Meet Marley, an unassuming high school junior who breathes in music like oxygen. In between caring for his heroin-addicted mother, and keeping his scholarship at a fancy prep school, he dreams of becoming a professional DJ.
When chance lands Marley his first real DJ job, his career as "DJ Ice" suddenly skyrockets. But when heart-rending disaster at home brings Marley crashing back down to earth, he is torn between obligation and following his dreams.
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|Publisher:||Little, Brown Books for Young Readers|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Love Maia
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 Love Maia
All right reserved.
IN THE END
HERE’S HOW I SEE IT. I’M THE STAR DJ AT THE city’s most elite club, Fever. I lounge on a long, red velvet couch in the VIP Room chatting up friends and flirting with beautiful girls. I go by the name Lord.
When midnight strikes, it’s on to the DJ booth, a huge room with a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over a massive dance floor the size of a basketball court.
The vast space below looks hollow and dark, empty and depressing. But then I start pulling records, releasing light and color into all the empty spaces. My music circles the room, spreading smiles onto hundreds of faces. The crowd sways to the beat and hollers in approval as I draw them to the floor, making them feel weightless and alive and sucking them farther and farther from their real-world problems.
Every person in Fever falls under my control, giving me sole power over every movement they make, every step, every shift, every turn, every head bob beneath the bright, flashing strobes. The bass line throbs and pulses like a heartbeat, exploding from deep within, then flowing out in a mad, endless rush. I have the power to pump people up, to mellow them out, to make them fall in love. I am everything in this moment, and everything can become anything I want it to be.
Suddenly a fight breaks out in a far corner of the club. The crowd’s attention turns and everyone moves in that direction as people pack in tight around the brawlers, craning for a better look. Several bouncers rush in and quickly drag the guys outside, but the flow of energy on the dance floor has shifted and the mood is totally disrupted now. It’s up to me to pull the crowd back in.
I needle a new track, smoothing over the tension as rays of sound pour from the speakers, bounce off the walls, and echo in energy. I drop a booming, confident beat that pounds in the shadows, doubling in time, then falling hard, shaking the floorboards below as the two sounds blend together in a hypnotic mix of electro house.
People dance and cheer at the beauty of my unique mix, the fight long forgotten. Yes! That is the kind of power a DJ has.
A sexy cocktail waitress stops and smiles at me. “Care for a drink, DJ Lord?” she asks with a wink.
“Champagne,” I instruct, winking back, cooler than cool, my voice deep and confident, my headphones hanging about my neck like jewelry.
“Cristal, right? Only the best for DJ Lord.”
“Of course,” I agree. “Only the best for the best.”
That’s how I see it all going down whenever I picture myself spinning at Fever.
But I’ve only been there in dreams.
In reality, the closest I’ve ever gotten to that club is the sidewalk across the street.
Six nights a week, when I’m done busing tables and washing dishes at Spazio’s restaurant, I walk the two blocks to Fever and sit on the sidewalk across the street from the club to eat a crust-free tuna fish sandwich and drink a can of cold Mug Root Beer while eagerly taking in every bit of action, every detail that might give me a hint of what’s going on inside.
I know there was a fight tonight because I was watching when the massive bouncers in the matching black Fever tees exploded from the front entrance and threw four twenty-something guys out into the street. The guys made their way to the corner, where they continued to go at it until the cops rolled up.
I know the infamous DJ Lord was spinning because I saw him exit a taxi and enter the club, a girl wrapped around each arm. I don’t know what the guy likes to drink. Cristal just seemed right, since it’s expensive and only important people drink it. There is no one more important in a club than the DJ.
I’ve never been inside Fever. I’m not old enough to get in. But sitting across the street from the hottest club around keeps my dream alive.
Five years from now I will go to Fever and see the real DJ Lord in action, see what the inside of that place is really like.
That isn’t the dream, though. The dream is to bring my own records to Fever and get paid for dropping my own beats on the ones and twos.
Someday it’ll be me up in that booth controlling everybody’s good time.
Then it won’t be about DJ Lord anymore.
It’ll be all about DJ Marley.
SPINNING IN A CLUB IS THE DREAM, BUT REALITY goes more like this: Go to school, learn, go home, study, go to work, work, walk to Fever, daydream, go home, study more, go to bed, get up, repeat.
“Morning, Ma,” I mumble sleepily as I pass through the small front room of our apartment on my way to the kitchen.
My mother doesn’t respond, but then she hardly ever does.
I pull the Cookie Crisp down from the cupboard and shuffle to the fridge for milk, still caught in an early-morning haze, going through the motions, but not really with it yet.
There’s no milk. The only things in the fridge are a family-size bag of fried chicken cutlets, a pot of rice and beans, half a stick of butter, and a jar with maybe two scoops of applesauce left in it.
I peer back into the front room and speak to my mother as evenly and patiently as I can. “Ma? What happened to all the milk?”
My mother sits motionless, staring at the television set from her permanent spot, sucked into the cushions on the couch as if she hasn’t heard me. Half-moons sink into her cheeks below her vacant brown eyes. She is straight up skin and bones, her olive complexion looking veiny and transparent. Her hair, once long, thick, and shiny black, has gone from luscious Spanish curls to couch-potato gnarl.
