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       Tumbleweeds, p.6

           Leila Meacham

  They never seemed to tire of her and were proud that she knew things that she could teach them, like how to set a splint and speak French. Both women loved to hear them practice the few phrases they’d learned at their supper tables and which, of course, they flaunted to their friends in the school cafeteria.

  “Passe-moi le sel, s’il te plaît, Trey.” (Pass the salt, if you please, Trey.)

  “Avec plaisir, mon amie. Et le poivre aussi?” (It is my pleasure, my friend. Pepper also?)

  “Oui, s’il te plaît.” (Yes, if you please.)

  “Il me plaît.” (I please.)

  Would their unit dissolve of its own accord as the boys responded to the natural temptations of other girls who were now beginning to throw themselves at them? Emma wondered. Where would that leave Cathy? Her granddaughter had still not made close friends among the girls in her class. She had acquaintances among those of her gender in Sunday School and the junior high band, but none had become a bosom pal to spend time with after school.

  Or would their friendship take a predictable turn that would leave John in the cold, for it was clear to everyone that Trey was sweet on Cathy, except perhaps to Cathy. And, of course, what everyone but Trey could see was that John was keen on Cathy, too. Would a possible triangle develop that would lead to its own set of hurts and concerns?

  The women watched and waited as the children’s birthdays came and went, and the three remained inseparable, their union unsullied.

  “What is it about Cathy that has Trey so enraptured with her, especially given the way she feels about football?” Emma demanded of Mabel. “John I can understand. In Cathy, he recognizes a fellow pilgrim… mind of his mind, heart of his heart, but Trey Don? Do you suppose it’s the orphan thing they share in common?”

  “Without a doubt, but I believe Trey sees in Cathy as well as in John what he lacks in himself. He’s too young to realize it, of course, but he’s like a sapling in the forest that instinctively reaches for the sun to survive.”

  “What are you talking about, Mabel Church?”

  “I’m talking about integrity,” Mabel answered. “The plain, old-fashioned kind inherent to Cathy and John, whereas it isn’t to Trey. He has to be led by example. It took me a long time to recognize it, but I’m proud of Trey for desiring the sun when he more naturally could seek the shade.”

  Emma pondered Mabel’s remarks and decided that, despite the fanciful wording, she had hit the nail on the head. Of course, John and Trey had enough in common to be twins and what red-blooded American boy wouldn’t be enamored with Cathy, but Emma agreed with Mabel that those reasons alone did not account for Trey’s special need of them. It all boiled down to his admiration of their trustworthiness (though where Cathy got hers Emma had yet to determine). Trey recognized he operated better—and was safer—in the light of their influence. Emma thought Mabel had every right to be proud of her nephew, since with his increasing good looks and athletic talent, intelligence and charm, he could get away with, and be forgiven for, just about anything with anybody. She worried only that Trey’s unswerving trust in Cathy and John made him vulnerable to disappointment—and her granddaughter and John open to its consequences. All human beings were subject to falling below others’ expectations, and Trey was of the particular bent that, once betrayed, there would be no rescuing of the ties that once bound. Still, despite awakening hormones and developing figures, their union continued unmarred and unbroken.

  And then the spring of their sixteenth year arrived.

  Chapter Eleven

  He was sick. There was no doubt about it. He was running a fever, and his jaws had swollen. Trey couldn’t imagine what was wrong with him, but he mustn’t tell Coach Turner. Coach would send him home. It was the first day of spring football practice, and he might miss the scrimmage Friday night when he could give his coach something to look forward to over the coming summer: a starting quarterback with a wide receiver who just might over the next two years lead the team to state. Coach needed something to lighten up his life, with a sick wife at home and a daughter who gave him fits. Besides, a recruiter from the University of Miami in Florida would be in the stands Friday to watch him and John strut their stuff, and without sufficient practice he might flub their chances of a scholarship offer to play for the Miami Hurricanes.

