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       Tumbleweeds, p.9

           Leila Meacham
 

  But this last bridge to their final year in high school was different. All three had secured summer jobs. Trey and John worked as bag boys at Affiliated Foods, one of the Panhandle’s grocery store chains, easily edging out the competition for the few jobs available for teenagers since the manager believed their celebrity status would be good for business. Neither gave him reason to regret his hiring choice. Both boys were hard and reliable workers—Trey unexpectedly, since John had already proved himself during Christmas vacation. Customers would wait in line at their checkout stations for the opportunity to exchange chitchat with the local superstars who, as seniors next fall, were expected to lead the Kersey Bobcats to their first state championship football title in ten years.

  Cathy had landed a job as a general helpmate for Dr. Graves, the local veterinarian. Dr. Thomas, the town’s family practitioner, had also offered her a position, but Trey had talked her out of accepting it. “You’ll just be filing papers for Dr. Thomas, but you may learn a lot about medicine from Dr. Graves, even if it’s to do with animals,” he’d told her, and he’d been right. Cathy had worked for her employer only a couple of weeks before Dr. Graves, impressed by her quick intelligence and way with his patients, smocked her up to assist him in performing some of his minor medical procedures.

  For John and Cathy, the jobs were essential to meet college expenses not covered by the scholarships they hoped to be awarded. For Trey, employment was necessary to keep him from missing his friends in the long hours he’d have to spend by himself in the sun.

  The summer evenings were different, too. In school vacations past, they’d all gathered at Emma’s or Mabel’s as a trio. Now, unless John was invited, Trey alone showed up at Cathy’s at the end of the day. “I feel guilty excluding him,” he said. “We’ve always done everything together, but Cathy, I can’t finish the day without having you to myself.”

  “Having you to myself” often meant simply driving to a place to talk about their dreams and experiences of the day under the stars while music played on the radio, Cathy’s head nestled on Trey’s shoulder. Other times they “chilled out” in Mabel’s parlor or Emma’s den to watch television, not minding the presence of either of their guardians. Piling into cars and pickups with other couples to cruise Main or to drive to Amarillo to the movies or to raise a ruckus at beer parties did not appeal to them.

  “You’d think they were a couple of old married folks,” Emma would say to Mabel, referring to the times their charges seemed content merely to be in each other’s presence. But both women knew full well what they were doing when they did not return home until much later than the usual time. Mabel thought of the condoms that had disappeared from Trey’s desk drawer days after the junior prom and Emma of the prescription for the wheel of yellow pills she insisted Cathy drive to Amarillo to have refilled, and each would be thankful for the children’s brains prevailing over their glands.

  Trey and John and Cathy were the town’s star-studded trio. In their junior year, Cathy had made the top score in Kersey High School’s history on the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test), which qualified her to ascend to the next rung in her quest for a National Merit Scholarship, and was voted “Most Beautiful” (the vote carried by the boys versus the majority of girls, who pulled for Cissie Jane). Trey and John tied for “Class Favorite” and “Most Popular,” and as seniors the trio were expected to compete for the title “Most Likely to Succeed,” since after graduation they would be going to the University of Miami in Florida and then on to fame and glory—Cathy as a doctor and the boys in the NFL.

  “Catherine Ann, do you know why you’re the only girl for me?” Trey asked one night. They lay side by side on the quilt that Trey always carried in his Mustang. He’d heard of “security blankets” and knew for a fact that John possessed one. His mother had made it for him when he was only a toddler, and once Trey had seen it folded and tucked away high on John’s closet shelf.

  “What’s that?” Trey had asked.

  “What’s what?”

  “That blue blanket.”

  “That’s the blanket my mother knitted for me when I was a baby.”

  “Did you suck on it?”

  “Well… yes, sometimes.”

  “When?”

  “When I was afraid.”

  “Carry it around with you?”

  “Yes, TD. Why’re you asking? What’s the big deal?”

  “Because I never had one.”

