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Tumbleweeds, p.28
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       Tumbleweeds, p.28

           Leila Meacham
 

  “Come in, Betty!” he called, too sluggish to get out of bed.

  “Father?” Betty stuck her head curiously around the door. “You’re not up?”

  John rubbed his eyes. “Not quite. I had a sleepless night.”

  “You mean the part of it when you finally got to bed?” Betty set the tray on a table and poured a mug from a carafe of extra dark roast brewed just for him, her disgust plain. “I heard the phone ring around midnight. Don’t people realize you’ve got to get your sleep?”

  “I was awake,” John said. “I’m sorry if the ring disturbed you.”

  “I didn’t mention it out of concern for myself, Father.”

  “I know,” John said, propping himself up to take the mug. “You worry about me too much, Betty.”

  “And who else will?” She favored him with a hairline smile as she drew open the draperies, the most anyone could usually pry from her. John had rarely heard her laugh. Only he and her husband and those who had known her for many years understood why.

  “We’re going to have a guest with us for a few days, an old classmate of mine,” John said. “He’s arriving today and says he’ll be here in time for lunch. I hope the short notice won’t be a problem. I only learned he was coming last night.”

  “The midnight caller,” Betty said. “No, it won’t be a problem. The women’s auxiliary is sending out Eunice Wellborn and Bella Gordon to help me this morning. An old friend, you say?”

  “An old classmate,” John corrected. “I haven’t seen him since we graduated from high school. At least you don’t have to bother with breakfast for me. I have an early appointment in Kersey.”

  Betty waited to be told more, the name of the visitor at least, but she recognized that Father was waiting patiently for her to leave before getting out of bed in his boxers and T-shirt. “It would be no bother,” she murmured. She took the tray and quietly pulled the door shut behind her. Whoever it was, Father didn’t seem too keen on seeing him. A freeloader, she’d bet. Father let people impose on him too much.

  John threw off the covers and pushed his feet into slippers to go out onto his balcony. The coffee did not set well on his soured stomach, and his balcony presented a soothing view. It overlooked a large vegetable garden and livestock pens and corrals beyond where the children of Harbison House raised the animals for their FFA (Future Farmers of America) project. Felix, the orphanage’s pet dog, was eating his breakfast on the back porch steps, and all around the prairie, now in bloom, flowed toward a quiet, pastel infinity. An idyllic setting, but John had the sense of something building at a distance, unknown and unseen, that would soon threaten its tranquility, like a storm gathering just over the horizon.

  He remembered the last contact he’d tried to make with TD Hall. It was the summer of 1990, in Guatemala. John was working with the Jesuit Refugee Service at an especially dangerous time when the brutal government security forces had escalated its slaughter of political dissidents and their suspected supporters, among them the Jesuits. Thousands had had to flee their homes and country, and his task was to assist refugees in completing documents for political asylum and to record human-rights abuses. After days of hearing their appalling stories, of eluding death squads and battling the jungle’s steaming heat, mud, snakes, and mosquitoes, it had come as a respite in the evenings to write to his old buddy back in the States. John had not given up hope that eventually he and Trey and Cathy would reunite. Father Richard had told him that a sizeable check arrived yearly from an anonymous donor to be deposited in the scholarship fund set up in Donny Harbison’s memory—an indication that his old pal was still recoverable. Trey had not forgotten his promise made to John the night of their heart-to-heart after the district game. But one night John had risen straight up out of an exhausted sleep on his cot and from then on had never written to Trey again.

  It was one of those inexplicable moments when the subconscious reveals a truth that has heretofore been buried beneath a pile of denial. Trey was never coming home. He was as lost to him and Cathy as the origin of the Mayan civilization. Perhaps some night his subconscious might kick out the reason Trey had abandoned them and his child, but whatever the cause—real or imagined in that capricious head of his—it was enough to guarantee they’d probably never see Trey again. It was simply something John was certain of, like a twin knows instinctively that a mishap has befallen his womb mate. His letters, and even his prayers, sent with the hope that Trey would return to them, were pointless. He wrote at once to let Cathy know. She’d written back: “It’s all right, John. I let Trey go a long time ago.”

