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Tumbleweeds, p.20
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       Tumbleweeds, p.20

           Leila Meacham
 

  Write me when you can and let me know how you’re doing. I miss you, buddy, and hope to see you over Thanksgiving break.

  Blessings,

  John

  Fear balled like a cold fist inside Trey. The letter reminded him of how much he missed his old buddy. The longing for John’s company and comradeship followed him around like a shadow he couldn’t shake. But this new peace John craved… Would living “the life of Saint Ignatius” someday move him to make a clean breast of what had happened “that day in November” to Sheriff Tyson and put the hearts of the Harbisons finally to rest?

  Would he, TD Hall, have to go through college, the NFL, waiting for the other shoe to fall?

  Chapter Thirty

  John put a shoulder to the front door of his house and pushed. His key worked, but the door had stuck from disuse. Apparently his father had not had occasion to open it in a long time. The wood creaked, and the immediate smell of a house long closed up assaulted him as he stepped inside. He left the door open to allow in a draft of cold November air and called, “Pop?”

  No answer. John set down his duffel and walked through the living room past a small dining room that had not been used since his mother’s demise and into the kitchen. He was surprised to find it relatively orderly. Dishes had been left to dry in the rack, the table was clear of newspapers and carry-out sacks, and the stove top looked wiped clean. A dish towel hung from its proper peg. The wastebasket contained no trash or liquor bottles.

  Something about the absent air of the house different from other long spells his father had been away steered him into Bert’s bedroom, a place John hadn’t stepped foot in since the morning he’d found a strange woman on his mother’s side of the bed. He opened the closet and was strangely unsurprised to find it empty of all but a few bent clothes hangers remaining on the rods. Bureau drawers were empty. The bed was made, but a lift of the spread revealed no sheets. He looked for a note but found none.

  In his room, he discovered an envelope on his pillow on which had been scrawled:

  I’m taking off. No need now to hang around. You decide what to do about the utilities. Look in the spot where your mother used to hide her mad money.

  B.C.

  Bert Caldwell. Not Pop or Dad. Now he knew.

  Outside, he removed several bricks from the foundation of a gazebo, his mother’s reading haven, the only attraction in the brown, weed-infested backyard, and found a small strongbox in her hiding place. Inside was an envelope containing ten one-hundred-dollar bills and the deed to the house, which his father had taken the trouble to have transferred to John’s name.

  John felt nothing for a moment standing there under the Panhandle sky, the wind tugging at his hair on this sharp but sunny Thanksgiving Day. The man who’d called himself his father was gone, perhaps forever, from his life. He held in his hand all of value Bert Caldwell had possessed. An odd sadness crept into his heart. The man had loved his mother once. John had fuzzy memories of his oil field–toughened father’s tender embraces of her, his gruff affection for him. Their family had been happy enough. But all that changed after John turned four, and now he realized that his mother’s confession of her infidelity had robbed Bert Caldwell of the husband and father he might have been.

  How different life would have played out for all of them if she’d confessed only to her priest.

  Peace go with you, Pop.

  John reset the bricks and carried the packet of bills and deed into the house. He’d use the money for expenses and take the document to Loyola for safekeeping until time came to part with the sum of his worldly goods. He’d have to spend part of his holiday boarding up the house and arranging for the utilities to be turned off when he left—this time for good, he realized with another jerk of his heart.

  In the kitchen, he realized how tired and sleepy he was and that he smelled. It had taken him over twenty-four hours to get home. After his final class yesterday, a fellow candidate had driven him as far as Shreveport, Louisiana. With the last of his funds, he had bought a bus ticket and, after a four-hour wait, caught a Greyhound to Amarillo that arrived at seven o’clock in the morning. He’d telephoned his father and got no answer, as there had been no reply to his letter stating his intent to come home for Thanksgiving. He’d reconsidered calling Mabel Church to pick him up. When it came to driving, Aunt Mabel had trouble negotiating traffic in Kersey. She’d never be able to manage locating the bus station in the heart of Amarillo during the morning rush hour. Cathy would be working at Bennie’s Burgers and her grandmother would have closed the library for the holiday, but he wouldn’t ask Miss Emma to put an extra strain on her rusty old Ford to drive fifty miles to collect him. He’d had no choice but to hitch his duffel to his shoulder and start walking, trusting God to keep him safe on the road and provide a ride that would get him home in time for Aunt Mabel’s Thanksgiving dinner.

