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Tumbleweeds, p.23
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       Tumbleweeds, p.23

           Leila Meacham
 
She hiked her shoulders in an attempt to make light of her obviously unfortunate remark. What was wrong with him today? “I don’t know why I said that, Trey. I suppose because love is in the air—”

  “Are you saying it would be okay for me to walk out on a girl having my baby?”

  She rocked back from his cold stare, the censure in his tone. “Of course not. That’s not what I meant.”

  “What did you mean?”

  “Trey…” She leaned forward and drew his hand to the red heart on the front of her white sweater. “This is Valentine’s Day. I didn’t mean to start an argument.”

  “I don’t feel like going to the dance tonight,” he said. He pulled back his hand from the familiar swell of her breast and pushed back his chair. “I’m sorry, Cynthia, but I need some breathing room from us for a while.”

  Cynthia watched him go without undue regret. She couldn’t keep up with his moods lately, and they’d become a bore. Gazes from the other students trailed after him. He’d been picked as next season’s starting quarterback, and at the University of Miami that made him top dog on campus. The information her father’s investigator had gathered on Trey Don Hall must be correct, she thought. Her father had all her boyfriends investigated. She was, after all, the heiress to a fortune when she turned twenty-one. The dossier stated that when Trey Don Hall went off to college he’d left his longtime girlfriend pregnant and had had nothing to do with her since. Her baby would be due about this time. Cynthia had shrugged the information off to her father. What did that have to do with her and Trey’s relationship? But she should have known better than to let herself fall in love with TD Hall. There was something cold and indifferent about him once you got past the sex. He would only hurt her as he apparently had that poor girl he’d left high and dry. Yet Trey must still feel something for her to be worried about her having his baby. “Nothing important,” he’d said. Like hell. She slipped the gift into her purse. He hadn’t even noticed it. It was a framed photograph of her and Trey posing before her family’s enormous Christmas tree. She would keep it among her mementoes of her college days and decide whether to let his boo-boo back home be known. Not that it would make the least difference to his status at Miami.

  IN THE POST OFFICE ATTACHED to the student center, Trey checked his box. No mail from Aunt Mabel. Since November, she’d written him only twice, punishment for his not going home for the Christmas holidays, he assumed, and her letters contained no news of Cathy or John. He hadn’t heard from John in a long while, either. It was just as well, he told himself. The greater distance he put between him and his two friends, the easier it would be to assimilate into his new life, a world away from the windswept little prairie town he’d left behind.

  In the dormitory, he asked at the proctor’s station if he had a message. The student assistant handed him two envelopes, but they were not from his aunt. Today was Cathy’s estimated delivery date and he would have telephoned for a status report, but he couldn’t risk Aunt Mabel misinterpreting the call. She might take it as a sign—and report it to Cathy—that he still cared for her, and he did not. He simply wanted the baby and his… onetime valentine to come through all right.

  He read the contents in the envelopes and dropped them in the nearby trash receptacle provided for junk mail. One was from a student reporter of the school paper requesting an interview and the other from a men’s clothing store wanting to know if Trey would be interested in modeling their line of clothes at an alumni event. Six months ago, he’d have been eager to accept, but now he thought such affairs a waste of his time. He was finding it liberating not to give a damn about anything or anybody but his studies and football. He ought to mind that somehow Cynthia had found out he’d left his girl pregnant back home and worry that the gossip would tarnish his image, but he didn’t. What did image matter to how a quarterback played the game?

  “HE’S OUT, AND HE’S PERFECT!”

  The doctor’s relieved announcement resounded like a symphony in Cathy’s ears. Exhausted, she fell back against the pillow and gave a weak smile and thumbs-up to the miracle he held in his hands. You did it, Son. You did it! In the eleventh hour of her labor when she thought she could no longer bear the excruciating pains of her contractions, she’d felt the strong will in her son to be born. He would not let her give up, consider a caesarean. Through the blur of her pain and nausea, the assault of harsh, bright lights, machine sounds, loud laughter and conversation, the indignity of being exposed to strangers walking in and out of the room, he had fought her urge to cry for relief from her agony. We can do it, Mom!

