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Tumbleweeds, p.27
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       Tumbleweeds, p.27

           Leila Meacham

  “Your house is a firetrap,” Emma said, “and you might shoot me when I get up to go to the bathroom.”

  “It never hurts to be prepared,” Mabel sniffed. “And you’ll be sorry you didn’t stay with me if what is expected to happen tonight happens.”

  It was the quietest New Year’s Eve in Kersey’s recorded history. The world did not end and the Y2K bug did not materialize, but in the early-morning hours of 2000 Emma Benson died in her sleep. The café had closed for the holiday, and Cathy was home. She had gotten up early to make a French toast casserole for breakfast prior to her and Emma and Mabel settling down to watch the Rose Bowl Parade on television. Will would be off at the baseball diamond with friends.

  After a while, when Emma, always an early riser, did not respond to the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, Cathy knocked on her door. “Grandmother, coffee’s ready,” she called.

  No response. Cathy held her breath. She realized she had not heard the toilet flush. Quietly she opened the door to find the scene she’d long dreaded. Emma lay in her bed with her eyes closed and her hands interlocked peacefully on the coverlet, eternally beyond the reach of her granddaughter’s voice.

  A large black wreath was hung below the CLOSED sign of Bennie’s. The courthouse flag was lowered to half-staff. Cathy, her grief like a stone in her chest, held herself together for her devastated son and Mabel, who overnight seemed to have been robbed of most of her remaining years. Cathy suggested she call Trey to come home, but Mabel shook her head. “It would be a sacrilege to Emma’s memory for him to show up now,” she said. The morning of the funeral, Cathy discovered a magnificent arrangement of white gladiolas, Emma’s favorite, beside her casket with a card bearing Trey’s name and a simple inscription: Rest well, Miss Emma. John flew in from California but was able to be with them for only a few days. He’d promised a prisoner who had been transferred from Pelican Bay to San Quentin’s death row that he would walk with him to his execution.

  Drawing upon the legacy of Emma’s guidance and wisdom, Cathy concentrated on the future.

  “I HAVE TO SAY, Cathy, you’ve done one hell of a job with the place,” Daniel Spruill, president of the Kersey State Bank, said in praise of his mortgagee’s remodeling of Bennie’s. “What a contrast from the days when Gloria used to spit on her handkerchief to wipe off a tabletop before she’d even sit down.”

  He spoke of his deceased wife. Daniel had grown up in Kersey and graduated from high school seven years ahead of Cathy. He and Gloria had returned to his hometown after college and his marriage, Daniel to serve as vice president in his father’s bank and Gloria to assume a prominent role in society, such as it was in Kersey, Texas. Upon the senior Spruill’s death, Daniel had inherited his father’s position as president, becoming a widower when Gloria had died of cancer three years before. He and Cathy had been seeing each other since the day she’d sat across from his desk and explained her plans for the expansion of Bennie’s.

  That had been six months ago. It was December 2000. Cathy had been afraid that the slowdown in the economy owing to the dot-com bubble burst would affect her chances of a loan, but the bank president had assured her that his institution was only too grateful to accommodate her financial needs.

  “I couldn’t have done it without your faith in me,” Cathy responded to Daniel’s compliment.

  “Yes, you could have. Your faith in yourself would have been enough. I’m just happy to be a part of all this.” He swept a hand about the enlarged dining room, new buffet facilities, and expanded counter space before encircling her waist with his arm. They were alone in the dining room. Bennie’s had not yet reopened for business after the renovation. An open house was scheduled for tomorrow. “Do you have any idea what you mean to me?” he asked, his voice quiet, his lips close to her ear.

  Yes, she did. He was moving a little too fast for her, but as he’d put the question when he’d first expressed his feelings, “Who has time for the waiting game?”

