miami beaches were great and the girls gorgeous in their bikinis, but he’d never felt so alone or desolate as when he walked on stretches of sand along a never-ending body of water, and he’d discovered he disliked the cling of salt on his skin.

  The University of Miami was expensive, its tuition one of the highest in the country, and most of the students came from wealth. Trey had believed, during his and John’s initial visit to the campus, that it would be exciting and interesting to make new friends among those who could introduce him to the material delights of worlds he’d never known. Now, for reasons he couldn’t explain, he was indifferent to the idea of “experiencing the rich,” perhaps because he still longed for the simple pleasures he and Cathy and John had enjoyed in their relative poverty.

  Even the climate affected Trey in a way unexpected. The first bite of fall was in the air in the Panhandle, but in this part of Florida, land of palm trees and hibiscus, the temperatures remained mild and steady, the sunsets the color of pink cotton candy and robin-egg blue. “Wind riders” rode the evening skies over his hometown of Kersey this time of year, cloud formations of powerful horsemen streaming bandanas of gold and purple and magenta behind them as they streaked across the heavens over the boundless Panhandle prairies.

  At least those were the images that he and John and Cathy had found in the clouds.

  “Doesn’t it ever get football weather around here?” Trey asked one of his teammates, wiping his face with a towel on the sidelines during a game.

  The boy was from Miami. “What are you—a freaking comic?” he asked.

  Trey had spent most of his savings from his job at Affiliated Foods to pay for his stint at summer conditioning camp and now, for the first time in his life, found himself worrying where he’d get the money for his next tank of gas or a pizza to eat at midnight. He would have gotten a part-time job, but an NCAA rule forbade athletes on scholarships from working during the fall and spring, and while his scholarship paid for everything, it did not include spending money. He was not embarrassed by his lack of funds. The attraction of his looks and talent and brains, his potential to be a football great, made money unnecessary to be accepted into any circle he chose. He minded only because he hated to continue taking money from his aunt. He was aware that her income had taken a dive, and more often than not he returned her checks—out of guilt, shame, sorrow, feeling undeserving of her generosity, he refused to determine—and went without the extras the money would have provided.

  But there was an upside to his financial situation. It gave him an excuse to decline invitations from his new pals—recruits like himself—to hit the local hangouts on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights, the big party night when everybody let loose before tightening up for the game on Saturday. He couldn’t afford the evenings of throwing back beers and raising hell, and they would have done nothing to lift his mood.

  Though he didn’t understand it (he’d expected to be immersed in the glories of becoming another Jim Kelly by now and to hell with John and Cathy), Trey chalked up his atypical desire to be alone, to study by himself, to walk without company to class, to pretend ignorance of the signals he received from girls, as a tunnel he was going through until he came out the other end into sunlight and blue skies.

  To add to his low-grade depression, the middle of October Cathy’s letters stopped coming. Until then, he’d drawn a weekly blue envelope—her favorite color—from his mailbox. The letters gave him a small diabolical pleasure. He had never read a single one, but as long as she continued to write, she still cared for him, and he wanted her to care—to suffer—as just punishment for her betrayal. Still, it left him with a caved-in feeling when day after day the rest of October he found no blue envelope in his cubicle. He experienced an especially hollow moment when one day he saw a blue envelope among his mail and discovered it to be an advertisement. He’d thrown it vehemently into a trash container and vowed never to subscribe to Today’s Young Athlete.

  He’d kept her letters in chronological order, unable to throw them away. He’d pull the rubber-banded stack out of his drawer occasionally and run his fingers over their blue surfaces, but within minutes his heart would freeze, his jaw harden. She was history. The campus was running over with tall, voluptuous beauties only waiting for him to crook a finger. The problem was he was not yet ready to beckon, but he would be. “Time is a great healer” was a favorite expression of his aunt, and—like he kept te
lling himself—he had plenty of it ahead of him and the most exciting years of his life to get over Catherine Ann Benson.

  He’d been shocked when Aunt Mabel had written that Cathy had lost her full scholarship from the First Baptist Church and would not be coming to Miami. He’d gone into a deep funk, not knowing whether he was relieved she wouldn’t be on campus or deeply distressed she’d had to forfeit her dream. He’d run so many laps that day that Coach Medford had come out on the track and ordered him to stop.

  At first, his aunt’s letters had filled him in about Cathy, along with pleas to come home and “do your duty”—that phrase again. When he did not respond, his aunt had changed her strategy and framed her letters to stir his conscience.

  Cathy has gone to work at Bennie’s Burgers as a waitress. It’s the only employment she could find. Milton Graves wouldn’t take her back at his clinic because that self-righteous wife of his would disapprove. There were other openings in town, but they were “up-front” positions, and the county agent and Douglas Freeman at the bank and Anthony Whitmore at his insurance agency couldn’t see their way to hire an unmarried girl in the family way. I’m sure you can appreciate the desperation that led Cathy to apply for the job at Bennie’s—so many levels below her abilities, intelligence, and dignity—but she’s willing to take any job to help support her and the baby.

  Emma tells me that Cathy has had to endure a few snubs and pitying remarks from some of our more upstanding citizens as well as a few inappropriate advances from men customers at Bennie’s. Mr. Miller, your biology teacher, who used to call her Dr. Benson, now addresses her as Cathy.

  I just thought you’d like to know.

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