Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
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Delia’s Reunions

1976—If you were to meet another Wichitan, setting off the WICH-i-tawn/WICH-i-tin debate, you would neither be asked when or where you took a degree, nor your neighborhood or even where you went to church—which, of course, you did. No, you would probably be asked where you graduated from high school. It would be as if you were frozen in time, in a permanent class defined by those three years spent in an institution whose boundaries had been determined somewhat whimsically by the Board of Education.

And because you’ve indulged me this far, I’ll tell you. From 1963 to 1966, I, Cara Dalby, attended Wichita High School South. It was a facility that had opened a few years earlier, an exact replica of Southeast High. Copying it saved the Wichita Public Schools a ton of money in architectural fees. The South campus took in a vast area of land for a school property, its boundaries encompassing no wealthy neighborhoods and really only one poor one: Planeview, named for a large collection of barracks where aircraft workers had been housed near the air base during WWII. Otherwise we all came from ordinary homes accommodated by two- and three-bedroom tract houses. Most of our parents worked for one of the major aircraft factories, or any number of manufacturing concerns, including the Coleman Lamp and Stove Company.

I loved South High. There were no rich kids to run the place, no self-appointed snobs to set standards for dress or the type of auto you drove. The sprawling single-story building with two gyms, an Olympic-sized pool, and five elongated halls rested on forty-four acres of land at the southern edge of the city. It was a great place for athletics. For cross country, boys trudged around the perimeter of the property. There were multiple tennis courts, a football field with a new cinder track, and a parking lot that held nearly all the cars 2,300 students could drive to school in a day. Most of those vehicles had been manufactured in the 1950s, and in our lot—pictured in our yearbook, the Sabre—was what today would be a veritable who’s who of antique cars. A few lucky slobs even drove new Mustangs or GTOs that are now considered the crème de la crème. Unlike my junior high built nearly a hundred years ago, South was an airy, pleasant place to go each day. The education I received was probably a notch above average, but we had a very experienced faculty and, anyway, isn’t your education really what you make of it—a culmination of your efforts, not to mention your home and the parents who reared you to that point in your life? Only after years of serving in education can I make that observation. It’s something I certainly couldn’t have determined back then. Oh, and two of the things I do nearly every day—swimming and typing—I learned in high school. Thank you very much.

To be completely honest, I hadn’t liked Delia Karon at first. At times she was pushy, a bit of a know-it-all, the kind of girl you wanted to strangle because she kept correcting the teacher. Then, when Mrs. Mazinski changed the seating chart in our English class and we sat next to one another, Delia asked me if I’d ever been to South America. She posed her question with a bit of deviltry, and I believed I would like her forever. Yes, there existed an instant intensity when we were together. The feeling wasn’t sexual. It just arose, whatever it was—an energy, maybe even an animosity, that drove us to be together again and again. Pictured in Mrs. Mazinski’s class in the Sabre, we were seated in the front row, smiling, cheeks shoved together like showgirls. No one else sat in such a manner, but that was because we were the first to have been spotted by the quarterback/camera buff, Rod Trammell, and we struck our pose for him. Mrs. Mazinski, a petite Italian from New Jersey, smiled and shook her head. “Ladies!”

In that same class, many days later, Kennedy’s death would be announced at 1:38 after we returned from a frenzied lunch, where words of his demise, like a crazy rumor, had spun us around in the halls. As the announcement came over the PA, Mrs. Mazinski, who had been a Freedom Rider in Mississippi, turned to one corner and wept. Delia Karon wept, too. I, for the record, did not. I was affected by the tragedy, naturally, but my parents had voted Nixon; in the Dalby house, Kennedy was a reverse snob who had nearly unleashed a third world war. When Mrs. Mazinski stopped crying, she wiped her eyes with a handkerchief and returned to the front of the class to conclude our discussion of “Man’s Inhumanity to Man.” We had read The Red Badge of Courage, Lord of the Flies, and A Farewell to Arms and turned in our papers. A few parents had taken issue with the hard edge of the theme, but Mrs. Mazinski held to her principles. She was barely twenty-five, yet she possessed a very firm countenance, and, though she joked with us on occasion, no one crossed her. She was the kind of teacher you worked your ass off for simply because she worked her ass off for you. As an educator, I’ve read research that says how much a young person learns any given year has a high correlation with the impression that the teacher likes him or her. I believe Mrs. Mazinski liked us all.

During that same year, Delia and I were enrolled in sixth period Musettes. (My parents had declared I could take only one music class, demanding that I take some poli-sci, more math, and at least one foreign language. Of course I complied, and, of course, they were right. I’ve seen far too many students try and skimp on academics and wind up bombing their SATs.) In Musettes, which consisted of an ensemble of sixteen divided equally between the sexes, we performed mostly madrigals, although our director Miss Perkey did have a penchant for Alfred Burt carols, which we sang with great zest in December: Caroling, caroling, now we go, Christmas bells are ringing. Miss Maude Perkey was originally from Terre Haute, and she was prouder than punch of the fact. She was only in her fifties, but our perception was that she was near death, probably because of the Hush Puppies she wore in every available color and the grayish blonde curls she had fashioned around her face since the 1940s. In spring the entire department presented S-travaganza, in which the Musettes appeared as the diamond setting in Miss Perkey’s particularly gaudy ring. If we had been asked to jump through hoops of fire, the show couldn’t have been more spectacular, what with music, acrobatics, and drama rolled into one stupendous event. As each S-travaganza passed into history, I would fall ill. I don’t think people in general realize how exhausting performance is, even if you love it—which we all did, or we wouldn’t have endured the experience. Delia always said her favorite S-travaganza was the Irving Berlin Revue, in which she sang “God Bless America” to a standing ovation. Her rendition of “What’ll I Do” had made me cry. You wouldn’t have believed we were mere high school kids, whose singing hadn’t amounted to a hill of beans a few years before. Our performances were of near professional quality, or so we were told often enough to believe it.

All three years I served as accompanist for Musettes, which kept me busy because I was also elected head cheerleader as a senior. I was the only reason Delia deigned to attend athletic events. My friends in pep club were consternated because I had befriended a plain plump girl whose singing, I believed, rivaled Beverly Sills’s, but I couldn’t help it. It was as if Delia and I had been thrown together, star-crossed lovers of a sort, although this is not that kind of story.

I must make clear that Delia’s voice was not ordinary; Miss Perkey herself paid for Delia’s singing lessons at Friends University. For a high school girl, she sounded much more zaftig, her voice ranging from alto to coloratura, and she warbled without showing off like a beautiful parrot, as many prodigies are wont to do. At the University of Kansas, she would later major in political science, giving no other reason except that it was more challenging than music. Miss Maude, of course, would be ravaged, but the rest of us knew how Delia felt about the world. She had belonged to the Young Democrats, she had protested against the war, and since university, she had been employed by the Peace Corps.

In fact, Delia had experienced some sort of kerfuffle in her last days in South Korea, just weeks before we were to gather at Wichita’s Allis Hotel for the reunion. She had told me in a letter that she was planning to make a change, but as usual, she remained rather vague. I have to say that Delia had made rather bohemian wardrobe choices in high school—partly because of family income but mostly because she liked to be contrary—dressing one day as a beggar, another as a little girl in overalls, another all in black as a beatnik. She strongly asserted that reading Kerouac would save the world from itself.

I arrived early for the reunion banquet and dance. After giving me a peck on the cheek, Jacob Ashburn declared to me that we all had given way too much thought to our attire. Kind of the class slider back then—though he had been elected class president three years in a row—Jacob was tall and blond and led me to a table where his wife was seated. Dressed in pale blue slacks, with a lemon sherbet jacket, he brought everyone a glass of Chardonnay from the bar. “Look at us,” he said. “Dressed like stiffs out of Look magazine.” He insisted our current lives were much more important. “Do you think being a city tennis champ means shit to anyone now?” He looked, I think, to see if it meant anything to us. “The only thing I care about is if I make partner by the time I’m thirty.”

I nodded and a flash drew my eyes toward the main door of the ballroom, the walls of which were rife with tarnished silver wings. I think our space was called the Runway Room since, at the time, Wichita billed itself as the Air Capital of the World. And at that moment, a figure stood at the door like Marilyn Monroe from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her arms spread, her knees jauntily bent to one side, and this gigantic smile igniting her face with joy. Light from the garish chandeliers caught the sheen of her teeth, and there was something manufactured but completely wholesome about her appearance that made a number of people drop their forks.

“Delia?” I whispered.

“No way that’s Delia Karon,” Jacob said. “No fucking way.”

“Down, boy,” said Mindy, his wife, a busty brunette from Shawnee Mission he had met in law school and who had stooped to settle with him in Wichita. I say that because people from the Kansas City area often believed that the western border of Johnson County was that point at which you would fall from the edge of earth into everlasting oblivion. The Ashburns resided in one of the finest houses in town. The address on South Pershing had only three digits, Jacob kept telling everyone, and he had gotten it for two songs. No one laughed.

I jumped up and ran through the crowd to the door, and one of my spaghetti straps slid down my shoulder. I had made the dress myself, and my mother said it looked like a black slip; what she was kind enough to keep to herself was that I still had no breasts. At the last second, I pulled my strap up, which was a hair too loose, and the two of us embraced as only American women could, as if we were long lost sisters and simply had to catch up on the last hundred years.

