Tumbleweeds, p.21Leila Meacham
Cathy had given her the pitying look of the enlightened for the ignorant. “Grandmother, John made plans to enter the priesthood only after I refused to marry him.”
Cathy had not shared the article explaining Trey’s behavior with John, nor did she plan to.
“I don’t understand,” Emma said when Cathy told her she’d keep the information to herself. “What prevents you from showing the article to John now that you’ve decided to marry him?” She’d emphasized the question with one of her pointed looks.
“I don’t want him to think that’s the reason I’m marrying him,” Cathy said.
“I don’t know. I know only that John is a good man who will be a good father to my son.”
Of course they would be unable to keep the truth of his parentage from the child when he was old enough to hear it. It would eventually come out that his father had left his mother when he was still in her womb. But John would handle the situation with his special wisdom and knack. How Trey would handle his version of the story when the press got hold of it was anybody’s guess.
Cathy decided that the best time to propose to John was tonight after dinner. She’d have no time to see him before she and Emma were due at Aunt Mabel’s. She had to work tomorrow, and John would be at mass in the evening. She’d wait until they were alone later at her grandmother’s house to pop the question on the front porch swing.
Through the large front window, she saw the Ford drive up as she wiped the last of the tables clean, set the catsup bottle and salt and pepper shakers in place, removed the “Thanksgiving Day special” insert from the menus. She should be filled with relief that John would soon take her away from all this, but her heart couldn’t quite manage the leap to joy. How different her life was turning out from the direction she’d planned. Laura Rhinelander was now thoroughly entrenched at USC and wrote of her premed studies with sensitivity to Cathy’s misfortune but with obvious satisfaction that her chosen field was everything she’d dreamed. There might still be a chance to pick up the road further along, but Cathy doubted it. John’s work would come first—God only knew where—with little money and opportunity to work toward a doctor’s degree.
EMMA CUT THE PUMPKIN PIE while Mabel poured the coffee. Never had she endured a more miserable Thanksgiving occasion, and more misery was yet to come at the end of the day. She could feel it in her bones.
“Do you suppose everybody wants whipped cream on their pie?” Mabel asked, her tone flat, indifferent.
“Does it matter?”
“Absolutely not. Slap it on.”
They were such good friends, in the privacy of Mabel’s kitchen neither had to pretend with the other. Masks slipped when overcome by fatigue, and at seventy-three, after a long, tense day, Mabel had reached the limits of her cordiality. This year, because she was watching her pennies, she’d managed her Thanksgiving preparations without help from the woman she usually hired to assist at special occasions. Emotional pain, too, figured into the tired lines of her face. Emma knew Mabel was suffering from the disappointment that Trey had not come home for Thanksgiving. How could that boy be such a horse’s rear to the woman who’d done so much for him? They all understood why, of course. Trey Don Hall hadn’t the guts to face Cathy and John—or Emma Benson!—so to hell with his aunt Mabel.
“I’ll stay after everybody leaves and do the dishes and put up the food, Muffin,” Emma said, using the nickname she’d dubbed her friend in childhood. “You’ve done quite enough to make this a grand Thanksgiving gathering.”
“You know darn well you’re lying like a rug, Emma Benson. This gathering is a disaster.”
Emma had to agree. The meal aside (Mabel was a terrible cook), it was all Emma’s fault, mainly because of the guest list. They should have simply prepared a plate to take to Odell Wolfe. They’d tried to make him feel welcome, but he could not be having a good time, unaccustomed as he was to wearing a necktie and a badly fitting suit unfit for a rummage sale. Since his arrival, the poor man had sat looking in fear of breaking one of his hostess’s whatnots if he moved or—as Mabel trenchantly put it—“passing gas.”
