UNKNOWN STUDENT SPEAKS SOFTLY (AND CARRIES BIG STICK)
Breaking news on In Your Head. Bill Blair here to tell you about a fight breaking out at Central High School in Philadelphia that could have a huge impact on next Thursday’s presidential election. You’re looking at a live shot of the M-shaped school, as seen from our In Your Head chopper, the aerial eyes behind The Best News Team You Could Ever Imagine. Most of the school’s 2,500 students are exiting down the North Lawn toward buses at the corner of Ogontz and Olney Avenues, but the big story we bring you exclusively this afternoon is happening on the Blacktop, a raised student parking lot on Central’s west side. Zooming in, we see a crowd of students dispersing after a ferocious slugfest between a couple of jocks and a virtually unknown junior named Michael Washington Maddon. And that’s where our story is developing…
Batshit crazy. That’s what Mikey would call anyone who predicted he would run for senior class president, in an election that would nearly kill him. But aside from his best friend Smiles, Mikey doesn’t talk to many other students, let alone anyone clairvoyant enough to see one batshit crazy week into the future. In fact, he doesn’t even make eye contact with his classmates walking up the Blacktop steps toward their cars. Instead he stares at dandelions popping through pavement scars as he sits on the grimy hood of Smiles’s white LeBaron, waiting for a ride home.
A brisk wind rips across the Blacktop. It shushes all other sound, skittering dandelion seeds in all directions. Damn cold for May, Mikey thinks, tugging at his threadbare pea coat collar. Once his dad’s, the charcoal-colored coat is two sizes too big and reeks of mothballs. And if it can’t handle a Philly spring, how worthless must it have been in the mountains of Kashmir, or wherever the hell Dad had been embedded? Mikey wonders as he absently loops his arm through the strap of his textbook-swollen backpack, which wouldn’t budge unless a freak tornado blew through this neighborhood. But as Mom once said, even downtown Kabul’s got less violence than North Philly.
Mikey hears a muffled cry from the steps. He looks up but sees only Central High pointing its thick brick knuckles at him, a single smoke stack smoldering close in the middle. Is school giving him the finger? A big brick fuck you? Focusing above the wind, Mikey can just hear the end-of-day scraping of desks and chairs, along with a screechy chorus of student voices echoing into the two courtyards below. Once, when Mikey was a child, his parents drove through Central’s campus on the way to dinner somewhere. He had been napping in the backseat and awoke in the middle of one of those courtyards, grated windows staring down at him. “There,” Dad said, pointing toward a corner of lusterless brick. “That’s where my buddies and I used to play handball at lunch.” When Mikey asked what happened if the ball bounced into the ditches beneath the windows, Dad turned around and smiled through his bushy brown beard, his Brut cologne wafting into the backseat. “You were out. Unless of course you dove down into the window wells without a teacher seeing…or the Head of School.”
Suddenly Hector Rosa stumbles up the Blacktop steps, snapping Mikey out of his reverie. Hector’s a chubby sophomore who transferred last year and sports a mustache that looks painted-on thick. He and Mikey have been on nodding-in-the-halls terms ever since they bumped into each other at the Roots concert last summer down at the Festival Pier. Trailing him are Sean Hanrahan and his acne-plagued brother Lou.
“You callin’ my brother a liar?” Sean demands, tripping Hector into the rusty wrought-iron rail—the only safeguard against plummeting a good 20 feet onto the faculty parking lot below. The Hanrahans are jocks seen on the ball fields at the far end of Central this time of day; Sean pitches varsity baseball while Lou runs JV track. What the hell are they doing here?
“P-please,” Hector stammers, cowering behind his hands.
“P-please, what?” Lou mocks. “You sayin’ you didn’t tell Mr. Armstrong on me? Huh? You know how serious that plagiarism shit is?”
For fuck’s sake, Mikey thinks. Everyone on the Blacktop knows plagiarism is Central’s most offensive crime. Maybe worse than doing drugs. A teacher’s formal accusation alone means a summons from Dr. Knapinski and a five-person faculty committee for review. You’re temporarily banned from all activities and sports and shunned by friends coerced into testifying at your hearing, less they be Knap-listed. Lou may as well have pink eye or crabs or the bubonic plague for all the kids who will steer clear of him now.
“Is that what yer saying, you fat fucker?” Sean screams.
“Please, I didn’t—”
“Now yer gonna lie to us on top of it?” Sean kicks Hector’s puffy brown jacket and less protected legs.
“Get ‘em, Sean! Get that wetback fuck!”