  She did not love him in the way she’d hoped to love again, but he was kind and good and thought the world of her son. He had two of his own, college students, nice boys, and Daniel imagined them sharing holidays, going on trips and outings together—“having fun as a family!” He was handsome in a professorial way (his glasses had left permanent indentations on the sides of his nose) and was an adoring and adroit lover. He cherished in her the things that had been missing in his wife. Gloria had been described as emotionally insecure, spending money to atone for her deprivation as a handyman’s daughter, jealous and controlling, a woman who felt the need to acquire enviable possessions so that she would not feel inferior to her husband’s friends. She’d had no wish to travel and no curiosity outside the world of Kersey. She’d doted obsessively on her sons, to whom Daniel had taken a backseat.

  “I was simply the guy who paid the bills,” he said.

  There was a polite cough from the door of the kitchen. Cathy peered around Daniel’s lanky shoulder. “Yes, Odell?”

  The delivery truck is here, Miss Cathy.”

  “I’ll be right there.”

  She extracted herself from Daniel’s arms, her mind back to business. “I’m just hoping that now that I’ve built it, they will come.”

  They came. Wall Street’s panic did not deflect a steadily increasing customer base of local diners, travelers along Interstate 40 who’d read of Bennie’s, and Panhandlers inclined to drive long distances from occupying the tables and booths of the highly touted café in Kersey, Texas. Framed food critics’ reviews and menus autographed by celebrities began to appear on the wall. Cathy settled into her relatively prosperous life, disturbed only by the question of whether she was willing to give up the hard-earned, growing success of her business to marry. Daniel would expect her to sell Bennie’s. From his description of the life they’d lead, there would be no room for the day-to-day demands of running a restaurant. Their first and only argument was over the café.

  “New York, Cathy. We’re talking New York! Plays, restaurants, walks in Central Park, art galleries, the Waldorf-Astoria. Think of it—autumn in New York!” He waved Fodor’s Guide to the Big Apple before her.

  Cathy sighed. “I know.”

  “No, you don’t know!” Daniel slapped the Fodor’s down onto his desk. “How could you possibly know? You’ve hardly been anywhere outside Kersey County since you were eleven years old.”

  They were sitting in Daniel’s office in the bank discussing—or, rather, arguing—the prickly topic of Daniel’s upcoming trip to attend a banking conference in New York City. He wanted her to go, but the dates in question collided with bookings for events to be held in Bennie’s party room. Bebe couldn’t handle the number alone, and the special-events reservations were what kept Bennie’s in the black. It simply wasn’t possible for Cathy to be gone at such a time.

  She could feel the frustration and disappointment he must have felt many times when his wife refused to accompany him on business trips because of the children. “I mean,” Cathy explained, “that I know how wonderful it would be to go to New York. So what about this idea? Why don’t we go there on our honeymoon?”

  “What?” he said, his frown beginning to dissipate like a thundercloud when the sun breaks through. “What’s that?”

  Cathy smiled. “I accept your proposal. I’d love to marry you.” She was now sure. She loved Daniel, if not with the whole heart she’d given Trey, at least enough for her to know she was making the right decision for both of them. She was thirty-three. Her grandmother was gone, and Will would be leaving for college in three years. John was in Jamaica, and Trey was never coming home. The years stretched long and empty before her with only the café to fill her days. Marriage to Daniel would mean a move to the big house on the hill, the possibility of having another child, and relief from having to provide a living for her and her son. Most important, it would mean sharing her life and growing old with a man she respected and admired.

  He came from behind his desk, his fac
e glowing with happy astonishment. “You won’t change your mind while I’m gone?”

  “I won’t change my mind.”

  “Hallelujah!” He grabbed her up into his arms and swung her around, her feet a foot from the floor. He kissed her.

  “Now,” she said laughingly when he set her down, “will you please have your secretary make a copy of the conference schedule so that I can at least be with you in my thoughts wherever you are?”

  On the first day of his conference after he left, she dutifully checked where his meeting would be held. The World Trade Center, she saw, ninety-second floor in the North Tower. The date was September 11, 2001.

