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Tumbleweeds, p.29
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       Tumbleweeds, p.29

           Leila Meacham

  Cathy opened the door. As always, the sight of her stirred something tender inside him. Once it had been desire, unrequited and unrevealed, a secret between him and his groin, but he had expunged that longing years ago. Now, only the deep and abiding love of friendship remained. She wore the day uniform of the café: a cornflower-blue denim painter’s smock embroidered with yellow daisies, the trademark colors of her dining establishment.

  “Come into this house, Father John,” she said, using her grandmother’s old form of greeting that held just a hint of the teasing she couldn’t seem to resist when calling him by his title. “I’m dying to hear why I’ve taken precedence over the homily you usually write on a Friday morning.”

  He could not lift his mood to match her bantering tone. “What have you done with Bebe?” he asked, entering an office whose sunny yellow walls, abundance of houseplants, and white window shutters gave it the pleasing charm of a morning room in a southern mansion.

  “She’s taken a deposit to the bank. I told her to take her time.” Cathy eyed him, looking puzzled. “I can see you’re going to keep me in suspense.”

  He could not bring himself to tell her yet. He took a seat before her desk, where neat stacks of paperwork had been laid aside to make room for a coffee butler and plate of the café’s famous yeast cinnamon rolls. “I see from the number of cars out front that the coffee wing is a success,” he said, alluding to the new addition set apart from the dining room that Cathy had built as a place for local retirees and businessmen, farmers, and ranchers to congregate for mid-morning coffee. Cathy had explained it as a gesture to make up for the time she had to kick Bennie’s cronies to Monica’s and the courthouse benches. Bullshitters, Bebe called them. They served and cleaned up after themselves and were on their honor to pay for the coffee and cinnamon rolls they consumed. The only other stipulation was that they were to be gone by eleven o’clock, when the café opened and the space was needed for an overflow lunch crowd.

  “It’s one of the wisest business decisions I’ve ever made,” Cathy said, sitting down behind her desk. “I had no idea the room would be in such instant demand as a meeting place. It’s been booked through December and should pay for itself in a year.” She set their cups into saucers. “You’ll have to pop your head in and say hello before you leave. The men will love it.”

  “If I have time,” John said. “I’m a little pressed for it this morning.”

  Cathy unscrewed the top of the coffee butler to release its pressure, and steam poured from the spout. “Why is that?”

  “I’m hearing confessions at ten and then I’m meeting a guest at Harbison House for lunch.”

  “Oh? Who?”

  He reached forward and took the thermos from her to prevent a spill burning her hand. “Trey Don Hall.”

  Her lips parted. Her face went still, and he wondered what thoughts would flow into that sensible head once the shock cleared. Did she still care for Trey? John did not know—hadn’t wanted to know. He’d wondered if she’d been disappointed two years ago when Trey had not come for his aunt’s funeral.

  “Trey called last night, late, or I would have alerted you then,” he said. “He told me he was coming to dispose of Aunt Mabel’s things and to meet with the Tysons about the sale of her house. Deke is retiring to Kersey and wants to buy it.”

  Cathy retrieved the thermos and poured two cups. “He has to come in person to do that?” she asked, the pot only barely shaking. “He couldn’t send one of his minions?”

  John shrugged. “I asked myself the same question.”

  “Did he have anything else to say?”

  John repeated the brief midnight conversation.

  Cathy handed him his cup, her demeanor calm, but… below the serene surface the turbulence of hidden rapids? John wondered. “Loose ends… What do you suppose he meant by that?” she asked.

  “Your guess is as good as mine.”

  John watched her get up, still slim and desirable at forty, her straight posture and the denim wedges making her appear taller than her given height. He and Trey had towered at her sides, a pair of oversubstantial bookends with a small volume of verse slipped between. She adjusted a set of shutters to allow in greater light, but more to compose her feelings, he thought.