  So why was he coming home now?

  “Don’t bet on it, Tiger,” he’d said when John had told him it would be good to see him. Now what did Trey mean by that? What threat lurked behind those cryptic words?

  Loose ends to tidy up, he’d said. When had TD Hall ever cared about loose ends? Mabel Church had been a loose end, the aunt who’d raised him and done her best by him, and Trey hadn’t even come to her funeral. He hadn’t bothered about the loose ends of leaving a girl pregnant in 1986 with the son he’d never acknowledged. When Trey had been halfway into his celebrated career, a reporter had gotten hold of a school picture of him at eight years old that showed a remarkable likeness to a boy of the same age in his hometown rumored to be his son. Trey was quoted as saying: “The Texas Panhandle breeds a bunch of us long, tall, drink-of-water look-alikes. We’re as common as tumbleweeds.”

  Though she’d held her head high, John knew the implication had crushed Cathy and no telling what it had done to Will, but in the county it had boomeranged against Trey. It was one thing for a man to refuse to support his illegitimate child but another to deny the kid as his when everybody knew from his looks and the timing of his birth that he could only be the son of TD Hall. No wonder Trey hadn’t shown his mug in Kersey in twenty-two years.

  So why now? Was he coming home to claim Will at last? To woo Cathy again? The possibility of it turned John’s stomach. Cathy’s “past indiscretion” had been forgiven, as she sardonically referred to it. John liked the way she’d once phrased her restoration to the town’s good graces: “If you keep your head up long enough, eventually the floodwaters will recede, and you can walk to shore on dry land.”

  And indeed she had, as Trey would soon discover. Cathy was a vital contributor to the community, serving as president of the school board, a member of the city council, and a committeewoman on civic boards. Everybody adored her. She was lovelier than ever and owned a prosperous café hailed as one of the top small-town finds in the Southwest.

  The town took as much pride in her son as it had in him and Trey. John Will Benson had batted his baseball team to the state finals, losing in the last nip-and-tuck inning. “He’d have been a natural on a football field,” Coach Turner once confided with both regret and relief that Will had not followed in his father’s footsteps. Will could have gone to most any college on a baseball scholarship, but his academic achievements had earned him a free ride to Rice University. He had recently graduated with a petroleum engineering degree and had accepted a job in Delton at a regional office of the oil company for which he’d interned. While John and Cathy were thrilled to have the boy close by, she’d hoped her son would have selected a position in the company’s other offices scattered around the country and the world. “He needs to expand his horizons, to experience life beyond Kersey County,” she had said, but Will loved the Panhandle and planned to buy a ranch in the county someday and raise horses.

  So was Trey, forty, divorced, the glory days over, coming home to warm his backside at Cathy’s hearth?

  Another surge of unease, like an electrical shock, made John go inside, and he caught sight of himself in the glass door. He stepped back from it, running his hand through his hair, and inspected his reflection for the first time in years. He had regained much of the weight he’d lost in Central America. He’d come home looking as if a wind had raced through his body and sucked his skin to his bones,
but his muscle tone had been good and his body strong. Despite the years showing in his face, the gray in his sideburns, he could still see a trace of the looks that used to vie with Trey Don Hall’s. Overall, time had been relatively benevolent to him, but the rigors of his avocation had definitely left their mark. He wondered if the same was true of TD Hall.

  Going in to take his shower, John speculated what toll the years had taken on Trey after two failed marriages, messy divorces, legal battles, money problems, a serious concussion that took him from the game, and a nonstop life in the fast lane. Not much, John was willing to bet. Trey Hall had always lived a life impervious to consequences, and at forty his face and body probably proved it.

  As John always did when leaving Harbison House, he stopped by the kitchen to say good-bye to Betty and leave word where he could be reached. He knew she expected and appreciated the courtesy. It satisfied a certain maternal need when he told her where he would be for the day and when he would be home. “I’m going by St. Matthew’s to hear confessions after I leave Kersey, but I’ll be back in time to meet our guest,” he said.