  He could beat this; he knew he could. Drink lots of water and other fluids, get rest. It was a virus or something that had settled in his teeth. His gums were red and irritated. Or it could be an abscessed wisdom tooth like Cathy had extracted last year. He’d take aspirin and swish his teeth with mouthwash to give him some relief, and at the end of the week he’d go to the dentist.

  This was one period on the calendar he’d never forget. For starters, it was one of the few times in his life he’d been sick. He’d missed most of the childhood diseases and wasn’t prone to catching colds or flu or getting upset stomachs, and Friday, last day before spring break, he’d asked Catherine Ann to be his girl. He’d always felt something different toward her from just friendship, ever since his first sight of her that freezing January day when she ran out of her house to check on her snow queen, but never anything like the moment that particular feeling became something else—when he wanted her to be more than a special best friend. It had happened one day in early spring when she walked into English class. She was wearing a new sweater in “azure blue,” so he was told, a color that set off her hair and skin and the irises of her eyes, and his heart had stalled in mid-beat. The smile she’d flashed him had faded in concern, and she asked as she took her seat, “What’s wrong?” He had no breath to answer. The way he’d always thought of her had vanished as suddenly and completely as the boy’s make-believe playmate in the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” His once-upon-a-time feeling for her was simply over. The Catherine Ann he knew had disappeared. A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys… or little girls.

  He hadn’t known what to do with his new way of thinking about her. It saddened him really. If he did anything about it, he believed he’d be giving up something that would not come to him again. The special world he and John and Cathy had created just for the three of them would never be the same.

  He’d thought it over for some time, weighing what he would lose and what he would gain, but she grew prettier by the day, and the upper-class boys were sniffing around her—guys he had no sway over—and he knew he must act.

  “I want to ask Catherine Ann to go steady with me,” he told John.

  “You already are going steady with her, TD.”

  “No-no. That’s not how I mean.”

  “You mean you want Cathy all to yourself—without me in the equation.”

  The word equation, spoken in John’s quiet, serious way, leaped out from memory. Wolf Man’s word! Trey had forgotten it, but John had remembered. Now he understood the man’s meaning. But… John not in the equation? Hell no, that wasn’t what he meant at all! John was his buddy. He was like the stake his aunt tied her tomato plants to—not that he felt he couldn’t stand on his own, but John was his support system, even when half the time they were at odds over something.

  “That came out wrong,” he’d protested. “I mean that I want her to go steady with me in a different way. You know, wear my letter jacket. We’ll hang out like we always have—you and me and Catherine Ann—but she’ll be my girl and your friend. That is okay with you, isn’t it? You love her like a brother, but I love her like… a girl. You do think of her like a sister, don’t you?”

  “Sure I do,” John had said. “Cathy’s… the sunshine in my day.” He’d punched his shoulder in a brotherly way. “You’re the dark cloud.”

  He’d grinned back. “I knew it’d be all right with you, but I wanted to make sure. Catherine Ann loves you, too, you know—just in a different way.”

  “I know, TD.”

  He’d asked her Saturday night in front of Miss Emma’s after they’d dropped John off at his house. They were sitting in Trey’s new Mustang that
Aunt Mabel had bought him for his birthday. “Catherine Ann, I want to ask you something,” he’d said.

  She’d turned her blue eyes on him. “Okay.”

  “Uh…” He’d had to swallow, hoping she wouldn’t notice. “I don’t know exactly how to say this.”

  “Say what?”

  “Say how I feel about you.”

  “I know how you feel about me.”

  “No, no, I don’t mean like—like you’re thinking.” Hot with embarrassment under her steady blue gaze, he wished he hadn’t brought up the subject until he was sure she felt the same way about him. They’d never even held hands, let alone kissed! She liked him, he was sure of that, but did she need him like he needed her? She was so… so independent!

  “That is,” he said, “I want… you to go with me and… only me, like in… go steady, but only if you want to, Catherine Ann. I don’t want to… ruin anything between us.”

  She’d smiled and shocked the bejesus out of him by scooting closer to him and wrapping her arms around his neck. They were soft and fragrant as flower petals, and her face was like an angel’s, framed by hair so blond and silky, he could have melted in it. She’d stared straight into his eyes. “I already am going steady with you,” she said softly. “Didn’t you notice?” She had the look she sometimes got when she pointed out the answer to a calculus problem staring him and John in the face.