  “The bastard, John,” she said quietly, staring out the window. “No telephone calls, no response to my letters, no birthday or Christmas cards, no money sent for our care, no acknowledgment of his son’s achievements or graduations, no inquiries concerning our welfare. It was as if Will and I never existed. If we’re the loose ends he’s come to tidy up, he’s twenty-two years too late.”

  “Are you sure, Cathy?”

  She turned from the window, the sunlight setting her hair aglow. His breath caught at her loveliness, and he saw her beauty as Trey would see it—irresistible. “You think I’m still in love with him, don’t you—that all he has to do is crook his little finger and he’s back in my pants.”

  “The thought had occurred to me.”

  Her eyes flashed, allowing a glimpse behind the mask. “He hurt my son. I could never get past that, John.”

  “Even if… the desire is still there?”

  She turned back to the window. “A fair question. I’ll repeat what you said to Bebe when you told her you were going to Loyola to become a priest and she warned you’d have a hard time beating off the girls.”

  He frowned, trying to recollect his words. “What did I say?”

  “You said: ‘I guess I have to find that out.’ ”

  It was not the reassurance he’d hoped for. “Bebe has a loose tongue, and you have a long memory,” he said.

  She returned to her desk. “Exactly. That’s why you don’t have to worry that I’ll ever let Trey Don Hall hurt me or Will again.”

  “I don’t suppose you and Will could go away for a few days….”

  She gave him a look that made him wish he hadn’t offered the suggestion. “No, of course not,” he said, and sighed. “A bad idea. Not your style at all.” Bebe had returned from the bank. He could hear her joshing with the coffee drinkers who were clearing out for the lunch crowd. He stood, realizing he had not touched the plate of cloud-light cinnamon rolls he’d have usually wolfed down. “I’ll call you when I learn Trey’s plans.”

  “They may not include Will and me at all,” she said.

  He caught a plaintive note in her tone, and his heart constricted. Cathy might try to deny it, but Trey was still in her blood. “Stay close to a phone,” he advised.

  Chapter Forty-Four

  When John had left, Cathy remained at her desk and took several deep, rhythmic breaths just in case there should be a mild recurrence of her early mutism. She’d researched the disorder and learned that the symptoms—fast heartbeat, tense muscles, queasy stomach—are a part of a “fight-flight” response caused by a rush of adrenaline and other chemicals throughout the nervous system that prepare the body to make a quick getaway from danger. The trick for coping with it was to allow time for the thinking part of the brain to process the situation and evaluate whether the perceived threat was real and, if so, how to handle it. There were techniques for that—cognitive and physical exercises—but she didn’t need them.

  Trey Don Hall presented no threat. She must believe that. He could not hurt her or her son again. Trey’s charm would not win them over. She hadn’t experienced the symptoms of her childhood condition since her first day of attending Kersey Elementary School, and she wasn’t about to start now. The sensations she was feeling were related only to her fantasy coming true of Trey Don Hall one day strolling into the café they used to call the grease bucket to find it transformed into the spotless dining establishment of rave reviews it was today and her its highly respected owner. She’d imagined his astonishment as he tried to reconcile his last memory of the shattered, penniless, pregnant girl he’d left behind to the successful businesswoman she was today, but it had been some time since she’d pictured their encounter. When Trey ha
dn’t come home to attend Mabel Church’s funeral but sent flowers instead, she’d put that image out of her mind for good. Enraged at his indifference to his aunt’s death, his total disregard for her memory, Cathy had looked at her nineteen-year-old son standing next to her at the burial and been thankful he’d been spared his father’s utter callousness. Wishing the bastard to burn in hell was the last thought she’d had of TD Hall.

  Now suddenly, at the very mention of his name, her heart was beating fast, her stomach had tied in knots, and she was wondering what she should be wearing when he walked through the café door. Not smart, girl, not smart at all. Whatever on-the-road-to-Damascus light Trey may have seen back in San Diego, it had happened too late for her and Will. They didn’t need or want Trey’s used-up life. She was way beyond having to accept the dregs of an empty cup.

