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Tumbleweeds, p.24
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       Tumbleweeds, p.24

           Leila Meacham

  What was even worse—much worse—was allowing the kid to grow up believing Trey Don Hall was his father.

  When the media got wind of that, and they would, what kind of shit would they make him out to be? His career would be over, maybe not the game but the parts of it he loved—the respect from coaches and fans, the camaraderie and loyalty from his teammates. Talk about a long shadow! It would follow him all the days of his life.

  For a minute, looking at Cathy’s picture, the baby so cute, Trey had felt a pang of conscience. He’d tried to forget her face and figure, but the photo brought every lovely detail back to him. She looked out of place in a café with a jukebox in the background. She ought to be wearing a white coat in a lab somewhere, studying to become a doctor. He never passed the medical campus with its renowned Jackson Memorial Hospital but that he didn’t tamp down the memory of how much she’d looked forward to attending classes there. Sometimes he felt a spike of anger at the career she’d screwed herself out of—literally. It was still a wonder to him that—because of his unaccountable behavior—she and John had not figured out that the baby wasn’t his and could only be John’s. They’d gone to bed together, hadn’t they?

  It was that gall Trey still tasted that locked his conscience back into its dungeon. Cathy and John had destroyed all he’d loved. Football was the only thing in his life true and steady. It was all that was left for him to care about, and he wouldn’t sacrifice it for anything or anybody. He already had one shadow trailing after him, one he could easily outrun if Novice John Caldwell did not listen to his conscience.

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  The invitation arrived in May when the Panhandle’s last cold front yielded to the first mild day of a late spring. From the post office Emma immediately drove to Bennie’s for Cathy to read it, and asked the inevitable question as her granddaughter drew it from its thick envelope, “Where has the time gone?”

  Yes, indeed, where? Cathy studied the richly embossed Jesuit logo on the invitation’s cover, but the question wasn’t where time had gone but what it had left in its wake. For John, it was the fulfillment of his dream.










  For Cathy, the thirteen Mays since she and John and Trey had graduated from high school had brought blessings, but not the ones she’d planned to enjoy nine springs shy of forty.

  But this invitation was not about the short circuits of her life but about the man who had persevered in spite of his. She stood before the window of her office, swelling with pride for John’s accomplishment. She lifted her face to the spring sunshine and sent her thoughts skyward as if she were releasing a bird to carry her congratulations to his ears. I’m so proud of you, John.

  “I’ll be on my way,” Emma said, relying heavily on her cane as she rose from a chair in Cathy’s office. “I knew you’d want to see the invitation as soon as it came. I imagine Mabel and Ron Turner and, of course, Father Richard received theirs. What would you say to having a little party to celebrate the event and discuss the possibility of all of us carpooling to Amarillo and flying to New Orleans together? We’ll need two cars to accommodate the luggage.”

  “I’d say that was a great idea.”

  “We can all stay at the St. Charles. That’s where your grandfather and I honeymooned.”

  “Sounds good.”

  “I’ll call everybody when I get home and see what they have to say about the idea.”


  “Catherine Ann Benson, I’m reading your mind like a large-print book. You’re wondering if Trey Don Hall was sent an invitation.”

  Cathy’s sheepish smile admitted her grandmother’s perception. “And Bert Caldwell, too,” she said.

  “I’m sure John has no address for Bert, but I do know that he asked Mabel for Trey’s. What will you do if he shows up?”

  Cathy gave her grandmother a wry look. “You have a suggestion in mind?”

  “Oh, my, yes, but I wouldn’t want the mother of my twelve-year-old great-grandson arrested for assault.”

  “I don’t think we have to worry. Trey will not show up.”