My mother’s a straight-up junkie, aka a dope fiend, and a hard-core one too. The kind that has no job and spends all the time she isn’t doing drugs trying to figure out how to score more. And by dope I mean snow, brown sugar, Dragon, junk, smack. Or as Webster’s would define it—heroin.
She was only fourteen when she walked into a clinic with an abnormal weight gain and walked out five months pregnant. Normally it wouldn’t make much sense that someone could get to be an entire five months pregnant and not know it. Unless you know my mother.
Afraid to tell her own mother the news, mine ran away from home with tears in her eyes and me in her belly. Her boyfriend, Rodney Dylan, soon to be my father, had dropped out of high school the year before and was living in a studio in the projects when Ma moved in.
Four months later, my parents and a bunch of their friends got tickets to one of those Bob Marley Day Festivals where people camp by a river for a week and watch bands perform in honor of the late, great Bob Marley. My mother went into labor the very first day. But instead of having her friends take her to the hospital, like a logical person would, she stayed at the festival.
I was born in a first-aid tent at the side of the main stage during a lesser-known Bob Marley song called “Johnny Was.” It’s about this boy who gets shot down in the street by a stray bullet. His mother weeps over his dead body asking why and crying out that “Johnny was a good man who never did a thing wrong.”
My own mother was probably crying out too, her voice muffled by the cheers of the crowd. And then there I was. Marley Johnnywas Diego-Dylan, a baby boy born amid thousands of Bob Marley fans, my ears filling with music as I took my first breaths of weed-laced air.
I grew up dreaming of that music and dreaming of a better life. Now, at sixteen, I dream more than ever. That my pop could still be alive. That my mother could quit using. That one day I won’t have to work full-time to make rent and pay bills and buy food.
I dream I have no responsibilities in life except to be a teenager. And I dream that one day I’ll escape all this and find a home for my own music like Bob Marley himself must have dreamed of finding a home for his once upon a time.
“Ma,” I try again, “I bought two whole gallons of milk yesterday. Who drank it all? Was it your boyfriend?”
No answer. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother.
“I have to get ready for school, but maybe we can talk about this tonight. Okay? Please?”
She acknowledges my words by flipping the channel on the television and focusing her bloodshot eyes on one of those morning shows where the hosts sit around talking endlessly to each other about nothing at all for an entire hour.
My mother wasn’t always a heroin addict. She didn’t get into the drugs until after my father died, four years ago. At first we were both super depressed. But within a year Ma’s depression had pulled her into a downward spiral of heavier and heavier drinking. The drinking became painkillers. The painkillers turned into heroin. She’s been using for a year and a half now. Sometimes it feels like I’m just watching her slowly die right in front of me.
I take a quick shower and dress for school in a pair of oversized skater jeans, a black tee, sneakers, and an Etnies cap. I’ve got Etnies in black, white, red, and dark gray to cover my tightly shaved head, and today it’s all about the black one.
I’m pretty much toothpick-skinny, not the ultimate body type, I suppose, but I grew a ton last year and now stand six-two, which goes over pretty well with the females. I’ve sort of got the baby face thing going on, but girls seem to dig a young face on a tall dude, so I do all right with it. Plus, I got some decent features from my parents. Being half black and half Puerto Rican has turned into an advantage lately. You don’t see that every day.
On the bus, I crank my iPod volume and shuffle through flash cards for the presentation I have to give on Ernest Hemingway in English today. We’re only a month into the school year and I’m already about to give my second presentation. I’m a horrible speaker and my first presentation was a total disaster.
But that’s okay because this one’ll be different. This time I’ll be cool, calm, and collected. Hemingway’s life will pour from my lips like sweet maple syrup. I glance at the top flash card on which I’ve written in big, block letters:
ERNEST HEMINGWAY WAS BORN IN 1899 IN CHICAGO, ILLINOIS.
“UM… AND SO… HEMINGWAY WAS ORIGINALLY from Chicago, right? I mean, well, that’s where he was born and stuff. I’m not sure how long he stayed, though, or where all else he might’ve lived when he was growing up. And uh… that’s in Illinois. Chicago is, I mean, not Hemingway. Or I guess he was in Illinois too. Born there at least. Um… in… 1899.”
Or maybe not so easy.
“Uh, and also he served in this war, right? World War One actually. Oh, and um, the Spanish Civil War, he was in that one too. Both of those. Wars, I mean.”
“Don’t forget to make eye contact with your audience, Marley,” Ms. Beckett says, smiling warmly.
Eye contact with my audience? Is she kidding? I’m too busy torturing my audience.
“In 1952, Hemingway wrote a novella called ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and it, um, it won him this prize called a Pulitzer. No wait. No. Yeah. Pulitzer. Pulitzer Prize.”
Melanie Jergens snaps her gum loudly from her front row desk, and the sound pops in my ears all sudden-like and totally irritating. She’s been doing it ever since I started—snapping it on purpose to distract me, just like Brittany Danes is purposely letting out these loud, exasperated sighs. They both give me nasty smirks whenever I do my “eye contact intervals.” It’s rude, but then that’s how the junior Have girls at Ellington Prep are. They go out of their way to be nasty to anyone that isn’t them. I try to pick a generic spot to focus on but always end up looking right at Melanie or Brittany. It’s impossible not to.