  But he had one now. He’d never admit it to anybody in the world, but this was his security blanket, the quilt on which he felt like the king of the world each time he and Cathy lay on it. It was sacred to him. It carried her scent and their body secretions. No other girl had ever lain on it. He washed it from time to time, in the local Laundromat so Aunt Mabel wouldn’t see, but that didn’t remove the memories from it.

  “Why am I the only girl for you?” Cathy asked. She knew that every girl in school was hot for him and that they came into the grocery store in their short shorts and tank tops and flirted outrageously with him and John. She wondered—surprised that she felt no jealousy—if Trey was ever tempted to accept their offerings.

  Trey traced his finger down her throat to the nipple of her breast that he thought as sweet as a tiny plum. He took her into his arms, filled with the music and thunder she roused in him. “Because you love me like I need to be loved.”

  Different as well, or more intensely felt than in recent summers, was the sense of the town marking time until the dry, baking heat yielded to milder days and cooler nights and set the tone for the gridiron mania that would grip Kersey until December, when everyone expected to head out for the state play-off game. No one doubted that the state championship trophy for Class 3A would be won by the Kersey Bobcats. They would be led by the best quarterback and wide receiver in their division, indeed “the whole damn state,” so the booster club declared—TD Hall and John Caldwell.

  A threat to their confidence to win the district title, though, was the challenge rising from the other town in the county and home of Kersey’s chief rival, the Delton Rams. To be a contender for the state crown, the Bobcats had to get past the Rams, and scouting reports indicated that for the first time in years Delton would be a strong competitor for the district trophy and possibly knock Kersey out of the play-offs before it even got a foot in the door. The prospect of such a fluke added to the stream of anxious discussion in every gathering place in town—the post office, drugstore, pool hall, church meetings, the Masonic Lodge, Bennie’s Burgers, and on front yards where neighbors congregated in lawn chairs after supper to enjoy the cooling-down period of the day.

  To the townspeople, John and Trey appeared unbothered by the scuttlebutt, but Cathy, disgusted with the pressure put on them, noticed a change in Trey as August drew to a close and the first game of the season was a week away. “What’s wrong?” she asked one Saturday afternoon, believing she knew. “You’re unusually quiet today.”

  The booster club’s football kickoff barbeque was to be held that night on the rodeo grounds, a time-honored event where the team, wearing ball caps and their number jerseys in the gray and white of the school’s colors, would parade down a red carpet as their names were called. The starting lineup would be presented last, Trey and John—the main attractions—the finale of those. The town’s expectations were a heavy weight on their shoulders.

  “I’m worried,” Trey said.

  “About what?”

  “That clause in Miami’s offer letter.”

  Cathy’s brow puckered. She was familiar with the contents of the letter from the University of Miami that had offered Trey a full scholarship to play football for the Hurricanes. It had included two important conditions: Trey’s grades and college entrance exam scores must meet the qualifications for admission into the university and his level of play must not slip below the coaches’ expectations.

  “What’s worrying about it?”

  “What if we don’t win district? Coach Mu
eller could change his mind about taking me on Signing Day.”

  Cathy was equally familiar with the name Sammy Mueller since it was often on Trey’s tongue. Mueller was the powerful head coach of the Miami Hurricanes. She had also been thoroughly versed in the importance of Signing Day. It was a media-publicized event traditionally held on the first Wednesday in February, when high school seniors signed binding letters of commitment to their choice of colleges offering them scholarships. It was a date constantly on Trey’s mind and circled in red on Mabel’s calendar. Coach Mueller’s letter had made it clear that he would take only a certain number of players at a position, and once the spots were filled the offer of the scholarship would be rescinded. Such wording obviously gave Miami another out clause so that Coach Mueller and his staff wouldn’t get stuck with a player they no longer wanted come Signing Day. In Trey’s case, he was the only blue-chip quarterback Miami was considering.