“I didn’t think you were coming,” I said, my cheek shoved against Delia’s. That feeling so intense, so real, overtook me once again.

When I pulled back, I found myself staring at Delia’s hair, trying to figure out what was so odd about her French twist. My first thought was that she was wearing a wig, but everything looked so correct. It was the right color, though the strands were thicker and more lustrous than I recalled. As a grande dame of the world, was she attempting to send up the 1960s or French cinema? At South High, Delia had worn her locks shoulder length, depending on which shoulder you were observing, and the ends looked as if she had trimmed them herself. When she hadn’t washed it in a week, she would wear it in a ponytail or a bun.

“You look fabulous,” I said.

“Oh, you, too. Love this,” she said, lifting the spaghetti strap back onto my shoulder. “Still so thin, I hate you.” Then she laughed in a manner reminiscent of Tallulah Bankhead’s roar and grabbed my hand.

“Well, doll, you’re absolutely statuesque in those shoes.” In Dallas, where Delia resided, spiked heels must have been in a transitional period, even if the rest of the country had moved on to the more stacked variety. In any case, she was wearing a pair that made her tower over me and some of the men as well. Her countenance was dazzling.

We continued to hold hands, and I gazed at Delia’s dress with a mixture of envy and admiration. Her garment was a single piece of chartreuse satin that began with a broad Peter Pan collar wrapped around her neck, which turned out to be the only thing holding up her bodice. Her exquisite back was bare to the base of her spine, her breasts two rocket cones aimed toward the USSR, and from her waist, which was mannequin thin, her pleated dress fell to just above her knees. Her legs were lithe and tan, and she was shod not in chartreuse, but pale blue spikes that matched an ephemeral wrap floating above her shoulders like angel hair. And, as if playing Cinderella, she had a tiny gold lamé purse chained around her wrist. It couldn’t have held so much as a tampon.

Jacob, stunning at six-five with white-blond hair and a rugged golf tan, arrived at our side, breathless. His face was plastered with a look he should have outgrown by then: the slightly canine gaze indicating he would stop at nothing to get inside her panties.

“God, I heard your hut burned down,” he said, offering his cheek.

“Yes, well, rumors of my death have been  . . .” Delia said, laughing.

I was glad to see that she had maintained her sense of humor, and I recalled a night during our senior year. We had scaled a set of iron rungs to find ourselves atop the asphalt roof over the stage of the South High theater. We were at most three stories up, but we could gaze over the elongated halls A through E. To the south we could hear the hum of freeway traffic; beyond that was nothing but prairie grass. Northward we could view downtown, where the pink neon of the Allis Hotel tower light flickered like an old lamp about to extinguish itself. The wind blew our hair in four or five directions, and we all had screamed, Delia and I and six other Musettes in our blue cotton dresses with boat necks. Our eight guys had gone bowling in their tuxes—a Maude Perkey no-no.

“Where do you think you’ll be in ten years?” I’d asked Delia that night, as we hung out over the edge of the building. Sally Treviño, who could be such a goose, and the others kept squealing for us to stand back. I remember everyone’s ironed hair flung all the way back or all the way forward as if we were witches out of Macbeth.

“I don’t know,” she yelled above the wind. “I would hope to have acquired a great education.”

“Dr. Delia?”

She snorted. “Yeah, why not, if I can get my itinerate father to pay for it.”

“What would you major in?”

“Poli-sci and beer, lots of beer.”

“What about after that?”

“My dad was in the Army, and before he abandoned my mother and me, we lived in Japan, Germany, and Italy. I would love to live on the fly, you know, diplomatic work. All those caballeros and gentilshommes with expense accounts.”

“You’re about as diplomatic as Lucille Ball.” I grinned and stared at Delia, as if I might never see her after graduation, and tried to memorize her features. Her hair, as I said, was cut unevenly. She wore glasses with thick black frames, which was a popular look back then, but they made her appear like a raccoon. She had a notable gap between two front teeth that gave her smile a cruel strength, as if she could have slung you across the room if you pissed her off. And if Delia had suggested we could make it to the ground without using the ladder, I would have followed her over the side. Without question. When the moment came to retreat down the iron rungs, I was disappointed, and I believe Delia was, too, but the other girls had begun their descent to earth and we, for some reason, seemed destined to follow.

“Wait!” I yelled into the wind, when it was just we two left on the roof. She turned her head as she grabbed the ladder. Her head was cocked, a gorgeous smile enveloped her face, and a strand of hair caught on her lips. “I have to hug you, to commemorate the moment.”

She rolled her eyes, and we embraced quickly, a little awkwardly, but I think that I hoped it would originate a lifetime friendship, that after our feet reached the ground there would be no doubt about it.

All through the reunion dance, Delia and I tried to chat, but males who had scorned her intellectual nature in high school kept interrupting to ask Delia, and sometimes me, to dance. Delia, who had been unable to take two steps without tripping in an S-travaganza, danced with the complete abandon of Carmen Miranda, occasionally flaunting her bazoombas like maracas. Moreover, she had acquired a grace, an elegance that proved if you toiled hard enough, you could reinvent yourself as a minor celebrity. All evening she would throw her head back and laugh robustly. When I noticed that the gap between her teeth had been closed and asked her if she had had her teeth worked on, and again when I queried her about her apparently smaller nose, she wagged her index finger and laughed. When I asked her about a wig, she rolled her eyes and sailed away with quarterback Rod Trammell, who wouldn’t have given her the time in 1963, even as he stood in the doorway of our English class and shot our picture for the Sabre.

“Who’s Kinky?” I asked Delia the next day, a Sunday. I had skipped services at Central Christian downtown, where I usually accompanied my parents. She and I had bought burgers and onion rings at Kings-X and had spread a blanket at Riverside Park, beneath a huge old elm. The aromas reminded me of cold winter evenings when, after a gig, the Musettes would gang into several cars and burst onto Kings-X on Seneca, with its low amber lighting and scuffed Formica-and-stainless-steel tables. The X was a local chain that, as it turned out, would last well into the twenty-first century. After McDonald’s had sold its trillions, the X would still be there, with its pitted parking lot and cheesy sign boasting “Scores of Dozens Sold.” As it was early summer, before midwestern heat arrived like an invisible tsunami, big elms provided a dappled shade that was almost cool. The entire park served as a large cabana, where children nearby played a game of baseball. A group of dads clanked horseshoes. Squeals echoed from the pool.

“Kinky’s my trainer in Dallas. He’d kill me if he saw me eating this shit.”

“God, no wonder you’re so trim.” Picturing Delia’s pudgy figure in high school, I still couldn’t fathom how lithe her figure had become.

I took a large bite out of my burger. Even though I lived in town, I had not been to a Kings-X since before graduation. It didn’t seem right to be there without the Musettes; we had often sung for extra burgers that we then cut up and shared. The long-haired man that I currently went out with was a vegetarian, so I was rather eating on the sly, hoping he wouldn’t later sniff out the blood and lard in my pores. We broke up shortly after. He was an avid ecologist, and at the time I believed his concerns were a bit alarmist.

“You know, I hated you, all of you . . . cheerleaders,” Delia said, nibbling her burger. I remembered Delia gobbling down a tuna salad sandwich she had bought from a vending machine as if it were a turkey leg. She and I both ate C lunch, so in sunny weather we would skip the main serving line and eat out in the rather bare courtyard. But now, she seemed to treat her vittles like an unnecessary snack—a tidbit she might sniff and pass up for something later. Her figure looked equally great in khaki shorts.

“God, weren’t we snots,” I said.

The confession didn’t seem to satisfy Delia. She took a small bite of an onion ring and threw the detritus on the red-and-white checked paper plate, licking her fingers, as if she wanted to say more but couldn’t find the words. Her watermelon-colored nails shone like little darts. Her hair was still piled on top of her head, and she was wearing a white blouse that hung outside her khakis. Her shoes were the old Delia, white tennies from Kmart. And a bobby pin dangled from a strand of hair strung over her ear like a vine. She faced into the wind and grimaced.

“We were just stupid girls,” I said.

“Cara, I didn’t have the luxury of being stupid,” Delia said. “Mother planned to shove me out the door at eighteen, no matter what. She said I might as well see what the world was like. If I wanted to go to college, if I wanted to have a shot at scholarships, I would have to stay in my room and study. I had not been so inclined in the earlier grades, although I did love to read.” She turned her gaze toward the canopy above us, as if she might begin to speak of her favorite books. “At South, I began to realize I possessed more information than most people, that I understood far more than some of my teachers, and I was flabbergasted. It was like discovering the Holy Grail. I possessed its power, yet boys treated me like radioactive waste. Vvvttt.” She made a claw of one hand.

“Why the Cinderella act?” I asked, lying back, checking out a break in the sky for flying saucers. I always hoped to see a UFO; it would have confirmed my belief that life could come at you from any direction.

“I couldn’t show up like her again, in that black mantilla, not like some sort of nun, for Christ’s sake. Did you see Jacob, the way he slobbered over me?” She paused,
savoring something. “God, do you realize back then he wouldn’t even walk down the hall with me? We’d leave American History together, arguing whether the Communists were going to take over the world, and if he saw one of his jock friends coming down E Hall, he’d virtually disappear. Poof.”