Mikey doesn’t know what to do. Where the hell’s Smiles? Isn’t anyone going to step in? A handful of students wince by their cars, faces frozen in anguish. Mikey’s never fought anyone. He doesn’t want to start by taking on two brothers, each a head taller than himself. And for what, to defend a kid he barely knows? Lots of Centralites were at that Roots show. Is Mikey going to step up every time one of them gets into a fight? Is he that batshit crazy? Mom would kill him if she hears he’s been fighting. And what would Dad say?
Then Mikey sees blood. First a trickle, then a gush, spilling from Hector’s nose and mouth. It mats his mustache, darkening his jacket collar. Without thinking, Mikey grabs his backpack and swings it bowling ball-style into Sean’s side. Sean groans and trips along the uneven asphalt. He stumbles headfirst into the grill of an old Jeep Cherokee with a whonk!
Everything blurs. Mikey grabs Lou by his green Eagles jacket, hot and slippery to the touch. “Yo, you got a fucking problem?” Mikey screams above the wind. “Huh? Huh?” Cursing more than makes up for lack of muscle. He shoves Lou so hard against the rusty railing Lou’s about to fall over the edge when Mikey grasps his jacket.
“Yer crazy!” Lou shrieks, face turning the color of his pimples. “Who the fuck do you think you are, you stupid bitch?”
Lou slaps Mikey hard across the face. Mikey’s ear feels like it’s being smothered, first under one pillow, then hundreds. His face burns in the crisp air. His mouth tastes of metal, but he only tightens his grip. Barely able to hear himself, he shouts, “Crazy? You want to see crazy? Try that shit again and I’ll show you crazy!”
Out of nowhere, there’s a frosty hand on Mikey’s neck. Its touch is like the ice-cold shower Mom once made Mikey take when he was home for three days with a 102° fever. He turns to see his own face, apoplectically purple in Smiles’s aviator shades.
“Easy, bro,” Smiles says with a quizzical expression, earbuds plugging his ears. “No need to take the piss out of these bulls just ‘cause I’m 20 minutes late.”
Mikey realizes a couple dozen people have gathered around, including their arms-crossed homeroom teacher/school disciplinarian Ms. Walker, and Officer Roberts, a ruddy-faced campus cop with a twitchy gray mustache thicker than Hector’s. Mikey lets go of Lou, who runs to his still-stunned brother, tears streaming down pimply cheeks. Ms. Walker helps Hector to his feet. She’s seen the whole thing, or at least enough to know Mikey finished the fight but didn’t start it; either way she doesn’t bother asking him what happened. Instead, she and Officer Roberts begin escorting Hector and the Hanrahan brothers inside to Dr. Knapinski’s office, leaving Mikey head in hands on the top step.
Mikey can’t move. He doesn’t hear Ms. Walker say, “Hey Smiles, is Dances Like a Butterfly Stings Like a Bee gonna be all right?” He doesn’t hear Smiles swear he’ll get Mikey home safe, or Ms. Walker warn them not to go home by way of the South Lawn. Nor does Mikey hear the slow procession of students honking and shouting congratulatory notes as they rubberneck off the Blacktop, one junior even yelling, “Dude, you should run for president!”
Mikey hears none of this.
All he hears is a wash of distortion. The sound of blood in his ears. It’s followed by a sort of patriotic theme song: a squealing guitar riff reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” cut short by a heavy drum solo—tattatta-tattatta-tattatta-tattatta. Then voices both stern and velvety smooth. Voices so familiar they sound as though they’ve always been there, but in the background, like the sound of Broad and Olney traffic. Voices not exactly natural, yet the instant Mikey hears them, he knows they aren’t unnatural either…
…Welcome back to In Your Head; I’m Bill Blair. Joining me now is The Best News Team You Could Ever Imagine to break down the colossal implications of this afternoon’s Blacktop Bout. Our Chief War Correspondent, Ezra Savage, is standing by live at the scene. Ezra, what’s the situation from where you are?
Shock and awe, Bill. Shock and awe. That’s what Centralites are feeling out here on the Blacktop. Shocked that Michael Washington Maddon, a student who has done everything possible to avoid the limelight for the past three years, took on two jocks to defend a helpless classmate, and awed by his heroism. If you can hear the honking behind me, students are praising Maddon for his valor as they drive off, and rightly so. He showed real cojones this afternoon, taking action without stopping to consider the consequences. Some would say that’s the stuff real leaders are made of. And you know what? My sources are telling me this could launch Maddon’s surprising bid for the presidency.
Yes, Ezra, I’m getting reports of that too. Let’s turn to our Senior Presidential Analyst, Dr. Edie Riley, joining me here in the In Your Head newsroom.