  Cathy was certain of that. After her grandmother left, Cathy remained at the window overlooking the staff parking lot to watch her grandmother get into her car. Emma, now eighty-three, had been the reason Cathy had laid her final dream of becoming a doctor forever to rest. There had been a window of opportunity six years ago when Bennie, having his late-afternoon caffeine fix and chatting about the day’s receipts, had let his cup slip to the floor and grabbed his chest. Despite all efforts from her and Odell and Bebe to revive Bennie, he had died of heart failure within minutes. Cathy had been shocked to learn that in his will, but for his family home, Bennie had named her the sole beneficiary of his worldly goods. The house he bequeathed to Odell.

  By then, Emma had retired her apron and a local graduate from the culinary school at Canyon College had taken over her cooking duties. Cathy’s son was six years old, a perfect time in his young life to introduce him to a new home before his father’s fame sullied his school years. She would sell Bennie’s and move to Dallas, where she would take premed classes at Southern Methodist University. It was possible that she could graduate with a medical degree before she reached her fortieth birthday.

  But Emma, too, was diagnosed with heart disease, within the month of Bennie’s demise. In despair, Cathy watched the window close. She could not go off and entrust her grandmother to the dubious attention of the local caregivers, and moving her to a small apartment in an unfamiliar environment with her six-year-old grandson while Cathy worked toward a degree would have been even more detrimental to Emma’s frail health.

  Sadly, Cathy withdrew the FOR SALE ads from commercial publications, perversely comforted by the fact she’d received no interested buyers of the property anyway.

  Emma, knowing Cathy’s habit of standing at the window until she’d gone, waved as she pulled out of the parking lot. Cathy never missed an opportunity now to say good-bye. She went back to her desk, disgusted at her increased heartbeat that occurred whenever she thought of Trey in a certain way. Most times, he was a blank figure in her memory. She had trained herself to give him no face, voice, figure, mannerisms, even when she looked at her son. From the moment he was born, she’d looked beyond the obvious physical characteristics of the man with whom she’d conceived Will to those uniquely their son’s, and she’d discovered an abundance of them. To her amazement, she’d found that Will—in every way that counted—was very much unlike his father.

  But sometimes, when Trey’s name cropped up or she caught a picture of him in the newspaper or on the TV screen, heard a scrap of gossip about him, her breath would catch and a certain feeling would plunge right through her. He was suddenly inside her head as if he’d never left her—“dance with me, my funny valentine.”

  She read the invitation again. What would she do if Trey showed up at John’s ordination? She hadn’t seen Trey in the flesh in almost thirteen years. He had never laid eyes on their son, not even from a photograph. She had Mabel Church’s word on that. “It breaks my heart not to show him a picture of my great-nephew, but I declare, Cathy, I’m afraid that if I did, Trey would never speak to me again, he’s so determinedly indifferent to the child.”

  Not to wonder, the narcissistic jerk. The question was what his son would do or say—how would he react?—when he came face-to-face with Trey. Will had first learned who his famous father was at four years of age. Cathy had always thought it ironical and terribly sad that Will had felt the abandonment of a parent at the same age as Trey. Unti
l then, though his visits were few and far between, John had filled the man role in Will’s life, bolstered by Bennie and Odell Wolfe.

  “Where does my daddy live?” Will had asked.

  Cathy would never forget the Sunday afternoon in November at the height of football season when he posed the question. He had come in from playing with a group of boys a few years older, and his question had made clear the topic of their sandlot talk. The moment she’d dreaded had arrived. Her son’s dark hair was tousled, his cheeks were a rosy pink from the cold, and in his windbreaker and jeans and tennis shoes with the laces untied he had never looked more like the poster child of every parent’s dream of a perfect little boy. He was too big for her to pick up, so she’d patted her lap and he’d crawled into it, smelling of the exertion of play, heavenly to a mother’s nose, and she’d enclosed him in the safety of her arms to deliver the hurt to come.

  “He lives in California,” she said. “He plays football for the San Diego Chargers.”

  Will quizzed her with his luminous dark eyes, round and innocent beneath thick, curly lashes. “Why doesn’t he live here?”