Inviting Father Richard had been another mistake. The women had been shocked to learn of Bert Caldwell’s up and leaving Kersey without so much as a “see you around” to his son or friends. In Bert’s place, Emma had suggested they ask Father Richard, and to their surprise, he’d accepted readily. Emma suspected he had plans but had canceled them when informed his neophyte would be at Mabel’s table. The women of the parish would never have permitted their priest to dine alone on Thanksgiving Day.
She’d regretted her suggestion the minute Father Richard walked through the door. He’d been the last to arrive. Everybody had already greeted one another, John endearing as ever in his attempt to make Odell feel like one of them and so tall and glowingly handsome that Mabel said, “I declare, John, when you become a priest, I’m calling you Father Whatawaste.” But a chill had rushed into her heart when he and Cathy embraced.
“Hello, Cathy,” he’d said in the nostalgic tone of someone reuniting with a long-lost love but whose heart now belonged to someone else. Emma had hoped it was her imagination, but no, there was a difference in the way John looked at her granddaughter now from when he left for Loyola four months ago. He’d been bathed in the blood of the Lamb. A discernible ecclesiastical aura hung about him, pronounced when Father Richard arrived in his clerical suit and collar and monopolized John all through the cranberry juice and artichoke-dip stage of the evening. The two had shaken hands and clapped shoulders like conspirators who’d pulled off a successful coup.
Emma observed that Cathy had noticed the change in John, too, and when he enthusiastically announced he would be entering the novitiate in January, Emma saw her granddaughter’s hope for her future fade in her eyes like bluebonnets at the end of spring. Cathy had little to say after that. Now and then, during John’s energetic exchanges with Father Richard, she’d return an understanding smile to his apologetic look for “talking business.” The good father and John politely tried to draw the rest of them into conversation, but Emma felt they were like outsiders indulged by members of the club.
She took the tray of pie into the dining room. “Will I get to see you later?” she heard John ask Cathy.
“Yes, of course. I’ll save you a spot on the front porch swing. Rufus will be so glad to see you.”
“And you’re going to discuss something with me that’s going to make me very happy?”
Her granddaughter leveled an accusing gaze on Emma. “Grandmother, what did you tell John?”
“I told him only what he just said to you,” Emma admitted, returning Cathy’s pointed stare as a reminder of her intention, but as she set a slice of pie before her she had a feeling that John would never hear the words her granddaughter had meant to convey on the front porch swing.
It was late in the evening when Emma finally revved up her old Ford. After the last Baccarat goblet and Lenox plate had been washed and dried and placed back in the china cabinet, she and Mabel had put up their feet and finished off a bottle of wine. Father Richard had dropped Cathy and John off at Emma’s house and left the Ford for her. Emma was in no hurry to get home.
“At least one good thing came from this evening,” Mabel said.
“Father Richard’s offer to sell you the parish car, and Odell’s promise to arrange for the Ford to be sold for scrap metal. You’re going to get a new set of wheels and a little cash to boot.”
“A used set of wheels, Mabel.”
“Gift horse, Emma.”
“Right. It was awfully nice of Coach Turner’s wife to make a present of her current Lexus to the parish. She buys a new one every year, I understand.”
“I wonder if Flora will make another year. Her daughter’s passing has been awfully hard on her. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but in death Tara may achieve the early grave for her mother that she nearly caused
“Maybe not,” Emma said. “Tara might have been a throwback to a grandparent responsible for her promiscuity.” It was the only theory that explained Cathy. Emma had finally figured out where her granddaughter got her surprising fortitude, determination, and integrity. She wasn’t a chip off her father’s block but his mother’s. Cathy had escaped the curse of her grandmother’s acerbic tongue, thank goodness, but Emma believed she could take credit for her granddaughter’s brand of internal strength. Emma didn’t consider it bragging, simply an acknowledgment of the truth. That’s how she knew what Cathy wouldn’t say to John Caldwell tonight.
“SO LET’S DISCUSS WHAT’S GOING to make me happy, Cathy. I can’t wait any longer.”
