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He felt something give. He remembered that.
Also the white hot sting of bone breaking, and the explosion of metal-flake stars that filled his head for that moment or two before he lost consciousness.
And then he remembered Todd Noland standing over him, desperately, eagerly wanting to know if he was all right. Todd Noland, who had always just been there, had always just wanted to know that things were going okay for him. Kind of like his mom or something.
He had hurt Todd Noland in the past, hurt him bitterly. Todd had naïvely attempted to bridge the chasm that precluded them from being friends, and stirred up the usual hateful sense of fun in his gang. The razor wire that separated high school cliques had been strung for a reason, and anyone who thought he could just stroll across the divide was begging to get his ass kicked.
Todd didn't fit, and there was just no way—with so much at stake, with so much going right—he could allow Todd's gangly attempts at friendship to rattle things up. Todd had to be sent back to where he belonged, as harshly as possible.
He owed the guys that much.
Still, he remembered Todd standing over him, relieved to see him hovering there with the towel and the ice and the oddly mature look of comfort that calmed him down when he was really, really scared.
He noted that. And then he passed out again.
He was Joel Kasten, lying there on the ground.
He was a high school junior.
He was seventeen years old.
* * *
The break was in his lower left jaw, the high fastball hurled by Hawthorne East's pitcher having smashed the side of his face with the force of a bat being swung for the fences.
Opposing pitchers had been coming in tight on Joel throughout the season, instructed by their coaches to crowd Dickinson's star batter by any means possible to keep him from making contact with the ball. Any team that hoped to have a chance in the post-season had to find a way to shut Joel Kasten down.
Joel was a pure power hitter, the sweetest swinging batsman any of the locals would ever see outside a Major League ballpark. Locking onto the ball with the unerring efficiency of the military's most advanced radar tracking system, Joel could—within the 46 feet between mound and plate, within the blink of an eye it took for the ball to find safe passage through the strike zone—make all calculations necessary to determine whether to swing or lay off.
And if the instinct said go, the boy swung. In ten years of playing ball, going all the way back to rookie league, Joel Kasten had almost never gone down looking. Better to commit and swing, take the third strike and cede this encounter to the pitcher, than to just stand there and do nothing. Like a dick.
As the season wore on, there looked to be no stopping Dickinson. That year's team was blessed with great pitching and better than adequate fielding, but more than anything it had Joel. Even beyond his bat and his effortless prowess at third, Joel brought to the team and its fans a genuine star-like quality, that intangible aura of a winner, whose raw, gangly handsomeness and scruffy humility came to personify the team itself.
The team fed off Joel, the fans fed off the team, and as the Dickinson Eagles took the field against the East Hawthorne Vikings for the final, tie-breaking game of the Illinois state finals, there appeared little doubt that Monday morning would find the state trophy displayed proudly in Dickinson's well- stocked trophy case. Joel's hometown of Berline, a Chicago suburb with about 45,000 residents, expected no less.
So what else to do but take Joel Kasten's head off? Or at least that was the rumor, from the instant that Joel's jaw exploded and his skull snapped back and his body hit the ground in a cloud of dirt and chalk.
Many wondered why Kyle Hoffstetler was brought in in the eighth inning when starting pitcher Bobby Lerner had a one-hitter going, his only slip-up a Joel Kasten homer in the third, which accounted for all the scoring on either side. Many wondered, for that matter, why Hoffstetler was still on the team at all, having been arrested the weekend before for what his lawyer was calling a consensual sex act and the girl was calling gang rape.
Whatever: it worked. With Joel out of the game, the Vikings were able to mount a limp ninth inning rally against a deflated and troubled Eagles squad. As the victors leapt upon Kyle Hoffstetler in a great homoerotic pile on the pitcher's mound, his parents and his lawyer pushing in to offer their admiration and affection, Joel was being admitted to the emergency room at St. Hobart's. He wouldn't regain consciousness until just before noon the next day.
Too Many Veronicas
Frank Kolak's fist hovered over the stapler, the fleshy part of his other hand having assumed the position. He shouldn't have to do this. He had strong suspicions there was something seriously wrong with this behavior.
And yet that start, that sting ...
He hammered his fist home, driving the needle-like tooth through his flesh. Just as Veronica Jefferson walked into his classroom.