Thanks Bill, good to be here.
What do you make of this staggering development, Doctor, considering the election is next Thursday morning, a little less than a week away?
I should start by saying Central is widely recognized as one of the oldest and most respected public high schools in the country, which means the presidency carries with it a heck of a lot of prestige and power. But though this is an academic school, it’s located in the heart of one of Philly’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Today’s fight may have been among students, but chances are the next one won’t be. And you’d better believe Maddon has proven himself capable of cleaning things up around here, both in the school and in the surrounding neighborhood. He’s thrown down the gauntlet, ready to fight for what’s right. If Maddon runs for president, you can just imagine the excitement he’ll breathe into what has otherwise been a dull, uncontested race run by Greta Slyke alone.
I certainly can, Doctor. My thanks to you both, Ezra Savage and Dr. Edie Riley. Stay with us as this monumental story continues to develop, only on In Your Head.
MADDON’S NOT-SO-SURPRISING STAR TURN
The next morning Mikey awakes to knocking. His right ear—that whole side of his head—rings with dull pain. The TV hisses from across the living room, filling the air like the lingering smell of burnt coffee left over from Mom rushing back to work at Children’s Hospital before dawn. As Mikey turns to his side, a makeshift blanket of Latin and history textbooks falls to the hardwood floor with a dull thwirp. He wipes a thread of drool from his dirty blond chin stubble, using his other hand to reach the remote lying on the glass coffee table. Beside the remote, Mikey finds a folded note in Mom’s cursive: “Make me proud, M. Don’t sweat the small stuff. As your father would say, ‘Hasta faggiore!’”
Dad’s nonsensical expression. The last words of his last e-mail from two, no, almost three years ago, which ended: All life as you will know it begins at the end of high school. “Be not afraid of greatness.” And always remember, Hasta faggiore! Nothing about his own safety in Afghanistan, covering what he called “The Forgotten War.” Just Shakespeare cloaked in creepy prophecy and Italian gibberish. Maybe it wasn’t gibberish. Maybe it was code for all the misgivings Dad must have had reporting from a war zone while his wife and teenage son were continents away.
Mikey switches off the TV as the patriotic theme song howls back on between his ears—tattatta-tattatta-tattatta-tattatta.
Good morning and welcome to In Your Head. I’m Bill Blair and on today’s show, we’re taking an in-depth look at the newest presidential contender, Michael Washington Maddon. And what a presidential name he has too! You know, many called this election over before it even began. Many said no one had the guts to run against the girl with the bullet-proof resume, Greta Slyke, but the turbulent events of the past 24 hours have opened the door to a fresh face on the political scene. Still, what do we really know about Maddon, and does he have what it takes to be president? Our Chief Presidential Profiler, Ezra Savage, filed this report.
At 5’6”, with a reserved demeanor and shaggy hair covering a faint spray of pimples across his forehead, Michael Washington Maddon, or “Mikey,” as he’s known among his few friends, doesn’t exactly strike you as presidential material. And looks aren’t the only thing limiting Maddon as he enters the political fray. It was almost three years ago that Maddon lost his father, a war correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer who died in Afghanistan when his military escort ran over an exposed IED. That event tormented Maddon as he entered high school, relegating him to the social sidelines and Central’s stoner scene on the South Lawn, which is all the more reason why yesterday’s fight is particularly noteworthy. We’re witnessing Maddon’s meteoric rise from relative obscurity to instant celebrity. Yet the question remains whether Maddon will embrace this chance to step out of his father’s shadow, or whether he’ll continue to be haunted by—
Mikey gives his head a painful shake. Keeping the TV on all night helped keep In Your Head in check, or maybe the show just signed off on its own accord. Either way, the voices are back, but to say what? Running for president had never occurred to him before yesterday afternoon. He’d have an easier time getting a 5 on his AP Physics test than winning the presidency. Hell, he’d have better luck asking Greta Slyke to prom than trying to beat her in an election.
More knocking, this time coupled with the brr-brr-brrrring of an impatiently-pressed doorbell.
Mikey peers out the bay window to see Smiles at the front door, his white earbuds disappearing into the hood of his rust-colored sweatshirt. In the street the LeBaron idles, double-parked. Its exhaust puffs away in the crisp morning like a smoke signal to two heavy-breathing joggers heading down Bainbridge Street.