“He also won the Nobel Prize. Uh… that was in 1954…. That’s this top book award. Or I mean, that and the Pulitzer both are. Top awards, I mean. Or… um… yeah. Top book awards.”
Richie Edwards, Jordan Max, and Steve O’Neill snicker together in the back of the room in that quiet way that only sounds like they’re trying to be quiet when in fact they really want you to hear them making fun of you. As usual, our sweet, elderly English teacher, Ms. Beckett, doesn’t notice.
“When Hemingway first moved to Cuba…”
My mouth feels dry. My underarms are wet. My left foot itches for some reason. I make another attempt at the eye interval thing, but instead end up looking right at Lea Hall. Lea isn’t paying me any mind whatsoever. She’s busy writing something down in a fuzzy pink notebook. Probably something about how much she loves some perfect boyfriend or something like that. Probably something about a perfect, unbelievably rich boyfriend who’s an older guy attending a perfect college majoring in something perfect.
It would be fair to say that Lea is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in person. Most guys would say Melanie is hotter, but that’s because most guys have no idea what they’re talking about. Melanie’s too obvious with the low-cut tops and the miniskirts and the tight jeans.
Lea covers up her body more, but you can still tell how hot she is underneath and I like letting my imagination run wild wondering about the stuff I can’t see. Her conservative clothes and that brown-eyed, rosy-cheeked, innocent-girl look of hers make me want to walk up and grab her and kiss her like crazy ten times more than I’d want to if she were wearing some slutty outfit. She doesn’t wear a ton of makeup either, the way a lot of girls at our school do. She doesn’t need to.
I look down at my flash card notes and then out at her again. Jeez, I’m being so obvious and yet she never seems to notice me staring. You’d think she’d feel my eyes burning into her like two hot coals, but she never even looks up.
I watch her curl a few loose strands of blond hair behind one ear and nibble on her pencil. I love it when she does that curl-her-hair-behind-her-ear thing. I picture her sitting alone in the classroom with her hair blowing off her face in a dramatic sexy slow-mo. She winks at me and blows me a slow, sensual fantasyland kiss.
Just then, Richie lets out an enormous burp, bringing me back to reality with a jolt, catching me by surprise, and causing me to spill my flash cards all over the floor. The whole class erupts in laughter as Jordan reaches across Steve’s desk to high-five Richie.
“Gentlemen, please,” Ms. Beckett finally warns.
Richie leans back in his chair rubbing his stomach and grinning proudly. I kneel and gather my cards into a pile as quickly as possible, picking them up from the floor as the last few chuckles pass through the room. They’re totally blowing my concentration. As if I wasn’t nervous enough already. But that’s how the popular junior Have guys at Ellington are. They’re even worse than the girls.
I gaze out again at a sea of bored faces, my flash cards now completely out of order. I hate this class. I hate how alone I feel here.
“In 1952, Ernest Hemingway wrote this novella called ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and, um, he got a Pulitzer Prize for it.”
“Uh, hello?” Richie shouts. “You already told us that.”
I look up in time to see Steve form an index finger and a thumb into an L on his forehead, and mouth the word loser.
Jordan scratches his nose with his middle finger.
What a bunch of assholes. If I were still at my old school, I’d tell them so as we file out into the hall when the bell rings, but these days I keep my mouth shut. Especially in English, since pretty much all the miserable, stuck-up junior Haves are in my Advanced Lit class and not one of them is worth getting into it with. Not when I’ve got a scholarship to protect. Be cool, Marley. Keep it to yourself for now.
“Interesting speech, Marley,” Richie says, slapping me on the shoulder as he passes by.
Richie, Jordan, Steve, and Jason Camp all turn to look at me and crack up laughing as they start down the hall. I don’t want to follow them. But we have the same next class on the other side of campus and there’s no other way to get to the gym in five minutes. I slip on my phones and crank the volume to block them out, watching them blankly with their scrunched-up faces and their mouths going a mile a minute as I focus on the melody in my ears. Music always gets me through when I’m alone.
I follow them out of the building and that’s when I see Charles “Chuckie” Wu and Reginald “Scuzz” Owens heading our way. They approach the Haves first, Scuzz stepping right up to Richie and giving him a stern nod inches from Richie’s face. Richie gives a quick nod back before moving out of Scuzz and Chuckie’s way. He motions to the other three Haves and they rush off toward the locker room. I break into a grin as I watch it all happen without a single word being exchanged.
Scuzz approaches me next. We grip hands. I turn to Chuckie and we pound fists. I am no longer alone. I’ve got my boys with me now.
“Your speech must’ve been pretty bad,” Scuzz states matter-of-factly as we head in the direction of the locker room.
“How’d you know?”
“Well, for one thing, those stuck-up Have wimps were making cracks about it when they walked out of the building.”
“And for another thing,” Chuckie says, “all of your speeches suck.”
I shrug in reply. He’s right. They do.