"Damn!" he shouted, not at being hurt but at being caught. Conveniently, it looked like it was because he was hurt.
"Veronica. I'm sorry." He brought the wound to his mouth, easing the pain with the balm of his spit.
"Damn, Mr. Kolak. That looked like it hurt."
"Yes," he replied. As near as he could recall, this was the first evidence that 17-year-old Veronica had any cognitive skills whatsoever. Had party hats been available, a celebration might have been in order.
"Where's your mother?"
"My mother said to tell you she wanted to be here to discuss my grades, but her boss wasn't going to spring her ass every time one of her kids was in trouble," she said listlessly, noting her teacher's disapproval. "That's what she said."
Mr. Kolak sank into his seat with a defeated sigh. "Good lord, girl," he thought to himself. "Here we are, two black Americans, together on this journey, trying to elevate ourselves to a better place. A place we deserve.
"And while I don't have all the answers, I know more than you. So since I'm here every day anyway, blowing words into the air to the benefit of seemingly no one, could we not make a pact—just you and I—that if you will drop this anger and this feigned laziness and understand that I simply want, with all my soul, to see you excel, I will teach you?"
But instead he simply said: "You are failing Social Studies."
She set her jaw bitterly. "Mr. Kolak, I can't learn this stuff. I don't need this stuff. I'm fixing to be a hairdresser. What do I need to be knowing about all these dead men you keep throwing at us?"
"'These dead men' made the world you live in, and the future you're stuck with," he pleaded. "Don't you have any interest in how you got here?"
"I take the bus."
It was like another staple, this time through the heart.
"You want to drive a car? You want to own a car? You want to drive your car into a white man's gas station, hit the full service line 'cause you can afford it, have him run out and say, 'Yes, ma'am, how can I help you?' and then speed off, saying, 'Sorry, old man, I'm taking my business to the black brother up the street 'cause we finally got it all figured out and we're taking care of our own. Later for you, suckah!'"
She stared at him dimly. Can anything be so wasted as a metaphor cast upon a teenager?
She blinked, so he knew she hadn't fallen asleep.
He gave up. "When's the baby due?"
"February!" Finally, a light. This sullen, disconnected child all of a sudden was radiating good cheer and purpose. The baby would be her happiness.
He stared at her. "As you sit here this very moment, rejecting what I am trying to give you, you are sentencing that child to a life even more ignorant and doomed than your own."
He caught himself and winced. What a horrible, hateful thing for a teacher to think.
He lowered his eyes and discovered that he was bleeding all over various piles of homework. How was he going to explain that?
Props to the KKK
Hutch Posner had it going on because he had pulled off that most rare and spectacular early 21st century art form: the successful ante-upping concept rip-off. He had spotted a trend that was paying off handsomely for someone who had done the actualst hard work of breaking new ground. He had stolen it with such bloodless, chromium-sleek panache that even his competitors were awed—routinely offering him millions to come over to their side to work his magic on the network that he had learned and looted from in the first place.
Because Hutch Posner understood. Which is to say, he didn't. Couldn't have. Had no more foresight or boldness of vision than the guy who came up with the guy who came after Vanilla Ice. He had been just one more creativity-free heat- seeking scorpion who had idly suggested just one more crass exploitation to throw into the unquenchable maw that is public demand.
Just a jot on a notepad, thought #17 of 37 that he had brought with him during that first creative meeting following the acquisition of Decade Zero by MediaTrust, the cable colossus:
Didn't they? From the benign (I hate my parents, I hate my looks, I hate my brother, I hate my sister, I hate my school, I hate my town, I hate my life, I hate myself) to the lethal (pick the schoolyard slaying of your choice), wasn't the average teen feeding off hate like oxygen, devoting nearly every conscious moment trying to turn idle, listless contempt into a lifestyle choice? Wasn't this just the angriest, most pissed-off collection of brats ever to stroll this earth, happy only when consuming (whatever: drugs, mall effluent, those weaker than themselves), but otherwise dissatisfied, let down, denied?
Like there wasn't a buck to be made there.
What Hutch had proposed—and, again, he was just spewing out this crap—was the next generation in music television, free of the divas and the boy bands and anything that struck the eye or ear as soft. Melodic. Kind.