  “Will,” she whispered at one point to her grandmother swabbing the perspiration from her face. “I want my baby’s… middle name to be… Will. John Will Benson. We’re… going… to call… him Will.”

  “I’ll make sure the name gets on the birth certificate, sweetheart.”

  After a preliminary exam of the baby, the doctor placed her newborn in her arms, still slippery from the birth canal. “Ten pounds and one ounce, and all high marks on the Apgar score,” he announced. “Congratulations.”

  Emma, who had never left her bedside, began to weep softly. “Talk about a labor of love,” she said.

  Cathy touched her lips to the soft cranium, plastered in a crown of dark-brown hair. “And worth every second of it. He’s beautiful, isn’t he?”

  Emma daubed her eyes. “How could he not be?”

  Yes, how could he not be? Cathy thought, recognizing Trey’s forehead, nose, chin.

  “I’d better go call Mabel before she has a conniption fit,” Emma said. “She’ll let the others know.”

  By others, Cathy knew she meant Bennie and John and possibly Sheriff Tyson, to whom she’d owe an eternal debt of gratitude for leading them, patrol lights flashing, through sleet and Amarillo traffic directly to the emergency doors of the hospital. With the care and consideration he would have shown his own daughter, he had helped Cathy out of the Camry into a wheelchair and hung around until she was in the hands of the medical staff. But would Aunt Mabel telephone Trey? His aunt had cooled her relationship with him. His refusal to come home for Christmas had been the final straw. Trey was aware of Cathy’s due date. Would he be waiting anxiously for word that mother and son were doing fine? Would he call if he did not hear from his aunt? Would he want to know if the baby looked like him? When he learned of his son’s birth, would Trey be able to stay away?

  Emma left to make the calls, and Cathy felt a sudden emptiness when the baby was taken from her for a bath. When she was back in her room, freshly bathed and dressed in a clean gown, a nurse entered carrying Cathy’s son. Cathy held out hungry arms. “How is it possible to barely remember my life without him?” she said as the baby immediately found her breast, and she felt the sweet, urgent tug of his tiny mouth on her nipple.

  “I don’t believe that question falls in the realm of the answerable,” the nurse said. “Are you ready to receive your first visitor as a mother? There’s a young man waiting to see you.”

  Cathy’s heart flew to her throat. “Who is it?”

  “I don’t know his name, but he’s tall, dark, and handsome if that gives you a clue.”

  Cathy pushed up in bed, cradling the baby’s head. Oh, my gosh! Trey! “Send him in!” she said, breathless from a flood of joy and relief. She looked down at the sleeping face of her son. “You are about to meet your daddy, John Will.”

  But when the door opened, it was John Caldwell who walked into the room.

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  At the end of two weeks, Cathy was back waiting tables at Bennie’s. She had hoped for a quiet return, but a well-wisher had sent a blue and white floral arrangement with balloons bobbing: “It’s A Boy!” that sat on the checkout counter for days and invited requests to see the baby in Bennie’s office. Customers brought gifts and cards—justifiable grounds to see for themselves if the baby sleeping in his bassinet looked like Trey. The tacit consensus was that he did. There was no doubt at all. The dark, curly
hair, the shape of the facial features, could have come from no one but Trey Don Hall.

  The next week, Cathy set the helium-filled balloons free and drove to the cemetery to lay the still-fresh, dyed-blue carnations on the grave of an infant who had lived only a few minutes after birth.

  The icy days that gripped the Panhandle in February eventually warmed into spring, and the year passed. The baby grew. He was quiet and curious and displayed a level of intelligence uncommon in a child his age. He drew forth the first laughter that none who knew Odell Wolfe had ever heard and provided such pleasure to the working environment from his playpen that Bennie—a bit cocky from the profits that allowed him to increase wages—laughingly declared he ought to put the boy on the payroll.

  Bennie had come to think of Cathy Benson as the best thing that had ever happened to him. She had saved his business and brought joy and pride into his life, not to mention the people he had grown to love. He didn’t mind that more and more it was becoming a question of which of them was in charge. Her ideas were good for business. They gave class to the place. The waitstaff now wore black trousers and white shirts. The barbequed ribs were served with finger bowls. Cloth napkins were used instead of paper.