“Speaking of things that suck…” Scuzz says, raising his eyebrows at each of us.
“Gym,” I finish for him. “You’re glad you play football so you don’t have to go.”
“You know this.”
“Not all of us can be superstars with a pigskin, Scuzzy,” Chuckie says.
Scuzz laughs extra loud as he grips hands with each of us once more before we head on into the locker room. “Lucky for me!”
I can still hear him laughing to himself as the locker room doors shut behind us.
Entering the gym locker room is like taking that first step onto a path that will lead you into the fiery depths of hell. When I picture what that hell will be like, I never fail to see my gym teacher, Ms. Tyler, with red horns shooting out of her head and a long, sharp tail whipping back and forth behind her as she greets you with an old, deflated basketball or a dumb-ass badminton racquet.
Sure, it’s an exaggeration, but I can’t help it. Scuzz is right. Gym sucks. And not only because I’m not the athletic type, even though I’m not. Not because the gym equipment is really old either, because it isn’t. This is Ellington Prep after all. Nothing is ever old or deflated here. No, it’s the fact that we have yet to learn how to play a single team sport properly that makes gym such a joke.
“ ’Sup, Transplants?” Chuckie calls out to Will, K.C., and Juan when we meet up with them at our lockers.
“Chillin’, you low-down, dirty excuse for a couple of Transplants,” Will replies.
Transplants— lower-income students who transferred into the infamous, overprivileged, educationally renowned Ellington Preparatory High School, a wealthy private school that finally integrated itself for the first time last year by adding thirty-three financial-aid students to a student body of a thousand.
I don’t remember which of us came up with the name. Probably Chuckie. The rest of the school refers to us by more proper names, like transfers or scholarship students, but we wanted our own name for ourselves, something that would constantly remind us who we are and where we come from.
If you get an organ transplant, and the transplant takes, it can save your life. That organ will always have originally belonged to someone else, though.
Going to Ellington Prep may not physically save our lives, but it could sure switch up our futures pretty drastically, which could have the same result. Ellington doesn’t belong to us, though, not really. It’s more like we’re using it temporarily; borrowing it from kids with privileged lifestyles who live in homes with things like fireplaces and front yards and washing machines you don’t need coins to operate.
We call each other Transplants so we don’t forget that as soon as we hear that last bell ring, we’ll all be headed right back to our respective hoods.
Haves is the name we came up with for the most popular crowd at Ellington. We call them Haves because they have everything and think they’re better than everyone else. But that’s also a name we use only with each other. We’d never call them that to their faces. Unlike them, we have respect for other people.
“So how’d your speech go down, Marley?” Will asks.
“Not so good,” I answer, opening my locker and tossing my lid on the shelf inside. I yank my T-shirt up over my head and take out the reversible, yellow and blue shirt and gym shorts they make us wear. I put on my shirt, yellow side up. We’re playing soccer all this week and I’m on the gold team.
“Richie and them were messing with him,” says Chuckie. “Huh, Mar.”
I nod. “I don’t get why they act like that.”
“They act like that because they think they’re better than everyone else,” Juan says. “Guys like Richie try to get at us because they want to keep us down. Especially you, because you’re the only Transplant in that class.”
“Swear to God, son,” says K.C., “that Richie Edwards is way overdue to get his sorry ass kicked.”
“Richie Edwards…” Will repeats, shaking his head all vigorous-like as if he can simply undo Richie’s entire existence if he shakes his head hard enough. “How’re you gonna be rich and then turn around and have the nerve to call your kid Richie anyway?”
“His given name isn’t even Richard,” Juan points out. “It’s Rich. There are rich people out there who actually named their kid Rich. Who does some shit like that?”
“That’d be like if my mama named me Poor,” says Will.
Everybody cracks up laughing as Chuckie drops an arm across Will’s shoulder. “Come on, then, Poor. Let’s get out there and see if you’re a better goalie than Will is.”
We trudge through the locker room and out onto the field for a wannabe game of something that has no right calling itself soccer. Our game has hardly anything to do with organized sports. We kick the ball back and forth with no real direction and not much skill. That’s the thing about gym. You dip your toes in several sports, but you never actually learn to swim.
I love having gym outside among the trees, though. I focus on the sun, which shines down in these sleepy rays that kiss the tip of each blade of grass in the field. It warms the school buildings behind us from the outside in and puts me in daydream mode. The music in my head goes perfectly with the sun and the trees and the grass, an upbeat melody with a touch of a melancholy feel to it, but in a way that’s so right. I try to picture myself spinning for the Fever crowd, thinking of the type of people that were standing outside the club last night and wondering if they’d dig the mix I’m imagining for them.
If I had to describe Fever in one word, that word would be unreal. You feel like you’re in this whole other world when you’re anywhere near that club. There’s always a huge spotlight set up outside on Friday and Saturday nights like it’s a movie premiere or something. You can see those white beams of light moving through the sky from everywhere, and the colored bulbs that line the exterior of the building light the crowd in shades of blue, red, yellow, and green. It’s like a fantasyland the way the club is all lit up and makes everyone seem really glamorous.