Spike the vein of cruelty and naked aggression that informed most of what was passing for popular entertainment, and mainline it to American youth. Maximum hardcore. Balls out extreme. All savagery, all the time.
Take the sugar out of their older sibling's MTV, which long ago had become a bloated and slick revenue-generator, eager to pimp to American youth whatever their jaded little souls desired, and just give with the nasty:
Nothing but seething skate punk thrash—the nü metal—with its breathtaking crunch-laden Achtung!, doing no less than transposing the goose-step into a pulsating, head-thrashing, fist-pumping white boy hootenanny.
And, of course, rap—the more gangsta the better. Take a white racist's worst possible caricature of a dope-selling, gun-slinging, cracker-hating, poon-snatching pimp, throw him in the studio with some samples, a drum loop, and a rhyming dictionary, and watch the money fall from the sky. Let the brothers take the first taste off the top—they're the ones, after all, selling out their culture with Stepin Fetchits for the new millennium. There's plenty left over for The Man.
The beauty part was that despite the seeming chasm separating the two—the white metallers and the black gangstas—it was the hateful, simple-minded hooliganism of both which bound them together. That, and the fact that it was all being sold primarily to white, cash-flush teenagers in the suburbs.
That was the thing about hip-hop: for all the grammar-deficient speechifying about keeping the music real for the homies on the block, their act was largely subsidized by white teen poseurs who couldn't have cared less about the hard street truths spun by these sons of Tupac, and who damned sure wouldn't be living anywhere near or offering employment to any one of their black brothers when they inherited the world in a few years.
It was this dynamic, this market paradox, which got Hutch the second meeting. The next meeting up. The meeting at which a half-assed whim might actually solidify into a MediaTrust-funded development deal.
* * *
To make this happen, Hutch knew what was required—more than an embellishment of his initial concept, more than a demonstration of why he was the man to launch an entire new network in the venerated MediaTrust constellation.
What he needed was an icon. A graphic image. A brand-setting piece of eye candy that would crystallize his vision into a single, trend-defining logo with just as much credibility on a $45 T-shirt as when displayed proudly in a shareholder's report.
In the world in which he traveled, you needed to sell neither the steak nor the sizzle. Make the concept shine and the public, in its endearing eagerness to constantly be boned up the ass by corporate hucksters, could usually be counted on to bend over.
At that second meeting, now nearly four years ago, the state-of-the-art projection computer whirred silently as he began his sell.
"I want to plant a flag in the youth market, a flag that will fly proudly and defiantly, bearing two things: a name and a logo. A logo and a name. A network identity rendered in a single graphic image that will be just as evocative as the name Tupac, as raw and indelible as the tattoos on Fred Durst's arms. (Note: Fred Durst and his band Limp Bizkit mattered when Hutch sold the network; they do not anymore. They get to keep the tattoos.)
"Limited as we are by the three- and four-letter acronyms or quasi-acronyms that define the cable universe—CNN, ESPN, VH1, MTV—I want to break the form as much as possible and push the envelope like a motherfucker."
(Hutch had been practicing this last bit for the past week while driving in the Beemer, knowing full that as a white man out of the Ivy Leagues, this patois had no business coming out of his mouth. But if he was going to sell himself as the godhead of this vulgar, inappropriate network, he was going to have to pull it off. Up until the words actually left his lips, he was prepared to employ the fallback "Push the envelope like a certified bad-ass," but he sized up the tenor of the room and went for it. Judging from the wizened nods he received in return, he figured he had made the right call. Fact was, everyone gathered there fancied themselves ready to push the envelope like a motherfucker. What higher calling was there?)
"And to define this branding statement, to forge this network identity around which we intend to rally our desired demographic, I looked to an inspiration just a little outside the box.
(Hold for the dramatic pause.)
"I looked to the KKK."
Uh-oh. Envelope pushed too far. Hutch felt the air sucked from the room as those around him instinctively readied to fire back with rote, politically-correct platitudes.
Which was the intent.
"Now, hold on," Hutch urged with a sly grin. "I'm not talking about the KKK itself, which I'll be the first to say is off the hook. Totally."
Jeff Bradley, the only black man having reached this power tier, squirmed uncomfortably. Hutch had given Jeff a lot of thought, wondering how his spiel would play with this member of the team. But the fact was that if anyone present had much concern for the side effects of crass, improper behavior, they were in the wrong business. Hutch knew that Jeff would know that if his idea were to take wing, Jeff would be positioned to take a lead role in the hip-hop half of Hutch's universe.