  “Because he chooses to live there.”

  “Doesn’t he love us?”

  “I believe he would if he could, but he lacks something inside him that would make that happen.” She’d swiped Will’s nose playfully with her finger, fighting the swelling in her throat. “You know your Hess toy truck that we had to buy special batteries to make run? Well, that’s what’s lacking in your father—a special kind of battery.”

  “Can we buy him one?”

  “No, darling. That kind of battery is not for sale.”

  His little-boy face had grown reflective. He bit his lip. “Will he ever come to see me?”

  She’d coughed to keep her windpipe from closing. “Maybe someday… when he grows up.”

  The day had never come. Trey’s star rose in the NFL, and Will, a natural-born athlete, grew up in the shadow of his father’s fame under the watchful eyes of those in town who hoped to see him take the field as quarterback in the spitting image of Trey Don Hall. Cathy would always be grateful to Ron Turner for influencing Will to concentrate on his real love—baseball. From the time he could pick up a bat, he had headed for the baseball diamond, leaving it to his buddies to suit up in pads and helmets for the Pop Warner league. At twelve, he had established quite a local reputation as hitter and right fielder.

  “Why don’t you take a paternity test and sue the son of a bitch for child support?” Bebe said, the heated suggestion also voiced by Bennie and even her grandmother. Cathy had refused. She wanted nothing from Trey that had to be coerced, and she was beginning to detect in her son a streak of his mother’s pride. Odell summed it up best: “Better for him to do without now than be in debt to his father later.”

  Reporters nosed around occasionally, one catching Will on the playground with questions of how it felt not to be acknowledged by his famous father. A quick-thinking teacher had telephoned Sheriff Tyson, who showed up before the reporter could make his getaway and cited him for disturbing the peace.

  At those times, Cathy hated Trey Hall and would have wished she’d never laid eyes on him if those she loved were not in some way connected to him.

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  Trey set the invitation aside on his desk, a stinging sensation behind his eyes. Damn, Tiger, you did it! It had taken John—what?—twelve years to get his name on that invitation. Aunt Mabel had kept him informed of John’s whereabouts and activities after his letters stopped coming. The last one had been mailed from Guatemala in the summer of 1990, in which he’d described the squalor of the massive garbage dump on the outskirts of the capital where tens of thousands of children and their families lived. “You would not believe the poverty,” he wrote. “My mission here is to assess how best the Church can serve these people—get them food, medicine, fresh water, while ministering to their spiritual needs.” It had been a time when the world news section of the San Diego Union-Tribune was reporting the ruling regime’s unconscionable acts of terror against Guatemalan citizens, priests and nuns in particular. In that year alone two hundred thousand Guatemalan citizens were slaughtered, and while John was there, a number of indigenous people were massacred in the plaza of Santiago Atitlan, where he was temporarily staying in the rectory of a priest who had been murdered for opposing the death squads.

  “I’m doing my best to keep my head down and my faith up,” John’s letter had stated. “It’s not an easy balance, and I have my anxieties, believe me. It’s sort of like the feeling I used to get when I was reaching for a first-down ball and knew a two-hundred-pound linebacker was a grunt away.”

  Trey had yearned to write him back and tell him to get his damn butt out of there, but of course he didn’t. He wrote a check instead and sent it anonymously to the Catholic Relief Fund for Guatemala. After that he searched every mail delivery for a letter from John and when none arrived, crazy with worry—surely Aunt Mabel would have told him if something had happened to John?—Trey had telephoned her for news. John had managed to get out of Guatemala with his hide, she’d told him, and next summer he was to be sent to India, where he hoped to meet Mother Teresa. Meanwhile, he was teaching at a Catholic high school in New Orleans and coaching football.