“What up, bro?” Smiles says as Mikey opens the door. They exchange their traditional shake—a fist bump escalating into an all-out thumb war—though Smiles smushes Mikey’s thumb without resistance. “Question,” Smiles asks with an abrupt head tilt; “where’d you disappear to last night? I kept callin’ and—”
“Just here studying,” Mikey sighs. With thick-rimmed glasses in his thumb war-losing hand, he buries his other palm into his right eye—a futile attempt to rub away the pain. “But I didn’t last long. My fucking head’s killing me, man.”
“From where that pimply runt laid the smack down?”
Mikey nods, unable to make out Smiles’s expression without glasses. He doesn’t want to lie, though he can’t tell Smiles the truth either, since he has no idea what the truth is. That he’s stuck in some sort of batshit Kafkaesque tale of transformation narrated by a news network in his own fucking head? Gregor Samsa never had it so good!
“Guess it was totally worth it though,” Smiles says, slapping Mikey on the arm.
“Dude, didn’t you hear? You went viral!”
“What?” Mikey asks. “I went what?”
“Viral, dude! Someone must’ve taped the fight. It’s all over the Web. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter—you name it. Yo, you’re hotter than a Miley Cyrus sex tape!”
Didn’t Mikey hear? Of course not. As low a profile as he keeps at school, he’s been completely off the online grid for months. No e-mail, no Facebook, no Twitter—nothing. Why? Here’s a hint: She’s 5’4” and looks kind of like Mikey 30 years from now, what with her broad nose, high cheek bones, and dirty blonde hair. As if texting every few hours from the hospital to check up on him weren’t bad enough, Mom created a phony Facebook profile for spying purposes. Mikey didn’t know something was up till Smiles got a friend request from “Mrs. M,” who had no profile pic but lived in Philly with the listed interests: “yoga, romantic comedies, and my beautiful, darling son.”
Smiles dashes over to the coffee table and brushes aside the handwritten note to flip open the laptop underneath. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” he mocks in a high-pitched voice that sounds more like Cleveland from “Family Guy” than Mikey’s mom.
“Anyone ever tell you you look like a black Chester Cheetah in those shades and sweatshirt?” Mikey wants ibuprofen, better-smelling coffee, and for everyone to stop speaking in contradictory fortune cookie speak. He considers telling Smiles to drive on without him but doesn’t want to ride the crowded, sewer-stinking subway to school.
“Why you always gotta make it a race thing, huh?” Smiles grins as he boots up the computer.
They’ve been this way since day one of freshman year. After discovering nearly identical class schedules, they also found common ground in cartoons and comedies, hip hop and alternative, and, perhaps most importantly, “horticulture.” That was also around the time Ms. Walker dubbed Walter Peterman “Smiles” for walking into homeroom from the South Lawn “smilin’ like a damn fool.”
“Yo, better get your whaki on so we can roll out,” Smiles says, absently pointing to the baggy khaki pants and white polo he’s wearing beneath his sweatshirt. Mikey grabs his clothes from his bedroom upstairs while Smiles loads the fight on YouTube.
The footage is Cloverfield shaky. It’s almost too nauseating for Mikey to watch. He can barely hear anything above the fooffitta–fooffitta of the howling wind in the microphone. But there he is, in all his embarrassing glory. “Jesus,” he groans. “I didn’t see anyone taping it.”
“For real,” Smiles says. “You can’t do nothing these days without some bull goin’ all Zapruder on your ass.”
The video has nearly 5,000 views already—5,000! That’s twice as many students as there are at Central. Nearly ten times the number of kids in the junior class. How have so many seen it so fast? Imagine if Mom ever comes across it. Mikey’s been at Central almost three years and she still worries about him commuting to such a dangerous part of the city, even if he’s honoring Dad’s memory by attending his alma mater. But this? This will make the rest of Mom’s hair match that one silver streak—more Storm than Rogue from X-Men, and Mikey does not want to invoke Storm’s wrath. Who’d be sweating the small stuff then?
“And look at all the comments!” Smiles says, scrolling down. Despite the first few calling the fight phony and the people in it “a bunch of fags,” there’s an unmistakable progression to the majority, from “Who’s this kid?” to “Maddon’s the man,” to “Rocky’s got nuthin’ on him!” to a whole thread following “Maddon 4 President!”
“You said it, yo,” Smiles laughs.
It’s just as Dad had written. Worse, it’s just as In Your Head predicted.