  Still, though, she’d like to see him again. She’d like him to see Will. Not to start anything or to make up for the years lost. She wanted Trey to see what he’d missed, what he could have had, what would have endured after the victories were over, the money spent, the knees gone.

  Because to this day, despite his narcissistic tendencies, she thought the two of them would have made it if she hadn’t gotten pregnant when she did. He had loved her, selfishly perhaps but entirely, and she still believed that given time, he would have accepted children into their lives.

  Or maybe not. Aunt Mabel had once remarked, “Looks like our Will is the only great-nephew I’m ever going to have.” Her implication had been clear: In Trey’s two marriages, both of his wives had remained childless.

  But still, Cathy couldn’t let go of the feeling that she and Trey would have been different. Theirs was not the typical high school romance. Even those disapproving of their teenage intimacy had seen something special, almost spiritual, in the way they were together and had been since the day she’d walked into Miss Whitby’s sixth-grade homeroom and stood mutely to be introduced. “Let her sit here, Miss Whitby.” Cathy had never been able to forget that boyish command cutting through the charged silence, the intense gaze, the long arm in the flannel shirt pointing to the seat next to him.

  Was Trey arrogant enough to believe she’d never married because her heart still belonged to him? Aunt Mabel would have told him of her engagement to Daniel, but would Trey have thought she had merely settled? Cathy let out a short, ironic laugh. He might have been right about that, but she was sure it would come as a shock to Trey Don Hall to learn that the only man she loved now and would want to marry wore a priest’s collar.

  There was a soft tap on the door. “Cathy? Okay to come in?”

  “Yes, Bebe, come in.” When her manager entered carrying empty money pouches, Cathy said, “You’ll have to do without me for an hour or so, Bebe. I’m driving out to Morgan Petroleum to see my son.”

  GLANCING OUT THE WINDOW of his boss’s office, Will Benson halted in his report of the test samples he’d taken of oil-bearing rock layers at one of the company’s drilling sites. He had just watched his mother’s white Lexus pull into the Morgan Petroleum Company’s parking lot. His boss looked out the window to see what had arrested Will’s gaze. “Why, there’s your lovely mother,” he said. “What do you suppose has brought her out here? I hope nothing’s wrong.”

  “Me, too,” Will said, his heart leaping. His mother was still in her café smock. “I’d better go find out.”

  “Sure enough. We can take care of this later.”

  Will hurried to meet Cathy in the reception room. His first thought was that his mother had come to tell him the bad results of her annual physical last week. Each year he held his breath until she telephoned to say she’d been given a clean bill of health. This time she had not called. He could think of nothing else that would draw her thirty miles from Kersey to the place he worked, and shortly before the noon rush at Bennie’s.

  She was talking to a geologist who’d held the door open for her, and Will searched her face for a preliminary sign to prepare him for his worst fears. He saw none. His mother was asking the man about his wife and his new baby. Her face and voice were unstrained, but that could be misleading. His mother never gave away anything in public.

  Before his co-worker could haul out his wallet to show her pictures, Will crossed his arms over his chest and stared at him so pointedly, the man took the hint and moved on.

  “Mom, what are you doing here?” he said when the man had left.

  Cathy smiled, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “John Will, is that any way to treat a new father or a tone to use with your mother?”

  He looked worriedly into the face that meant the world to him. “What’s wrong?”

  “May we go into your office?”

  “Sure,” he said. Something was definitely wrong. If it was cancer, it should have been caught in time. His mother took care of herself and was in otherwise excellent health, and nowadays the medical world could perform miracles. Whatever it took, he’d see that she got it. His voice tense, he said to the secretary, “Linda, will you call rig six and tell them I’m going to be a little late getting out there?”

  “Of course, John Will,” she said, with a teasing emphasis on his first name. “Anything for you.”