“You never told me,” I said, touching her arm.

Just then the wind gusted the branches overhead, whooshing the grass around us, and the entirety of Delia’s hair jumped to her shoulder. “Oh, God,” she said, grabbing the mess and holding it in her lap like a little dog. She bent over so that her mottled head was nearly in my lap.

“Oh, darling,” I whispered, placing my hand on the nape of her neck and pulling her so that our foreheads touched. All that was left was a thin burr of reddish fuzz, which I caressed with sad affection, kissing the top of her head as if she were a baby. Her scalp was still purple, the color of a birthmark. “The story is you escaped the fire.”

She sat straight up and wiped her face. “I simply didn’t want their pity. I spent two months’ pay on my dress, and I’d lost just enough weight since the fire that I had to spend the night before last altering it. To make things worse, Mother kept clucking her tongue . . . between slurps of gin and hits off her Tareytons.”

I didn’t want to talk about Delia’s mother. “You looked so fabulous.”

“Yes, didn’t I, Lucy-in-the-sky-with-diamonds.” She stared across the way, where someone was waterskiing in the dark waters of the Little Arkansas River. The outboard motor whined like a mosquito, and Delia’s voice became vague. “I told the old man not to light a match until the propane had cleared the air. He’d forgotten and left his stove on, while he spent the night away, and I could smell the gas from my hut. I raced over, opened his tiny door to make sure he understood, my Korean not being the best, and suddenly, a whoosh and a bang. When I turned to leave, my head was a maelstrom, and I ran for the town pump. The doctor said all will heal, I’ll have hair again. But from the look I saw in his eyes, I have my doubts.”

Delia pulled a white scarf out of her bag and wrapped her head loosely. The wind blew the corners of the material about like strands of hair. She stood, stuffing her wig into her purse, as if it were something shameful.

“Can you take me to the airport?” she said. “Tuesday morning, either those assholes promote me to head of Southwest Region, or I’m quitting the Peace Corps.”

“Really? Didn’t you just get a transfer?”

She shrugged. “My boss, whom I loathe because he’s as dumb as a stump and a bad fuck to boot, and I are up for the director’s post. Either I get proof that I’m his superior, or I say buh-bye and go to work at my friend’s travel agency.”

I didn’t know what to say. I had taught home ec at East High since I was twenty-two, and most all my girls were sweet and compliant candidates for marriage who followed my directions like little robots. I had fallen in love with the oldest high school in town, with all its quaint tradition crowded onto several city blocks, after having graduated from the newest campus, with its five halls sprawled over not even a quarter of its forty-four acres. My life was unfolding for me in neat semesters of eighteen weeks, a comfortable path I believed I would always love. I couldn’t have imagined leaving because my principal made a pass at me or because I was smarter than he, which I was.

The next day, as we waited for Delia’s flight to take off, we sat in the coffee shop.

“I loved the Irving Berlin Revue we did for S-travaganza,” Delia said, dreamily looking past me to something going on near the entrance, a really young couple saying good-bye. She said S-travaganza as if it were a legitimate word and not something made up by a demented old maid who had retired to her beloved Terre Haute.

“Why didn’t you major in music?” I asked.

Delia shrugged. “I know I was good. Miss Maude used to tell me, ‘One day you’ll sing at the Met, and I’ll come to see you. We’ll take a room together and talk all night like girls.’ It was more her dream than mine.” She sipped her coffee with her pinky slightly elevated, a gesture that seemed more affected than genteel. “Outside the borders of this country, there exists a world most of us know nothing about. As big as America is, we’re just a tiny island.” She sipped more. “In Korea I spent an hour every morning in a language lab, another hour in culture studies. They were more important than any class I ever took at South or KU.” She slurped the last of her coffee. “There was an old upright in the little village where I was in Kunsan . . . in the town hall, sort of, though there exists no counterpart for it here. One night I played and sang a few Berlin songs. They were all I could remember, for some reason. No arias. Nothing from Elijah. The villagers were unimpressed—got up and left, in fact—and I knew I had made the right career choice.”

A man’s voice announced Delia’s flight over the public address system, and we stood. While paying out at the cash register, I said, “Good luck with your promotion.”

She nodded, but I could tell her mind was on something else entirely, how she might get the world to wake up and stop wasting gas or something equally momentous, though she couldn’t have articulated it at the moment. In a few minutes, I kissed her cheek, and she said, “You’ve always been such a good friend, better than I deserve.” Then I watched her walk up the concourse and disappear around a corner.

Every year after that, I sent Delia a Christmas card in February in the form of a Valentine, and when she vacationed in autumn she would mail me a postcard with oddly shaped stamps, usually South American. Utilizing nearly the entire space of the card, she would scrawl in tiny letters the events of her life since I had last heard from her. “I seem to possess a blazing blind spot for Latin men, with their rugged blue beards and slicked-back hair.” And she signed each card, “As Always, D.” Delia Sue Karon was a person I gave a great deal of thought to, whether I saw her or not, a fact that was not entirely undisturbing to me.


1986—Delia’s postcards stopped arriving in 1981. I thought of calling one of the old Musettes, but I hadn’t seen any of those people in years, not since the last reunion. I suppose I could have contacted Delia’s mother. But Mrs. Karon drank heavily to self-medicate, and if I caught her at a bad time, particularly at five thirty, after she had come home from assembling jets at Boeing, she would ramble on and on about her numerous difficulties. She would expect a cash donation for the cause. I called anyway. After an hour of listening to her pathetic little-girl voice, I understood why Delia’s career had taken her out of town. My parents, by comparison, weren’t nearly as difficult. Their lives were neatly laid out in an evening grid of bridge, university sports, and church, and I was grateful they left me to live my life as I saw fit.

At the time of the twentieth-year reunion, I was finishing my master’s, a catch-all in education that would certify me in secondary administration, and Delia’s timing was not the best. On the July Monday following its festivities, a huge statistics project would be due, and I would be expected to sit for an exam on how to perform as a superintendent in a Kansas school district. Single and thirty-eight, I intended to go all the way. Advancement would provide me with an opportunity to pad my pension; only four more years and I would be vested. I had long since served as home ec department chair for additional pay, and the principal, a man about my age, and I were fairly compatible in that we both loathed sloth. I liked and respected his wife, too, so there was no chance I would ever be tempted to cross that line. It wasn’t that I was particularly moral. While, for a time, the sexual revolution had taken me in its thrall, I realized I didn’t care for the whole idea of handing my body over to strangers or necessarily to men I barely liked. My nerves simply couldn’t have withstood the duplicity of a tryst, certainly not in addition to earning an advanced degree and continuing to vie for Teacher of the Year.

When the reunion information began arriving, I saw that Jacob Ashburn was in charge again. Actually, his secretary, a North High grad, planned the whole thing. Out of meanness, she saw to it that the ballroom was decorated in North’s red and white. They were the Redskins, a motif more odious than South High’s red and blue Confederacy. At the last minute, Jacob had arrived and draped some blue bunting to keep everyone from rioting. You see, beginning in 1959 the South High mascot had been a Confederate colonel—a funny caricature with huge biceps—and then in 1971 the Board of Education agreed with certain justified malcontents, that to wave the Confederate flag and play “Dixie” as one’s fight song—the words altered, of course—was a little problematic.

There seemed to have been a quandary about where to hold the blessed event. The seventeen-story Allis Hotel wouldn’t be leveled for another ten years, thank God, but it was in shambles. The Cotillion Ballroom, where we had held our proms, was also a weathered shell of its former glory. The city, our city, seemed to have been decimated, so finally Jacob engaged the Airport Hilton. Actually, it sounded breezy. Imagine arriving at Mid-Continent Airport and having the pilot drop you at the end of the runway, where a crowd of your closest friends would be waiting to toss red and blue leis around your neck.

What actually happened wasn’t that far off the mark. A number of us were standing on the observation deck waiting for a plane from Kansas City to arrive at six. Over fifty graduates there had chartered a regional airline, maybe Ozark, I can’t remember. The plane was late, but at six thirty, in the rankest heat of the day, a little Learjet came screeching out of the sky and taxied up to the last gate on our right. I knew it was Delia, even before the hatch opened and a man in a white tuxedo exited. Then she appeared: a woman with luxuriant hair made into one of those Charlie’s Angels backsweeps. I was certain it was a wig, that the fire in Korea had rendered her forever bald, and I fully expected it to blow away. But the scorching wind notwithstanding, her hair seemed as secure as a wind sock. The gentleman, white-haired and dapper, stood down and held her hand, as she took one tiny step at a time in white slingbacks with short heels. It was like watching Miss America. Her cocktail dress was Oil of Olay pink, and she had abandoned the rocket cone look for a more rounded one. Again, something made me wonder if it was all Delia. I watched as Jacob ran out to greet her.

By the time the Kansas City plane screamed up to gate five, most of the class had gathered in the main lobby of the airport, a crossroads we rather dominated by virtue of our looming presence. It reminded me of how we would crowd into the lobby at South in the mornings, jabbering and passing well-folded notes to our friends about the loves of our lives. I remember taking such great care in writing them, rereading selected ones time after time, before storing them in a three-ring notebook, which eventually I trashed. The principals would shoo us on to class, so we wouldn’t be marked tardy, but we were oblivious. Attending class was an inconvenience tolerated so that we could get the latest on everyone, which, in some cases, had changed colossally overnight.