They sat on the porch swing with Rufus cushioned between them on his blanket. He’d been so happy to see John that he’d aggravated his arthritic hip. His eyes were closed from the bliss of John scratching his ear.
“You’ve been asking me what I plan to name the baby,” Cathy said.
“I’d like to call him John, if that’s all right with you.”
John turned to her with an astonished drop of his mouth. “Why, Cathy… I don’t know what to say. ‘I’m… honored’ doesn’t seem enough. Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. I can’t think of anyone finer to name my child after than you, but…”
“I didn’t take into account you might not like to have… Trey’s son named after you.”
He dismissed her concern with a wave of his hand. “Forget that. I’m thrilled. I’ll feel he partly belongs to me, the closest I’ll ever come to having a son.”
“And will you be his godfather?”
“A double honor. It will be the nearest I’ll ever come to being a father.” He reached across Rufus to hold an open hand above the swell of her pregnancy. “May I?”
He placed his splayed fingers on her abdomen and bent his head close. “Did you hear that, little guy? I’m going to be your godfather.”
She gazed down at the curly brown crown, aching to draw his head to her breasts and say, Don’t go, John, don’t go. Stay and marry me and raise my child as your son. “John…,” she said, “are you sure you want to give up having a wife and children to… do this thing you’re going to do?”
He straightened up. “These next few years will tell the tale, Cathy. That’s the purpose of the novitiate—to learn what life and ministry in the Society of Jesus involve, what sacrifices I must make. Right now, all I know for sure is that I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life than that I’ve made the right decision for me. I’ve never been happier. Whether I make the grade to become a Jesuit or not…” He shrugged. “I’ll have to wait and see.”
“Oh, you’ll make the grade,” she said.
He heard something in her tone that prompted him to put his arm around her shoulders. Rufus glanced up questioningly at the sudden cessation of the ear scratching. “What is it, Cathy? I detect something’s wrong. Aren’t you happy for me?”
In the darkness, she blinked furiously to hold back tears. “Of course I’m happy for you, John. It’s just that… I suppose I’m sad, too. When will we ever see you again now that you have no father or house to come home to? You say that you’ll be doing mission work this summer… and all the summers after that until your ordination.”
“You’ll see me whenever I have a chance to come back, Cathy. This is my home. You are my family—you and your grandmother and Aunt Mabel and the baby. Never forget that, no matter where my work takes me or for how long. I certainly won’t.”
She turned to look at him. In the darkness, the outline of his face, the set of his shoulders, could have been Trey’s. “The baby is due in February, around Valentine’s Day,” she said. “Put us in your prayers then?”
He hugged her shoulders. “You’re always in my prayers.”
Finally it was time for him to go. The night had gotten colder, and she must rise early to open up for the breakfast crowd. She’d be at Bennie’s until closing. John had a full day tomorrow shutting up the house. He would attend Friday night mass at St. Matthew’s and had reluctantly accepted an invitation from Lou and Betty Harbison of Delton for dinner. It had been they, and not Father Richard, John told her, who’d ordered the University of Loyola catalog mailed to him. He would see her Saturday at Bennie’s before Father Richard drove him to Amarillo to catch the bus back to New Orleans. With Rufus beside her, she stood on the porch and waved as John rounded the corner. The dog did not run after him. It was as if he, too, knew that where John was going he could not follow.
Bennie, we must talk,” Cathy said. She maneuvered her heavy body onto one of the rickety table chairs and patted the seat next to her. At eight o’clock the Monday evening following Thanksgiving, Bennie’s Burgers was empty. Romero had shown up on Friday and announced he’d accepted a job as an oil-field roustabout and Saturday would be his last day. His cousin Juan was available if Bennie wanted to hire him. The proprietor of Bennie’s Burgers had no choice but to take Juan on. He would start Monday.
“Oh, oh,” Bennie said. “This doesn’t sound good.”
