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Tumbleweeds, p.30
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       Tumbleweeds, p.30

           Leila Meacham

  She granted him a smile understanding of his anger. “Your godfather asked me basically the same question, so I’ll tell you what I told him. It will take more than sweet talk and self-flagellation to win me again, Son. For twenty-two years, he’s ignored your existence. Forget mine. Mine pales to a mere snub compared to his rejection of you. I can never forgive him for the shadow he cast over your childhood, but I don’t hate him for it, either. That’s because, amazingly, you grew into a man you never would have been if your father had been around.”

  “I’d have been okay, Mom,” Will said. His pride in her roughened his voice. “I’d have had you.”

  “Not the mother you know. If TD Hall had married me, I wouldn’t have been the woman I am today.”

  He conceded that was probably true. His mother had overcome a different, and more commendable, set of odds than the ones she’d have faced with his self-centered, womanizing father. You could tame a tiger only so far.

  “All I’m asking is that you give him a chance to say what he’s come to say,” she said. “I plan to. I have a feeling it will convince me we were fortunate he abandoned us.”

  “All right,” Will said. “I’ll do it for you. But don’t be disappointed if he’s only here to sell his aunt’s house.”

  Cathy stood and removed her car keys from her purse, her movements calm and resolute. “I don’t think it’s possible for Trey Don Hall ever to disappoint me again.”

  If only he could believe that, Will thought, as he escorted her to the parking lot. His jaw felt so hard he could barely feel his mother’s lips when she kissed him good-bye. As usual, she read his thoughts.

  “He’ll try to charm the hate out of you, Will, and that would be a good thing,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to let it go. Releasing hate does not make you forget what you want always to remember. It does not mean reconciliation.”

  Will watched her drive off, shaken that she’d been aware all along of the fear he’d tried to hide since he was old enough to analyze it. As much as he hated his father, Will was afraid that if he ever met him, he’d fall victim to his charisma, his star shine, and despise himself for his vulnerability, his neediness, when he’d had the love and attention since the day he was born of the best father figure ever to walk the earth—Jesuit priest John Caldwell.

  Yet what else but a need for his father would explain why, on the sly, he’d made a study of TD Hall? There wasn’t a word about him Will hadn’t read, not many of the man’s football games he hadn’t seen one way or the other. Will told himself he was on a quest to find out how much like him he was, what tendencies he recognized in himself. He had made up his mind early that he didn’t want to be like Trey Don Hall in any way, and as far as he could tell, he wasn’t. He’d inherited his mother’s innate courtesy, calm temperament, and sense of commitment. He wasn’t a skirt chaser or a practitioner of casual sex.

  But really, his object had been to get to know his father, to share time and be with him even if it was only through published interviews and the TV screen. Will would never let his mother know that, until he graduated from high school, he still looked for a package at Christmas, a card for his birthday, a telephone call out of the blue, some sign that his father knew he was on the planet.

  But that was then, and this was now. His yearning days were over. He despised Trey Don Hall. If he’d come to worm his way into their lives when he’d made such a mess of his, his son would make sure the man regretted it.

  Chapter Forty-Five

  He slid open the grill between him and the penitent three times that morning.

  “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”

  “How have you sinned?”

  “It’s my father. I have no respect or liking for him. He lies; he gambles; he cheats on my mother; he does not keep his word. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw a bull. He’s overweight, smokes like a fiend, and drinks. He doesn’t give a damn about me.”

  “Do you love him?”

  “Yes, that’s the thing. I care about him, and I don’t want to. I know it’s a sin to want to hate somebody, especially your father, but life would be so much easier and my pain gone if I could only hate him, and I’m furious with myself because I can’t.”

  “Do not be angry with yourself. You have demonstrated the greatest love of all. You love someone unworthy of your love. This cross you bear is a burden now, but such crosses, faithfully carried, are the wings that fly us to heaven.”

  “Can people change, Father?”

  “In what way?”

  “The genes we’re born with.”

  “Not your genes, but the behavior they generate. We are given the power to be in control of what we do because every person is born with free will. With the help of God, we human beings can choose to disobey the dictates of our baser natures. The original self will always be with us, like the alcoholic’s inborn proclivity to drink. The struggle against our nature is never ending, but it can be overcome.”