“Where on God’s green earth have you been for the last five years?” I asked, holding up Delia’s hands and gazing at her.

“Cara,” she said, gazing into my face, “you know what a bad, bad correspondent I am.”

“I know, sweetums, I forgive you, but you still haven’t told me . . . ”

“Oh, you didn’t get our wedding invitation?” she said. “This is my husband, the duke.” I couldn’t believe how smoothly Delia deflected the issue.

“Duke?” Jacob said. As emcee, he was wearing a white dinner jacket, double breasted, with padded shoulders. He looked ridiculous.

“Oh, Zhon has his own island,” Delia said. “Off the coast of Mexico.”

Behind their backs, Jacob mugged with a couple of his buddies, indicating total disbelief, and I, too, stifled a smile. The Kansas City people were riotously drunk and completely involved in an orb of their own making, unaware of the entrance Delia had made, and when you tried to tell them about it, they laughed raucously for a second and returned to their peers. We all migrated to a number of jitneys that shuttled us over to the Airport Hilton, and the hot prairie winds blew the hair of our royal couple, hers firmly rooted in her own head (her doctor had been correct), the duke’s rising up in rigid little wings that seemed as if they might loft him into the air. He was much older than Delia, perhaps her father’s age, and I suddenly felt sorry for her, though I’m not sure why. She seemed to want for nothing, her fingers bejeweled with smooth gold rings, her wrists bangled with tasteful bracelets dotted with diamonds.

I don’t remember the dance. In fact, recalling the physical details of all the proms we had gone to and the four reunions remains to this day a difficult task. “Moonlight Bay” melts into “Whispering Pines,” into “Down Among the Sheltering Palms.” I can say this: the same couples, some of whom had divorced, danced together, time after time, to the same dances, to the same music—as if time had never passed. “Stop! In the Name of Love” was a song that was not necessarily destined to become our national anthem, but at each reunion the other cheerleaders insisted we do a lip-sync routine to its repetitive lyrics; we would practice in the hall for a few minutes, disagreeing profoundly on the original choreography.

It turned out that Zhon was exhausted. He had connected with Delia in Dallas after having flown in from Mexico, and after one dance, where Delia rested her head on his chest, he was off to bed. I was disappointed, for I wanted to know more about their life together, how she had landed him, but Delia began gabbing with people I know she hadn’t associated with twenty years before, and I danced with a few of the balding males.

Jacob Ashburn, like most lawyers, enjoyed hearing himself talk and planned a very emcee-oriented evening. He kept returning to the microphone between sets, which Vince Baker and his orchestra played with a certain panache, and presenting what he thought were clever awards printed from his dot matrix. This one is for the person who’s come the farthest . . . in a fashion sense. It was given to a woman who had worn pink curlers halfway through the tenth reunion, before pulling out a comb and creating a flip. I did it as a joke, she kept saying. The one who was deemed most likely to succeed but hasn’t, not really. It was given in absentia to the student council president who had matriculated at Harvard and had only his Amway accounts to show for it. The one who has grown the most in ten years, little Mary Whitlow, who now weighed two hundred pounds. And I swear to God, this was his last one, The best dressed boy and the best dressed girl, and they will lead off our last dance. Jacob Ashburn called Delia’s name and, of course, expected her to dance with him, the best dressed boy.

With that pronouncement Delia and I scurried toward the lobby, miming that we would return after a quick trip to the bathroom. Out in the hall, we made a dash for the elevator. Watching the numbered lights move from floor to floor, we could think of nothing to say, and so we smiled at one another like gregarious strangers.

“When I’m fit,” Delia said, running her hands down her hips, “I feel invincible. Being like this gives me power.”


Delia looked at me as if I were dense. A tree or something. “Come,” she said, when the elevator door opened, grabbing my arm. In the largest suite the Airport Hilton had to offer, we tiptoed through the sitting room and perched ourselves on a small terrace with a frail wrought iron rail, where we could watch little planes buzz the field like fireflies. It was after midnight, the concrete below creating great thermals, and the major carriers had stopped arriving hours ago. Wichita was still, after viewing it in that manner, the smallish city where we had grown up, destined for little in the way of greatness.

“Where did you meet Duke Zhon?” I asked, nudging her toe with mine. We were both barefooted, our shoes mingled together haphazardly on the terrace.

She raised her eyebrows and smiled. “Who are you doing these days?”

“Oh, Delia, I’m too tired for this, I’ve got . . . ”

“I was so jealous of you. Rod Trammell one weekend. Captain Basketball, I can’t remember his name, the next. That blond baseball player built like a brick shithouse. And to think . . . I’m the one with the prince.”

I stared at her. “I thought he was a duke.” I had expected to converse with Delia like an adult who had continued to cultivate her own life, which she had, obviously, but she looked away. I couldn’t even remember having gone out with any of those guys, except for Rod; he and I had roamed Wichita photographing landmarks for the yearbook fly page. “Deel, it was never a contest. I’m really happy for you, but I’m happy for me, too. I’m moving up in the district. I bought my own shoes for this shindig. My dress came from Saks.” I had seen my puffy-sleeved cocktail in the catalog and ordered it over the telephone from a woman who spoke like Selma Diamond. “Yes, I live alone, but it’s a good fit.”

Delia smiled, tonguing the edge of the martini glass lifted from the party downstairs. She had baited her trap, and I had stepped in, clodhoppers first.

“You bitch,” I said, slapping her wrist.

She shrugged, and suddenly I was aggravated. “Tomorrow is the last day I have to study before my state exams, so I’m afraid tonight will have to be good-bye.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “Javier . . . Zhon wants to take you up in his plane tomorrow.”

“Javier . . . who?”

She shrugged and smiled goofily.

“Delia Karon, I’ve been in a Learjet before. Please.” It was real popular in the sit-coms to say that back then. I believe it was, Pul-ease.

“Oh, come on, he does tricks.”


She grinned, and I was reminded of the girl with ironed hair blowing horizontally as we stood on the roof over the South High theater, the girl who might have earned a PhD if she had had parents who acted like grown-ups. From the corners of her eyes radiated two faint lines that extended upward along either temple, and I couldn’t have been more enraged at how good she looked. Life demanded that I work sixty hours a week, even that summer, and I had layered on the makeup to cover, like a sculptor, lines that seemed to crepe the skin surrounding my eyes, ironically, only when I smiled.

“You know I know he’s not a duke, don’t you?” I said.

“It’s all just theater anyway,” Delia said, “the whole fucking reunion. I only wanted to play my part. Next time I may be a lesbian mom with a newborn.” Her eyes flashed, and neither of us spoke. It was a typical summer evening, humid, with a constant breeze out of the south, the massive acres of concrete and asphalt aboil like a huge cauldron of soup. Delia began to speak in a monotone. “Jacob Ashburn, the silly ass, has been strutting his tiny white butt since kindergarten. I should know because I shoved him down and sat on it till he screamed so hard our teacher had to lift me off him. Could you believe Monica the cheerleader, no offense intended, dancing with her ex-husband, Rod the quarterback, as if they just had a little fight and made up? Fuck.”

I stared her down. “Where did you dig him up, this Javier?”

Delia rolled her eyes and sighed. “His condo is next to mine. For my little deception, he provided his plane, but I paid for everything else. And he’s as gay as most of the men in our complex.”

She unhooked her pearls and dropped them into a little chain mail bag, along with a large amethyst ring and solid gold band—as if she were going to check them back into a wardrobe mistress.

“Fag-hag!” I said.


Name-calling changed little in our lives. I would sit for my exams on Monday. Delia, as it turned out, would return to the travel agency where she had worked since that morning ten years ago when she told the Peace Corps to piss off.

“Sometimes I get these junkets, you know, to try out a package, say, to the Azores. I’ll give you a call, and we can go together.”

“It’s a deal, Deel.” And that was it. We exchanged continental kisses, and neither one of us returned to the reunion. On the way back to my garage apartment, not five blocks from East High, the realization hit me. Delia lived in an orb of her own making, and she had just swung out so we could view her, like a rare comet, until her next reunion with us. At the same time, I felt I might never hear from her again and realized—recalling a cold December night in 1965—that I had been here before.

That evening, after having sung for something like the Lions Club, we had bought burgers at the X and then headed for Herman Hill Park, a tiny spit of land triangulated by the Arkansas River, Broadway, and Pawnee. After we steamed up the windows of my dad’s car snarfing down burgers, Delia and Sally excused themselves to the restroom. In their absence the guys talked us girls into playing a dirty little trick on Delia. The best-looking boy, Ted Norley, would station himself at the head of a queue and award a kiss to every girl in the ensemble. When Delia returned, he began kissing each one of us slowly and deliberately, and each girl sighed when her kiss was over. Delia, of course, had found her place at the end of the line, and we all knew for a fact that she was crazy about Ted. When she stepped up to him with a little too much, shall I say, anticipation, he released a horrendous scream and ran toward the river. While we laughed at our little contrivance, Delia raced after Ted and jumped on his back. Looking like a strange creature with legs emerging from his hips, they returned to where we were standing, and Delia was laughing, too, caterwauling with delight. Yet on the following Monday, there was an air about her, a chill that was unmistakable.