  He hadn’t minded. The early morning was frigid, but it lost its bite as the day brightened, and the fresh air and prairie quiet were a relief after the hours he’d sat cramped and sleepless on the crowded, overheated bus listening to the racket of snores and hacking coughs and crying babies. He welcomed the opportunity to appreciate the handiwork of God in this vast, silent place of His creation. Autumn in the Panhandle was his favorite time of year. The sun shining through the turning grass transformed the prairie into a golden sea. Cathy, ever curious, had learned the names of all the fall flowers and shrubs of the Panhandle and taught them to him and Trey. Indigo bush, sand sage, desert bird of paradise, blue mist spirea… John wondered if Trey remembered. She had taught them so many things they’d never have learned. One day he was walking across campus past the music hall and heard the strains of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” drifting from an open window. He had stopped to listen, the earth suddenly stilled, and remembered the afternoons Cathy had played the composition for them on the piano in the First Baptist Church while he and Trey threw a football to each other in the center aisle. Sometimes she’d hit a crescendo just as Trey released the ball and it would soar high through the air and into John’s hands as if borne on the chords of a symphony.

  Did Trey, when reminded of her in some unexpected way, ever have one of those heart-holding moments? Did he ever recall the magic?

  John missed his old red truck and having to hoof it wherever he went, but not on days like today. The serenity of the autumn fields and his sense of the presence of God in such a place filled him with a profound peace and confirmed his decision to enter the novitiate at the end of the year. When he enrolled in Loyola, he’d planned to finish college first, maybe even work in the secular world for a while before time to pronounce his vows, but he’d felt the call to take the first steps of commitment to a religious life now while still working toward his degree. He had talked it over exhaustively with his spiritual director, who had finally sighed and told him, “John, ordinarily I would try to dissuade you from burning any bridges that would prevent you from returning to your former desires, but for you, I see that choosing another path in life would be an existential mistake.”

  And so, he’d applied and been accepted into the novitiate program, the first rung of the ladder for a man considering life as a Jesuit. Acceptance carried no obligation. The goal of the first two years was to help the novice—through intense reflection, assessment, and discovery—affirm his desire to be incorporated into the Society of Jesus. At the end of the two-year period, only then did the novice take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to begin the next steps toward ordination. The whole formation process would take twelve to fourteen years.

  “My goodness, John,” Cathy had responded when he’d written her of the years involved, “in that length of time you could earn a medical degree.”

  The first semester of his training would begin in January. He could hardly wait.

  He’d walked quite a distance and begun to tire when his prayers were answered and transportation arrived. A squad car pulled up alongside him and the driver’s wi
ndow slid down. “How about a ride, John?” Sheriff Tyson asked.

  John’s heart missed a beat, but he said, “Don’t mind if I do,” and gratefully climbed in.

  “Home for Thanksgiving?” the sheriff asked.

  “Yessir. Thanks for making it happen. I was beginning to think I’d be too late for Aunt Mabel’s dinner. I sold my truck when I got to Loyola.”

  “Needed a little extra cash, did you?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Your dad not much help in that department, I reckon?”

  John blushed. Sheriff Tyson didn’t think much of John’s father. A man like him wouldn’t. “No, sir, but I manage.”

  “You fitting in all right at Loyola?”

  “Yes, sir. It suits me just fine.”

  Deke Tyson glanced at him. “I can tell. It was a shock to most folks when you up and left for a Catholic school. A waste, they said, but I figured you probably knew what you were doing.”

