TITLE: Winners Circle
By Judy Webb
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Buddy heard the familiar clanging noise as the doors to the jail cell slammed shut behind him for the last time. He stepped outside. Six months locked away from the world, snatched from his family and thrust into the general population of the local detention center; a humbling nightmare that served to change his life and his heart.
Shading his eyes from the glare of the bright autumn sun while denying the tears that were threatening to fall, he cupped his hands over his forehead and scanned the parking lot for any sign of Pop. He spied the green Ford pick up truck and raised his hand to signal Pop.
"Thanks for coming," Buddy choked as he approached his father. "I wasn't sure you'd be here." Buddy was praying that his father could forgive him, but knew he had work to do before that would happen.
The elderly man shrugged his shoulders and motioned the younger man toward the truck. Following at a safe distance, Buddy studied his father, taking notice of the obviously painful lumbering gait he had acquired since Buddy last saw him.
Leaves crunched underfoot as Buddy headed toward the truck. His eyes began to fill again so he reached for a pair of sunglasses to camouflage his raw emotions. He didn't need for Pop to see him crying.
Sniffing the air and enjoying the smells of autumn, Buddy asked his father, "Ever hear from her?"
Pop did not answer.
"Does she still live there?" Buddy asked.
Pop slowed a bit and then turned toward his son. "I am here because your mother would have wanted me to be here. My feelings have not changed since you were sent away. Now, do you want a ride or not?"
Buddy studied his father's face and saw little to encourage him to ask more questions. The two men traveled in silence for hours until the truck pulled off the highway and onto the familiar dirt road leading to the family farm. Things were so different since his mother died; leaving behind hearts that were broken. The only good thing left was four year old Alex who lived with his grandmother, the stuck-up woman next door.
Buddy was all too familiar with the pumpkin fields and the work Pop put into them. The weeks of obsessive tending and gentle turning were performed to ensure a blue ribbon for the biggest pumpkin at the fall festival. Buddy could envision his Pop's chest puffed with impending pride as he fantasized about the envious stares of the other town folk, especially that stuck-up woman next door, who always looked through him, not at him.
That woman was Maggie Sutton. Buddy knew that she felt she had every reason to look with disdain at Pop, knew she considered him responsible for the behavior of his son. She believed that the apple never fell far from the tree.
The cold wind started in and he shivered, watching the sky darken too quickly. He didn't want this day to end just yet. As bright, painted leaves rained on the crop, he instinctively turned his head toward an infant's cry. The faint mewing sound caused his eyes to fill for the third time today. He was remembering the first time he heard his own son cry. The day Alex was born and Kaci died.
At the top of the hill, under the old Maple, his stuck-up neighbor, Maggie stood. She was shielding a bundle from the blustery weather, and fumbling with her blouse she pulled the collar up tightly around her neck in an attempt to block the cold bone-chilling wind.
Maggie knew that Buddy was not a good influence on her daughter. She knew also that while they justified the pregnancy by declaring how much they loved each other, it wasn't enough. Buddy was a crook and Maggie had to protect her daughter.
Then, Kaci died giving birth to Alex. Maggie couldn't forgive Buddy. That was four years ago.
Buddy walked up the steps to Maggie's house, determination framed his face. Forced, deliberate confidence helped him hold his back erect. Making amends wasn't easy. He needed to look different; he must come across as changed. He was fighting for equal custody of Alex, not through the court system, but face to face.
"Stop right there and don't come another step more," Maggie said. "You should know that you are not welcomed here," she spat.
"I know," Buddy said, "but if you would hear me out." Buddy looked up into Maggie's hardened cold eyes and almost lost his courage. "I am sorry for everything. I am here to thank you for testifying against me. If it weren't for your words at the trial I would not be standing here today." Buddy took a deep breath and went on.
"The six months I spent inside have changed me. I know that I will have to prove that to you, but I also needed to tell you in person. You have every right to shun me and I could not fault you. But, I am Alex's father and I am pleading for a chance to be a father."
Maggie stood there in stony silence. Buddy expected nothing different, but then she spoke. "He is a good boy. I have only told him what his young mind could handle and understand. He is a smart boy, much like his mother. You will see her in him," she said.
"What?" was all Buddy could manage. "Are you going to give me a chance with Alex?" he pleaded. Stepping aside she invited him in.
Later that month, making the rounds of the pumpkin patch, Buddy was surveying the crop, Alex at his heels.
"What a year!" Buddy exclaimed as he made the nightly rounds of the pumpkin patch.
"What a year!" echoed Alex as he followed closely in his father's footsteps, careful not to disturb his grandfather's potential blue ribbon winner.
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