A few weeks after the reunion I received a copy of our group photograph. Most everyone is laughing or smiling, except for Delia, who is caught in a wild blur, turning her head toward Rod Trammell. Funny thing, too. She is on the end, standing alone.


1996—The bomb went off in Atlanta’s Olympic Park the day I was promoted. Anyone who flew into Wichita had a horror story about being dump searched at his or her originating airport, whether it was Phoenix, LAX, KC, or Denver. Frankly, I traveled little at that point, so the incident had no effect on me. Yes, I was sickened by the act of terror, but nothing like that ever happened in Wichita—although I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Oklahoma City tragedy had occurred two-and-a-half hours to the south. On the day I was assigned my own school, which is to say, after years of being someone’s assistant principal—playing second fiddle to an overweight schlub, the kind of sexist pig who enjoyed telling women what to do—I had been promoted. Problem was, instead of being stationed in a junior or senior high school, the Big They downtown had awarded me an elementary school listed as “marginal.”

“You want to show us what you can do?” the superintendent had said, sitting behind his huge desk at the central office. He had one of those slim, severe faces that looked as if he’d just eaten a pickle. “Get old Hardy Elementary up to snuff, and you can eat all the oysters you want.” Superintendent Ned Squires had been born in 1926, the same year as Jerry Lewis, but he seemed much older. To my way of thinking, he should have already expired.

The garbling of a fine cliché notwithstanding, Dr. Squires’s real message came through loud and clear. He expected me to fail. And when I did, he would return my pompous ass and all my ambitions to the classroom—as if it were a punishment. After our visit and after thanking him profusely—I knew how to play—I received the keys for Hardy from his secretary. The two-story brick building was nestled in among some dying elms near the university. Its student body was largely black, and it had the highest number of students who had failed the achievement test du jour. At least thirty kids were milling about in the yard, and there was a spirited basketball game taking place over on the blacktop surface. Someone had brought a boom box, and my heart fluttered at the sight of a world I was expected to enter and transform. And I would. Yes, I would see that students wanted to reach their fullest potential. I would motivate the faculty to be the very best. I would hire, from the folders spread out before me downtown, the cream of the crop, and then I would provide them with the support they needed, if I had to go broke doing it.

I was fairly gawked at by three thin girls, who were jumping rope with a series of garments that had been knotted together, as I made my way to the front door. The trio stopped their game when their “rope” broke. One said “You the new boss lady?” I smiled and conversed a bit with them. Then I climbed the worn granite steps, inserted and turned the key, pushed the heavy door open, and listened to it click behind me. The building had been locked up since June, and its sour smell enveloped the place as if it had a slow gas leak. There was plaster crumbled on the floor, where workers had begun to patch the ceiling and then quit for some reason. I located another key and opened the office. It was furnished with ancient furniture and draperies that reeked of tobacco smoke; I ripped them down and kicked them to the corner. Then my office appeared through another door, the décor having been provided by the last principal. Curtains with large autumn leaves and brown apples hung like frayed flags left over from a battle. The oak desk was scratched beyond belief. And again, there was plaster dust on everything.

The air was stifling, and I turned on the window unit, which blew dust in my face. Over the noise I could hear the girls out on the sidewalk shouting their rope jingle—motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker, true / motherfucker, motherfucker, I’ll get you. I stepped outside and convinced them there were more appropriate ways to go. Cinderella dressed in yella . . . After twenty minutes of turning one end of the rope, I was drenched and bid them adieu. They immediately resumed the motherfucker business, and I shrugged. It was a torrid summer, where the temps had climbed to over a hundred for days on end, and as the season progressed, the air conditioner in my office window would groan louder with each start-up. I picked up the receiver of my beige phone and dialed the superintendent’s secretary, who put me through to Dr. Squires. Yes, he said.

“You filthy bastard,” I whispered.

As the last reminder for the reunion arrived, all I could think about was how I was going to whip old Hardy into shape without going insane. I simply had too much to do, and then at home one night, while I was lying around in my robe, trying to come down so that I could get some winks, the phone rang.

“What are you wearing this year?” a voice said.

“Well, evanescent Lil’ Red Riding Hood,” I said, mocking a ditty I remembered from one of the S-travaganzas we’d done ages ago.

“What?” Delia said.

“What?” I said, and she laughed.

I realized Delia Karon had no idea what I was going through each day—recalcitrant maintenance workers, a budget that allowed me five hundred dollars to decorate my office, the stifling heat—and I got sane.

“I’m afraid I’m overwhelmed at the moment . . . ”

“I’m going to appear in a wheelchair. Everyone will think I juth had a thtroke.” She laughed, but there was something about her voice that was muffled, something about her tongue that didn’t seem right.

With the phone wedged under my chin, I got up and poured myself more Perrier. Delia had been silent for nearly ten years, eschewing my pleas at Valentine’s Day to drop a line. A postcard. Anything. “What about our trip to the Azores?” I said, when the crackling line had become too much to bear.

“I’m a conthierge now.” If she had been trying to imitate Elmer Fudd, she couldn’t have sounded stupider.

“A what?” We had taken French together, so I had a pretty fair idea what she meant, but I wanted to hear it from her.

“It’s a grand old hotel on Cedar Springs that some of my friends bought and renovated. I actually live there. Guests can ring my bell in the middle of the night, if I’m needed. It’s a gas.”

“Right,” I said.

“You should come and stay with me, sometime in October, when the weather’s decent. I have a room you’d love.”

“Yeah,” I said. “My calendar should really open up by then.” I was watching one of the late late goons, with the TV muted. His blond hair kept falling into his face, and he would tuck it behind his ear. The gesture was rather effeminate. “Deel, I’ve got my own school now. In fact, I’m already under contract. I had two weeks off at the beginning of July, and I squandered both of them in bed. Alone.” I told her all about the gauntlet that had been thrown down by the superintendent, and she listened patiently.

“If anyone can do it, it’s you, kid,” she said. She was obviously drinking. I could hear the tinkle of ice against crystal, and she was starting to slur her words. I thought of her mother and wondered if she was still alive. “Are you going to marry him?” she said.


“The super—hic—intendent.”

“You’ve listened so well to everything I just said.”

“Sounds like you have a cruh-ush.”

“Lord, he’s a dirty old man! How old can this game get before you quit?” I heard a subtle rustling in the background, as if someone had joined her in bed.

“Cara, sweetheart, I’ve got to go, but I’ll be flying up for the reunion, and I was wondering if I could stay with you. You know . . . ” She giggled, as if her companion had whispered something dirty in her ear. “ . . . my mother retired and moved to Virginia. She’s living with a really butch woman she worked with at Boeing. I have to call her Uncle Tom Tom, for God’s sake.”

“Sure, Babycakes. When you get back that night, you can wake me and let me know all about the fantastic reunion. We’ll have a slumber party.”

“I’ll call back when you’re more like yourself.” And she hung up.

I was immediately overcome with a certain dread. In spite of my recent success, my life felt stalled. I had not found anyone with whom to share it. And after having been so popular in my youth, I couldn’t believe the lonely nature of my existence. On the other hand, I had moved on; my life didn’t include fellow graduates, who, like me, had been born in 1948. It seemed profoundly insane for us to gather and celebrate what amounted to no more than twenty-seven months of our lives. Anyone who held those days up as beacon of light had no vision. But . . . it seemed that, once again, I had been ensnared by the reunion queen, Delia. She would pester me until I gave in and attended another evening of fun and frolic.

Yes, there was no way out, and so I would go shopping for a frock. One of the nicest things any of my students had ever told me was, “Ms. Dalby, you’re the only teacher at East who knows how to dress.” She had been a girl who hung on my every word in class, a cute little bug who could sew like Betsy Ross. Prior to that I had never been aware that I was childless, but in that moment I was so taken with her generosity that a tear crept into my eye.

Delia, in her increasingly frequent calls, told me again she had become acquainted with a woman who had suffered a stroke. “Changed her life entirely,” she said over the phone. “But she’s getting a zippy new chair and said I could use her old one. Isn’t that fabuluth?”

“You’re really going to show up in cripple drag?”

“It’ll give me a chance to see what my classmates are made of.”

“Do you have dentures now?” I asked.

“Cara, no one ever talks the same after having a stroke. Oh, and I’m married
. . . for real this time.” She laughed.

“Why, Delia Sue Karon, you’re full of surprises.”

“He’s really wonderful.”

“Very happy for you.”

“Well, wait till you meet him.”


My pension at that point was fully vested; I had worked for twenty-six years, and, at forty-eight, my career was clicking along on all cylinders. It frustrated me that it had taken so long to develop my game. After years in the classroom, I knew only too well how young people learned. I knew you didn’t plan superficially with page numbers and handouts. You didn’t restrict yourself to textbooks. You made things real, with hands-on experiences, particularly in what by then was called domestic engineering, speakers and field trips, menu journals that you lovingly evaluated. In the last few years of teaching, I had watched myself wend my way through the Socratic method with an ease that was frighteningly effective. Unlike the way students treated younger teachers, they respected me. No one talked back; few ever dropped out of my classes.