  “And you’ll be where in Kersey, Father?”

  “At Bennie’s. I have to speak with Cathy Benson.”

  Betty’s lips cracked open in her thin smile. “So that’s the reason you won’t be eating breakfast here.”

  “Guilty,” he said. He heard the usual boisterous breakfast noise coming from the big dining room where the residents of Harbison House—ten children aged six to twelve, abandoned all—ate their meals. He was anxious to see Cathy and decided not to step in to say good morning. They would be all over him, begging him to play ball, check out their vegetable plots, animals, achievements at the easel, piano, and archery range. Felix, a mutt adopted from the highway, had been let in. John gave him his morning pat and headed out.

  He steered his truck down the drive that in June was littered with lacy white blossoms from two ancient mock orange trees flanking the gate. They fell like lazy snowflakes on the hood of his pickup as he passed under them, their gentle drift normally lifting his spirits, but they had no effect this morning. Trey had probably had a laugh years ago when Aunt Mabel told him that the Harbisons had turned their farmhouse over to the diocese as a home for unwanted children with the stipulation that Father John Caldwell be appointed its director. John had heard the sardonic amusement behind Trey’s remark last night, “That must be nice for you,” when he mentioned that the Harbisons helped him run the place.

  He’d been the pastor of St. Matthew’s less than a year when Lou and Betty Harbison made an appointment to speak with him. It was November, almost to the day they had found their son in the barn nineteen years before. John had dreaded the month’s arrival ever since, so ushering them into his parish office on a golden afternoon of the anniversary of their son’s death had increased his melancholia. He couldn’t imagine why they’d asked to see him. They lived devout lives.

  “How may I help you?” he’d asked.

  They’d presented their proposal, asking only that they be allowed to stay on in their home as housekeeper and overseer of the property.

  John had been dumfounded and struck with the blasphemous image of God in His heaven, observing the scene below in smirking amusement. “Why?” he asked. “Why would you give up title to your family home and serve as employees there?”

  “It’s for Donny,” they answered.

  “Donny?”

  “Our son,” Betty said. “Don’t you remember him, Father? You used to lay flowers on his grave. He… died when he was seventeen. His death was… an accident. He’d… be your age now.”

  She’d spoken haltingly, in obvious pain and embarrassment.

  “But he was a good boy,” Lou avowed in a tone urgent for John to believe him. “He was a devoted son.”

  “I have no doubt,” John said, clearing the obstruction from his throat. He pushed some papers aside and leaned forward, deciding in the flash of a second to risk everything—his reputation, his calling, his and Trey’s freedom—to give the Harbisons the assurance their grief cried for. “Your son needs no absolution for anything he may have done upon this earth,” he told them. “Let your hearts no longer be troubled. Donny died in a full state of grace. You do not need to sacrifice your home to atone for him.”

  They had stared at him in wonder, astounded by his insight into the root of their pain and the authority with which he spoke of a boy he’d barely known. John’s breath had held while he waited for the question that would have led him to confess everything.

  How can you be so sure?

  But they had accepted his pronouncement as typical of something a priest would say, and Betty had said, “Thank you for your confidence, Father, but we’ve made up our minds. If the bishop agrees, we wish to bestow our property to the diocese in memory of our son.”

  The bishop had agreed, and John had moved to the upper floor of the sprawling farmhouse while the Harbisons kept their old room and turned the rest of the space over to “Father John’s children,” the little castoffs who trooped in and out of their lives yearly.

  The change in his quarters and the enlargement of his pastoral duties had occurred almost four years ago. John had never been happier or more at peace in his life and work. The shadow of his old sin still lurked in the background, but he hardly felt its chill anymore. Some days he thought he was almost too happy, too at peace. Had TD Hall come home to change all of that?