  She slipped her hand up Trey’s hard, browned arm. He was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt for the dirty task of helping Cathy clean out animal cages in the back of the veterinary clinic. The office closed at noon on Saturdays, and they were by themselves. “I’ll tell you what John would say. ‘Take it one game at a time and give it your best. That’s all you can do.’ ”

  “Well, that’s fine for John,” Trey said, his tone irritable. “But I can’t be so laissez-faire! I have responsibilities.”

  Trey loved tossing about French words, a conceit that secretly amused her, but she wasn’t smiling now. He was genuinely distressed, and she did not know how to “make it all better,” as he would tenderly ask her to do on his blue days. “Responsibilities?” she repeated.

  “Yes, Catherine Ann.” The frustration in his voice implied she’d overlooked the obvious. “Because of me, you and John are putting your oars in the water for Miami. If I hadn’t influenced you, you’d have indicated USC as your first choice on that form you sent to the National Merit Scholarship Committee and John would be playing football for Texas. I’m worried that if we get shut out at district, Coach Mueller will forget about John and me come Signing Day, and then where will we be? Other teams’ positions will already be filled, and the big academic scholarships gobbled up. John can’t go to college on his own nickel, and he’ll have to take what’s left. Even Aunt Mabel can’t afford Miami tuition. It’s one of the highest in the country. We’ll all be split up, and you’d have to go to Miami alone.”

  His despair was so palpable, he might have already suffered the calamity. And now that he’d put it into words, she had to admit that Trey wasn’t imagining the impossible. It could happen. She had never considered the consequences if he had to forgo his dream. She’d worried only that he could be hurt. For a second, a chill clutched her spine.

  He wiped a towel over his face as if to rub the image from his mind. “I couldn’t bear that, Catherine Ann. I couldn’t bear being without you and John.”

  She reached up and pulled his head down to her eye level. “Listen to me, Trey Don Hall,” she said. “Did you know that fewer than ninety percent of people’s worries come true? Use your mental energy to make happen what you want to happen. You’ve got to focus on the future as a mountain you’re aiming for and don’t even consider phantom detours that may never occur. If they happen, they happen, but the mountain will still be there, and we’ll get to it—all of us, together.”

  His worry lines softened. “You’re so good for me, Catherine Ann. What would I do without you?”

  She patted his cheek. “That’s one concern you can take off your worry list. Now stop all this negative thinking and go get showered and dressed for your big night. I’ll meet you at the barbeque.”

  “I will, but before I do…” He slung the towel around her waist and moored her to him. “Come here, you,” and after he’d kissed her long and hard, he asked, as he always did, his gaze sultry with desire, “You won’t forget about me while I’m gone?”

  She pushed him away with a laugh and the usual, “As if I could.”

  “The pony show starts at five thirty. Don’t be late. I want to see my girl there, looking proud as Punch for me.” He kissed her quickly again. “You’ll be okay here by yourself?”

  “I’ll be fine. There’s not a warm body stirring out there. Everybody’s getting ready to go to the rodeo grounds.”

  At the front door, he hollered back to the kennel section where she was removing a puppy from its cage, the last pen to be cleaned, “Don’t forget to lock the door, Catherine Ann!”

  “Okay!” she called back, cuddling the little male beagle in her arm while she removed the paper lining. She continued to hold the wriggling puppy, even after she’d replaced the lining and filled the bowls with water and food, enjoying the lick of the small tongue on her chin, but after a while she had to put him back into his pen. “Sorry, little guy, but I have to get home to dress for the barbeque.”

  Immediately the beagle began to howl, setting off the other boarders kenneled for the weekend, the noise almost drowning the tinkle of the front door bell. Her neck hair rose. Someone had entered in spite of the CLOSED sign.

  She fastened the cage and quietly made her way in the clamor to the door leading to the reception area. Cracking it open, she drew back with a little gasp when she saw who was standing at the counter. Wolf Man! She had never seen him, but from the matted red hair and vagrant appearance of him, he could be none other but the scary recluse she’d heard about who lived in the shack at the far end of Miss Mabel’s neighborhood. He held a bleeding black and white collie with a gray muzzle in his arms. Rufus’s mother? Trey loved to tell how he and John rescued Rufus from Wolf Man’s backyard on a bitterly cold January night as a surprise for Catherine Ann.