  His reply had stuck at the back of his throat, but he found his arms going around her, and, small as she was, her body filled them as if it had been made for them. “I’m… afraid I didn’t,” he said, sounding as if he had a bad case of laryngitis.

  “Now that you have, don’t you think you ought to kiss me?”

  “I… would really like that,” he said, and when he pressed her lips it was like dissolving into the deliciousness of a chocolate cake.

  And that was that. As easily as his boat’s sails catching the wind, they were under way, and he felt no sadness at all.

  He pulled on his helmet behind the players grouped around Coach Turner in the locker room. Usually he sat with John at the front to hear Coach’s last instructions before heading for the field and he never put on his headgear until he trotted out to the huddle, but he couldn’t risk one of the coaching staff noticing his jaws. Only Cathy knew he wasn’t quite up to par, but he’d made her swear she wouldn’t tell his aunt or John. He’d ride this out on his own until spring practice was over.

  FROM WHERE SHE SAT WITH Rufus near the top row of the bleachers, Cathy looked down in concern on the field where Trey and John were practicing their pass and catch routine. “You never throw directly at a quarterback in practice,” the boys had enlightened her in one of the many sessions in which they’d tried to explain the game of football to her. “You could injure or break his thumb. You pass it to somebody beside him who then hands it to the quarterback.”

  “Oh.” That explained why they no longer played throw and catch in the center aisle of the First Baptist Church while she practiced the piano.

  Today she was worried about more than Trey’s thumb. He should not be down there. He should be in a dentist’s chair. The pain in his jaw must be killing him in that tight, hot helmet, but not for the world would he have disappointed Coach Turner, who was depending on Trey taking the starting quarterback’s position next season. If she’d been with Trey Saturday, when his tooth flared up, she would have insisted he see his dentist, but after their watershed date Friday night she’d taken off early the next morning to a Baptist retreat for girls in Amarillo for the weekend.

  “Don’t you forget about me while you’re there,” he’d said, disappointed that he wouldn’t be seeing her the next day.

  “As if I could,” she said.

  Sunday night, as promised when she returned, she’d telephoned him and heard a difference in his voice that worried her. Had he regretted asking her to go steady? But he explained that he was down with a toothache and wouldn’t be good company if he came over. He’d see her the next night, he said, and made her promise she wouldn’t say anything about his tooth problem to anybody, including her grandmother, who would then mention it to his aunt. “Promise me, Catherine Ann.”

  “I’ll promise if you promise that you’ll go to the dentist if it gets worse.”

  “I promise.”

  But he obviously hadn’t, and from the skill and perfect timing of his surefire passes to John’s hands, you’d never guess he had a problem.

  Nods of approval came from the western hats and ball caps lined along the wire fence behind the sidelines, reinforced by admiring murmurs from the crowd in the stands. The fence dwellers were fathers of the players and local businessmen, ranchers, and farmers who’d taken off from work on this first day of spring practice to get an idea of what to expect from the Bobcats next fall, and the bleacher sitters were students and teachers and townspeople. Among them was Father Richard, pastor of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, who had driven in from his parish in Delton, the other town in the county and Kersey High’s rival—to see his former altar boy perform. John would be pleased when she told him. After his mother died, John had stopped going to mass regularly, but he thought of Father Richard like Trey regarded Coach Turner.

  Also down on the sidelines, dressed in their sequined uniforms and shaking their pompoms, were the cheerleaders, led by Cissie Jane Fielding, who was sweet to Cathy’s face while she had a dagger at her back. Behind their row, sitting in specially set up bleachers, the Bobettes waved their white and gray streamers. Her two friends Bebe Baldwin, Cissie Jane’s best friend, and Melissa Tyson, the county sheriff’s daughter, were members, and Cathy waved back when they spotted her in the stands.

