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Tumbleweeds, p.22
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       Tumbleweeds, p.22

           Leila Meacham

  “And who might that be?”

  “My grandmother.”

  Bennie shot back his chair to accommodate his astonishment. “Emma Benson—cook here?”

  “She said she’d love to. She’ll be forced to retire from the library at the end of December, anyway, and she’s been worried what she’ll do with her time until the baby arrives. We’ve got it all figured out. We’ll bring the baby to work with us. We can put him in your office off the kitchen. And one other suggestion. I’d like you to hire Odell Wolfe as a dishwasher and janitor.”

  Bennie’s jaw fell. His eyes distended. Finally, he stammered, “And… h-h-ow will I p-p-ay these people?”

  “You won’t—at least not at first. My grandmother is willing to work for free for a few months. If business turns around, you pay her a commensurate wage with increases as your profits grow. The same for Odell Wolfe. Until then, he’ll work for three meals a day and scraps for his dog.”

  “You’ve talked to him?” Amazement filled Bennie’s stare.

  “I have. He’s all for it—thrilled, as a matter of fact. Don’t worry that he’ll show up looking like an alley bum. He cleans up nicely. You should have seen him last Thursday at Miss Mabel’s.”

  Bennie scraped a hand down his beard. “Well, that all sounds mighty fine, Cathy, but how can we compete with Monica’s Café? She’s got the market cornered on home-cooked meals. This town’s not big enough to support two cafés that serve the same things.”

  Bennie was referring to Monica’s Café across the courthouse square. Its draw was based on the claim that it was the only eating place in town that served “home-cooked meals,” a misnomer in Cathy’s view. Discerning taste buds could tell that the café’s self-touted baked goods, sauces, and gravies were prepared from a box, its “hand-breaded” fish and chicken-fried steak were prefrozen, and its “charcoaled sirloin steak” came with prepackaged grill marks and was cooked in the microwave.

  “The only thing ‘home-cooked’ about their meals,” Cathy said, “is that they open their processed foods on the premises. Ours will be made from scratch. We’ll use fresh produce, fresh meats. Believe me, people will know the difference. And second, we’ll change our business hours. Let Monica’s feed them breakfast. We’ll open for lunch and dinner—”

  “Hold on just a minute there, sweet face.” Bennie put up his hand like a jaywalker halting traffic. “What about my morning coffee drinkers?”

  Cathy sighed, knowing she was about to tread on touchy ground. After the trickle that came in for breakfast, the rest of their customers were men, mainly retired, who lined the counter for half a day to shoot the bull with their cronies and rarely spent more than the price of a cup of coffee and a doughnut. It was a ritual they’d enjoyed for years, and Bennie considered them his friends.

  “Bennie, for this to work, we have to close in the mornings in order to give my grandmother time to prepare the food. It will also give you extra hours to work on receipts, to tidy up the place, run errands for the business—all sorts of things that go undone around here because there’s no space in your day to do them.”

  “What about the high school seniors? The place won’t be the same to them.”

  “True.” Cathy realized she was fooling with tradition. Heading to Bennie’s for hamburgers and fries at lunchtime was a time-honored, long-established custom Kersey High School students looked forward to on becoming seniors that no parent’s argument against its unsanitary conditions had been able to stem. “But what will you do without their business in the summer?” she countered.

  Bennie rubbed his bearded chin, and Cathy could see that her arguments were making headway.

  After a contemplative silence, he said, “What do you get out of this, sweet face, besides tips from a minimum-paying job?”

  “If things improve, a higher salary and a say in the business, which means I want your guarantee that you’ll listen receptively to all my other suggestions to turn this place around.”

  Bennie looked doubtful. “Like what other suggestions?”

  Cathy struck while the iron was hot. “The place needs a thorough cleaning. I propose that we close it for one week and give it a good airing and washing from the ceiling down—windows, floors, walls, the kitchen and bathrooms. If Romero’s cousin helps, there will be five of us. Even Mabel Church might lend a hand. Bennie…” She laid a hand on his arm and said gently, “We want this to be a place where people will want to bring their families… where couples can come on dates.” She left it to him to deduce why currently they did not flock to order prefrozen hamburgers from grimy menus served on tacky tabletops before dirty windows.