A piercing sound floods my ears as Ms. Tyler blows her whistle like crazy. I don’t know why she even bothers. Gym is almost over and neither side has made a single goal. I watch K.C. and Richie struggle to kick the ball in different directions even though they’re on the same team. Then I slip back into thoughts of Fever, wondering when it will be my turn to walk beyond those red ropes that hold the line at bay and drop some of my addictive beats on their crowd.
I imagine no longer having to fight the exhaustion of working long shifts after a full day of school just to make enough to keep a roof over Ma and me. I imagine getting paid for my hands to spend all night pulling records instead of getting paid for my hands to spend all night pruning up from hot water and dirty dishes like they do now. I imagine one day being one of the important people who gets to skip the line at Fever and walk right on into the club ahead of the crowd, instead of being the guy who cleans up after those important people. I imagine I am somebody else.
“HEY, MA,” I CALL OUT AS I WALK THROUGH THE front door of our apartment after school.
I head straight through the swinging door to the kitchen, dropping my school pack on the floor and pulling some leftovers out of the fridge to make for dinner. Most nights I get something to eat at the restaurant where I work before starting my shift, which saves me money, but I have to make my mother a proper meal once a day. If I don’t cook for her, she doesn’t eat. It’s like she forgets or something.
The pot of beans and rice is still sitting on the top shelf where I left it, but the fridge is otherwise empty save for that half a stick of butter on a paper plate and the practically empty applesauce jar. I peer back into the front room.
“Ma,” I say as I hover in the doorway that splits the front room from the kitchen, “what happened to that bag of fried chicken cutlets I cooked up for you a couple nights ago? It was here when I left for school this morning.”
My mother pretends she doesn’t hear me.
“Ma, please help me out here.”
“Frederick,” she finally drones, her eyes never lifting from the television screen. “Frederick ate the chicken.”
“Aw, Ma. There was a whole economy-size bag’s worth in here when I left for school.”
“He was real hungry,” she says.
“He was real high,” I correct her. “He’s always high. Thanks to him I only have beans and rice to heat up for your dinner. And no milk.”
I go back into the kitchen and light the stove to reheat the beans and rice. Frederick. Figures. There’s been a whole string of guys like him around ever since she started using—so-called boyfriends who’re really just drug addicts who hang around our apartment and hook up with my mother on a regular basis in exchange for getting her dope and helping her shoot up.
It kills me to let them stay in our apartment. It kills me to let them through the front door. But if I don’t, they wander the streets all night and get high in shady-ass drug dens. Ma goes with them when they do, and I simply can’t have that.
Frederick is my mother’s latest loser boyfriend and he’s the biggest loser of them all, which is really saying something. But the good news is he’s been around for almost a month now, so his time’s about up. No boyfriend has ever lasted more than a month.
“Tell Frederick he needs to buy his own food from now on and stop eating ours,” I tell my mother as I pass through the front room on my way to the bathroom, but she ignores me.
I take a three-minute shower. That’s all you get in this place before the water runs cold. For me it’s enough. Those three minutes alone with the rushing hot water are like therapy. Running my face under the wet heat is like having all my problems sucked inside out and flushed down the drain with the dirt and grime.
By the time six thirty rolls around, my mother’s dinner is ready and so am I. It’s Friday night and I have plans with friends. The only night off I get from my job is Tuesday, so I usually work on Friday and Saturday nights, but once a month I switch with my buddy Julio and get an actual weekend night off.
My heartbeat quickens in anticipation of getting out of this place and being free for the night. No responsibilities. Nobody to cook for or clean up after, nobody to take care of but myself. My boy’s signature honk comes from down on the street a few minutes after seven. I grab my jacket and lock up my bedroom. “I’m headed out for the night, Ma.”
My mother’s bloodshot eyes never leave the TV screen. I don’t even care that I get no response from her. As of this moment, I am officially a teenager for the rest of the night.
“MARLEY, MAR! ’SUP, MAN.”
“ ’Sup,” I reply with a nod as I slide into the passenger seat of Scuzz’s Buick. I lean back and let out a deep breath I swear I’ve been holding since I first got home from school. That place upstairs may be where I live, but this, this feels like home: like where I’m supposed to be, sitting in an old-school, worn-out, tan leather, bench-style car seat, surrounded by a comforting darkness and music so loud the trunk vibrates with every beat and smoke so thick you’d swear it’s fog. It all makes me feel so alive. Even if I do have to roll down the window to let in some fresh air.
“Well, if it isn’t the famous English historian,” Chuckie announces, leaning over the backseat and grinning like crazy as he slaps me on the shoulder repeatedly. “Those presentations are gonna kill your grade point average, Mar. No four-point-oh for you.”
I shrug like I don’t care about my grades even though I do. I care a lot actually. Chuckie teasing me about it is his way of reminding me the worst that could happen is I’ll get a B in Advanced Lit. I can’t sweat the small stuff in life and no matter how badly I want all A’s, getting a B is definitely small stuff.
“You’ll be all right, Mar,” says Scuzz. “The way I figure it, if Ellington Prep is meant to be the school for us, it will be. If not, then so be it. School ain’t life.” He cranks the power steering–less wheel all the way to the left and peels out into the waiting night.