  “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

  “So have we all, my friend.”

  Chapter Forty-Six

  Trey Hall slowed down his rented BMW as he turned off Interstate 40 onto the road leading to Kersey. His plane had landed in Amarillo with minutes to spare. He had no luggage to collect, and there had been no waiting line at the car rental office, giving him time to kill before meeting the Tysons at eleven o’clock. Except for the wind turbines—mammoth energy-producing structures that looked like sculptures of gigantic white albatrosses lined to the horizon—the prairie in spring was as he remembered. For a while he drove with his window down to let in the fresh smell of Panhandle grasses, but he found the wind nippy and raised it. He had been warned against getting chilled.

  A mile from his destination, he spotted the water tower of Kersey, and memories flooded over him of the times he and John used to climb the darn thing. They’d been too respectful of its important place on the landscape with its proud claim CITY OF KERSEY written on its girdle to deface it, but mainly they’d been too scared of Sheriff Tyson finding out they were the culprits. But they were definitely not above leaving a physical reminder that they’d scaled the ladder to the catwalk that ran around it. They completed a successful rite of passage when, in the seventh grade, they finally reached their goal and left a scarf of Cathy’s tied to the railing. It blew in the wind for some time until one day it was no longer there.

  Like a lot of other things that had blown away, Trey thought.

  As he entered the city limits, he noted some new signs and a few unfamiliar shops—a hair salon, an antique place, a game-processing plant—but the old automotive repair garage and feed store and junkyard rusting away behind a Cyclone fence were still in place. There was nothing much about the entrance to his hometown to distinguish it from other widely scattered prairie communities except the weathered, faded billboard that greeted visitors at its city limits: WELCOME TO KERSEY, HOME OF THE BOBCATS, WINNER OF THE 1985 HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL STATE CHAMPIONSHIP. The sign echoed a time long past its glory like a boarded-up hotel in a ghost town.

  The gate into the Peaceful Haven Cemetery was up ahead, and he turned in and located the grave site of his uncle Harvey from memory. As Trey had expected, Aunt Mabel had been buried beside him. Their memorial stones were identical, with a hand engraved on each reaching toward the other. Aunt Mabel never did get over the death of Uncle Harvey, Trey had realized long after it was too late for him to be of much comfort to her. He’d known his uncle only a few months before he died, but Trey remembered him well, and he’d grown up thinking the two of them married—Aunt Mabel a small, shrinking-violet type and Uncle Harvey robust and rugged, a big-game hunter—was something of a joke. But back then, what the hell had he known?

  He’d bought a bouquet of spring flowers at the airport and laid the perky arrangement of carnations, stocks, and daises before her name. The burning sensation he hated flamed in his throat. “I’m sorry, Aunt Mabel,” he said. “I wanted to come, but I d
idn’t have the guts. Now that you’re in heaven and know all, I hope you can forgive me.”

  He glanced about at the other memorial plates in the area and noted the familiar names of those who had died since he’d been away. For one, their old school bus driver he’d given undeserved grief, and for another, a woman who’d worked in the school cafeteria who always added extra helpings of mashed potatoes on his plate. He now wished he’d shown her more appreciation. Cathy’s Baptist minister had bitten the dust, a sanctimonious ass who’d slammed the door shut to her future when she turned up pregnant. Trey looked around for Miss Whitby’s grave and Emma Benson’s but didn’t see them in the vicinity, and it was time to go. Before leaving, he kicked a clump of cockleburs on the Baptist minister’s grave and headed for his car.

  The high school and football stadium were on this side of town, and he took the improved road to the entrance of the place where he’d spent the happiest years of his life. A digital billboard had replaced the old wooden structure that had announced school events. It wished students and teachers a safe vacation and informed the unlucky ones that summer school would begin in a week’s time. With the exception of a few cars in the expanded parking lot, he had the place to himself.

