Andrew Paul Grell
“Last year’s was so lame. I mean. Really. A fake time capsule? How did that even get over?” We were assembled at an isolated row of benches looking down onto where the Grand Concourse and Boulevard smacked into Mosholu Parkway, close enough to school but far enough away that nobody would spot us, even if they were able to withstand the powerful aroma of the Ailanthus trees. In a school known for brains, Dina was a standout. Nerds lined up like lemmings to jump off her cliff. I should know. I got close to her when she ran for Student Body President. I was deputy campaign manager in charge of putting posters in high places. Dina was referring to a painstakingly forged journal of Der Bronck’s Bauer. It had been lovingly placed in a synthetically antiqued herring barrel, to be “discovered” by a dog digging a hole in Harris Field, across the street from the famed Bronx High School of Science, a/k/a the Nobel Prize factory. The journal listed the African slaves who dug the original pond that would eventually become the Jerome Reservoir and Aqueduct. The senior class sent a delegation to Gracie Mansion, the Mayor’s residence, to present a petition to deed the sections of Jerome and Reservoir Avenues adjacent to the reservoir to the black students at the school. John Mahaya got a chuckle out of that one. His dad, James Mahaya, had been a diplomat for the Obote government in Uganda, choosing a third secretary appointment in New York, rather than Minister Counsellor in some city which did not have a Bronx Science for his kids to attend. But when Idi Amin took over, the Mahaya family was stuck. I put in my tuppence.
“Look, it almost worked, didn’t it? Isn’t that what counts? Newsday wrote an article dressing down the City. This town is so PC, and now everyone knows how phony that is.”
Quiet Benji shared a tidbit, although he may have been grandstanding for Alicia’s benefit. They looked so in love, always together; there was a betting pool about whether or not they were doing it. “My cousin Mark had a neat one. This was a while ago, back when the school only had an HP 2000e, all 16K of it. He and his friend Rob reprogramed the operating system so that all the output would be Zen koans or interpretations of I Ching hexagrams. Maybe the expected output would follow, maybe not. It depended on your level of enlightenment. They were able to remap the ctrl-G function so that from time to time the terminals would sound off with “Good Luck to the Barley Mo” or “Balls to ye, Partner, Arse Agin the Wall.” But back then, not that many people took the computer course. It didn’t have that certain Je ne sais pas or enough reach to make a school-wide shocker.”
I couldn’t stop myself from trying to top him in failed pranks.
“You know the display case in the west hallway?” Just to make sure everyone knew it was a school about science, there were a handful of stupid science tricks on the shelves, like the spoon/fork/popsicle stick that appeared to defy gravity.
Marta kinda-sorta looked like she liked me, and she bit.
“What about it? And I never found out what the story was behind the blinking light.”
“You nailed it, Marta. That’s what was pranked. It’s been flashing for fourteen years on the same battery. It’s a demonstration that if you draw down power from a battery very slowly, you can get more total power out of the battery. A person or persons unknown picked up a couple of integrated circuit chips and put them in between the battery and the capacitor. So instead of just flashing every few seconds, it flashed the Morse Code for ‘Show Your Tits’. Nobody really noticed, but this was a long prank. The FCC was scheduled to send someone around to inspect our new radio station. Access to the mast was along that corridor. And in a realization too good to be true, the inspector was a woman. She turned the most precious shade of beet red, and we had to wait another year to begin full operations.” Marta kinda-sorta looked like she liked me a little less after that. But that’s us, we can handle tensor analysis more easily than boy-girl stuff.
Everyone was staring at me; they were hoping for inspiration and were getting nothing but hazy reminiscence. The Senior Prank Cabal was having a little trouble deciding lameness, but even more trouble with creativity. This was too subtle, that was impossible to achieve. Nothing would ever top the prank two years ago. The entire Senior class was swapped with the Seniors from the jock school up the block, DeWitt Clinton. And then the conversation devolved into discussing the single possible perfect prank.
The new facility on Paul Avenue, was greatly expanded from the location in order to include potential girl nerds, of which apparently there were plenty. The school had a nice gym, but no swimming pool. Although it was never admitted that there was a trade-off or quid-pro-quo, or that there was any chicanery, corruption, or benefit, what we did get was a gigantic mosaic mural of the Great Scientists inside the main entrance. Naturally, there were “official” purple and gold “Bronx Science Mural Team” sweats and hats. Occasionally a passel of sophomores would walk in front of the mural wearing diving fins. That was a prank on them; the Senior who would innocently suggest it neglected to tell them that you had to walk backwards when wearing diving fins. Whoops.
It seemed like it would always be the impossible dream to switch the mural for a pool. Even a mini-Olympic would need to have nine tons of water snuck in, not to mention something that could be moved through the doors and could support nine tons. I could see Dina and Alicia trade looks. Marta looked annoyed to be on the outside of something.
“Okay you two. Give.”
Alicia took the heat. “Some of the AP Chem kids came up with a new material. They’re looking for something to do with it. It’s a novel carbon configuration. It could probably support the weight of the water, but it could also make it so we didn’t need any water.” A true Sciencite, she stopped talking and gave a demonstration. A roll of what looked like cling-wrap came out of her knapsack and she unrolled ten feet of it, from one bench armrest to the next. “John, do the Yellow Pages walk on the surface.”