  Chapter Forty-One

  The gloom had moved in and settled, Trey reflected back, when Emma died on New Year’s Day, 2000. She’d been eighty-three and had suffered from a bad heart for years, so her death was not unexpected, but somehow the knowledge of that tough old lady being no longer around still made him sad. He could only imagine her loss to Cathy and his aunt. Miss Emma’s death had reminded him that Aunt Mabel’s days were numbered as well, and that made him sadder.

  “Why don’t you move your aunt here to live with us?” his second wife had suggested, the offer taking him aback. Mona’s usual preoccupation was with herself.

  “You’d go along with that?”

  “I’d go along with anything to make you fun again, less of a drag.”

  So it had been about Mona after all, but his aunt had turned him down.

  “No, dear, my home is here,” she’d said. She no longer asked him to visit, and she’d reply to his invitation to come for holidays that she was too old to fly by herself anymore, so the last time he’d visited with Aunt Mabel was the Christmas before John’s ordination. There had been moments after that, with a longing like a lump of coal burning in his chest, that he’d have given everything he possessed to go home again, hug his aunt and Miss Emma, put his arms around Cathy and John, and scatter a magic dust that would erase the past and they could all start over again. But Emma had died, his aunt had given up on him, John was off in Central America doing his priestly duty, and Cathy had fallen in love with a bank president. Every door that had once been open to him had closed.

  Why was it that he never saw things until it was too late?

  “Trey, are you listening to me? I just told you that you’re almost broke.”

  “I heard you,” Trey said. He was sitting across the desk from his wealth management advisor in the Carlsbad office of Merrill Lynch. It was September 2007. He did not have to look at the review his advisor had prepared to know the state of his finances or how they got that way. In his first five years in the league, he fell into the trap of most rookies who were suddenly paid five hundred thousand dollars every two weeks. It was difficult to maintain a financially conservative lifestyle, even though he was aware that the average career of a pro football player was three years and his salary was guaranteed for only a short time if he could not play.

  For the first four seasons, after taxes and his agent’s 6 percent cut, he’d spent money at a maniacal level, buying fancy cars, sailboats, his condo in Carlsbad, and one in Santa Fe, not to mention the tailor-made clothes, lavish parties, sky-high restaurant tabs, jewelry, and the cost of his first divorce.

  But after that, he began to invest his earnings. His goal was to have enough money when he retired to sail the world and never have to work again. He studied the stock and real estate markets and carefully analyzed the offers to invest in everything from restaurants to clothing lines to oil leases. He did everything right when it came to doing his homework, and still he blew it. Against the advice of the man before him, he transferred the millions in his blue-chip portfolio to stocks in computer software, telecommunications companies, and the Internet. In 1996, he saw his starter Yahoo! stock jump 155 percent on its first day of trading. His thirty-thousand-dollar investment in one company’s stock increased to a million in one year. How could he go wrong? The future was technology and the Internet, engines of wealth on the par of railroads, electricity, and the automobile. He did not foresee the danger of companies going public with only the prospect of future profits. Before the bubble burst and he witnessed shares that had been worth $244.00 dropping to $7.00, Mona sued him for divorce, cashing in her half of his investment portfolio when it was at its peak.

  In 2001, after his eleventh season with the Chargers, his contract was not renewed. The blow had come before the events of 9/11 and the stunning news that Cathy’s fiancé had perished in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The San Francisco 49ers picked him up as their second-string quarterback, but on his first play he lost his concentration and held the ball too long before catching a nearly paralyzing blow to the head that sidelined him with a concussion. Because of knee problems, he limped, literally, through the rest of the season, when San Francisco bid him adieu at the end of his one-year contract. He was thirty-four years old.