A week after I was hired as principal, Squires suddenly retired, and a week after that, in an ambitious time frame, the new superintendent was hired and appeared at my office door. The debris had long since been cleared away, and my office was graced with pale mauve draperies and contemporary furniture of chrome and seafoam. After showing him the “before” pictures, Austin Sagely was impressed. He was a dream, a man whose wholesome facial expressions would forever keep him looking as if he were in his forties, slightly graying, fit, happy. One day, on another lingering visit—I was so surprised and my secretary kept peeking through the door to see if I was all right—he wondered aloud why, like him, I was still single. I think we knew the answer. I would learn we both had kitchens that were spotless from disuse, both had discretionary savings accounts that allowed us to collect odd items. I adored miniature high-heeled shoes and had acquired hundreds from mostly local shops. They were scattered over my end tables and bureaus like dice. Austin collected handguns, from all countries. He didn’t shoot them, but he loved how they looked in his den, displayed like stuffed fish.

One night as we both drank a bit too much cognac, our bodies tried to engage like horny eighteen-year-olds, teeth pressed hard to teeth, arms extended as far around one another as possible. When things did not exactly proceed as planned, we fell apart, laughing ourselves silly. But no one was leaving the room. We shared our individual first times: his with the older sister of a distant friend, and I with some nutball at WSU, a redheaded, freckled guy who played baseball as a walk-on. After staring into one another’s eyes, we took it ever so slowly and our bodies came alive, like plants that had lain dormant for a very long winter. Our lovemaking quickly became more sure, informed by all the years of various partners, lonely weekends, an arid abstinence.

During the days just prior to our autumn reunion, Austin agreed to accompany me. He had absolutely no connection with any of my classmates, an idea that appealed to me for obvious reasons.


Our gala was to be held at Martha Boon’s Farm, a wooded area at the edge of the city, a place that had sponsored hayrides in the autumns of my youth. I had attended day camp there as a child, running through the bare fields, but greenery was overtaking the place. Cottonwoods, elms, walnuts, and maples—year after year—had spread their seed, and in a geographical area that received as much as forty inches of rain a year, those trees now cast hedgerow shadows across damp roads like a scene from a painting. The pavilion was rented out for family gatherings, weddings, small conferences. Even reunions.

A storm had hit, and a cloudy front of leaden skies blanketed all of south central Kansas. On that brisk day in September, we drove out to Martha Boon’s Farm in Austin’s Land Cruiser. I shared with him some of my history with Delia, including the charade she was about to perpetrate on the class.

“Is she sort of unstable?” he asked, taking my hand.

That’s what I loved about Austin, why we were both Republicans, I suppose. Life was pretty clearly laid out for us. There were those who were sane and those who were not. Rich, poor. Young, old. Alive, dead. “Oh, yes,” I said.

Now overgrown with vegetation, Martha Boon’s was no longer a working farm as it had been when I was a child, but an upscale site for events like ours. We turned into the paved drive, and I began to visualize the faces again. I had half-expected to greet Johnny Clayborne, who had died in a motorcycle accident the night of our graduation, his hair swept back with what we would say today was too much product. I also expected to see members of the Musettes, pasty-faced and grinning, running from the parking lot at the last minute to pop up on stage, as we had done at the Allis Tea Room. And while I perceived that my puss remained relatively the same, especially if I looked at it straight on in the bathroom mirror, I was not prepared to see how others’ faces had crinkled, how they looked like any slob you might see at Sam’s or Towne East Mall. But then you would shake hands and introduce your guest. You would begin a conversation and look at photos of their children and grandchildren. You would listen to them talk about their cabin in Colorado, their last vacation in the Bahamas, a cruise from San Diego to Oahu. You veered away from politics and religion. You never knew what someone might say, and you were only too prepared to tell them why you were right and they were wrong. We were at that precarious point where Clinton was trying to balance the budget, which Austin and I liked, off the backs of people like us. Which we didn’t. But at the same time, he was trying “to change welfare as we know it”—instead of dissolving it, which was what most of my friends and I believed should happen. I hated bilingual education. How would those kids ever assimilate if they didn’t learn English? How would kids at Hardy ever learn to stand on their own two feet if the government kept giving them handouts?

The committee had planned a pleasant spread of good Midwestern fare: smoked brisket, baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw, and brown ’n’ serve rolls. There was a certain comfort derived in consuming food whose recipes would never change.

As we were dishing up our vittles, a dark red Voyager stopped at the edge of the pavilion. It was not actually a parking space, not even for the disabled. Out stepped a rather large man with an impish smile. He was definitely Latino and might have been fifty, maybe sixty. Because of his size, it was difficult to tell. In a flatfooted manner, he trudged to the passenger side and slid the big door open. He pulled out a wheelchair and unfolded it. He then opened the passenger door and spoke to a mop of graying hair. He leaned inside the vehicle, and the figure put her arms around him. Groaning, he lifted her out of the van and plopped her in the wheelchair. It was not a smooth operation. The woman, losing her mantilla, landed about halfway in the seat, and the man had to stand behind her and scoot her body backward. When her pantsuit rode up, he laughed. As he attended to the pants, she scowled and pushed her glasses up on her nose. The gesture was fleeting but familiar.

“Oh, my God,” I whispered, running to see. Instead of the raccoon glasses of long ago, Delia was wearing some that were frameless and tinted pink. I bent over and kissed her cheek. She pulled back.

“Still with the lesbian tendencies, I see,” she said, laughing. “Cara, this is my husband, Edgardo Ramírez.”

“So delighted to meet you,” he said. The man must have indulged himself in great quantities of carbohydrates and alcohol. His face was puffy with what seemed like rosacea, and he was still breathing heavily from his nursely exploits. Even so, he was handsome.

By then Austin had joined me, and I made introductions. Both Delia and I having male companions transformed our relationship, though I wasn’t sure how.

As Edgardo wheeled Delia under the pavilion, I leaned over and whispered into her ear, “So you’re going through with this?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” she said, looking up at me. The muscles in her lips had acquired a rhythmic tic, and her head sat at an almost jaunty angle. It was obvious, after a few minutes, that she could barely move her head at all. Moreover, it registered a bit of a palsy, and I shuddered with recognition.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I whispered, and my eyes warmed with tears.

“And not give you the chance to figure it out for yourself? I should say not. Oh, hello, Jacob.” And Jacob, a bit slump-shouldered himself, knelt before her, the queen of strokedom, and held both her hands. They chatted about inane things like the price of chairs with wheels, Medicaid, drugs that were higher than a cat’s back. Others stopped by and drifted away. Edgardo brought Delia a plate of food from the buffet, a single green bean hanging over the edge, on the precipice of a fall. The four of us shuffled to a spot at the end of a long table, where Delia could be rolled comfortably under the edge. Austin fetched drinks for us all from the cash bar and delivered them with a smile. Edgardo cut Delia’s meat and said something softly to her in Spanish. She did everything with her right hand.

“Love your hair,” she said.
I’d had my woman tint my China chop with blond streaks. It gave me the perception that I was younger, which was all that mattered. I certainly couldn’t have returned the compliment. Delia’s hair looked like Yvonne De Carlo’s when she’d been a Munster, except that white randomly splotched her hair like big splats of paint. Dull and frizzy, it blew in the wind and revealed a face that was older than old, and I wondered what she had done to deserve this premature decline, especially in light of her daily workouts with a trainer, her green diet.

“When did it happen?” I asked.

As I had discerned over the phone, there was a lot of extra work going on with her tongue, as if she were speaking a difficult language. “Three years ago,” she said slowly. “We had just married.” She smiled at Edgardo, who grinned back. He had on a big white smock, mistakenly thinking, I believe, that it would disguise his rotundity. “We were in LA. Edgardo runs the lights for the Emmys.”

“Really?” I said.

“Check the credits.” She glared at me reproachfully. “We were at a big party afterward, and suddenly my face froze, my head felt like it was exploding, and my legs collapsed. And the rest, as they say, is a sad little history of hospitals, homes, and electric beds.”

“What do you do with your . . . days?” I asked. I could only think of her situation in terms of my own life. Would I have been able to work from a wheelchair, even an electric one? Would the district have allowed me? How would I have sat at home all the time, reading Vanity Fair and Vogue? Watching Oprah and Sally Jessy Raphael? Donahue? “Gawd.”

“See that van?” she said. “It’s less than a year old and has over a hundred thousand miles on it. Edgardo and I never stop moving if we can help it. He does enough work to make the rent and to buy our next trip, and then we’re off.”


“Yes, dear, really,” she said, grinning lopsidedly. “I’m not as Type A as you. Never have been, Cara.”

Because I had heard more than I wanted, I began to talk about Austin and myself. Our positions with the district. Our plans to marry and buy a big tottering mansion in the heart of old Wichita—not far from the Frank Lloyd Wright house on Roosevelt. Her attention flagged, as if what I was sharing was tedious, and so I stopped talking. I looked up at the graying sky and asked Austin to fetch me a glass of wine. I was sick of the boxed Zinfandel’s aftertaste, but I needed to blunt my feelings. Yes, a great sorrow had engulfed me like a cloud.