It was bizarre and oddly unsettling to watch. John’s fingers, one after the other, would deform the surface just where his finger was, leaving the rest of the material undisturbed. A horizontal human, stroking arms and kicking feet, would look like a swimmer in a pool. Was success a roll of cling-wrap away? Or was there a catch? Well, we were Sciencites, after all. If you wanted to know something, ask a question or perform an experiment.
“What’s the catch?”
Alicia kicked it up to Dina. “You can look like you’re swimming in place. You can deform the surface, but if you try to push off against it, it just deforms more. The little bit of equal-and-opposite you get can’t overcome the friction of the surface. You would need something ten times as slick as Pam, but that won’t get cooked by the heat released by the deformation. Looks like another lame year.”
When Dina stopped talking, Marta looked up from where John had been ‘weaving’ their fingers together. She had packed up her scowl and put it in storage, replacing it with the “I have a plan” look. And then the “two birds with one whiffle ball” look. This was a girl with an idea. Naturally. This was Bronx Science.
“My family comes from the Silk Road, where it kissed the Balkans before heading into Europe proper. The family is still there, some of the more esoteric goods still move over pretty much the same route. And there are still plenty of things that never made a foothold in the west.
= = =
The cabal assembled again on Saturday afternoon at Marta’s house in Norwood, just off the Williamsbridge Oval; she had both a backyard with a high fence, a large basement rec room, and, of course, the plan. Marta and Dina managed to secure a 15×6 strip of what we were now calling “Stretch” from one end of the rec room to the other. I biked over with Benji and Alicia. Alicia riding on Benji’s handlebars, of course. Marta brought the plenary session to order.
“Okay, you clowns. Time to get into your bathing suits.” She had her shirt and bra off and was working on her jeans in less time than it would take Yogi to say “Hey Boob Boob.” Naturally, none of the rest of us could tolerate being seen as prudish. Benji stood in front of the corner where Alicia was changing; a good plan to be both chivalrous and non-hung-up. John, Dina, and I just pretended that this was perfectly normal. Marta resumed running the operation.
“I need a volunteer. Someone who doesn’t have any fish allergies. Better yet, someone who doesn’t have any allergies at all.” I raised my hand.
“I can eat anything. And I mean anything.” That got a blush from Alicia and the hint of a suggestion of a frown from Marta.
“Here we go, superman. Climb up on that chair,” she said, pointing to the north anchorages of the Stretch. “Get on your knees, then prostrate the rest of yourself onto the Stretch.” I managed to pull it off in non-klutz fashion.
I tried the breast stroke. The stretch deformed to match my descending arms; when I tried to push against it, I got about two inches closer to the far wall. The crawl was impossible. The butterfly got me just a little farther than the breast stroke. But it would still take a half hour to cross the room. Marta put an air bed on the floor next to my position.
“Just roll off, fall onto the bed. It’s the easiest dismount.”
I did as I was told. Marta held up an ornate glass bottle.
“This is Nuru. It’s a seaweed extract. Stand still, arms up.”
She put some of the clear liquid on her palms and proceeded to rub her hands from my neck down to my ankles. Maybe she kinda-sorta did like me. But I was no longer sure I liked this plotting Marta.
“Try it again.”
I mounted the chair again and leaned forward, starting my strokes. Amazingly, I was gliding along. It took about 30 seconds to cross the room. I dismounted to a smattering of applause.
“Marta, that is the right stuff.”
“Now let me show you what this stuff is really for. She handed a bottle each to John, Alicia, and me. John knew Marta liked the Kampala finger-weave; he went over to her and they slicked each other up and got on the floor, lying on their sides facing each other. Benji and Alicia, of course, did each other. In short order, I saw that the “Aye” side of the betting pool would be collecting. That left me and Dina. We went as far as applying the Nuru to each other’s less naughty areas, but I would be damned to say I got laid because of Marta. I whispered to Dina that I would keep the bottle, and if she ever wanted to try it out again, she could tap me on the shoulder. Marta decided we’d had enough fun.
She blew a whistle and directed us shower.
“Make sure you get it all off!”
= = =
Prank Day. The day before spring recess. Fifty bucks took care of the custodian; he made sure the accordion-folded “pool” and it’s supports were stowed neatly at the foot of the mural. Twelve seniors had been trained in Stretch-swimming, Catalina suits for the girls and trunks for the boys. One volunteer managed to bring in a reasonable facsimile of a life guard chair. Marta came into the main entrance ten minutes after the swim session began. She parted the crowd and ascended the life guard chair. I could see she had the smile of the long con coming to a conclusion. And three minutes later, we knew why she insisted on us scrubbing the Nuru off thoroughly. After 15 minutes, Nuru would dissolve any fabric or textile. Much to the surprise of the volunteers who were dismounting. Stark naked.
It was a year to remember. The mural was finally traded for a pool, at least in effigy. Dina and I had a brief thing going on, until the bottle ran out. The Ultimate Frisby team went all-state. We won another Westinghouse, and an alum got a Pulitzer. And our prank would forever be the one to remember.