…This is an In Your Head Extra Special Alert. An amateur video highlighting Maddon’s Blacktop Bout heroics is making its way around the Web as Maddon’s presidential aspirations continue to gain steam. Our motto here on In Your Head is “Just Facts, Never Fiction,” and right now the fact is that The Best News Team You Could Ever Imagine was first to bring you this story yesterday afternoon. Now let’s take a look at the rest of today’s In Your Headlines…
ACE PITCHER TOSSES CAP INTO RING
In the locker room that Thursday afternoon, the guys passed around a video of the Hanrahans’ fight on someone’s iPhone like it was a leaked copy of the latest Kanye album. Russell Tucker, the Lancers’ closer, called Maddon a pussy. Others talked trash and some sort of Carrie-like revenge fantasy involving Maddon, the junior prom, and a bucket of pig’s blood; they wondered if they could get actual pig’s blood or if a bunch of ketchup bottles stolen from the cafeteria would work equally well. Steve Park just wished they would all shut the hell up.
Sure, he and Sean shared an undeniable bond as teammates. They were doubly bonded as pitchers. Like it or not, Steve would have to go along with whatever payback Sean and the rest of his teammates plotted. Right now though, all Steve wanted was to focus on his pre-game ritual: head bent over his knees; noise-canceling earphones on; and a towel loosely draped over his head as he straddled the wooden bench in front of his chipping, gold-painted locker, listening to the random playlist on Melanie’s iPod until inspiration struck.
Steve never knew which song would do the trick. Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—there were thousands of possibilities. 2,571 to be exact. Earlier in the season, after he’d heard Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”—a song Melanie had stripped to on their one-month anniversary, before sending him home with the worst case of blue balls he’d ever had—Steve’s cheeks turned so red Coach asked if he was drunk. But he went out that afternoon and threw a four-hitter to win the game against Olney High.
Other kids on the team followed more conventional superstitions. Some refused to shave all season or wore the same dirt-stained socks for each game. Steve even saw Sean bury a rabbit’s foot in his jock before taking the field a couple times. “To tickle them balls before I tickle them balls,” Sean laughed, loud enough for everyone to hear. But for Steve, it was the music. He had no clue why, and he couldn’t have cared less. All he knew was he’d done this before each game and was 4-1 for the season. The only loss came when he was running so late from a chemistry test that he hit the skip button rather than letting the songs play out in full. How dumb of him to squeeze inspiration from Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know” after using that same song in the game against Frankford two weeks before. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Suddenly, Steve felt a sharp blow to his shoulder. Reluctantly hitting pause, he yanked the towel from his head, more annoyed about the interruption than the punch. It was Russell, who kept his hair slicked back and sprayed much too much antiperspirant into his armpits before and after each game. He was the bullpen’s Pigpen, except instead of stink lines Russell had an almost visible aura of Axe.
“Yo, you hear Sean won’t be startin’ no time soon?” Word was Dr. Knapinski had suspended Sean for a week, but kids were already saying Coach planned to ban him for the rest of the season, just to set an example.
“Yeah,” Steve said, looking around to gauge how much time he had left to find his song. Most of his teammates were almost done changing, tucking in their crimson jerseys with the golden jouster printed across the chest and lacing up their cleats. Lots of lockers slammed. Steve had to end this conversation. He began bouncing his right knee—a nervous habit that drove his parents nuts at dinner because his legs were so big he shook the whole table. “Guess I’ll get some extra chances to throw before the season’s over, huh?”
“Even better!” cried Russell. “Coach says he’s moving me outta the bullpen. I’ll be in the starting rotation, can you believe it?”
“Yeah, alls I gotta do is give up my ABCs.”
“Always Be Closin’ games, son,” Russell nudged, bringing his armpit so close Steve had to breathe through his mouth. “But I’ll be pitching right behind Steve Park!”
Ever since he’d accepted Coach’s try-out invitation earlier this year, Steve had begun to hear his whole name said that way. At first he figured he just had one of those names you had to say in full, like Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels. Then he thought maybe his physique had something to do with it; he was 6’2” and 210 pounds, with broad shoulders and muscles he toned every day, if not in the gym then on the chin-up bar in his bedroom when he should have been doing geometry proofs.
If he towered over most Central kids, he may as well have been Paul friggin’ Bunyan at home. His many cousins and four tiny, visor-wearing aunties and uncles said his name with similar amazement whenever they dropped by, and in English too—the only non-Korean Steve ever heard his older relatives speak. More and more, Steve saw himself as one of those towering bronze statues of athletes that used to greet fans entering Veterans Stadium, which now held daily vigil outside the parking lot where the Vet once stood.
“Know what else?” Russell said. “I hear Maddon’s gonna run for president.” He sprayed his hairy right armpit, filling the locker room with a noxious chemical pshhhh.
“That so?” Steve asked, closing his eyes and trying not to gag.