  For him, the game was over. He refused to make the pro circuit as a second stringer, sitting on the sidelines, competing for playing time like a hungry rookie, and he dusted off his business degree from the University of Miami. His name alone gained him interviews with executives of top corporations in the San Diego area, most of whom were tightening their belts because of the Silicon Valley debacle and the following terrorist attacks that sent the stock markets tumbling again. None of the positions he tried suited him until finally he was hired within the last year as a fund-raiser for a nonprofit organization. He liked the charity work and people, mostly dedicated volunteers, and for the first time unashamedly enjoyed using his star status and charisma to pump money out of the well-heeled to relieve the suffering of the less fortunate. There were times, after a successful campaign, he wished John could see him accept the check that had resulted from the employment of his magnetic powers. What do you think of these apples, Tiger!

  “At least you have no debt,” his broker was saying, “and if you sell your condo—”

  “I’m not selling my condo,” Trey interrupted. “That’s not an option.”

  “Well, if you continue to work, you should be able to live in… reduced but certainly satisfactory circumstances.”

  If he continued to work. He had an appointment with a doctor in San Diego right after he left here today. He’d been having headaches, blurred vision, for some time, and they seemed to be getting worse. He hoped the problem was not the result of that last doozy of a concussion he’d suffered. If so, he’d deal with it. Headaches, dizzy spells, memory loss were the price of admission to play on Sundays in a sport built on and driven by violence.

  Rain slashed at his car windows when he drove into the office parking lot of an internist he’d researched on the Internet. He’d chosen to go to a stranger rather than to his old sports medicine doctor, where members of the media hung out to catch and snap famous athletes on their medical visits. He chose for his to remain unreported.

  When he turned off the ignition, he sat a few minutes watching the rain through the window of his BMW, his hands tight on the wheel. Then he drew a deep breath and pushed open the door. To hell with an umbrella. If getting soaked was the worst that happened to him today, he’d welcome it.

  A physician’s assistant took a history of Trey’s symptoms followed by a neurological exam that tested his vision, balance, coordination, and mental status. After that he was sent for a CT scan and MRI of his brain. When it was explained that in order to assure accurate pictures, he would have to lie absolutely still and strapped to a moveable examination table that would slide through a closed-sided imaging chamber, his issues with claustrophobia came surging back. He would have turned and walked away if not for the technologist who treated the famous San Diego quarterback—“ you’re my hero, Mr. Hall!”—with such respect and reverence.

  “Think of the most beautiful time in your life, and it will all be over before you know it,” he said to Trey as he injected a special dye into his vein.

  Trey thought of the night he
’d spent with Cathy after the junior prom.

  When it was over, he waited an hour before the technician returned to the sitting room. “A radiologist will analyze the images and send a signed report to your primary-care physician, Mr. Hall,” he said. “You’ll hear something in about three days.”

  It was less than twenty-four hours before he was summoned back to the internist’s office. The doctor explained the results of the tests and said afterwards, “I’m giving you a list of the finest physicians in our area specializing in the treatment of your disease, Mr. Hall.” He pushed a sheet of alphabetized names across his desk. “As you can see, there are ten, all located at the cancer center here in San Diego. Personally, if I were you, I would choose the second from the bottom.”

  Trey looked at the name he indicated with the tip of his pen: Dr. Laura Rhinelander, neuro-oncologist.



  Chapter Forty-Two

  Father John Caldwell woke abruptly from a bad night’s rest. He had not been able to get to sleep after the brief, cryptic, out-of-the-blue midnight telephone call from his onetime best friend, Trey Don Hall. He had gone to bed feeling the shock of having picked up the phone to hear the voice of a man he hadn’t heard or seen personally in twenty-two years. What was more, Trey would be arriving in Kersey today. John had tossed and turned all night wondering what could be bringing Trey back to his hometown after so long an absence. John still couldn’t buy that it had anything to do with the sale of Mabel Church’s house. Finally, toward morning, he had fallen asleep, only to drop into the morass of a nightmare that had jolted him awake with his mouth dry and his heart pounding. He realized that part of the drumming in his ear was due to his housekeeper, Betty Harbison, knocking on his bedroom door, bringing him his morning coffee.

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