STEVE SMELLEY HAD SOMETHING TO PROVE to the jerks who had made fun of his last name. Greg Smith, a short and tongue-tied Beaver Cleaver look-alike twenty years ago, was raring to charm the ladies. The two most vivacious cheerleaders had died violent deaths, the class favorite had watched his well-heeled father-in-law get carted off to federal prison for savings and loan improprieties, and one of the quarterbacks, Sandy Sanderson, was serving a fifty-year prison sentence for crimes committed as the Voss Road Rapist. Meanwhile, the class snob was now a missionary’s secretary, the weasely back-of-the-classroom guy, Tim Fertitta, was now Galveston restaurant mogul Tilman Fertitta . . . and I, a journalist who has willingly incurred the wrath of prison gangs, an arson ring, Mexican drug lords, and the Texas Rangers, was still terrified of my high school peers, but about to get over it.
Roughly 180 of my fellow 510 class of 1976 graduates convened in Houston the first weekend in August to commemorate our days at Westchester, a high school in the Spring Branch Independent School District that was closed nine years ago because there weren’t enough kids left in the suburbs. None fled faster than I did, and Westchester had something to do with it. I might as well just come out and say it: I would sooner wax sentimental about the cold war than about my high school. To my great disappointment, Westchester wasn’t razed after its closing and replaced by a shopping mall. Instead, a community college moved right into the building, which remains sprawling and windowless, eerily reminiscent of certain state institutions I’ve toured. Intact as well is the entryway, which our school song describes as “tall and stately arches” but which appears to be a bizarre homage to McDonald’s. Come to think of it, our head principal looked a little bit like a portly McDonald’s line manager, though in fact he was an ex—football coach, like many Westchester administrators during that uncertain era of post-hippiedom. While Japanese educators were training their students to become masters of high technology, Westchester’s principals spent the seventies prowling the halls in search of long-haired boys and braless girls to send home for “distracting” the student body from its central mission—which was, of course, to console the football team after another loss. (Our soft suburban honkies were never a match for the tough hayseeds of Conroe and Cy-Fair.)
Rather than be labeled a jock sniffer, I assigned myself the equally clichéd role of Campus Rebel, that sullen hybrid of geek and stoner uniquely equipped to repel the opposite sex. On the blessed last day of school, our vice principal, Robert West, took time out from his busy routine of browbeating the few remaining hippies to inform me that I had been a “failure” at Westchester. The remark would have devastated me had it not been delivered by someone with a wardrobe straight out of Dragnet. But Mr. West had a point: Westchester and I didn’t exactly bring out the best in each other.
So why go back? I was still asking myself that question at the Friday night reunion “beer bust” when a short brunette I recognized as being a former Westchester Wranglerette drill team member came up to me and declared, “I love reading Texas Monthly. You know who my favorite writer is? Skip Hollandsworth.”
I thanked her for that little sucker punch and surveyed the nightclub’s upper deck, which was groaning under the weight of 38-year-olds. Ours had been an affluent class, and two decades later, few of us looked underfed. But there was Laura Kraft Conway, the class beauty, still so serene and self-possessed and hauntingly beautiful that one of our most charismatic jocks confessed to me, “You know, I never once talked to her. I was too intimidated.” I fixed that, dragging him blushing over to Laura, who greeted him graciously, though in a muted voice: Two cancer operations and continuing medical problems had made it difficult for her to talk. I wandered off, sobered by Laura’s bravery in the face of her travails, and then ran into a former classmate who was distinctly not sober.
“I just wanted to tell you . . .” he began as he swayed toward my nose and then rambled on for the next five minutes. The subject of his monologue seemed to be his life, past and present, but about the only intelligible word I picked out was “drunk.” At last he concluded, “I really wanted to catch you tonight, ’cause I won’t be at the party tomorrow.” Grinning, he added, “The Sex Pistols are in town.”
“Now there’s a reunion,” I said to him as I edged away and retrieved my beer at a table where a crowd of males had formed. They were looking at our senior class yearbook—specifically, at the unremarkable photo of Pam Lacy. As one, we then peered over to a statuesque blonde cheerfully circulating about the deck in a black dress that looked to have been surgically applied to her body. “Pam Lacy?” someone—maybe it was me—said. She was now Pamela Lacy West, divorced and with two daughters, a hotshot oil technology salesperson and greatly amused to be receiving all this attention from guys who, twenty years ago, didn’t know her from a pencil eraser. “Oh, I was around,” she assured me with a laugh. “I was just one of those quiet ones who was always being tormented by . . .” and then she whispered the name of one of Westchester’s social princesses, who, I would observe later, had been less kindly treated by the years and looked noticeably chastened throughout the weekend.
The following afternoon, our class gathered at the old campus for a picnic—an event staged both to bask unashamedly in nostalgia and to trot out the toddlers. Lacking in both categories, I killed part of the afternoon driving through the neighborhood of my youth, where my parents still reside. It’s actually a fine, well-groomed, pine-redolent enclave, and I found myself smiling as I eased by the pool where four of us used to skinny-dip on summer nights. The other three—my older brother, Eli; my best friend, Martin Gschwind; and cheerleader Kendall Williams—were all dead now, and sometimes I wondered if I was so damned restless because I was living for four, or maybe just taunting the reaper. In any case, the neighborhood wasn’t mine anymore, though it surprised me to learn that so many of my classmates had in fact moved back and today practiced the ancient rites of 1976: the men in oil and gas, the women at home, cigars and golf club memberships. Everything was as it was before, except that there was no Westchester.