“Yeah, he must think he’s hot shit now or something.” Russell’s beady eyes widened. “Dude, you should run! Teach that dickcheese a lesson for fuckin’ with a Lancer.” Without taking his finger off the Axe, he tapped Steve again on the shoulder. Steve could feel the spray sticking faintly to his neck.
“Me? Up on a stage instead of a mound? Making speeches? That’s funny!” Steve shrugged, wiping his neck with a towel. “I got too much riding on this season to give a crap about politics.” He had to keep training, had to keep toned, had to stay focused to have any shot of scoring a baseball scholarship. Not that his parents couldn’t afford college; they kept insisting they were prepared to take out whatever it took in loans, even ask his aunties and uncles to pool their savings, just so Steve could be the first in the family to go to an American university. But how would he get in anywhere if not by pitching? His GPA had been falling further than his sinker recently—all the more reason why he had to get back to Melanie’s iPod now before taking the field. “Anyway, we both know I ain’t smart enough to be giving speeches.”
The minute Steve made the team, he’d started downplaying his already limited brains. Traded the Asian Students Association for jocks, mathletics for athletics, Xbox for beer pong, porn for Melanie. It was in his Korean DNA to be like everyone else. In Seoul, if an empty flat-screen TV box suddenly appeared in the trash outside the high-rise where his family lived until he was eight—one of many near-identical apartment buildings in his neighborhood distinguished only by the huge blue numbers painted vertically on the outer concrete walls—the next week there would be dozens and dozens of empty boxes for the exact same model. Yet though Steve wasn’t the brightest bulb in Central’s circuit, even he recognized the irony of trying to be like all the other kids on the team when none of them was Asian. But he couldn’t help it. During try-outs, he swapped his Korean “Jae Won” for the more Americanized “Steve”; it was his own little tribute to Hall-of-Fame Phillies hurler Steve Carlton, who, like Steve, was a southpaw.
“C’mon, how hard could it be to give a few lousy speeches?” Russell went on. “George Bush did it, like, all the time.”
“But Slyke will mop the floor with Maddon anyhow. She’s been preparing for this shit since before she transferred to Central.” They both knew Steve was right. Greta Slyke wasn’t just a cheerleader. She was Miss School Spirit, one of the hottest, most dedicated girls in school. Every girl wanted to be her; every guy wanted to bone her. Who was going to get in her way? Who could top all her sexy posters with glittery slogans lining the halls? Greta mid-air in a short crimson-and-gold skirt with matching pompoms: “Give Me an S!” Greta atop a cheerleading pyramid: “Psyched for Slyke!” Greta mid-split: “We like Slyke!” And if she created all those posters when she was still running unopposed, imagine what running against her would be like.
“I wouldn’t mind mopping the floor with Slyke, if you know what I mean,” Russell whispered, switching to his left pit. “Or at least one of those Becker twins always following her around.”
“Me too,” Steve said without thinking.
“What about Melanie?” Russell cried. “You telling me Steve Park ain’t tappin’ that ass on a nightly basis?” He tapped the rattling Axe canister for added effect.
“Oh, no,” Steve said, feeling his cheeks flush. “Of course I am!”
“Yo Cooper,” Russell yelled over his shoulder. “Beckers gonna be at your party Saturday night?”
“If Greta’s in,” said Cooper Phillips, lacing his cleats further down the bench, “then you know they’re in too.” Cooper was heir to the Phillips for Philly real estate fortune, whose yellow signs Steve saw scattered throughout his Mount Airy neighborhood. Cooper didn’t have to play ball—he was so set he didn’t even have to worry about college—but he was the team’s center-field slugger, not to mention Greta’s boyfriend. Coop looked up and winked at Steve without Russell noticing. “But yo, Russell, what makes you think you’re invited?”
“Aw, c’mon, Coop, really?”
“I dunno. Cops would sniff the trail of booze leaking from yer big mouth right to my front door.”
“All right, you meatheads,” Coach called from the locker room entrance. “Listen up!” Coach was fit for a middle-aged guy. Way fitter than Phillies coach Charlie Manuel, even though Good Ole Charlie had a World Series ring and a team of perennial contenders, and Coach only had a pack of meatheads to manage. He had the small-but-sturdy look of a bulldog, jowls included, but he didn’t carry the paunch that haunted other gym teachers. “As you know, we’ve had a huge setback today, losing Sean for the rest of the geedee season. So I’m giving Russell here a shot at Sean’s spot in the rotation starting next Tuesday.”
“Oh yeah!” Russell said, raising Axe-covered arms and flexing stringy muscles.