  Trey had felt a deep loss when John stopped writing and could guess at a number of reasons why he had. One, John had given up trying to lure him back into the fold, presumably to Cathy’s side. She was still unmarried, and her baby was almost four years old. Maybe John had come to realize that the friend he’d sacrificed so much of his soul for wasn’t worth his effort and time. That thought made Trey’s nerve ends stand on end. If that was the cause of John pulling out on him, what was to keep him from going to the authorities—and the Harbisons—with the truth of that November afternoon? Or maybe John had simply grown tired of receiving no response from him, or he’d gotten too busy to write, or he thought he didn’t care to hear from him. None of his speculations quite fit the friend Trey remembered. Once in John’s heart, always in John’s heart. He was tenacious when it came to holding on to people he loved.

  At the time, Trey had just signed with the San Diego Chargers and was looking forward to living the lifestyle of the rich and famous or, rather, the grossly overpaid and notorious. He’d lost all contact with home except for the tidbits Aunt Mabel fed him of local happenings and people, including Cathy’s childhood friend from California, Laura Rhinelander. She had entered medical school. He could imagine how the information had affected Cathy. He’d felt for her feelings, and the blues had trailed him around all day like a bad dream he couldn’t shrug off.

  Rufus died that year. The news opened the floodgates. It was like a lever had been pulled, and all the sadness Trey had kept dammed up poured out in his grief for the dog. He’d always thought of Rufus as belonging to him, and Aunt Mabel had told him that the dog never failed to perk his ears and run from room to room looking for him when he heard his voice on television. What bothered Trey the most was not being with Rufus to say good-bye. As the years passed, Laura Rhinelander graduated from medical school, Cissie Jane married and divorced, Bebe Baldwin stayed on at Bennie’s but was promoted to manager. Gil Baker came home to help his father run the family’s feedlot, Ron Turner, who’d not had a championship season since 1985, retired under duress, and Miss Whitby, thirty-seven, unmarried, and still a scatterbrain, was killed in a car accident.

  A vortex of memories had spun through Trey’s brain at the report of her death. “Hall, what the hell is the matter with you today?” his quarterbacks coach had yelled at practice the day he learned. “What’s eating you, son?”

  His coach had caught him emotionally and mentally in the back row of Miss Whitby’s homeroom the January day in 1979 when Cathy walked into the room. “There’s been a death in the family,” he’d said.

  It was 1995, and he was twenty-seven. No female connection had worked since Cathy. He’d been married briefly to a model who
grew tired of the walls she’d failed to scale and in and out of relationships with women he dumped as soon as he grew weary of them, a frequent occurrence. He had established a reputation as one of those high-profile bachelor athletes to steer clear of if a girl didn’t wish to be chewed up like a delicious plum and tossed away like a pit. Those who traded in gossip of famous sports figures never bothered to examine the possible cause of his fickleness that other superstars who attracted girls because of their fame and money understood. Only Cathy had loved him for himself alone.

  Aunt Mabel had not mentioned her or her son’s name to him since Trey’s freshman year in college. When she’d visit him in California, the Bensons were never brought up, but in regaling him of the latest goings-on in Kersey their exclusion was as conspicuous as the missing page of a book. He forgot the faces and bodies and names of the girls who flitted in and out of his life, but Cathy’s remained inerasable, as persistently stuck in memory as the lines of a poem he’d memorized in grade school.

  Cathy’s son would be twelve by now. He and Cathy were sure to attend the ordination service.

  “Mind if I come in?”

  Trey batted the moisture from his eyes. Yes, he did mind, but she was nicer than the usual girls and she’d been thoughtful to make coffee. “Reading your mail?” she asked, setting a cup before him. She wore a loose robe over a teddy, and he hoped she didn’t invite herself to sit on his lap and play with his hair.

  “Uh-huh. I didn’t get to it last night.”

  She grinned at him. “You did have other things on your mind.”

  He did not rise to the insinuation, and to his annoyance she picked up the invitation. “What an impressive cover. What do the initials A.M.D.G. and the dissecting cross mean?”

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