  “Pretty girl,” Cathy commented as she followed her son down the narrow hallway to his broom closet, he called it, in the rear of the building. New to the company, he had yet to earn his stripes for one of the larger offices boasting picture windows. She loved the grace with which he carried his long-legged frame and wore his clothes—mostly khakis and denim shirts for his job but always immaculately starched and ironed. “Is she married?”

  “Yes, Mom, she’s married,” Will answered, his jaw taut, and opened the door. “Now tell me what’s wrong.”

  Reading his concern—only then realizing what he must be thinking—Cathy pressed her hand to his cheek. “Oh, Son, it’s not what you suspect. If I were any healthier, they’d have to preserve me in formaldehyde. I got the results of my physical only this morning and didn’t have a chance to call. I’ve come about another matter.”

  Will let out his breath. “Okay, then what?”

  “Maybe you’d better sit down to hear this, darling. I’ve come with news that may shock you.”

  Oh, God. His mother was getting married—to that twice-divorced oilman from Dallas who’d stopped by the café last spring and instantly gone crazy over her. Will liked him well enough, but there wasn’t a man in the world good enough for his mother unless it was Father John.

  “Your father is coming back to town,” she said. “He called John last night and told him he’d be in Kersey at noon today. He’s come to close out his aunt’s house. Deke and Paula Tyson, Melissa’s parents, want to buy it.”

  Everything temporarily went fuzzy, as if a flashbulb had gone off in Will’s face. At six, when he was fully aware of who his father was, he’d dreamed of a day when TD Hall would appear out of nowhere, collect him and his mother, and take them back to San Diego to live with him. His great-grandmother would come, too. It was a secret hope he went to bed with at night and held close like some kids did their baseball gloves and stuffed animals. By the time he was ten, he’d learned all about his father’s high-living escapades, sexual exploits, astronomical salary hikes while his mother worked long hours trying to make a go of her café, worried she couldn’t afford his great-grandmother’s prescription bills. By then, too, he’d been informed of how his father had abandoned his mother when she was pregnant with him, gone off to college in Florida, and never come home again. By thirteen, he’d vowed that if the son of a bitch ever showed up, he’d shoot his balls off with the old .30-30 rifle his mother kept under the bed.

  He had his mother’s trained knack of showing no emotion in times that called for it. He blinked once and asked, “Is that all he’s in town for?”

  “As far as I know.”

  “How long is he staying?”

  “A couple of days, John said.”

  “That doesn’t sound like
he’s come to hook up the RV for a while.”

  “You’re right. He’ll be staying at Harbison House until his business is through, he told John, but that’s all we know at the moment.”

  “Did he ask Father John about us?”

  “No, but he may be testing the waters, and that’s why I’m here. I came to ask you to see him if he wants a meeting, because if I know my son, he’ll take off hiking with his dog this weekend until his father goes back to where he came from. I’m advising you not to do that, Will. If you don’t like what he has to say, then kick him out, spit in his eyes, slam the door in his face. That’s up to you, but I believe if you don’t see him, you’ll regret it later.”

  “What if he hasn’t come to say anything to me, Mom? What if he’s come simply to sell his aunt’s house? What if we’re not on his agenda?”

  Cathy shook her head. “He didn’t have to come here in person to clean out his aunt’s house and take care of the house sale. That could have been done from San Diego. Father John and I both agree on that.”

  Will concurred. He studied his mother in a new, frightening light. He half-suspected she welcomed this visit, had been expecting it for years. Looking at her now, still youthful and beautiful, he wondered what she would do if TD Hall—washed up, divorced, reputedly broke—should show up again at her door, beg her to forgive him and grant him a second chance? She was well thought of, a pillar of the county. What would it do to her reputation if she took back the bastard who had left her and her son high and dry?

  “Tell me,” he demanded. “What you would do if the guy walked in right now, says he’s sorry and that he loves you and wanted to make it up to us? What would be your reaction?”

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