  “A week will also give us time to contact vendors and vegetable growers and for Grandmother to set up her menus,” Cathy continued. “It will mean a sacrifice of income for those days and may cut into your bottom line, but in the end, I’m confident you’ll see the time as an investment that will pay big dividends. This town needs the kind of eating establishment I’m talking about.”

  Bennie leaned back in his chair to consider, folding his hands over his food-daubed apron. “I suppose I can afford to close the place for a few days, but…” He looked at her woefully, “I’m to be kicked out of the kitchen when we reopen?”

  “You’re to be the proprietor!” Cathy said. “You’re to walk around, greet people, make them feel welcome.”

  “I don’t have to wear a tie, do I?”

  She laughed. “No, but the apron should go. And one other thing…” Cathy paused. The next suggestion would be the trickiest. “Would you consider changing the name to simply Bennie’s?”

  She expected an argument, but to her surprise, Bennie said, “I guess I can go with that, too.”

  Her heart swelled with the thrill of victory. “You mean you’ll agree to everything?”

  He lifted his shoulders. “What else can I do? I don’t have much of a choice, do I? But just so you know, little miss smarty, the deal maker is the part about leaving the baby in my office.”

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  A day after Cathy’s proposal, a sign was posted on the front of Bennie’s Burgers: CLOSED FOR REPAIRS. WILL REOPEN DECEMBER 1. The labor force set to work. Cars slowed on Main Street to observe the moveable furniture of Kersey’s only family-owned hamburger establishment piled on the sidewalk and a flurry of cleaning activity going on behind the large plate-glass windows. New menus were drawn up and encased in clean plastic folders. Booths, tables, and chairs were scrubbed down to the visible wood. An advertisement publicizing the additions to Bennie’s bill of fare was placed in the local paper alongside the editor’s interview with the owner, who was quoted as saying, “It was time for a change.”

  Bennie surprised her with a new sign in the window—NO SMOKING. “For the sake of the baby,” he explained.

  There were naysayers, among them Mabel Church. “Emma Benson, have you lost your senses? You know I’ve never been one to mind too much what people say, but this time they’d be right in thinking that the Bensons have succumbed to the lowest depths possible with Cathy working as a waitress and her grandmother slinging hash.”

  “Now, Mabel, that’s not so,” Emma said. “The next level would be begging on the streets.”

  “And who, pray tell,” Mabel went on, “will want to eat food from an eatery with Odell Wolfe in the kitchen?”

  “Those who want to eat my hot-water corn bread.”

  When the place reopened, a curious stream of customers were greeted with fresh scents of recent cleaning and table displays of poinsettias in honor of the season. Emma’s prediction to Mabel proved correct. Baskets of her hot, crunchy corn bread—“manna bread”—came standard with every meal and alone drew patrons who had never before been inside Bennie’s. By the end of January, the ledger books showed that the formerly named Bennie’s Burgers had enjoyed the best fiscal month in years.

  Mabel’s concern that Emma would be “looked down upon” in her new line of work did not take into account t
he other side of the Panhandle character that deemed folks who worked hard to do their best with the hand they were dealt deserved respect. The Benson women found their stock gradually returning to their former heights in the eyes of Kersey County. The awkward situation of her nephew’s abandonment of the mother of his child prevented Mabel from having a baby shower for Cathy, but Paula Tyson, the sheriff’s wife, was bound by no such embarrassment. She hosted a Sunday afternoon party attended by classmates of Cathy’s still in the area, a sizeable number of the town’s elite, including Coach Turner’s wife, and Bebe and Melissa, who drove in from their colleges.