You make your compromises. You scoop up the gravy.
"No, I am talking about the KKK as a branding device," he said, nodding to Brad Stein, who was entrusted with running the computer. Three stark Ks now filled the screen. Those who had been willing to hear Hutch out began fidgeting all over again.
"Think about it," he soldiered on. "The Ku Klux Klan barely even exists anymore, just a handful of hate-filled crackers getting together in a mobile home down South a couple times a year to suck up the moonshine and bitch about the big, bad black man."
Jeff Bradley stared a hole in his notepad.
"But the power of their name hasn't diminished one bit. It still works. It's hose three hard consonants—KKK—that drive it all home. Right?"
Nobody knew quite how to respond. Jeff Bradley worried that this momentary pause in Hutch's presentation was inviting everyone to recite the letters in unison, proving they had lost none of their luster.
Excerpted from LIKE WE CARE by Tom Matthews Copyright © 2004 by Tom Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Bancroft Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted November 3, 2008
A small group of teens, a school teacher, and a TV producer shake the foundations of the corporate world in LIKE WE CARE, the debut novel from screenwriter Tom Matthews. What begins as a small protest between friends and hangers-on snowballs into a cross-country, grass roots protest movement with more at stake than mere dollars. With witty dialogue and perfect comedic timing, LIKE WE CARE is that rare adult novel that is not only suitable for teens but is highly recommended. <BR/><BR/>Joel and Todd were best friends growing up but grew apart with the onset of adolescence -- and Joel's ascendance to the role of alpha-male jock on campus. But after a severe injury in a baseball game, they renew their friendship. As a result, Todd helps Joel take a closer look at his inane lifestyle and his sheep-like followers, particularly concerning their smoking and spending habits. As Joel fully understands how badly the local convenience store - and the advertising world in general - is manipulating him and his peers for their money, he uses his charisma to organize a boycott. Eventually, the protest garners the attention of a TV executive desperate for stories of substance for R2Rev, the music video channel in which she works. Joel's charisma and Todd's message soon resonates across America, influencing impromptu boycotts and small-town elections. But the movement begins to unravel on all fronts as they grow in fame and success and their opponents begin to see what's at stake. Yet Todd refuses to surrender and has a few tricks up his sleeve that provides for a sweet victory when defeat looks certain. <BR/><BR/>Although satirical in many facets, LIKE WE CARE rings true on all fronts: the high school cliques, the fan-bashing rap stars, the exploitative TV executives, and the price-gouging store owners. This is laugh-out-loud funny but also inspiring.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 23, 2007
A small group of teens, a school teacher, and a TV producer shake the foundations of the corporate world in LIKE WE CARE, the debut novel from screenwriter Tom Matthews. What begins as a small protest between friends and hangers-on snowballs into a cross-country, grass roots protest movement with more at stake than mere dollars. With witty dialogue and perfect comedic timing, LIKE WE CARE is that rare adult novel that is not only suitable for teens but is highly recommended. Joel and Todd were best friends growing up but grew apart with the onset of adolescence -- and Joel's ascendance to the role of alpha-male jock on campus. But after a severe injury in a baseball game, they renew their friendship. As a result, Todd helps Joel take a closer look at his inane lifestyle and his sheep-like followers, particularly concerning their smoking and spending habits. As Joel fully understands how badly the local convenience store - and the advertising world in general - is manipulating him and his peers for their money, he uses his charisma to organize a boycott. Eventually, the protest garners the attention of a TV executive desperate for stories of substance for R2Rev, the music video channel in which she works. Joel's charisma and Todd's message soon resonates across America, influencing impromptu boycotts and small-town elections. But the movement begins to unravel on all fronts as they grow in fame and success and their opponents begin to see what's at stake. Yet Todd refuses to surrender and has a few tricks up his sleeve that provides for a sweet victory when defeat looks certain. Although satirical in many facets, LIKE WE CARE rings true on all fronts: the high school cliques, the fan-bashing rap stars, the exploitative TV executives, and the price-gouging store owners. This is laugh-out-loud funny but also inspiring. **Reviewed by: Mark Frye, author and reviewerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 30, 2010
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