  Uncomfortable with the tribute coming from the sheriff’s ignorance of him, John studied the landscape. “I appreciate your vote of confidence.”

  “But I have to ask the inevitable question. Do you miss playing football?”

  “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.”

  Deke Tyson’s mouth crooked wryly. “We certainly can’t have that now, can we?”

  “No, sir.”

  “I imagine TD Hall misses you.”

  “He’s doing okay without me, seems like.”

  “What do you hear from the boy?”

  “Nothing, I’m sorry to say.”

  “Nobody else around here hears from him, either. I guess with Trey, once out of sight, out of mind. I don’t believe I’m alone in saying I’m disappointed in the young man. His aunt Mabel has lost ground in the few months he’s been gone and so has Miss Emma. Cathy Benson is keeping her head up, proving to be the trouper I always took her for, but it’s got to be damn hard on her. Those women are going to be mighty glad to see you, John. At least they’ll have your company to look forward to for holidays.”

  “It’s nice to have them to come home to,” he’d said.

  Looking at the deed in his hand, John sighed at the irony. It was a little after eleven o’clock. His stomach rumbled emptily and he ached for a hot shower and a nap, but he was disturbed by Sheriff Tyson’s comments regarding Cathy. He’d let Aunt Mabel know to expect him for dinner, then telephone Miss Emma to get the straight skinny on how her granddaughter was doing. Cathy’s letters never mentioned the hardships of her situation. They were entertaining accounts of local people and happenings. She’d written recently: “Two weeks ago, somebody cut the padlock on Hubert Mason’s gate and stole his crazy Irish setter out of his backyard. We all wondered why anybody would want to steal him since Sprinkle is the most incorrigible mutt there ever was. Well, yesterday Hubert came home to find his dog back in the yard and a new padlock on the gate.”

  The only negatives in her letters were the state of the local economy, the Bobcats’ next-to-none chances of winning the district championship, and Rufus’s arthritis.

  “No, Trey is not coming home for Thanksgiving,” Mabel answered John’s question. “A buddy on the team invited him to spend Thanksgiving with him and his family. I’m terribly chagrined, but I guess it was to be expected, and we’ll have the joy of having you with us.”

  Disappointment plunged through him, in it a jab of something else. Another buddy on the team…

  “I’ll be there, Aunt Mabel,” he said, “but Pop won’t be coming. I’ll explain later.”

  “Well, then, it will be just you and Emma and Cathy, and we’re having a surprise guest at Emma’s insistence.”

  “Who?”

  From her tone John could picture Mabel’s grimace when she said, “Odell Wolfe.”

  John hung up grinning, his newly fledged candidate’s heart warmed. Good for you, Miss Emma! “Unto the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me”—the credo of the Jesuits. He dialed Emma’s number.

  “To answer your question, John, Bennie has been wonderful to her, making every allowance for her pregnancy. His kindness, of course, makes her work that much harder so it will not seem she’s taking advantage of her condition. He worships her, and everybody knows it, so the customers mind their tongues. The reactions of some of our other citizens are hard to take, especially some of the mothers of your classmates. Pity is as bad as condemnation, you know, and of course there’s been a slip in the respect she once enjoyed, but she keeps her chin up.”

  John bit down hard on his lip, imagining the type of snubs Emma described. Cissie Jane’s mother had long resented Cathy usurping her daughter’s place in beauty and brains, and she and her like, whose daughters had gone on to college, would take a natural delight in Cathy’s predicament. “I understand Odell Wolfe is coming to dinner. How did that happen?”

  “Well, part of it had to do with me. For years, Odell has cleaned himself up and come to the library on Monday to read in a corner carrel. I found him hanging around the back door one morning and could tell he expected me to shoo him away, but I asked if he wanted to come in. From then on, I’d find him back there every Monday soon as I opened up, so I started leaving the door unlocked—only morning I ever do—and a little something to eat on his special table, and it wouldn’t be long before I’d see him hunched over magazines or newspapers or reference books in his corner. He comes and goes through the back door and leaves whenever anybody else comes in. He doesn’t say much, and I’ve learned absolutely nothing about him, but I always find a thank-you note on the table.”