  Trey had not come home to spend the Christmas holiday with his aunt. The town frowned over his neglect of the woman who had done so much for him. It did not matter that he had asked Mabel to Coral Gables to join the family whose invitation he had accepted. The feeling was that Trey’s place at Christmastime was at the fireside of his loving and lonely aunt. The tide of public opinion slowly turned in Cathy’s favor and against Trey, who, so local judgment went, “was showing he wasn’t man enough to come home and face the music.”

  As February rolled toward Valentine’s Day, Cathy wrote John that “the way people around here are keeping a watchful eye on my due date gives me some idea of how the world awaited the birth of Mary’s son—no comparison intended.” She realized that much of the town’s anticipation was as much out of curiosity as concern. Would her son look like Trey Don Hall?

  Cathy believed the material she read that said women’s bodies were designed to grow, birth, and nourish babies, but she was prepared for a difficult birth. Her pelvis had been diagnosed as small, and the sonogram indicated the baby could weigh as much as ten pounds. Against her obstetrician’s advice, Cathy had elected to deliver her son naturally rather than agree to an early induction or a C-section. She’d thoroughly educated herself on the complications of both and believed the benefits of a vaginal delivery outweighed the pain and risks involved.

  “You understand that your baby can be injured in the birthing process,” the doctor warned her. “For example, big babies can fracture their collarbones. It’s rare, but it does happen.”

  “Are sonograms always correct in determining a baby’s weight?”


  “And wouldn’t I have to have an MRI to determine the size of my pelvis?”

  “I see you’ve been doing your homework.”

  By her doctor’s calculations, Cathy was a week away from her first labor pains. Her one piece of luggage was packed and in the Toyota Camry Father Richard had sold to her grandmother, its gas tank full and tires checked for immediate departure to the hospital in Amarillo. If all went well, Cathy would be hospitalized for no more than two days, the financial reason for opting for a natural delivery. Her main worry was the weather. Freezing high winds and ice accumulation on the highways were not uncommon in the Panhandle in February. As a precaution against the worst possible scenario, they had packed the trunk with blankets and food and emergency medical supplies.

  Cathy could now feel the full weight of her baby, especially when she turned over in bed. Their game-playing days were over. She could feel her son was cramped and wanted out. From the minute she’d felt him kick (Hi, Mom) she’d press her thumb on the spot (I’m here, Son), and as he got bigger, when she pressed he’d push back. She’d tickle his foot and he’d move in a way that made her think he was giggling just beneath the skin of her muscles and nerves. She’d call him John, sing to him, talk to him, and no one could have convinced her that he wasn’t listening.

  She would expect no less sportiveness from Trey’s son, but his frolics unleashed the ache for his father she’d managed to control. How could Trey turn his back on the baby they had made? In moments when her guard was down she’d fantasize that Trey would rush into her hospital room after the delivery, find their baby in her arms, begin to cry, and say as he had that day in June, Catherine Ann, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what got into me. I’m the biggest jerk in the world. I love you so much. Please forgive me.

  Once she left the hospital, she hoped to be back at work after a couple of weeks, since she could bring the baby with her. Bennie had ordered her to take even more time. “We can manage,” he said. “You are not to come back until you and the baby are completely well.”

  “We’re not sick, Bennie, just neonatal. Women used to drop their babies in the fields, put them to their nipples, and keep on working.”

  Bachelor Bennie blushed from the image. “The café ain’t no cotton field and I’m no Simon Legree. We can manage, I tell you.”

  But how? The staff of five ran their feet off now. Juan was turning out to be better help than expected, but he attended Canyon College three evenings a week. Her grandmother would be in and out attending to her, and with Cathy gone, Bennie would have to wait tables and man the cash register while Odell would have his hands full in the kitchen dishing up orders. Word had spread of their new look and menu, and diners were driving over from Amarillo and Delton and towns in the adjoining counties. Cathy hated to disrupt the flow of customers who might not try them again if things were not as advertised or—God help them—Bennie had to resort to serving his hamburgers and fries.

  Within days of believing her baby was turning in position to be born, a godsend walked through the door. The staff was between lunch and dinner. Bennie was at the cash register, chatting with a customer.