  The only worry that shadowed his good fortune was the inevitable realities he must face. The day would come when Emma would grow too old to work. She was a woman of amazing energy, but he’d seen it with his own mother when she entered the season Emma was in now: one day, hale and hearty; the next, frail and gaunt, and then gone.

  What a black day that would be! When Emma was in the kitchen, all was well with the world. In her light, Odell had found his way. Bebe, too, would leave in time—why would she not? She was a pretty girl, young and lively. Working for Bennie was just a stopgap until she got the itch to move on. He dreaded most the moment some handsome stranger walked through the café door, won Cathy’s heart, and took her and her son away. It was bound to happen. He hoped he was too old to work himself by then. He would sell the place before the buyer realized the primary reason for its success—and Bennie’s happiness—was gone.

  On New Year’s Day, 1988, as a sophomore, Trey led the undefeated Miami Hurricanes to the national championship. Throughout the season, all eyes in Kersey had been on the highly limelit quarterback it had bred, and details of his exploits appeared frequently in the sports section of the town newspaper in reprints of articles from the University of Miami’s campus publication. No tidbit pertaining to the star was unworthy of being mentioned. One such morsel buried in a feature on the homecoming activities of the university caught Cathy’s eye and broke her heart. A tradition at the university—equivalent to the lighting of bonfires at other schools—was the setting on fire of a wooden boat in the middle of Lake Osceola, around which the campus was built. Legend had it that if the mast stayed upright as it burned and sank, the Hurricanes would win the game. As part of the ceremony, starting players were to throw a personal article into the flames. It was reported that TD Hall had tossed in a quilt.

  After the final game in the Orange Bowl in which Miami defeated the country’s number-one-ranked team to win “The Game of the Century,” the national media discovered Cathy.

  A stranger strolled into the café between lunch and dinner days after the victory and ordered coffee. He was young—mid-thirties, Bennie guessed—pleasant looking, and well dressed. He carried the camera of a serious photographer around his neck, which he placed on the counter while he drank his coffee. Bennie’s brows drew together when he saw him studying Cathy over the rim of his cup. His gaze was not predatory but investigative. She had carried the baby into the dining room to give him a few minutes’ change of scene, since the man at the counter was the only customer that time of day.

  After a while, the man strapped the camera back on, lined it up, and said, “Miss?”

  Cathy, engrossed with her son, turned toward the voice, and the camera clicked.

  “Hey, what are you doing?” Bennie demanded, roused from his station. “She didn’t give you permission to take her picture.”

  “Are you Catherine Benson?” the photographer asked, ignoring Bennie.

  “What’s it to you?” Bennie said.

  Dandling the baby, Cathy said, “What if I am?”

  “Is that Trey Don Hall’s baby, and are you its mother?”

  Cathy whitened, and the man raised the camera again.

  Bennie hollered into the kitchen, “Odell! Come out here and bring your whip!”

  Aghast, shielding her son’s face with her hand, Cathy asked, “Who are you?”

  “I’m a freelance photographer. I’ve been hired to take pictures of you and your baby. I’ll make it worth your while. I—”

  Odell’s whip cracked on the floor beside him. The photographer jumped, but brazen gumption or professional reflex kept the camera focused on Odell drawing the whip handle back to lash forth again. The whip struck over the man’s head, lifting hair. Clicking furiously, the photographer backed away and out the door before Cathy could close her astonished mouth.

  Within days, the scene was splashed on the front pages of a grocery store tabloid under the headline SUPERSTAR’S LOVE CHILD. Pictures of Cathy’s shocked white face above the dark curly head of her son vied with Odell’s ferocious brandishing of his whip featured alongside inserts of a victorious Trey Don Hall after the Orange Bowl game.

  Publishing interest in the indiscretions of a nineteen-year-old football star and his teenage girlfriend died quickly, but the damage was done. Mabel Church nearly took to her bed from the shame, and in Coral Gables the scandal sheet tarnished somewhat the pride the Hurricanes took in their quarterback. Frank Medford called Trey into his office to account for himself.