Scuzz and Chuckie are my best friends in the world. They’re more like brothers, really. I’d take a bullet for either one without a second thought, and I can’t remember ever not knowing them. We grew up in the same projects until my family moved to a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks away when I was ten and Chuckie’s escaped to a duplex two years ago.
We’ve gone to the same schools and been in all the same classes practically our whole lives, so it’s kind of crazy that Chuckie, Scuzz, and I all got chosen to be among the first group of financial-aid students to ever attend Ellington Preparatory High School.
Chuckie earned his scholarship by being a hard-core, straight-up, hands-down, indisputable genius.
Scuzz earned the first of eight athletic scholarships by dominating Morris Peak sports as the top athlete in school.
I earned mine the hard way. I studied my freaking ass off for it.
Now we’re all going to this top private school and each doing pretty well for himself. For the first time in my life, I feel like all three of us might have a real future.
“So, Marley, what’s up with Jen’s party? You good?”
I shrug at Chuckie. “I’m ready to play.”
“Yeah, that part’ll be cool, but what I wanna know is, are you ready for her? You know she’s gonna come on hard once she’s got you there.”
Scuzz slides me a slow grin. “She does want you bad, Mar.”
I nod in reply. Jennifer pretty much feels the same way about me that I do about Lea Hall. Only difference is Jen is the type to get way up in your face about it. Constantly. It makes it hard to hang with her for more than an hour or two.
But not tonight.
Tonight I’m the DJ.
Tonight Jen could come at me all night long and I wouldn’t care.
I figured we’d go straight to her place, but instead of heading south toward Jennifer’s, Scuzz takes the freeway north.
“You making a run for the border?”
“Naw, man,” he says, “gonna get some Mickey D’s right quick. Could make a run for the border after the party, though, if you want.”
I nod. “That’ll work.”
We get off at the next exit where the McDonald’s drive-thru is.
Chuckie starts the loudest, most pitiful beat box in history, pressing his lips together in a massive fart sound and following that up with this overexaggerated sucking of air in and out, “Puhuh, puhuh, puhuh.”
Scuzz joins in with his own version of a beat box—a long, deep fart sound, followed by two higher, shorter fart sounds, the second of which seems to ask a question. This is the kind of shit they do when they’re bored.
I don’t pay them any mind. I focus on the scenery outside, and the other cars in line, and the fact that there won’t be a single dish for me to serve tonight, or table for me to clear, or spill for me to wipe up, or dirty pot to scrub. Not one glass to fill or ass to kiss.
This is a typical scene among the three of us—Scuzz and Chuckie attempting to out-dork each other while I barely pay their goofiness any mind at all. This is my role in our crew, to be the chill one.
Chuckie is the crazy one. He’s always into something shady and if you hang around him long enough, always getting you into something shady too. He’s the only Chinese guy I know who stands almost six feet tall, with a sinister grin on his face and thick black hair down to his shoulders, and he’s the only guy in our whole school with a goatee.
Girls dig him. He makes them laugh, and for some reason they decide if he’s funny, he must be sweet too. Too bad he can only be sweet for like an hour before he starts saying all the wrong things. He’s simply too goofy, too rude, and too incapable of taking anything seriously long enough to make it to the end of a date without ticking off the girl he’s out with. The only thing he’s ever taken seriously is his education. Chuckie’s a straight genius, and the senior Have boys who stroll down the halls at school bragging to each other about their acceptance letters to Harvard and Yale have nothing on him.
Those boys have nothing on my boy Scuzz either. That’s because their parents will fork out loads of dough for them to attend schools like Stanford and Princeton while Scuzz will go for free. Yup, over the next year and a half, every college he applies to will be offering him a full scholarship, and several more will try to chase him down in person.
While Chuckie is known as the comedian, Scuzz is known as the athlete. The athlete, with all the emphasis on the word the. Football, basketball, baseball, track, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, rugby, water polo, tennis, soccer, bowling, golf… land, water, air, it doesn’t really matter. There is no sport he hasn’t mastered or couldn’t if he wanted to. Scuzz has it made and he’s a pretty smart guy on top of his jock status, and good with the women too. Luck didn’t miss him and neither did skill.
Like Chuckie, Scuzz sometimes comes off a bit shallow on the surface, but his soul runs deep. Both of them are the best friends a guy could have and that’s where I’m the lucky one. I would never have gotten this far at Ellington without them. Hell, I would never have gotten this far in life if it weren’t for Chuckie and Scuzz.
“Yeah, gimme a Big Mac Extra Value Meal with a Coke, two McDouble burgers, and an extra order of large fries,” Scuzz hollers at the drive-thru speakerphone. “A sundae too. Fudge.”
“Anything else?” the speakerphone muffles back.
Scuzz looks over at me and then back at Chuckie as if he’s just remembered we’re in the car with him. “Oh yeah, so you guys want something too or what?”
Chuckie leans over Scuzz and screams out the window, “Lemme have a large fry, a vanilla shake, and your digits, baby. You want anything, Mar?”
“Coke,” I say, since McDonald’s doesn’t have root beer.