  “Bebe Baldwin, what are you doing here in the middle of the semester?” Cathy said in surprise when she saw her friend from high school take a seat at the lunch counter. They had visited over the Christmas holidays and at her baby shower, and Cathy had listened like a diabetic craving sweets to Bebe’s wails of discontent with her professors and classes and higher education in general.

  “I quit,” Bebe said. “I gave it a go, but college isn’t for me. No sense in wasting my dad’s money. Cissie Jane is lapping up the life, of course. She’s majoring in Kappa Kappa Gamma.”

  Cathy chuckled. “Sounds like her.” She set a cup of coffee for her friend on the counter. “So what are your plans now?”

  Bebe shrugged. “I’ll be looking for a job. I wish it could be around here, but with the job market the way it is…”

  “Would you like to work in Bennie’s?” The question popped from Cathy’s mouth before she could think about it. “As you can see, we’ve spiffed up the place, and I’m expecting my baby—” A sudden gush of liquid warmed the inside of her legs. She clasped her abdomen and caught the smell of a musky odor. “Like… like… right now.”

  Bebe shot off the stool. “Oh, my God, what do I do?”

  “Call my grandmother. She’s in the kitchen.” At the cash register, Bennie whipped his head around and let out a bark of dismay. “Bennie, meet your new waitress,” Cathy gasped when he rushed over. “Right, Bebe?”

  “Right,” Bebe said.

  The weather threatened but held off as Emma drove the Camry out of Kersey. The afternoon had lost the little sun that had managed to penetrate the low-cast clouds. A winter storm was expected to roll in at midnight. “How are you doing, sweetheart?” Emma asked, her hands clenching the wheel, her body pitched forward as if the tense position might help her better navigate the road.

  Cathy’s eyes were on the stopwatch she held to time her contractions. “So far so good,” she said. Her cramps were regular in duration and spacing, but she had no doubt that labor had begun. She rubbed her abdomen, determined to remain calm and relaxed. It’s all right, John. Mom will have you out in no time.

  They were a mile out of Kersey when, “Oh, shit!” exploded from Emma’s mouth. Cathy looked at her grandmother in surprise, then behind her to see what horrible thing in her rearview mirror had provoked the unprecedented outburst. “ ‘Oh, shit!’ is right,” she groaned. A squad car, blue lights twirling, siren released, had drawn up close behind them.

  “What the hell is he stopping me for?” Emma said furiously. “I was driving the speed limit.”

ugh the precipitation collecting on the back windshield, Cathy could make out only the outline of a broad set of shoulders in the leather jacket of a law-enforcement officer and the dull glow of a medallion on the crown of his western hat. He stuck his hand out his window and motioned they were to follow him. Cathy went limp with relief. “It’s okay, Grandmother,” she said, feeling the stab of another contraction. “It’s Sheriff Tyson. He’s come to lead us to the hospital.”

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Frowning, Trey took a seat next to the girl he’d agreed to meet for coffee in the University Center. They’d been dating since December, and he’d spent the holidays with her and her family in their mansion in Coral Gables, where her father owned an important advertising firm.

  The glow that had heightened the loveliness of the girl’s face when Trey walked up faded when she saw his ill-humored expression. Beside her pastry plate was a small gift-wrapped box tied in red and white ribbon. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “You look… put out.”

  “Put out?” Trey’s frown deepened. “I’m worried. Can’t you tell the difference?”

  “Worried about what?”

  “Nothing important. I have… a friend who’s supposed to be going into the hospital today.”

  “Who is it? I thought I knew all your friends.”

  “Well, you thought wrong. Not from here. From home.”

  The girl’s face instantly grew wary. “A him or a her?”

  Trey hesitated. “A her. I’m hoping someone will let me know how she is.”

  “What’s wrong with her?”

  “She’s going to have a baby.”

  She noticed he’d not removed his jacket and had made no move toward the coffee bar. “Yours?” she asked.

  His dark eyes snapped. “Why would you say that?”

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