one hundred two days after

My father played Dr. William Morse on the phone, but the man playing him in real life went by the name of Maxx with two x’s, except that his name was actually Stan, except on Speaker Day his name was, obviously, Dr. William Morse. He was a veritable existential identity crisis, a male stripper with more aliases than a covert CIA agent.

The first four “agencies” the Colonel called turned us down. It wasn’t until we got to the B’s in the “Entertainment” section of the Yellow Pages that we found Bachelorette Parties R Us. The owner of the aforementioned establishment liked the idea a great deal, but, he said, “Maxx is gonna love that. But no nudity.

Not in front of the kids.” We agreed — with some reluctance.

To ensure that none of us would get expelled, Takumi and I collected five dollars from every junior at Culver Creek to cover “Dr. William Morse’s” appearance fee, since we doubted the Eagle would be keen on paying him after witnessing the, uh, speech. I paid the Colonel’s five bucks. “I feel that I have earned your charity,” he said, gesturing to the spiral notebooks he’d filled with plans.

As I sat through my classes that morning, I could think of nothing else. Every junior in the school had known for two weeks, and so far not even the faintest rumor had leaked out. But the Creek was rife with gossipsparticularly the Weekday Warriors, and if just one person told one friend who told one friend who told one friend who told the Eagle, everything would fall apart.

The Creek’s don’t-rat ethos withstood the test nicely, but when Maxx/Stan/Dr. Morse didn’t shown up by 11:50 that morning, I thought the Colonel would lose his shit. He sat on the bumper of a car in the student parking lot, his head bowed, his hands running through his thick mop of dark hair over and over again, as if he were trying to find something in there. Maxx had promised to arrive by 11:40, twenty minutes before the official start of Speaker Day, giving him time to learn the speech and everything. I stood next to the Colonel, worried but quiet, waiting.

We’d sent Takumi to call “the agency” and learn the whereabouts of “the performer.”

“Of all the things I thought could go wrong, this was not one of them. We have no solution for this.”

Takumi ran up, careful not to speak to us until he was near. Kids were starting to file into the gym. Late late late late. We asked so little of our performer, really. We had written his speech. We had planned everything for him.

All Maxx had to do was show up with his outfit on. And yet…

“The agency,” said Takumi, “says the performer is on his way.”

“On his way?” the Colonel said, clawing at his hair with a new vigor. “On his way? He’s already late.”

“They said he should be—” and then suddenly our worries disappeared as a blue minivan rounded the corner toward the parking lot, and I saw a man inside wearing a suit.

“That’d better be Maxx,” the Colonel said as the car parked. He jogged up to the front door.

“I’m Maxx,” the guy said upon opening the door.

“I am a nameless and faceless representative of the junior class,” the Colonel answered, shaking Maxx’s hand. He was thirtyish, tan and wide-shouldered, with a strong jaw and a dark, close-cropped goatee.

We gave Maxx a copy of his speech, and he read through it quickly.

“Any questions?” I asked.

“Uh, yeah. Given the nature of this event, I think y’all should pay me in advance.”

He struck me as very articulate, even professorial, and I felt a supreme confidence, as if Alaska had found the best male stripper in central Alabama and led us right to him.

Takumi popped the trunk of his SUV and grabbed a paper grocery bag with $320 in it. “Here you go, Maxx,” he said. “Okay, Pudge here is going to sit down there with you, because you are friends with Pudge’s dad. That’s in the speech. But, uh, we’re hoping that if you get interrogated when this is all over, you can find it in your heart to say that the whole junior class called on a conference call to hire you, because we wouldn’t want Pudge here to get in any trouble.”

He laughed. “Sounds good to me. I took this gig because I thought it was hilarious. Wish I’d thought of this in high school.”

As I walked into the gym, Maxx/Dr. William Morse at my side, Takumi and the Colonel trailing a good bit behind me, I knew I was more likely to get busted than anyone else. But I’d been reading the Culver Creek Handbook pretty closely the last couple weeks, and I reminded myself of my two-pronged defense, in the event I got in trouble: 1. There is not, technically, a rule against paying a stripper to dance in front of the school. 2. It cannot be proven that I was responsible for the incident. It can only be proven that I brought a person onto campus who I presumed to be an expert on sexual deviancy in adolescence and who turned out to be an actual sexual deviant.

I sat down with Dr. William Morse in the middle of the front row of bleachers. Some ninth graders sat behind me, but when the Colonel walked up with Lara a moment later, he politely told them, “Thanks for holding our seats,” and ushered them away. As per the plan, Takumi was in the supply room on the second floor, connecting his stereo equipment to the gym’s loudspeakers. I turned to Dr. Morse and said, “We should look at each other with great interest and talk like you’re friends with my parents.”

He smiled and nodded his head. “He is a great man, your father. And your mother — so beautiful.” I rolled my eyes, a bit disgusted. Still, I liked this stripper fellow. The Eagle came in at noon on the nose, greeted the senior-class speaker — a former Alabama state attorney general — and then came over to Dr. Morse, who stood with great aplomb and half bowed as he shook the Eagle’s hand — maybe too formal — and the Eagle said, “We’re certainly very glad to have you here,” and Maxx replied, “Thank you. I hope I don’t disappoint.”