“You know what’s wrong, don’t you?” Delia said, reaching over and taking my hand as Edgardo removed her plate. “You’re afraid it could be you. That’s all. Now would you relax so we can really talk?”

I said I had to make the rounds and would return. Maybe by then Mr. and Mrs. Edgardo Ramírez would have exited. I made my way up and down each long table, as if checking on students in the cafeteria. Joking and laughing with people I couldn’t remember having seen at South High was easier than returning to Delia. As I responded inanely to things that people remembered about me, my thoughts went a different direction. All my grandparents had lived long lives; my parents were still robust. To wind up like Delia seemed an impossibility, but then one always had to be prepared for the inevitable. One really should buy long-term care insurance, sign up for a nursing home, pay for a funeral and burial plot in advance.

Each reunion had reduced by neat mathematical formulas the number of people who attended the last one. There were barely a hundred present, out of seven-hundred-fifty of us who had graduated on June 2, 1966. What had happened to all those who refused to return? I wanted to see a map with red tacks representing the geographical location of each graduate. Where had our class gone? What kind of lives had they lived? But then I knew. Offspring. Yes, children from second and third marriages. Grandchildren. Second or third spouses. Thick eyeglasses. Nikes with Velcro fasteners. Disappointing jobs and careers. Stunted educations. Vietnam veterans who would never escape their horror. Each time I finished visiting one clique, I would look up and still see Delia reigning from her wheelchair. The air around her seemed empty, and she stared out of it, with Edgardo at her side, doing her bidding, should she desire anything at all. When I saw she wasn’t going to leave, I shuffled to her side. All this time Austin had been making his own rounds, as if he knew everyone, and his ease jolted me for a minute. I stood over Delia. Her head was tilted even more, her eyes closed.

Princesa usually doesn’t make it much past eight thirty before I have to put her down,” Edgardo said. Delia’s eyes flipped open.

“Don’t speak of her as if she weren’t here,” she said sharply. Then, turning to whisper, “Isn’t he cute? I met him in Santiago, at a questionable sort of bar.”

“Maybe we can get together tomorrow,” I said, “after I get some studying in.”

“No can do,” she said. “We’re driving west tonight. Want to catch the aspens in Colorado. Arizona after that.”

“Wish I could go with you,” I said.

“No, you don’t.” And I had to laugh, even if it was more of a yelp of sadness.

Before Edgardo once again scooped her up and put her in the van, she told me of his origins. He had finished graduate school at the University of Texas, so that he could return to an organist’s position in Santiago and begin a private school there. He and Delia had married and lived in Santiago, until he was caught up in an embarrassing situation involving a student and was asked to leave his post. I tried to interrupt Delia, to ask her why she would marry someone like that, but fully aware of my prejudices, she didn’t allow me a single word. She continued, saying that they had returned to the U.S., where Edgardo began a new career in stage lighting. “Well,” he’d told her, “running the board isn’t that different from playing Bach at the console.”

“He’s an angel,” she whispered into my ear, as Edgardo returned to the driver’s seat and started the engine. The four of us said our good-byes, Austin and I exchanging sides of the car, and promised to keep in touch. We were, of course, sporadic in our attempts to correspond, and the decade passed, as others had, with little advancement of our friendship.


2006—Right off I should say that Austin died three years ago. He was sixty and I fifty-five. We had been married four years. The funeral was crowded with people from the school district, peppered with a few relatives from both sides, and unfolded with a certain formality at the huge Presbyterian church downtown, as if he had been a beloved president or a diplomat. In the way that a death can bring about a strange turn of events, I applied for his position as superintendent. And through a combination of my own competent reputation, my association with Austin, and a hefty amount of sympathy, I was anointed the first woman to direct the district’s multitudinous activities.

I was too frightened to enjoy the thrill. Most people didn’t understand the absolute terror I experienced each day. To feel even halfway capable, I had to rise at five and be at my desk by six. I picked up breakfast, a different entrée each day, to give my week some variety, and had two hours before my administrative assistant arrived, at which time she began to screen my calls. Even so, I was on the phone thirty minutes out of every hour, it seemed. My days were divided between planning, overseeing the budget, and construction. I also spent time making at least one visit to each campus in the district, during the ten months school was in session. I often didn’t leave my office until after eight at night, later, if there was an event to attend. I had domestics to take care of my house, my cooking, and my laundry, and I had a competent staff in the office, and still, I felt more engulfed than I ever had as a teacher, when I had done so much by myself. It was early June, and we had just put another year to bed. All my school buildings were empty, a rotation of my staff was on vacation, and I left the office at two in the afternoon to recline by the pool at the house Austin and I had bought together; the temperature was eighty-eight degrees and the sky clear, the kind of blue the astronauts must see from their spacecraft. I felt as if I were playing hooky. And, of course, such a thought reminded me of Delia.

One day when we were juniors, the Musettes had sung at the Allis Tea Room downtown, and, instead of returning to school, she and I had gone shopping at Macy’s, an eight-story brick building close by. Madras plaid was all the rage, and the junior miss department had recently received a shipment of short dresses and blouses. We spent an hour trying things on and pulling out crimped bills to pay for them all. A friend of ours, a proctor for fifth period pulled our absentee slips, as she went around and collected them from halls D and E. That evening, we would call our classmates, get our assignments, and no one would be the wiser. Our friend Jenny had done her part, all right, but she made the mistake of stopping to chat with Vice Principal Detmer, a notorious lecher, who then saw our slips crumpled in her hand and asked her to whom those belonged. It was sad for Jenny, because, prior to her little indiscretion, the office had thought the world of her. Mr. Detmer, however, made her a sweet deal, by which she could keep her position if she would provide him with a certain pleasure—hardly possible these days, since we’ve made kids more savvy about such creeps. Huffily declining his offer, she was sent back to study hall in deep disgrace, and the next day Delia and I were called into Detmer’s quarters. Separately. Having been alerted by Jenny to Detmer’s beastly ways, I went in equipped with a crude sort of wire and mini-recorder concealed between my legs, under my dress—it made me walk like a cow. I was almost disappointed when he made no such overture toward me or Delia either. I guess Delia and I were punished, but I have no recollection; I only remember being disappointed I couldn’t frame Detmer. I shudder to think of all the youths who have appeared before my desk throughout the years, wondering how many, like me, cannot now remember what words of wisdom I had imparted to them.


Our fortieth-year reunion was set for the middle of August. It was to be held at the Hyatt, the hotel where The Big Kahuna with Kevin Spacey had been filmed. In the movie you can fairly see the city in the background, as the camera pans the penthouse’s large windows. Later you see a winding Arkansas River, the civic center, named Century II, the city library—the heart of what is still a vital downtown. Each May a river festival with contests for speedboats, sailboats, and even bathtubs turned the dammed-up river into something other than what it was downstream: a slow-moving trickle of brown water. The old depot on Douglas was now a thriving flea market, too, all of these making Wichita rather quaint—not just another provincial city. Or so I thought.

As usual Delia had broken off all contact. I kept waiting each day for a postcard or a phone call; the e-mail address she’d given me in 1996 was no longer valid. Then I would remember. She had only one good hand, and I would imagine the worst. Maybe she had suffered another stroke. Maybe she was lying, like a vegetable, in bed, while Edgardo serviced her every need.

Delia had been right about one thing. It sickened me to think I might wind up like her. But at fifty-eight, I was the proud owner of my own aches and pains. I had received steroid shots in my knees because I refused to give up jogging. An orthopedic surgeon had shown me how extensive the damage to my cartilage was. I would eventually wind up with knee replacements, he asserted. It was only a matter of time. I wondered what fifty-eight-year-old people had done a hundred years ago, when their knees gave out. Then a picture of Delia popped into my head, and I had my answer. The only difference was that back then people would have become goners by age fifty. To prevent such a day from occurring, I stepped up my swimming, and my lung capacity seemed to increase day by day.

A few months earlier I had found Mrs. Mazinski’s address, when, after seeing a story on TV about looking up long lost friends, I felt I needed to thank her for being such an inspirational teacher in tenth grade. She had answered back, so delighted that I had located her, telling me all about her life in a New Mexican nunnery. I was stunned and had yet to write her back. How would I address a nun? I went online again to locate Delia and Edgardo Ramírez. There existed a number for D. Karon-Ramírez in Dallas, and I dialed it. I recognized her voice on the outgoing message of her voice mail, but her mailbox was full, and I pictured Delia, like her mother, white-haired and helpless. I shook my head. The two generations overlapping like that frightened me. It was just wrong, unnatural somehow.


An entirely different committee organized our reunion, not the original class officers composed of Jacob Ashburn and his cabinet, all females. Jacob had gotten himself elected District Attorney and said he simply didn’t have the time. Oh, well, what did it matter if the class president planned the event or not? What had my tenure as cheerleader done for me? Had it made me a knowing yet sensitive squad sponsor at East High for more years than I cared to remember? Had it transformed me into an understanding principal, who saw that such activities provided leadership opportunities for the future? Was I a top-notch superintendent because I had once been able to do the splits and a double jump? Had my ability to paint posters and shout until I was hoarse given me the ability to lead a crowd of thousands in what I deemed was the right direction? It seemed as likely as Rod Trammell having become a great head coach because he had played quarterback. I couldn’t even remember how good he had been. How many yards had he thrown for? How many catches had gone in for a score? How many quarterback sneaks? I didn’t even know what Rod did for a living. He had always showed up for the reunions in a pastel Rugby and 501s with his Pentax threaded to a strap around his shoulder. Was he a studio photographer, shooting middle class families and their dogs? It mattered only because we all have to have something to rise for each and every day that the sun comes up, and I couldn’t quite imagine him having the fortitude for it.