  Chapter Forty-Three

  From the living room window of her former home, Betty Harbison watched Father John’s Silverado pull away. The almost-like-new pickup had belonged to a parishioner, now deceased, who had bequeathed it to the home. In years past, the parish vehicle had been a Lexus, donated by the late Flora Turner, but that was long before Father John’s time. Betty observed the truck passing under the mock orange trees and out the gate with relief that it had replaced Father’s old station wagon clunker. At least that was one prayer for his safety that God had answered. Others for his well-being she could not be sure of. She’d glimpsed the scars Father John had brought home from his days in Central America.

  Lost in nostalgia and memory, Betty remained at the window long past the disappearance of the pickup onto the road leading to the highway. How many Junes ago had she stood right here and watched her teenage son drive off in his father’s pickup and vanish behind a cloud of white, her heart in prayer for his safe return? He’d had his driver’s license for a year when he died. She’d had only one June to stand staring at the empty space where his truck had disappeared.

  “Father John off somewhere this morning?” her husband asked behind her.

  “To Kersey,” Betty said, blinking the wetness from her eyes and assuming her stoic expression. “We’re going to have company for a few days. He didn’t say who. I better go air out the guest room.”

  Lou caught her arm gently. “That feeling come over you again, Betty?”

  There was no hiding anything from Lou. He could sense when she was having one of those spells that could pierce as sharp and sudden as a knife thrower’s blade. “You’d think that after all these years…,” she said.

  “Sweet darling, time makes no matter mind to a sorrow like ours, but at least we’ve got Father John, same age as Donny would have been. God was good to give him to us.”

  Lou was right about that, she would have said, had the old wedge not lodged in her throat. At least they had Father John, a son to them in every way but one of birth. He had come to them as their parish priest after the nineteenth summer their boy had been gone. She and Lou had noted his concern for deserted and abused children and the lack of a facility in which to shelter them. One day they had come home from mass to their huge and empty house ringing with loneliness since Cindy had moved away to California with her husband and their children. Betty had said to Lou, “What if we offered this place to the Church as a home for unwanted children and asked for Father John to be its director?”

  Lou’s face had bright
ened as she hadn’t seen it in years. “Why not?” he’d said.

  So it was done. Father John had moved in with them and, together with the children, they had made a family. Gradually the ache in her grew less, the emptiness in her filled. A day did not arrive but that she didn’t think of Donny, but never a day passed that she did not give thanks to God for giving them Father John.

  JOHN HAD CALLED AHEAD to make sure Cathy would be available to speak in private with him. This time of the morning, she and Bebe were usually in a huddle to discuss the day’s business before supervising serving lunch to a packed crowd.

  “Of course, John, but what’s the occasion? You sound… mysterious.”

  “I’ll tell you when I see you, Cathy. In your office about nine?”

  She’d agreed and told him to tell Betty to go easy on his breakfast, that she’d have fresh cinnamon rolls and coffee waiting.

  A few minutes to the hour, he drove around to the back of the café and parked next to Cathy’s white Lexus. He’d driven past the front, taking in Bennie’s through Trey’s eyes, and wished he could see TD’s face when he saw the changes in the place. Even the partially walled-in rear entrance was a far cry from the days when Odell Wolfe used to come scrounging for a meal at the back door. In those days, the staff parking lot had been a storage area for overflowing garbage cans and old café equipment and a catchall for anything the wind blew in off the street.

  “The junk and smell keep other cars out,” Bennie had defended the looks of his personal parking space, but Cathy had cleaned it up, built an attractive shed for the trash cans, and put up a polite sign that read: PLEASE… STAFF AND DELIVERY ONLY, and the lot had been respected as off-limits to all other vehicles since.

  Except for his.

  John climbed the short flight of stairs and rang the bell. Multicolored snapdragons in large urns on each side of the stoop waved in the mild June breeze. He stuck the tip of an index finger into a velvety throat, but there was no easing of the apprehension that a simple creation of God’s usually induced. He sensed a gathering of shadows—those long, reckoning shades cast by old sins that time cannot disperse.

 
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