“Don’t make me regret that decision,” Coach said. Cooper snapped a towel at Russell with a wet thwap! and everyone laughed. Steve admired how Coach was always giving guys a chance to play, even when they stank up the field. “Let this be a lesson though,” Coach continued. “And do me a favor; try to keep your cool on and off the field, will ya? At least till the end of the geedee year. Then you can beat each other senseless all summer long for all I care.”
“Now,” Coach said, raising his voice, “who’s gonna take Northeast High to school today?”
“We are,” came a handful of half-assed calls.
“I can’t hear you. Who?”
“We are!” everyone cried.
“That’s more like it. I wanna hear the Central Mambo, and I wanna see every last one of you geedee Lancers on that field in five.”
All of Steve’s teammates filed out of the locker room, chanting their fight song:
Those were the song’s only words, adapted to fit whatever team they were playing. It wasn’t Central’s school song—the one heard during assemblies, alumni meetings, graduations, and sports award luncheons—where the collective stomping of feet during the chorus sent a proud shiver down Steve’s spine every time. “…On ball field or in life,”—stomp! stomp!—“in peace and deadly strife. For thee we all will labor, for thee, oh, dear old high.” But the Mambo got the message across, loud and clear. And speaking of songs, Steve put his clunky headphones back on, worried now he wouldn’t have time to find the right one.
The Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” was ending. Its whiny chorus and twangy guitar riff left Steve uninspired. His knee was trembling uncontrollably. What if he didn’t find inspiration in time? What if his song never came on? Or what if he only heard songs he’d previously drawn inspiration from between now and game time? Would he delay the game? Coach would say Steve had lost his geedee mind!
The next song was Kanye West’s “Stronger.” Steve wasn’t feeling Kanye—how he was always mouthing off in public and speaking his mind, not exactly the way to fit in—but he couldn’t wait any longer. It would have to do. Psyching himself into it, Steve pumped his hand in the air as a robotic voice came on: “Work it. Make it. Do it. Makes us harder, better, faster, stronger. That, that, that, that, that don’t kill me, will only make me….”
The music cut out. What now? Was the battery dead? No, there was static, like the headphone jack had been jerked too hard or something. Steve fidgeted with it.
“C’mon! C’mon!” he muttered, desperate to bend the cord in just the right way for the wires to work. That’s when a different song cut in—tattatta-tattatta-tattatta-tattatta—followed by a velvety voice.
Breaking news on In Your Head. Bill Blair here to tell you that within 24 hours, Central High’s Presidential election has gone from one candidate running unopposed to a thrilling three-way race. Steve Park—
“What the fuck?” Steve yelled, ripping the headphones from his ears. Was this a joke? Were his teammates messing with him? Melanie? Coach? He glanced around to see if anyone was peeking out from behind the row of lockers, half-expecting to see Russell punking him.
The locker room was empty.
He looked down at the black headphones dangling listlessly from the wooden bench, a tinny trace of whatever the hell he was hearing still audible. Cautiously and against his better judgment, Steve picked them up again. Then, just as he was stretching the phones over his head, the voice continued:
…We bring in our Senior Election Analyst, Ezra Savage, for more on this late-breaking development. Ezra, what do you make of it?
I’ll tell you, Bill, this race is turning into one hell of a match-up. One of the most popular girls in school, the newest schoolyard hero, and now the baseball team’s ace pitcher—if it gets any hotter in here, I’ll be standing at the gates of Hell interviewing Lucifer himself. This race is Park’s chance to show he’s more than just a talented jock. And can you imagine a better all-American story? Kid comes to our country all the way from South Korea in fourth grade without more than a few words of English, learns to speak the language, learns to dominate our national pastime, and now he’s got a legitimate shot at the presidency. I’m telling you, colleges are going to be fawning all over this kid, fighting to figure out who wants to throw him a bigger scholarship. You heard it here first on In Your Head: This is Park’s race to lose.
It certainly seems that way at the moment, Ezra. More from The Best News Team You Could Ever Imagine when we return…
The show faded and Kanye returned as Steve tightened the phones around his ears: “…Don’t act like I never told ya. Don’t act like I never told ya….”
Steve felt an unbridled surge. He pictured himself up on the auditorium stage next Thursday, standing at the podium in front of his 500 classmates wearing the linen jacket and baseball-printed tie Pa bought him for this year’s sports award luncheon. He had no idea what he’d say. And he was damned if he could see himself opening his mouth to speak. Though for whatever reason, he could picture himself at Harvard, getting laid on their pitcher’s mound by some boarding-school blonde—scratch that, by Melanie. All of that would come in due time, though. For now, Steve tucked Melanie’s iPod and headphones into his locker, took the field, and threw a no-hitter.