When I arrived in my pearl gray Infiniti, I left it with the Hyatt valet. I watched him drive away and shrugged as he squealed the tires up the ramp. If he scratched it, I would take it into the body shop for a week, and then I would look up the little scamp and slap his cute little face. Inside the lobby I followed the signs to the South High reunion. I can’t say why, but it felt strange, clicking my heels against the terrazzo floors of a chic building that hadn’t even existed when we went to school. My feet already hurt, and I felt like a slug as I located the correct door. I still missed the ennui of the old Allis, with its fading ochre carpets, the stale aroma of cigar smoke rising from the upholstery.

The fortieth was perhaps the most relaxed reunion of them all. Our conference room at the Hyatt was unremarkable, the committee having done little to decorate. But it didn’t matter. We were old. Many of us had adult children with high school kids of their own; some even had great-grandchildren. Oh, there were a precious few, with the right DNA, who appeared robust and perhaps ten years younger, but most of us were like a car from our generation, a ‘65 GTO whose paint was now faded, whose surface had dents as big as golf balls, material that sagged from the ceiling of the interior.

“Old buzzards,” I muttered to myself, wandering among the tables, trying to decide with whom I would spend the evening. Hands reached out to touch me, and I spoke, comparing their faces with the faces on the badges hanging from their necks. I moved on, and without Austin at my side, I felt an urge to flee to the nearest exit. When I heard her voice, her robust Bankhead laugh sailing up into the air and back down like a big red ball, I whipped my head around.

Her hair was shorter and colored chestnut again. She stood and took my hand, staring into my face. “How are you, love?” she said.

“Fine.” I tried to lean in for a cheek kiss, but she turned her head away to speak to someone and laughed gently.

“We’ve saved you a chair, Madame Superintendent,” she said, when she was finished with the exchange.

The chairman, Danny Everett, one of the many minions who had done little more than show up for school for three years, pulled out a chair for me, and I sat down next to Delia. Danny was a successful stockbroker, and had I bothered to speak to him at the tenth reunion, I would have ascertained that he majored in finance at the University of Tulsa. He and his second wife had organized the reunion. Having begun with a massive mailing, they then solicited as many e-mail addresses as possible and worked from there. We classmates had even been able to pay the $100 cost at a temporary website. “How does it feel to have all that power?” Delia said.

I shrugged. “You look fantastic. I’m dying to hear about . . . everything.”

“Like what happened to my wheelchair?”

“Among other things.” I stared at her short hair, whose monochromatic hue now came from a bottle. It was swept back on the right side, but from the left dangled a curly lock. She had returned to using contacts, after having worn those awful granny glasses at her last reunion. I could tell because every so often her right eye would blink spasmodically. Suddenly, I wondered why I had thought of it as her reunion. Did Delia Karon use our meetings as an opportunity to lambaste us with her acculturation? Did I attend those functions only to keep up with her, to live vicariously through her life . . . the fragment I was too afraid to live myself? Was her life the only one that had maintained any kind of oomph? I shook my head to wake myself from the daze I was in. “Your dress is gorgeous.”

She mouthed the name of the designer, and I just about flipped. It was a dark red gown of taffeta. The fabric clung smoothly to her skin, snug against her breasts, her once-again slim waist, around her enviably curvaceous hips, and ended at her ankles. I looked under the table. “God, and are those what I think!”

Delia laughed. “Yes, for once I spent more on shoes than the dress.”

“You’re not kidding.” I no longer owned evening wear. Instead, I chose to appear in a sedate white suit, a wool blend, something I had been wearing to afternoon meetings and retirement teas. It was trimmed with navy blue piping that, for some reason, I adored. Just then the music began, a live band and singer breaking the silence with Put your head . . . on my shoulder. I despaired of feeling nostalgic. There was something about our past that I found distasteful, something that was as fraudulent as a three-dollar bill, and yet I couldn’t explain what it was. The mere fact that it was part of a dusty and ancient history didn’t seem to provide a sufficient explanation.

Danny and his wife rose and began to dance. The meal would be served shortly, they said. Strange. Dancing, then dining. Then more dancing, like a night club. I wouldn’t have organized things that way, but it was, as I said, terribly relaxed.

“The dress is borrowed,” Delia whispered to me, as she leaned over. Then she crossed her legs.

“I . . . I have to ask.”

She stretched her legs and wiggled her feet, and my hand went to my mouth in disbelief. “You know Edgardo died, didn’t you?”

“Nooo,” I said. “Your voice mail was full . . . ”

“Yeah,” she said, sipping her wine. It was as if she didn’t care whether she ever drank wine again or not. It might as well have been lemonade. “Tough time. We had no insurance, no savings.”

“Jeez, Delia,” I said, taking her hand.

She looked away, and I knew, in that subtle gesture from the past, that things were even more serious than she had indicated.

“Delia?” I said, stretching the last syllable as if I were talking to a child.

“Seems Edgardo had a life I knew nothing about. He was gone in three weeks.”

I put my hands to my face in horror. “What of?”

She rolled her eyes, as if to say, Guess.

“Oh, Delia, I’m so sorry. Are you clean?” Funny, how one could put it all together in a matter of seconds and come up with the proper vocabulary. Are you clean?

“For years, he’d prohibited me from entering the extra garage behind our house. He used it largely as a storage shed. But one day, I needed some garbage bags and he was out of the house; he’d led me to believe he kept them in the garage, keeping surpluses of everything we bought at Sam’s. I fumed as I limped up the drive. But when I got in there, I found him . . . dangling from some kind of harness . . . and he was not alone. Don’t worry, the two of us had stopped having sex long ago; I had no appetite for what seemed to be rougher and rougher stuff. And we had enjoyed sex a lot, in the beginning. It was just that by then he seemed to like being tied up, throttled, and fist-fucked by big hairy beasts with all manner of metal embedded in their bodies. He even made videos for world wide distribution.”

“Shit, Delia,” I said, squeezing her hand and staring across the room. Waiters were rushing about serving tired-looking chicken breasts covered with some sort of cream sauce. Forgive me if I disparage luncheon fare, but I’d become an expert: rounded puddles of potato salad, beans that had never looked so green on the vine, a salad with one tasteless tomato. I suppose my mind had switched to food, so I wouldn’t have to think of studded black leather garments inhabited by sweaty fat men. “Surely you realized before you married him.”

She looked at me crossly and then out across the room. “I haven’t spoken to Austin yet.”

Then I told her.

“Widows at our tender age,” she mused, taking my face in her hands. “Who would have thought?” Her eyes misted over, yet a single tear refused to fall.

“Let’s dance,” I said. “Just like we used to at the sock hops.”

“No, no, people might think we’re lovers,” she said, laughing that laugh that would never change. Then she glanced at her legs, just long enough.

“I had assumed you could . . . ”

“I can,” she snapped. “Well, I can stand, at least, which helps at the hotel, when I’m working the desk. I can walk with the help of that metal thingy over there.” She pointed to a walker I had nearly tripped over as I entered the door earlier. “And I can drive, with a few modifications.”

I hate sentimentality of any kind, but just then a tear slid down my face. I wiped it away with my napkin.

“Remember that time we climbed up on the roof above the theater?” she said.

I nodded.

“If the other girls hadn’t been there, I would have danced with you. The night was so beautiful. It deserved a dance, I think. And then they all went down that ladder . . .”

“All I recall is the wind blowing like hell,” I said, though I knew exactly what she meant. Something about it had required a certain intimacy, and yet we had let it pass.

“It was so magical. The city lights downtown. Each of us with our own dreams. Ick. Jesus Christ, ick.”

“What?” I said, alarmed.

“They’re playing that song.” (It was one of the Beatles’ tamer titles, one I adored.)

“Don’t you sing at all anymore?” I asked.

“Well, yes, I do,” she said, folding her arms.

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“Nope. At this little church Edgardo and I found, we have a chorus that tours. A lot of the men in the group, it seems, knew Edgardo, really knew him.” She laughed sardonically, tossing her head. “Anyway, they’ve tucked me under their wings, and my dear, I’ve appeared in some of the most marvelous productions.”

Somehow, Delia had done such an excellent job of reinventing herself that I completely forgot how beautifully she had once sung. “Really?” I said.

“Yes, really. We did a revue of Irving Berlin tunes, and I stole the show . . . again.” She turned and smiled. “Keeping up with the piano?”

“I play it better in my dreams.”

Delia stood, placing her arm around me, more for support than out of affection—she had never really learned how to do that—and our bodies swayed to the music of a new number, something from our parents’ generation, a well-worn tune whose smart lyrics might never lose their appeal. Then she turned her body and we clung together as we danced. Her hips were rounder than I remembered, her shoulders a little stooped. But it felt right, to be in the arms of one I would love forever, just as she was. Delia.  

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