“Yeah, and a Coke for my boy. You got a friend in there for him too or what? I’ll bet you do. What time’re you off, mama?” Scuzz cranks the music back up and starts inching the car forward before Chuckie’s done talking. “Aye!” Chuckie yells. “I’m trying to peep game here and you’re pulling away.”
“I want my food. I’m not trying to wait for you to spit game at some girl you haven’t even seen.”
Chuckie points to the line of cars in front of us that sit four deep. “Not like there’s anywhere to go.”
“Nowhere to go?” Scuzz asks, looking around confused. He continues to ease the Buick forward an inch at a time. “Nowhere to go?” he says again, jerking ahead. “You sure about that?”
Chuckie’s eyes grow wide as Scuzz approaches the car ahead of us. “Scuzzy!”
Scuzz bumps the car hard, pushing it forward at least two feet. “Oops,” he says, flashing each of us his best shit-eating grin.
“Will you look at that?” says Chuckie. “You could’ve done some real damage to that car!” But they’re both laughing, having already moved over halfway up their usual prankster scale. The driver of the car in front of us has checked out Scuzz in his rearview and apparently decided it would be wiser to stay in his car and keep quiet than to get out and get into it with the six-four, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound, slightly shady-looking black teenager with the shaved head. Scuzz “accidentally” bumps him twice more before we pick up our order.
“Speaking of chicks with big hooters,” Chuckie says through a mouthful of food as we pull back out into the street even though nobody was talking about chicks, or tits, or anything else besides where’s my fries, and hand me my drink, and did they put hot sauce in that bag? Scuzz and I follow Chuckie’s gaze to the right and the two of them start spitting all kinds of foolishness to the three girls walking on the sidewalk beside us, trying to get them interested.
Not me. I’m lost in my own world thinking of Lea. I wonder if she’s also on her way to a party somewhere. I wonder what friends she’s with and how on earth that girl manages not to notice me gawking at her like an idiot during English even when I’m giving a freaking speech in front of the whole class. I wonder if she’s really nicer than her Have girlfriends the way I keep hearing she is around school, the way I keep hoping she is. I am always wondering when it comes to that girl. I know I have to stop torturing myself thinking about her. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t quite do it.
THE PARTY ENDS UP BEING PRETTY COOL, nothing too wild, just our main group of friends plus whoever they brought with them all going over to Jennifer Prior’s place to chill.
“Ladies,” Scuzz starts in the minute we walk through the door, “we have arrived!”
“The only three men you’ll need to be forever satisfied,” Chuckie finishes.
Everyone starts shouting out greetings, and Jennifer comes over to give us each a hug. She lingers when she gets to mine, then attaches herself to my arm and pretty much drags me around her apartment on a guided tour I don’t really want.
Jennifer is one of only two white kids who’re part of our junior Transplant crew at school. She’s real tall for a girl, and stocky and muscular, yet still manages to be considered cute by the guys. Being a superstar athlete, and pretty, and white, she could’ve befriended the regular kids at Ellington easily, but she stuck with us Transplants and I’ve got mad love for her for that. I just don’t have love love for her.
“How’ve you been, Mar?” she asks, as she shows me the kitchen/dining/living area, but what she’s really asking me is, what are the chances of us hooking up tonight?
“I’m cool,” I reply, which is supposed to translate as none. She walks me over to the bedroom she shares with her sisters and pauses in the doorway, watching me with a hopeful expression. “Jen…” I say, hoping the tone of my voice and the look on my face will be enough, but Jennifer never gives up that easily on anything.
“So you wanna go to the movies with me next Friday?”
I shift my weight from left foot to right and yank down on the brim of my lid, wishing I could stretch it out over my entire face and disappear. “I can’t.”
“I have to work.”
She flicks on the light, walks into the room, and plops down on her bed. “Maybe a night you don’t work, then?”
Jennifer frowns. “Yeah, I know. You don’t like me like that, right?”
“You don’t understand,” I try to tell her.
“You’re right, I don’t,” she says. “I used to think maybe you didn’t like me because you don’t date white girls. But now I hear you have a thing for Lea Hall, so I guess it’s me that’s the problem.”
“Aw, come on.”
“No, you come on,” she tells me as she gets up, moves back into the doorway, and intertwines her arm with mine again. “I’ll show you where I set you up to DJ.”
I respond with a half smile stuck somewhere between relief and guilt as she leads me back down the hall to the main room. It’s always this way with Jennifer. She comes on crazy hard and then lets up suddenly. I got off way easier than I thought I would, being at her house and all. She only hassled me for, like, five minutes. Five awkward minutes alone with Jennifer is definitely worth it when the trade-off is getting to DJ all night.
Playing for people is pretty much amazing. Even when it’s only for your friends and sometimes because it’s only for your friends. When I spin at home, I’m always picturing some imaginary club crowd dancing and smiling and really getting into the music. When I spin at parties, I get a chance to play for actual people and find out what they really think.
The parties are usually given by someone in our crew, but every once in a while I get a chance to spin at a Morris Peak party or a Roosevelt party and sometimes even ones thrown by kids from the old neighborhood, since Scuzz still lives there and is real good at talking me up.