  Bebe and Melissa had encouraged Cathy to try out for cheerleader—“you’d be a shoo-in”—or at least to join the Bobettes, but she preferred to play flute in the band. She had no interest in leading cheers at sports events or being a member of an organization that catered exclusively to athletes, some so dumb it was a wonder they could tie their shoelaces. Each Bobette was “assigned” an athlete, and it was her responsibility during a sports season—especially football—to make sure her player wanted for nothing. She baked him cookies, decorated his locker, made posters to celebrate his status, helped him with his homework—anything to keep his spirits high. Cathy thought such servility disgusting.

  “You’re such a feminist!” her friends accused her. “What’s your objection? You’d be assigned to Trey!”

  “I will be assigned to nobody!” Cathy had announced, appalled at the idea.

  Coach Turner’s daughter, Tara, had been assigned to Trey. She was well developed and had acquired a reputation for being easy, and Trey was embarrassed at her lavish attention and did everything he could to discourage it. Bebe looked after John.

  For as many years as Cathy had lived in Texas, she’d never understood the state’s delirious enthusiasm for high school football or the importance given to its program over other school activities or achievements. She didn’t make a point of it to Trey and John, but they knew she didn’t buy into the game. “No problem,” John said one night when she confessed she’d never really gotten the hang of a sport whose violent objective was to get a ball over a goal line.

  “No problem is right,” Trey had said with a grin, and given her a soft cuff on the chin. “That means you love us for who we are, not because we play football.”

  She gazed down at the pair on the field with a sense of pride and ownership, Rufus beside her, quivering to join them, his attention riveted on their every move. As Laura had commented on photographs of them Cathy had sent in her last letter, they were “beyond cool.” Both had shot up to over six feet during the winter and carried 185 pounds of hard, teenage muscle. They’d escaped acne and braces and prescription glasses. They were smart and witty and funny. They made excellent grades, almost tying her for valedictorian last year at the graduation of the ninth-grade class to high school.

  But it was their skill on the football field that m
ade them the darlings of the school and heroes of the town. As early as last season, at only fifteen, they’d been looked over by college recruiters, men whose job it was to fill the rosters of their football programs, and Trey and John were counting on being offered football scholarships at the university of their choice by the end of their junior year. Both wanted to attend college where summer never ended, and they dreamed of going to the University of Miami, which had won its first national championship in 1983.

  Trey had had it all worked out since eighth grade when he knew she had her heart set on becoming a doctor and attending the University of Southern California with Laura.

  “Forget California,” he said. “You’re coming to Miami with John and me. Miami has a great medical school, and what’s the difference between sand and surf in California and the beaches in Florida?” He was obsessed with the idea of the three staying a unit, and as time went on, to her surprise, her grandmother supported his notion. “What does USC’s medical school have that the Miller School of Medicine at Miami does not?” she asked. “You’d have a ride to school and home for holidays and summer break, and I’d feel easier knowing the boys were looking out for you.”

  Cathy had known that last Friday night was coming for some time and had speculated how it would alter the nature of their threesome relationship, since John was always with her and Trey. Other kids she knew were already experimenting with sex, and Cissie Jane, it was rumored, had lost her virginity to last season’s captain of the football team. Until last Friday, she and Trey had never even kissed.

  Yet, almost since that first day in Miss Whitby’s homeroom, she’d felt linked to Trey. Not tethered, but connected. It was as if, no matter where she went, with whom, or what she did, she was the shore and he was the ocean lying at low tide, but always in sight. Why Trey and not John she didn’t know. John was a dream, and if she were pressed, she’d have to say she admired and respected him more than Trey. John loved her, too, and in the same way as Trey. Not by word or gesture had John expressed it—he never would—but she knew. Her heart ached for him, but there was an undeniable chemistry between her and Trey that had always been there, quiet and untapped, and lately when she’d catch him watching her from under hooded lids her skin would tingle and she’d feel as if the air had been sucked from her lungs. In those moments, she sensed the ocean stir, move closer to land, and that feeling, too, made her go warm all over. Someday, the tide would surge in and take the beach. It was only a matter of time.

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