  He got out, the opulent slam of the BMW door carrying in the quiet, almost still, prairie air. The school had been modernized to a degree, but the feel of it was the same. With the close of his eyes, he could imagine being a school kid again, arriving in the bus in the junior high years, then in his Mustang or John’s old pickup when they hit their teens, Cathy wedged between. The intrepid trio of Kersey High, they’d been called.

  Trey walked the distance to the fence that enclosed the running track and football field. The gate was probably locked, but he heard young male voices like his used to be and figured students were working out on the track. His guess was right, and a padlock hung unfastened on the gate. He pushed it open and saw three boys at the far end of the track in running shorts and T-shirts, stretching their hamstrings and rotating their arms. Trey heard the field house door creak open and turned to see a man step out wearing a ball cap in the school’s colors and a whistle around his neck. A coach obviously. “May I help you?” the man asked.

  “No, not really,” Trey said. “I graduated from here and thought I’d stop by to see what the place looks like now. Mind if I look around?” The man was middle-aged but still looked too young to have been on the coaching staff when Trey ran track and played on this field.

  “No, go ahead. Happy to have you.” The man peered at Trey, his forehead moving back as recognition dawned. “You’re… TD Hall, aren’t you?”

  “I am.”

  “Well, Christ almighty!” He stuck out his hand. “Tony Willis. Track and special teams coach. It’s an honor to meet you. They should have named the place after you for all the trophies you won for the school. Is this the first time you’ve been back since you graduated?”

  Trey shook his hand. “I’m afraid so. Anybody around who coached when I was here?”

  “Bobby Tucker. He’s the head football coach and athletic director now.”

  “Can’t say that I remember him. Did he replace Coach Turner?”

  “Bobby followed a couple of replacements in between. Coach Turner didn’t last but about another five years after your class graduated. When his daughter died unexpectedly, he just sort of lost interest in football and everything else.” He squinted at Trey quizzically. “You… know what I’m talking about?”

  Trey nodded. “My aunt kept me informed. Some sort of infection, wasn’t it?”

  “Yeah. So sad. His wife passed away a few years afterwards. Ron became an alcoholic, lives like a hermit now, but I’m sure he’d be glad to see the best player he ever coached.”

  “If you don’t count John Caldwell.”

  “Well, yes, there’s Father John. A great pair of hands and feet, judging by the old film footage. Football lost a good one when he went into the priesthood, so they say.”

  “They say right.” Trey fished his car keys from his pocket.

  Coach Willis looked perplexed. “Aren’t you going to look around?”

  “I’m afraid I don’t have the time, after all. Nice to have met you.”

  “Well, uh, wait—” Looking flustered, the coach stepped in front of him. “Where are you staying? Maybe we could meet for a beer….”

  “At Harbison House with John, but I’m only in town overnight. I’ll catch you next time.”

  Trey left the man puzzled, but he’d lost his nostalgic itch. The news of Coach Turner had sickened him. An irrational fury at Tara bloomed and then died. Laura—Dr. Rhinelander—had cautioned him as well about the dangers of impotent anger. “Let’s not rush things,” she’d said. But why the hell had the slut gone and died on her parents when she had already made them miserable enough? What he wouldn’t give to clear the slate with Coach Turner, explain to him why he’d cut out on Cathy, but Coach would still consider him horse manure for not manning up to the truth when it would have made a difference.

  The next stop would depress him further, but at least it would be one change for the better. He wouldn’t go in. He’d merely drive by Bennie’s to see if he could catch a glimpse of Cathy’s blond head behind the windows. John would have told her Trey would be in town today, and he wondered if she was expecting him to walk through the door of the café any minute. His heart beat faster and his mouth went dry at the very thought of it. When Laura told him he was dying, in his frantic need for comfort his first impulse had been to fly home to Cathy’s arms for the months he had left, stay in his old room in Aunt Mabel’s house, have the spiritual consolation of the only true friend he’d ever had.

  But after the initial shock of the prognosis, he’d laughed at himself for his outrageous arrogance. Considering the wreckage he’d left in his wake, what had made him think that Cathy and John would take him to their bosoms again?

