The three of us sat on the couch while the Colonel stood in front of us, outlining the plan and our parts in it with an excitement I hadn’t seen in him since Before. When he finished, he asked, “Any questions?”
“Yeah,” Takumi said. “Is that seriously going to work?”
“Well, first we gotta find a stripper. And second Pudge has to work some magic with his dad.”
“All right, then,” Takumi said. “Let’s get to work.”
eighty-four days after
EVERY SPRING, Culver Creek took one Friday afternoon off from classes, and all the students, faculty, and staff were required to go to the gym for Speaker Day. Speaker Day featured two speakers—usually small-time celebrities or small-time politicians or small-time academics, the kind of people who would come and speak at a school for the measly three hundred bucks the school budgeted. The junior class picked the first speaker and the seniors the second, and anyone who had ever attended a Speaker Day agreed that they were torturously boring. We planned to shake Speaker Day up a bit.
All we needed to do was convince the Eagle to let “Dr. William Morse,” a “friend of my dad’s” and a “preeminent scholar of deviant sexuality in adolescents,” be the junior class’s speaker.
So I called my dad at work, and his secretary, Paul, asked me if everything was all right, and I wondered why everyone, everyone, asked me if everything was all right when I called at any time other than Sunday morning.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
My dad picked up. “Hey, Miles. Is everything all right?”
I laughed and spoke quietly into the phone, since people were milling about. “Yeah, Dad. Everything is fine. Hey, remember when you stole the school bell and buried it in the cemetery?”
“Greatest Culver Creek prank ever,” he responded proudly.
“It was, Dad. It was. So listen, I wonder if you’d help out with the new greatest Culver Creek prank ever.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, Miles. I don’t want you getting in any trouble.”
“Well, I won’t. The whole junior class is planning it. And it’s not like anyone is going to get hurt or anything. Because, well, remember Speaker Day?”
“God that was boring. That was almost worse than class.”
“Yeah, well, I need you to pretend to be our speaker. Dr. William Morse, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida and an expert in adolescent understandings of sexuality.”
He was quiet for a long time, and I looked down at Alaska’s last daisy and waited for him to ask what the prank was, and I would have told him, but I just heard him breathe slowly into the phone, and then he said, “I won’t even ask. Hmm.” He sighed. “Swear to God you’ll never tell your mother.”
“I swear to God.” I paused. It took me a second to remember the Eagle’s real name. “Mr. Starnes is going to call you in about ten minutes.”
“Okay, my name is Dr. William Morse, and I’m a psychology professor, and—adolescent sexuality?”
“Yup. You’re the best, Dad.”
“I just want to see if you can top me,” he said, laughing.
Although it killed the Colonel to do it, the prank could not work without the assistance of the Weekday Warriors—specifically junior-class president Longwell Chase, who by now had grown his silly surfer mop back. But the Warriors loved the idea, so I met Longwell in his room and said, “Let’s go.”
Longwell Chase and I had nothing to talk about and no desire to pretend otherwise, so we walked silently to the Eagle’s house. The Eagle came to the door before we even knocked. He cocked his head a little when he saw us, looking confused—and, indeed, we made an odd couple, with Longwell’s pressed and pleated khaki pants and my I-keep-meaning-to-do-laundry blue jeans.
“The speaker we picked is a friend of Miles’s dad,” Longwell said. “Dr. William Morse. He’s a professor at a university down in Florida, and he studies adolescent sexuality.”
“Aiming for controversy, are we?”
“Oh no,” I said. “I’ve met Dr. Morse. He’s interesting, but he’s not controversial. He just studies the, uh, the way that adolescents’ understanding of sex is still changing and growing. I mean, he’s opposed to premarital sex.”
“Well. What’s his phone number?” I gave the Eagle a piece of paper, and he walked to a phone on the wall and dialed. “Yes, hello. I’m calling to speak with Dr. Morse? . . . Okay, thanks . . . Hello, Dr. Morse. I have Miles Halter here in my home, and he tells me . . . great, wonderful . . . Well, I was wondering”—the Eagle paused, twisting the cord around his finger—“wondering, I guess, whether you—just so long as you understand that these are impressionable young people. We wouldn’t want explicit discussions. . . . Excellent. Excellent. I’m glad you understand. . . . You, too, sir. See you soon!” The Eagle hung up the phone, smiling, and said, “Good choice! He seems like a very interesting man.”
“Oh yeah,” Longwell said very seriously. “I think he will be extraordinarily interesting.”
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 gossips—particularly 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.”