At the end of the afternoon, I checked into the Marriott on the western edge of the neighborhood, where the evening’s gala would take place. I had charged a hospitality suite to Texas Monthly (sorry, Greg) and spent a few minutes pacing its perimeters. Then I phoned up our senior class president, Bob Ashfield, and invited him up for a drink. We had run into each other at a bar in Houston a year before and argued about Phil Gramm (him for, me against). Today neither of us felt like debating. We sipped tequila and talked about what it was like to be practically the only unmarried, childless members of our graduating class. Bob said that one of the ex-jocks had pulled him aside and said, “Don’t worry, Ashfield. We all envy your situation.” There was, we agreed, always something to envy.
Shortly before eight in the evening, Murphy Graham and his wife, Ann, visited. Though Murphy had been a football stud, we’d always gotten along, and the previous night I had laughed at the gentle admonishment he had written in my yearbook twenty years ago: “Don’t judge people too hard—they’re only human and unlike you and I they are fallible.” Today he was one of the few ex-jocks who still had hair and a waist size that did not exceed his age. Murphy, now in engineering, had tried his hand at teaching for a few years but quit after being told by school administrators that his “failure rate” was too high. Ann knocked back her tequila shot and added, “Nowadays, teachers in the district are told not to count off for ‘creative’ spelling.”
“Okay, okay,” I conceded. “So Westchester wasn’t so intellectually pathetic after all.” I muttered a few objections about our alma mater’s lily-white demographics, and then we headed for the hotel ballroom.
Orange and white balloons (signifying the school colors) adorned the ballroom portals. Behind the registration desk, I could see a few articles from our school paper blown up and displayed on an easel. One of them was headlined In Defense of Football; it was an interview I had done with Murphy. The reunion registrar thrust something into my hand. It was a badge featuring my name and my oily-haired, deer-in-the-headlights class picture. Reading my mind, my high school crush, Kim Rambeau Ellis, came over to me and said, “You have to wear it,” and smacked me hard on the chest for emphasis.
I stepped inside the ballroom and, to paraphrase Faulkner, whirled swirling into the swirling whirl. “Hi! What are you doing these days? Where do you live? Good, good! Hi! . . .” People squinted at the picture on my badge, squinted at me, and shook their heads as if to say, “Well, I guess anything would’ve been an improvement.” A few yards away, I noticed that Pamela Lacy West was fighting off the advances of Greg Smith, who had written in our reunion pamphlet, “If I could go back to high school for one day, I would find the best-looking girl in school and ask her out on a date!” The deejay was playing “seventies music”—meaning, it seemed, nothing but Aerosmith. (Where, I demanded, was “Baby, I Love Your Way,” by Peter Frampton?) Making maximum use of the dance floor was Steve Smelley, once a tormented adolescent, now almost toxic with self-confidence. With the greatest of ease he sashayed with his former flame, Lynne Dillard Montgomery, who had dumped him on the eve of the senior prom. Tonight, Steve would at last get his apology.
Outside in the lobby, I located Scott Frederick and John Green. We’d been running buddies all through Westchester, but then Scott moved off to Colorado for college, John had become deeply religious, and like that we lost each other. But not forever, miraculously: For here we were again, bonded by eternal wiseassedness and an affection so easy and sure that it unnerved me. Then Scott said, “I bought these at a tobacco store on my way into town,” and from his jacket withdrew a pack of Sher Bidis, the rancid Indian eucalyptus-and-betel-nut cigarettes we used to smoke in the schoolyards, for which offense my main man Mr. West awarded me a one-day suspension. As Scott lit one up, I could’ve sworn I heard the old vice principal gag. We passed the foul-smelling cigarette among us, pretending to enjoy it while other classmates eyed us with revulsion, just like old times.
The lights went up at one, and thereafter several dozen Westchesterites crammed into my suite. I sat on the edge of the bed and watched them file in, people I had remembered fondly and people I might as well have never seen before, the forgotten many now determined to wedge themselves into the ephemera of a long-vanished era. And me absolutely among them. For the past twenty years I’d denied their relevance to my life. They don’t know me, I’d say. They’re not part of my world. They just came and went and did nothing to earn their place as my peers. I didn’t select them. Kind of like my family, I thought, and then the epiphany took hold: Good God, we’re family, we’re stuck with each other.
Two days later, while I was staring blearily at my office computer, the phone rang. It was Steve Smelley. “Tell me,” he said. “Are you depressed?”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “Twenty years of gritting our teeth and then an effortless weekend and then it’s over before we can savor it.”
Steve murmured thoughtfully. Then we wasted the rest of the afternoon engaging in easily the longest conversation we’d ever had. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, except that it felt nice and that he said something about how he threw a hell of a New Year’s Eve party and that my name would be on the invitation list.