  So he’d had to consider another way to ease out of this world into the next, and he’d decided to make a clean breast of his deceptions that had marred the lives of two loving parents and aborted the life journeys of his best friends. He’d kept his mouth shut out of a false sense of injury and betrayal, ego and pride, the self-destructive demons he’d allowed to destroy his soul. Facing death shed a light on things he’d refused to see before. Now he’d come to tell the truth and maybe undo some of the damage he’d caused. He’d leave this earth hated by the two people he loved and who’d loved him, but he could not die with a lie upon his soul.

  He turned down Main Street, curious if anybody would recognize him as the driver of the unfamiliar BMW. Coach Willis would have to tell only one person about meeting him today for the news to make it around town.

  A big Lincoln Navigator was tying up traffic waiting for a pickup to back out of a parking space in front of Bennie’s. The delay gave him an opportunity to note the revamped storefront with its blue-checkered awnings and bright flower boxes, a front door painted yellow. He strained to see Cathy moving about beyond the immaculate windows, but he recognized instead the dark-headed figure of Bebe Baldwin taking charge of the customer line. Again, teenage memories surged, and he was back in a fun-filled moment with Cathy and John and Bebe eating greasy hamburgers and fries and drinking Cokes that went down his throat like carbonated fire. Finally, the Navigator pulled in, clearing the street, and it was then he saw Cathy in a white Lexus stopped at a red light at the intersection.

  He stared, not daring to blink for fear of losing a second of her face taking shape like a photo in a developing solution. She had not seen him. He recognized the small frown between her brows as a sign her mind was clearly on something else as she waited for the light to change. What would he do if she should suddenly snap out of her concentration and turn those big blue eyes on him? The motorist behind him gave a prompting little toot of his horn and Trey accelerated, but the traffic light remained on red and he was caught at the intersection a few feet away from where the white Lexus wait
ed for a turn signal.

  It came within seconds, and Cathy, still preoccupied, passed in front of him, the sun glinting off the swirl of her short blond hair, illuminating the remembered features of her profile. Riveted to his seat, he watched her drive a short distance before turning into the back of the café where stray dogs used to paw through garbage cans for scraps. In the seconds before the trailing motorist tooted his horn again, Trey was tempted to follow her. There might still be a chance that, in the time he had left, she’d take him back and his secrets would be buried with him, but he couldn’t do that to Cathy—cause her to love him again when he’d have to leave her once more. He pressed the gas pedal and gave up his last chance to see face-to-face the only woman he had ever loved.

  Chapter Forty-Seven

  Deke Tyson lowered his body gingerly onto the ancient swing of Mabel Church’s front porch before subjecting it to his full weight. It appeared sturdy enough, and he relaxed to wait for Trey Don Hall while his wife, Paula, was off taking a last look at the house before finalizing the deal. At her urging, they’d arrived early to look over the property again before the owner arrived and bird-dogged their steps. Deke didn’t think they had to worry about the owner bird-dogging their steps. He’d gotten the impression from Trey Don Hall’s attorney that it didn’t matter to Trey one way or the other whether they bought it. The lawyer had named a price, and he and Paula had dealt with him in working out the details for inspections, repairs, and documents.

  Which was the reason Deke was surprised and oddly moved when Trey, after not being home since he graduated from high school, had written to say he’d fly out to deliver the deed in person and they could settle up.

  Deke placed his hands on the overhang of his belly, a change from the last time TD Hall had seen him. In 1986, when Trey and Melissa had graduated from high school, Deke’s stomach had been hard and flat and he hadn’t cut too bad a figure in his western-styled uniform that Paula had kept pin sharp. Now the once solid mass of his chest muscles had sloped down to settle at his midriff as Paula’s ample, round bottom had traded shapes with her level stomach. Age was nothing if not humbling. He wondered how much TD Hall had changed since the last time he’d seen him on television. Eleven or so years ago, was it? Melissa and her friends had called him the Heartbreak Kid in high school, but that was mainly because of the female hopes he disappointed by going steady with Cathy Benson. Who would have figured he’d go off and leave her like he did? No other permanent attachment had worked for him, apparently, and he still had no children. Did Trey have regrets about Cathy and the wonderful son they could have raised together?

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