  It took only a few seconds for Cathy to decide what to do. Dr. Graves would have her stay quiet and lock the door until Wolf Man was gone, but the poor dog needed help badly—and immediately. It was her duty to save the dog, even if she got fired. The man gave the counter bell an impatient tap as she pushed open the door. “May I help you?” Cathy said, drawing to her full height to give an impression of authority.

  He turned to stare at her from under brows as bushy and reddish as his hair and beard. “Yes, miss, you can,” he said. “My bitch here is hurt. Got herself mauled in a coyote fight.”

  The man was obviously deeply concerned for his dog and showed no interest in a pretty girl in shorts and T-shirt alone in an office with money in the cash register drawer. “I’m afraid Dr. Graves is not here at the moment,” Cathy said. “I’m only his summer help, but I’ll be happy to see what I can do.”

  “How long will he be gone?”

  “Until Monday morning. There’s an emergency number I can call, if you like.” Dr. Graves wouldn’t come if the patient were Secretariat. He was president of the Bobcat Booster Club and in charge of introducing the team tonight, a duty he’d looked forward to all week with a sappy pride. He was already at the rodeo grounds.

  “He’ll blow me off if you give him my name,” the man said, “and my dog needs help now.”

  “I’m sure he’ll ask,” Cathy said. “Would you like me to take a look at her?”

  The dog was whimpering pitiably. When she heaved, fresh blood seeped from the deep gashes on her side.

  “I’d really appreciate that, miss.”

  “Follow me to the surgery,” Cathy said.

  She could get in big trouble for what she was about to do. “Lay your dog on the table and stay with her until I can get her sedated,” she instructed.

  “Thank you, miss.” The man bent to the dog’s ear, and Cathy caught a whiff of a barnyard odor. “Now just take it easy, Molly. This nice girl is going to fix you up.”

  Well, she hoped, but what if she couldn’t fix Molly up? What then? The man was so fierce looking and the silence so profound from the lack of town traffic that he could scare the fight out of a pit bull, but she wasn’t afraid. She was in her element. In the surgery she was always calm and detached no matter the dire seri
ousness of the animal’s condition or the temperament of its owner. Quickly Cathy filled a syringe and inserted the needle gently into the quivering flesh. “There. That will take her out of her pain for a while until I can clean and suture her wounds.”

  “How bad, Miss?”

  “She’s sustained deep lacerations. She’ll live, but she won’t be as feisty as before.” Cathy slipped into latex gloves, tied on a surgical mask, and set to work. The sedative had taken immediate effect, but the man remained stolidly by the table, stroking the dog’s head. Cathy did not enforce the clinic’s rule that patients’ owners were to wait in the reception room. That would be pushing her luck, and the man’s love for his dog was evident. “How old is Molly?” she asked. She noticed the collie had been spayed.

  “Going on ten years. You’re Cathy Benson, aren’t you?”

  Cathy cast him a surprised glance over the mask. “I am.”

  “Emma Benson’s granddaughter, the girl them boys risked their lives for gettin’ her a puppy.”

  Cathy shaved the hair away from the deep wounds. “So the story goes.”

  “That would be from me,” Wolf Man said proudly, and peered at her closely—to see if the information alarmed her, Cathy guessed.

  “So I was told,” she said.

  “Then you know who I am?”

  Cleaning the serrated tooth marks, Cathy said, “Yes, I do.”

  “From my description, I suppose?”

  Cathy was torn between kindness and truth. After a short pause, working quickly before the sedative wore off, she said, “Yes, sir, from your description.”

  Wolf Man emitted a short laugh of approval. “Well, that’s telling it like it is. You’re Miss Emma’s granddaughter, all right.” He caressed the dog’s ears. “Your puppy is this here’s son. Your boyfriends got him from the only litter I let ol’ Molly have, because nobody would want a puppy from a dog of Wolf Man’s. I ain’t irresponsible like some folks would have you believe.”

 
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