  “You said there was another part,” John reminded her.

  “That has to do with Cathy. She found Bennie giving food to Odell out the back door of his place and took over the job, taking pains with his plate and adding scraps for his dog. He thinks the world of her, and I have a feeling that if anybody ever tried to mess with Cathy, they’d feel the business end of his whip.”

  “How is Cathy feeling?”

  “Fat, she says, but otherwise just fine. She’ll be so glad to see you, John. She has something to discuss with you that I believe you’ll want to hear.”

  John detected a trace of suppressed excitement in Emma’s voice. “Can you give me a hint?”

  “No, I’ve already said too much, but it will make you very happy.”

  “Can’t wait.”

  John replaced the receiver, feeling his despondency lift like a dispelled ghost. What was the wonderful thing Cathy wanted to discuss with him that would make him very happy? Maybe someone rich—Coach Turner’s wife?—had offered to send Cathy to medical school. Maybe there was someone new in her life. He couldn’t imagine her falling for anyone else so soon, but he supposed it could happen. Or—praise God!—maybe it had to do with Trey. Had Trey approached her about getting back together?

  The last maybe edged out the other possibilities and made him want to hum in the shower. It was only as John turned on the water that his hope dampened. If he’d guessed right about Cathy and Trey, why wasn’t TD coming home for Thanksgiving?

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Cathy turned the CLOSED sign of Bennie’s Burgers toward the street and shut the lock. Closing her eyes, she cradled the bulge of her abdomen and pressed her back tiredly against the door to relieve the lumbar pain shooting to her legs. She had thought the place would never clear of customers, and there were still dishes to wash and tables to clean before she called her grandmother to pick her up for the rest of Thanksgiving Day.

  “I heard that sigh, Cathy girl,” Bennie said.

  Cathy snapped open her eyes. Bennie had come in from the kitchen, his apron-covered stomach leading the way. “Just taking a breather,” she said.

  “I want you to take more than that. I want you to take off. Go home and put your feet up. I can finish here.”

  Dear Bennie. The kitchen was a mess. He’d fired his dishwasher a few days ago for stealing a week’s worth of hamburger patties, and Romero, the other wai
ter, had not shown up for work this morning. The HELP WANTED sign was back in the window, and though Romero’s disappearance was good for Bennie’s bottom line, her body sagged at the possibility of the two of them handling the eight-to-nine crowd by themselves.

  She resisted pressing a hand to her back, but God, she was tired—her son had been especially rambunctious today—and her throbbing legs felt on fire. “If I don’t help, you’ll miss the Texas-Aggie game on TV,” she said halfheartedly.

  “I don’t need to watch the game on TV. I got a radio, don’t I? Go call your grandmother.”

  “I’ll clean the tables until she gets here,” Cathy said, too grateful to be off her feet soon to further debate the issue.

  She would miss Bennie and worried how he could continue running his business without her help once she was gone. He barely broke even now and was so mired in the daily grind of keeping his place afloat that he had no time or energy or money to consider improvements that might increase his profits.

  But she couldn’t consider Bennie’s predicament over the necessity of providing a better life for her child. Her son’s welfare was her most important—and only—concern right now. She’d have to put her personal aspirations aside. Children needed both parents in the formative years. Trey was a prime example of that. Sons needed a father to love and nurture and teach them in the way only a man could, and what better person to do that than John Caldwell? John loved her, and there was no doubt in her mind that in time she would come to love him in the way he deserved. It would be impossible not to. She was concerned only about her abilities to serve as a minister’s wife because, even though marriage would prevent John from becoming a priest, he would certainly want to pursue a career in the ministry. When she and her grandmother had discussed the subject, Emma had asked, “What if John does not want to give up his plans to enter the priesthood to marry you?”

 
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