I wasn’t worried about getting expelled. I wasn’t even worried about getting the Colonel expelled, although maybe I should have been. I was worried that it wouldn’t work because Alaska hadn’t planned it. Maybe no prank worthy of her could be pulled off without her.

The Eagle stood behind the podium.

“This is a day of historic significance at Culver Creek. It was the vision of our founder Phillip Garden that you, as students and we, as faculty, might take one afternoon a year to benefit from the wisdom of voices outside the school, and so we meet here annually to learn from them, to see the world as others see it. Today, our junior-class speaker is Dr. William Morse, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida and a widely respected scholar. He is here today to talk about teenagers and sexuality, a topic I’m sure you’ll find considerably interesting. So please help me welcome Dr. Morse to the podium.”

We applauded. My heart beat in my chest like it wanted to applaud, too. As Maxx walked up to the podium, Lara leaned down to me and whispered, “He ees really hot.”

“Thank you, Mr. Starnes.” Maxx smiled and nodded to the Eagle, then straightened his papers and placed them on the podium. Even I almost believed he was a professor of psychology. I wondered if maybe he was an actor supplementing his income.

He read directly from the speech without looking up, but he read with the confident, airy tone of a slightly snooty academic. “I’m here today to talk with you about the fascinating subject of teenage sexuality. My research is in the field of sexual linguistics, specifically the way that young people discuss sex and related questions. So, for instance, I’m interested in why my saying the word arm might not make you laugh, but my saying the word vagina might.” And, indeed, there were some nervous twitters from the audience. “The way young people speak about one another’s bodies says a great deal about our society. In today’s world, boys are much more likely to objectify girls’ bodies than the other way around. Boys will say amongst themselves that so-and-so has a nice rack, while girls will more likely say that a boy is cute, a term that describes both physical and emotional characteristics. This has the effect of turning girls into mere objects, while boys are seen by girls as whole people—” And then Lara stood up, and in her delicate, innocent accent, cut Dr. William Morse off. “You’re so hot! I weesh you’d shut up and take off your clothes.”

The students laughed, but all of the teachers turned around and looked at her, stunned silent. She sat down.

“What’s your name, dear?”

“Lara,” she said.

“Now, Lara,” Maxx said, looking down at his paper to remember the line, “what we have here is a very interesting case study — a female objectifying me, a male. It’s so unusual that I can only assume you’re making an attempt at humor.”

Lara stood up again and shouted, “I’m not keeding! Take off your clothes.”

 

He nervously looked down at the paper, and then looked up at all of us, smiling. “Well, it is certainly important to subvert the patriarchal paradigm, and I suppose this is a way. All right, then,” he said, stepping to the left of the podium. And then he shouted, loud enough that Takumi could hear him upstairs, “This one’s for Alaska Young.”

As the fast, pumping bass of Prince’s “Get Off” started from the loudspeakers, Dr. William Morse grabbed the leg of his pants with one hand and the lapel of his coat with the other, and the Velcro parted and his stage costume came apart, revealing Maxx with two x’s, a stunningly muscular man with an eight-pack in his stomach and bulging pec muscles, and Maxx stood before us, smiling, wearing only briefs that were surely tighty, but not whitey — black leather.

His feet in place, Maxx swayed his arms to the music, and the crowd erupted with laughter and deafening, sustained applause — the largest ovation by a good measure in Speaker Day history. The Eagle was up in a flash, and as soon as he stood, Maxx stopped dancing, but he flexed his pec muscles so that they jumped up and down quickly in time to the music before the Eagle, not smiling but sucking his lips in as if not smiling required effort, indicated with a thumb that Maxx should go on home, and Maxx did.

My eyes followed Maxx out the door, and I saw Takumi standing in the doorway, fists raised in the air in triumph, before he ran back upstairs to cut the music. I was glad he’d gotten to see at least a bit of the show.

Takumi had plenty of time to get his equipment out, because the laughing and talking went on for several minutes while the Eagle kept repeating, “Okay. Okay. Let’s settle down now. Settle down, y’all. Let’s settle down.”

The senior-class speaker spoke next. He blew. And as we left the gym, nonjuniors crowded around us, asking, “Was it you?” and I just smiled and said no, for it had not been me, or the Colonel or Takumi or Lara or Longwell Chase or anyone else in that gym. It had been Alaska’s prank through and through. The hardest part about pranking, Alaska told me once, is not being able to confess. But I could confess on her behalf now. And as I slowly made my way out of the gym, I told anyone who would listen, “No. It wasn’t us. It was Alaska.”

The four of us returned to Room 43, aglow in the success of it, convinced that the Creek would never again see such a prank, and it didn’t even occur to me that I might get in trouble until the Eagle opened the door to our room and stood above us, and shook his head disdainfully.

“I know it was y’all,” said the Eagle.

We look at him silently. He often bluffed. Maybe he was bluffing.

“Don’t ever do anything like that again,” he said. “But, Lord, ‘subverting the patriarchal paradigm’—it’s like she wrote the speech.” He smiled and closed the door.

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