The cool thing about getting to spin for a party like this one for only my friends is they’re so psyched to have a DJ for parties at all they’d listen to anything and be happy. Hiring a DJ for a private party is the kind of thing the Ellington kids do, the kind of bullshit extravagance they can afford, so me being able to DJ at parties is a glamorous perk. It doesn’t cost a dime, but it makes everybody feel like we’ve got it as good as they do for a change.
Plus, my friends inspire me creatively. Like, say for instance the song playing when I first got into Scuzz’s ride sticks in my head and then something memorable happens tonight or on any night and suddenly that song always reminds me of that moment. Well, I might make that song the basis of my next mix.
The cool thing about getting to spin at a party for people other than my friends is I get to play for kids I don’t know and see their true reactions. When I’m right about a track and play something that really turns people on, they smile wide, laugh hard, and dance like they mean it. When I’m wrong about a track, smiles fall off and heads shake, and if I’m really wrong, no one dances. That part sucks, but at least it helps me figure out what doesn’t work.
The cool thing about getting to spin for any party, whether for my friends or for kids from another school, is it puts me in demand. So when I’m sweating like crazy, surrounded by hot water and steam and an endless pile of pots and pans at the end of a long Friday or Saturday night shift at work and my mind drifts to thoughts of some party I’m missing out on, I know whoever is there is missing me too. Radio play and mixtapes simply don’t compare.
“Go!” Will shouts, signaling Scuzz, Chuckie, Denise, Juan, and Terrell to simultaneously flip open the tops on their Buds and drink as fast as they can. Of course, Scuzz wins easily. Beer chugging is practically a sporting event, which means he can’t possibly lose.
About twenty-five of us are lounging in Jennifer’s main room, shouting and laughing, and drinking and dancing. These are our friends, the junior Transplants from Ellington Prep, plus some of our friends from Morris Peak and Roosevelt, a mixture of black and Hispanic kids with a few white and Asian kids mixed in and a hundred percent of us living somewhere below the middle-class line with a guy/girl split of about fifty-five/forty-five.
“I got you a drink,” Jennifer says, placing a large red plastic cup on the table where I’m spinning.
Not to say that what I’m doing is really spinning. Jennifer connected a stereo CD player to a set of speakers and then set up a second set of speakers for me to connect an MP3 player to. I plug my headphones into the CD player, skip to the song I want, then do a timed pull-out so the music plays through its speakers while I plug into my iPod.
I select the next track I’m going to play on my iPod, rewind the first few bars over and over until I get the beats to match up with the song I’ve already got playing through, and quickly switch out my phones with the speaker plug so the music can play through the second set of speakers while I use the volume as a fader to silence the CD player before the beats can slip out of sync.
Since there’s no way to adjust the tempo of either the stereo or my iPod, I can’t keep two songs playing at the same time for more than a few beats. Basically I have to spend time beforehand finding songs with matching BPMs that’ll work well together and then switch back and forth between them quick-like. This is the kind of makeshift setup we’ll usually come up with for a party, since we hardly ever have turntables. It’s really hard to mix well this way, but I love the challenge of it. A drop mix—where I just switch from one track to the other—would be one thing, but beat mixing on a separate CD and MP3 player without any speed or pitch control? There aren’t but so many people out there who can pull off something like that.
I stop long enough to thank Jennifer and take a drink from the cup she brought me. It’s root beer. I never touch alcohol. Not with a boozed-up heroin addict for a mother. It’s fine if my friends drink or smoke weed, but I’ll stick with my root beers.
“Aye, Marley!” Chuckie calls out, making his way over with Will, Terrell, and Terrell’s girl, Wanda. They all have these funny looks on their faces like they’re about to pull a prank on Jennifer and me or crack jokes about us hooking up or something, which would suck. “Will has something to tell you,” Chuckie says, his eyes lighting up in that way they do when he’s about to pull a punk move.
I frown at Chuckie, already feeling wary. “Oh yeah?”
We all look to Will, who looks like he’s about to explode. “The thing is, Mar,” he says, “tomorrow night is your night.”
“How so?” Jennifer asks.
“Because my neighbor broke his arm yesterday!”
“Okay,” I say, “but what does that have to do with me?”
“Well, remember I told you about that neighbor who’s a DJ?”
“And you know how I said he works at a club, right? Remember that?”
“Yeah, Will, I remember. What’s up? I’m kind of busy here.”
“Well, the thing is, the craziest thing happened. You won’t believe it.”
A long silence follows while we all hang on Will’s next words, but they never come. He just keeps standing there cheesing hard.
“What! What!” Jennifer urges. “Come on, Will, spit it out!”
“I swear Marley’ll want to hug me when I tell him.”
“Tell me what exactly?”
“About my neighbor. You won’t believe it.”
“Look,” Terrell cuts in, “I’m gonna get old waiting for him to tell you. His neighbor is a DJ who broke his arm and has to have surgery on it this weekend. He needs you to fill in for him tomorrow night.”
“Yeah, I really hooked you up,” Will says, beaming. “I told him not to worry, cuz my boy Marley could do it. You should’ve seen how smooth I was.”
Excerpted from DJ Rising by Love Maia Copyright © 2012 by Love Maia. Excerpted by permission.
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