Cathy came right to the point. “Bennie, I don’t have to tell you that this place is losing ground. We have to do something to attract a better-paying crowd than teenagers and the coffee and doughnut club.”
“And just how do I do that, missy, without a bankroll and the people to do it?”
“That’s what I want to talk to you about.” She’d provoked a rare note of testiness in his tone. Bennie was about his place of business like mothers were about their children. It was all right for him to point out its faults, but no one else better take the liberty.
“Forgive me, Bennie, but if something isn’t done to increase your business, you’re going to go under.”
“We’ll get by. We always have, but… I take it you wouldn’t have brought up the problem if you didn’t have a solution.”
She paid him a small smile. He had come to know her well. “I’d like to propose a few suggestions.”
“I’m all ears.”
She’d hit upon her vision yesterday while watching her grandmother fry corn bread to go with the pot of ham and turnip greens simmering on the stove. Sunday was the only day they sat down together to a meal. Cathy had always been amazed that such simple ingredients and preparation could produce anything as delicious as her grandmother’s “hot-water” corn bread. It was made by pouring boiling water over a bowl of salted cornmeal and stirring until the mixture looked like mush, then dropping it by spoonfuls into hot fat and frying it. The result was a pone-shaped morsel with a crunchy outer crust and soft center that was sheer bliss to eat.
“Your grandfather used to say he’d walk a hundred miles to eat my hot-water corn bread,” Emma had recounted for yet another time. “Fact is, it wasn’t my loving but my cooking that lured that man to marry me.”
“Everybody knows you’re the best cook in the county,” Cathy remarked dutifully, and recalled Trey hoping she’d learn to cook like her grandmother.
Cathy had observed her taking the corn bread from the skillet when the new image for Bennie’s Burgers had implanted itself in her head. “Grandmother, I have an idea to pass by you,” she’d said. “Tell me what you think.”
Emma had listened. When Cathy finished, she said excitedly, “This could be an answer to prayers, Cathy. What do we have to lose? Let’s do it! I have a whole month of sick days accrued at the library and can start right away.”
“I’ll see what Bennie says.”
But first, she’d thought, she must work on another flight of fancy. Finished with the meal, she had said, “I think I’ll take a walk. It’s such a perfectly golden afternoon, and I need the exercise.”
“I won’t walk far,” Cathy said.
Her destination was over two streets, two empty lots down. If Mabel was in her kitchen, she’d see Cathy walk by and wonder where in the world she was going, since there was only one house at the dead end of the road, and not one to attract visitors.
When Odell Wolfe answered the knock on his door, his bushy eyebrows disappeared beneath the overhang of his uncut hair. “Miss Cathy! What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you, Mr. Wolfe. May I come in?”
“In? You want to come inside my house?”
“Yes, please. I have a proposal to put to you.”
Odell Wolfe backed up, clearly unnerved by the word proposal.
Cathy smiled. “It’s not what you think.”
“Oh, no ma’am, I wasn’t thinking anything—”
“It has to do with a job offer.”
“A job offer? Who would want to hire me?”
“That’s what I’ve come to discuss with you.”
Cathy would now see what Bennie had to say about her scheme. She launched right in. “What if we expand the menu to include home-style lunch and dinner specials such as meat loaf, fried chicken, roast beef with all the trimmings—that kind of thing?”
Bennie eyed her with a tinge of disappointment. “And while we’re at it, why don’t we serve French wines and imported beer?” He swung a pudgy hand about his dingy establishment. “And why not petit fours and cream puffs?”
“I’m serious, Bennie. Aren’t you getting tired of meager returns and unreliable help?”
“The only way to solve that problem is to sell the place.”
“And who would buy it?”
Bennie shrugged his shoulders, his mouth arching downward. Cathy pressed on. “What if we can find a cook who can provide those home-styled meals and branch out from serving only breakfast food and hamburgers?”
Tumbleweeds by Leila Meacham / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes