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       Tumbleweeds, p.7

           Leila Meacham
 

  Rufus’s ears shot up. There was a disturbance on the field. Somebody was down. Players were gathering around their fallen teammate, and coaches and student trainers ran from the sidelines to elbow their way through the huddle. Murmurs of concern rose from the stands and along the fence. Cathy searched for Trey and John but could spot neither one. Rufus whimpered and would have bounded down the bleachers if she had not grabbed his collar. Suddenly she caught sight of John standing and glancing toward the stands as if looking for her. She waved her hand, and he pointed toward the parking lot where they had left their vehicles. He’d removed his helmet and his expression was bleak. Oh, my God! It was Trey who was hurt. He was being helped to his feet. His helmet was off, and even from where she stood, she could see the red and swollen distortion of his face.

  Bebe and Melissa turned to look at her in dismay as she snapped Rufus’s leash onto his collar. It’s only a toothache, Cathy told herself. Antibiotics and a strong inflammation-fighting drug would fix him up once the tooth was pulled. Still, she waited beside her grandmother’s car with her knuckles to her mouth until the boys finally appeared from the field house—John still in his football gear and Trey in school clothes, escorted by the head coach himself. Apparently, she was to drive Trey home while John returned to practice. There was applause from a large group of concerned adults and students who had gathered to hear firsthand what had happened to their quarterback.

  “It’s okay, folks!” Coach Turner called to the group. “Trey’s just got a problem with a bad tooth. He’ll be back with us in a few days. Let’s let Cathy get him home so he can go to the dentist.”

  Trey gave her a weak smile, all he looked capable of, and Cathy held tight to Rufus’s leash to keep him from jumping on him. “I’m sorry to let you down, Coach,” Trey mumbled.

  Coach Turner laid a hand on the back of Trey’s neck and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “You didn’t let me down, son. Don’t worry. It’s not like you’ve lost your place in line. You’ll be back, but not until you’re well, okay?”

  “Okay,” Trey said. He turned to John. “If I don’t get back by Friday night, Tiger, you don’t need me to show that Miami scout what you got.”

  “You’ll be back, TD.”

  Cathy was busy loading Rufus into the backseat of the Ford while John helped Trey into the car. Her heart in her throat, she started the motor. “All in?” she managed to ask.

  Trey laid his head back and closed his eyes. “All in for sure. Take me home, Catherine Ann.”

  One of the coaches had already contacted Mabel, and her Cadillac was out of the garage and she was waiting on the front porch when they drove up. “I have Dr. Wilson standing by,” she announced. “He’ll take care of that tooth in a hurry. Good lord, Trey, look at you! How did I miss seeing how sick you were?”

  “Because I didn’t let you see, Aunt Mabel. I thought it would go away.” He touched the tip of Cathy’s nose, his eyes swimming in pain. “We’ll talk tonight, Catherine Ann,” he said.

  Cathy nodded, and Mabel said, “We’d better go, dear.”

  “I need a glass of water first, Aunt Mabel.”

  Inside the house, Mabel said, “Sit down, Trey, and I’ll get you that water.”

  “I don’t need water, Aunt Mabel.”

  “What? But you said—”

  “And I don’t need a dentist. I need a doctor.”

  “What?”

  “It’s not my teeth. I’ve got something going on…”—he dropped his eyes to his groin—“down there.”

  “MUMPS?” MABEL SAID in surprise when Dr. Thomas delivered his diagnosis.

  “That’s it. The poor kid thought at first the swelling was due to a problem with his teeth.”

  Mabel clapped her cheeks. “My baby sister must not have had him immunized when he was an infant. Merciful heavens, I feel terrible that I didn’t take more notice, but lately Trey has kept so much to himself, hasn’t even taken his meals with me. I just thought he was being a typical teenager. If he’d just said something…”

  “Now, don’t go blaming yourself, Mabel. What kid getting ready to suit up for spring football practice is going to tell his aunt he’s not feeling well—especially the quarterback of the team? He’ll have to be quarantined and the school notified, but fortunately, mumps is the least contagious of children’s diseases, and it’s rare for a youngster to contract mumps at Trey’s age.” He wrote on a pad. “These prescriptions will ease his pain and get his fever down, and I’m going to give you a sheet of instructions on how to make him more comfortable. Then, in about a year, we’ll need to run some tests.”

  “Tests? What kind of tests?”

  The doctor held her eye. “I think you know, Mabel.”

  Mabel felt the blood leave her head. “Oh, Doctor, you don’t think—”

  “Let’s just make sure, shall we?”

  Chapter Twelve

  Here, Son, let me do that,” Bert Caldwell said to John.

  John reluctantly turned from the mirror to allow his father to line up his tuxedo tie, keeping his mouth closed to prevent inhaling Bert’s whiskey breath. To John’s surprise, the familiar smell was absent, but then occasionally his father stayed sober a few days between jobs. Tonight was one of them. For some reason, he thought the night of his son’s high school junior prom reason enough to lay off the bottle, at least until John had left the house.

  Bert stepped back to admire his handiwork. “That’ll do it,” he said. “You need help with the cummerbund?”

  “No thanks. I got it,” John said, fastening the pleated sash of maroon silk around his waist. Feeling uncomfortable under his father’s gaze, wishing he’d leave, John removed the satin-lapelled jacket from its hanger and slipped it on, turning to adjust the French cuffs of his shirtsleeves in the mirror.

  “Not bad for a rented outfit,” Bert pronounced. “But I would’ve bought you one. You’ll probably need a tux for certain occasions at Miami.”

  “That’s still over a year away,” John said, and granted his father a slight smile. “I may grow another inch or two by then.”

  Bert nodded and shoved his hands into his pockets. “I suppose so. You look… dashing, Son. I wish your mother were here to see you.”

  “Me, too,” John said.

  There was an awkward silence. “Are you sure you don’t want to take my car? You’re too gussied up to ride in a pickup.”

  “No thanks. I washed and polished Old Red to a high shine, vacuumed the seats. It’ll be good enough.”

  “Well then—” Bert removed a number of bills from his wallet. “Take these. You’ll want to have enough on a night like tonight. It comes only once in your life.”

  John slipped his own wallet into the coat of the tuxedo. “That’s okay. I don’t need it. Everything’s already prepaid.”

  “Take it anyway.” Bert thrust the bills at him. “I’d feel better knowing you had some extra cash.”

  John took the offering. “Thank you,” he said simply.

  The two men’s gazes intersected for a fraction of a second, Bert having to lift his a couple of inches. “This girl you’re taking to the prom… what’s her name again?” he asked.

  John had never told him her name, but he said, “Bebe Baldwin.”

  “Her dad owns the filling station off Main.”

  “That’s right.”

  “She’s one of them Bobettes.”

  “Right again.”

  “Well, she’s a lucky girl. I imagine a couple of football studs like you and Trey could have your pick of the litter.”

  “I’m lucky. Bebe is a nice girl.”

  Bert’s nod conceded that the claim was probably so. “I’m sure,” he said. “Well, you kids enjoy yourselves. Drive carefully.” He flicked two fingers from his forehead in a Panhandle salute and left the room.

  John noted the shuffle and slumped shoulders and felt a pinch of pity for him. There were some things you could never make right again, no matter how much you’d like to begin
anew. That day of nine years ago John might have made go away if his father had mended his ways, if his moments of sad regret didn’t come between floozies and drinking bouts that turned him into a monster capable of whipping an eight-year-old boy into a welt.

  He threw the money on the bureau and swept a comb through his hair again, annoyed at his father for jimmying loose the memory of that afternoon nine years ago. John’s mother had been gone a year when he’d come home from school and found a strange woman in bed with his father. “Why didn’t you knock, you goddamned little bastard!” Bert had roared, throwing back the covers, and John was not able to make it to safety before Bert had yanked a belt from his pants tossed on a chair.

  Trey heard the commotion. He and John always walked home together, and thank God Trey had gotten only to the gate and guessed what was going on. He flew to the next-door neighbor’s home to call Sheriff Tyson and then ran back to tear through the house screaming, “Stop it! Stop it!” He threw his body between John and the belt and took a few licks himself before the floozy blonde warned his father that a squad car had pulled up. The next thing John knew, the sheriff and his deputy had slammed into the house and Deke Tyson was ordering his father to put down the belt.

  “The hell I will. This is my house, Deke. I can do anything I damn well please in it.”

  “Maybe so, but not to your son.”

  “My son! Hell, he ain’t my son. He’s some bastard’s who screwed my wife when I was out on a rig!”

  Silence fell like a stone. Sheriff Tyson and the deputy looked curiously from Bert to John and saw what John had suddenly realized. He looked nothing like his black-haired, blue-eyed father. Trey, wide-eyed, let out a delighted yelp. “Hey, that’s cool, John! He’s not your old man. You got no parents, either.”

  John had gotten to his feet unsteadily, all four feet of him. He stared up at his father, who was biting his lip, averting his eyes. “You’re not my dad?”

  Bert Caldwell threw down the belt. “Forget I said that. You got my name, ain’t you?”

  “You’re not my father?”

  Bert spat on the floor. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

  “But you did.”

  “Don’t sass me! I didn’t say that. I said it’s hard to believe you’re my kid sometimes. That’s what I said.”

  “Liar!” Trey yelled, going for Bert’s knees.

  Sheriff Tyson had intervened, taking Trey gently by the shoulders and passing him to his deputy. Deke Tyson was a tall, powerfully built man, a former Green Beret, and John saw that even in Bert’s drunken stupor, he knew better than to tangle with him. “We’re taking John with us tonight, Bert,” Deke said. “You sober up, and we’ll talk in the morning.”

  John had an idea what they’d talked about. In the Texas Panhandle, a county sheriff had pretty much a free hand to do what he had to do to protect the citizens of his jurisdiction, a license Deke Tyson wouldn’t have hesitated to take to safeguard a child. John’s father never laid another hand on him again.

  But he carried the faint scars still… both on his back and in his heart, and he never felt the same about the man who had raised him.

  John pocketed the comb, made sure of his keys, and settled the florist box containing a carnation corsage under his arm. He shouldn’t be recalling bad memories on a night like tonight. He had other unpleasant thoughts to occupy his mind. Tonight Trey planned to make a move on Cathy.

  “What do you think, John? Don’t you think it’s time?” Trey had asked John earlier in the week after telling him that he’d reserved a motel room in Delton.

  John had bent down to tie his shoe. They were in the field house, just showered and dressed after running laps around the track.

  The muscles of his jaws tensed when he finally said, “There’s only one way to find out, TD, and the sooner the better considering that we’re all planning on going to Miami together next year. But why after the prom? Cathy will be in her finery, her hair done up in a fancy do. And if you two don’t go to the breakfast afterwards, everybody will know where you are, what you’re doing. They’ll talk. You have to think of Cathy’s reputation.”

  “What’s there to think about? Everybody knows she’s my girl and always will be. I’m going to marry her once we’re out of college.”

  “That’s a long way away, Trey. A lot can happen between now and then.”

  “Nothing is going to happen to us. Nothing can. I won’t let it.” Frustration darkened his face. “I can’t keep myself from her much longer, John. I’ll have to have her or stop going with her, and I’d rather die than give her up.”

  “Have you discussed this with Cathy?”

  “Which part?”

  “Both, TD, for God’s sake. Does she know that you’re hurting for her and the consequences if she doesn’t play ball?”

  “You make it sound like I’m threatening her!”

  “Well, aren’t you?”

  “No, dammit! Jesus, John, I thought you’d understand. If you were in love with somebody as much as I am with Catherine Ann, you’d know the hell I’m going through.”

  John said nothing for a few minutes. He opened his locker door to take out his latest varsity letter jacket, the sleeves covered in sewn-on badges of sports in which he’d qualified and excelled. Trey had one like it, but it hung in Cathy’s closet, far too big for her, and he wore last year’s version. John hoped his cheeks weren’t burning. He knew exactly the hell that Trey was going through.

  “Have you thought of Miss Emma?” John asked. “She’ll wait up for Cathy and know the minute she lays eyes on her what you guys have been up to.”

  “That’s why we’re going to a motel. She can fix herself up afterwards, and her grandmother will never know the difference.”

  Don’t bet on it, John had thought. “Why haven’t you told Cathy how you feel?” he asked.

  “Because I don’t want to scare her.”

  “Cathy doesn’t scare easily.”

  “I know, and I guess that’s what scares me—explains why I’ve waited so long. We’re close, but would she want to become… intimate? What if she… doesn’t want me like I want her?”

  “Just because she doesn’t want to have sex now doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you or will not want it later. We’re only seventeen. Cathy might be afraid of becoming pregnant.”

  Trey twirled the knob of the combination lock to secure his locker, a muscle jumping along his jawline. “I’m not going to let that happen.”

  “How can you prevent it? Condoms aren’t all that guaranteed—not with the workout you probably give ’em.” Trey had been initiated into gymnastic sex by a popular senior cheerleader when he was a sophomore, their secret carried safely away with her when she left for Texas Christian University in the fall. John knew of two other girls Trey had known sexually—high school students from Delton. News of his sorties had never drifted back to Cathy. John wondered what would have happened if it had. Would she have been jealous, hurt, outraged? Would she have dumped Trey and turned to him? Or would she have looked upon Trey’s canters off the range not as a breach of trust or faithlessness but as his way of protecting her from him until she was ready? It was hard to tell. Beyond being an open book when it came to certain things—like attitudes and principles and her strong self-image, for instance—Cathy wasn’t easy to read, or anticipate. Of the three of them, she was the most mature. She may look small and defenseless, but physical size didn’t matter when you had the strength of a healthy self-esteem, and Trey had yet to test that in Cathy.

  “Those girls mean nothing to me, John,” Trey had assured him. “The only girl who means anything to me or ever will is Catherine Ann. She’s my world, my life, my heart. I couldn’t breathe without her. I’ve tried to. I’ve thought of what it would be like to… cool it with her for a while, sample the field, but then I think of what it would be like to lose her….” His voice had trailed off and he’d stared into space like a shell-shocked war veteran.

  John had a
pretty good idea of what it would be like to lose Cathy, worse than loving her from afar, but she’d gravitated toward Trey from the start, the reason he’d never given away by so much as the twitch of an eyebrow how he felt about her.

  He tried one last argument. “Don’t you think you ought to tell Cathy your plans beforehand—give her a chance to say, ‘Some other time’?”

  Trey made a fist and struck the locker door. “That’s so like you, John—to give people an opportunity to reject what in your gut you know is best for them.”

  There was no point in trying to make Trey see that what he perceived as best for someone else was really best for him, especially when most of the time his gut was right.

  Which was why John hoped with all his heart that whatever went on between Trey and Cathy after the prom tonight, they were both ready for it.

  Chapter Thirteen

  Trey checked his reflection for one last time in the floor mirror in his aunt’s bedroom. Too tall to get a full view, he bent down to make sure his black tie was aligned with his matching cummerbund. He hadn’t particularly looked forward to wearing a monkey suit to the prom—too much to get out of—but he did look pretty sharp in it, and the girls would go wild over him. He hoped Cathy was one of them.

 
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