  “Have you seen this?” the coach asked, pushing the tabloid feature on his desk toward Trey.

  Trey lifted it, puzzled, and his heart stopped when he saw the picture of Cathy, his first sight of her since he’d thrown her out of his aunt’s house a year and a half ago.

  “Oh, crap!” he said, reading the article accompanied by pictures of him and Cathy in happier days during their senior year. The photos had been copied from the school yearbook.

  “Any truth to the story?” Frank asked.

  “Cathy Benson was my girlfriend, but the baby’s not mine.”

  Frank looked at him like a judge hearing an automatic Not guilty from a defendant caught red-handed. “I didn’t call you in here to pry into your personal affairs, Trey, or to lecture you. I called you in here to advise you to keep your mouth shut about this. Say nothing—zip—to reporters that try to worm a reaction out of you. Your answer will be ‘No comment.’ You’re to go on about your business and ignore them. Got that?”

  “I got it, Coach.”

  Frank tapped the tabloid. “This kind of thing casts a long shadow, Trey, and can follow a player his whole career. It’s the sort of stuff that reporters love to file away and haul out as it suits them, especially when there’s a kid involved. Be prepared to be questioned about this situation from now on and for the girl to cause trouble later when you’re rich and famous.”

  “She won’t cause any trouble.”

  “She won’t wave a paternity test over your head for child support?”

  “No.”

  “How can you be sure?”

  “Because I know her.”

  Frank’s brows lifted. For two years he’d looked for clues to explain what had gone haywire during those few days Trey was home after summer conditioning that had reversed his affable, if sardonic, personality and sent his best friend into the priesthood. Frank remembered that Trey had mentioned a girl was involved, and now he’d bet his mother-in-law’s schnauzer that the beauty in the tabloid figured into a love triangle featuring him and John Caldwell.

  “When you’re financially able, do you plan to… do anything about the baby?” Frank asked.

  As usual when Frank trespassed into private territory, Trey remained silent, his impassive face and direct gaze implyin
g his plans were none of his coach’s business.

  Frank sighed. “The papers will paint you as a villain.”

  “Let them. If I support it, I’m saying I’m his father, and I’m not.”

  Frank dropped the tabloid into the trash can by his desk. “Well, then, I guess my final advice is let your conscience be your guide. Remember what I said about long shadows.”

  Trey left his coach’s office, his last words replaying in his ear. “Let your conscience be your guide.” Coach Medford did not believe him when he’d said the baby wasn’t his. Nobody would, but so what? He’d known this story would crop up, and he’d thought over the issue from front to back, side to side, and decided that if he was going to be branded a “villain” he’d rather it be for failing to do his duty by an illegitimate child than for his real sin. Last fall, he had intended to tell Cathy and John that he was sterile. The only stipulations were that John had changed his mind about entering the priesthood and Cathy still carried the torch for him. The first had not happened. John was in his second year of the novitiate, happy as a pig in mud, according to Aunt Mabel, and Cathy had… moved on. She’d transformed Bennie’s Burgers into something of a culinary wonder, and Trey was presumably dead to her. John was the baby’s godfather. It wasn’t as if the kid wouldn’t have a father figure in his life—a twist of irony there. Everybody seemed happy enough. What would happen if Trey suddenly confessed the truth and upset the applecart? John would have to leave the novitiate to marry Cathy, and—if Trey remembered anything about Catherine Ann Benson—she would always feel guilty for taking him away from his chosen calling.

  If the media gave TD Hall’s run-of-the mill screwup this kind of attention, what would it make of the deception he’d perpetrated on his best friend and the girl he’d professed to love? The public—and the Heisman committee—might forgive him for not taking responsibility for his child, especially since he claimed it wasn’t his, but not when they learned of the knowledge he’d deliberately kept to himself and the consequences that followed. He’d stood by and let his best friend become a priest unaware of the fact that the baby was his, and he’d prevented his girlfriend—also ignorant of the baby’s paternity—from marrying the real father of her child.

 
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