MADDON’S PAST CLOUDED IN PURPLE HAZE
“Whaddya mean you don’t think it’s a good idea?” Smiles asks. He and Mikey are winding down Kelly Drive, a tight four-lane road that snakes back and forth along the swift-moving Schuylkill River. Joggers, bikers, and skaters flash past as the LeBaron cruises by Boathouse Row, where the ornate houses of college crew teams light up the river at night. Though not the most direct route to Central, Mikey finds Kelly Drive a pastoral alternative to the incessant traffic and truck exhaust of the Schuylkill Expressway running parallel along the opposite riverbank. “Question: Is this because of my playlist?” Smiles continues. “It’s just a little presidential humor, bro. Gets more uplifting from here, I swear.”
“It’s got nothing to do with that,” Mikey says as Wyclef Jean strums an acoustic guitar and sings, “If I was President, I’d get elected on Friday, assassinated on Saturday, buried on Sunday. Then go back to work on Monday. If I was president. If I-I was president….” As if that guy would ever run for president, Mikey thinks.
“Yo, my pops says no one respects the art of the playlist no more,” says Smiles, “not since iPods declared the mix-tape era deader than Biggie. Pops says it doesn’t take the same amount of effort, now that you’re not hitting record and stop, rewind and play, fast forward and record again—just to make sure each song sounds tight.” He presses imaginary tape deck buttons on the LeBaron dash, leaving a trail of dusty fingerprints. “But this jawn right here took time and heart last night, believe that.”
“It’s a great playlist,” Mikey says. “Best you’ve made since ‘Stutter Rock.’”
“Now that shit was the shit, wasn’t it? I knew you liked it. ‘My Sharona,’ ‘Bad to the Bone,’ ‘Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,’ ‘My G-g-g-generation.’” Smiles pops a piece of Big Red into his mouth, and the smell teams up with the artificial cinnamon of his heart-shaped car freshener dangling from the rearview.
“Listen,” Mikey says, “the thing is—” He falls silent, watching two rowers glide parallel along the river with oars that don’t splash. The thing is what, exactly? What’s he supposed to do about In Your Head—tell Smiles he’s hearing voices? Some personal pundits editorializing his every move, reporting he’s running for senior class president when he hasn’t even decided whether he will? Who in their right mind would believe him? He can barely believe it himself. Smiles would say he just put the “batshit” in batshit crazy. That he’d better share whatever he’s been smoking. “The thing is,” Mikey continues, “I’ve just got too much on my plate already.”
“We’ve got two huge tests today in History and Latin, remember?” Mikey picks up the ratty, brown paper bag-covered U.S. history textbook on his lap and gives it a vigorous shake, either to loosen extraneous bits of knowledge or to strangle the book to death. “So there’s that, plus the Lord of the Flies essay on the conch’s symbolism, which I haven’t started. Plus the physics AP test in two weeks. Plus prom coming up, which, by the way, I still don’t have a date for.”
“Dude, those sound more like minuses than plusses.”
Smiles removes his iPhone from his whaki pants pocket. “But look, yo, I’m blowing up here. All these texts and tweets and comments on my wall asking what your deal is.” He thumbs through messages, his other hand slack upon the wheel. How does Smiles know so many students? Only two people have Mikey’s number: Mom and Smiles. Three, if you count Central’s main office.
A great metal statue of a somber-looking general on horseback peeks out between trees and rocks to the right, one hoof high off its stone pedestal. Does that mean he died in battle? Mikey can’t remember what Dad once told him about those statues, and he feels a pang of guilt for forgetting. Died. No, lived. Lived, since one foot up means taking a step, which you’d have to be alive to do. But then what do two hooves up mean? Mikey knows he’s seen a statue like that somewhere along Kelly Drive.
Out of nowhere, a black Humvee flies up, cutting them off within inches of Smiles’s bumper.
“Dude, dude, dude!” Mikey exclaims. He stomps on the floor where he wants the brake to be.
“I see it. I see it,” Smiles says, tapping the real brake and pounding the horn as he swerves. The Hummer whooshes off through concrete and stone tunnels ahead.
“I should have my pops ban those damn things in the city.”
“Can’t you get a ticket for using your phone in the car these days?”
“Yeah.” Smiles sneers. “But cops are too busy texting to give them out!”
“Funny, but maybe you shouldn’t be taking us for a text-drive. My mom says all these accident victims keep coming into the ER because of that. Horrible shit where teens are paralyzed from the neck down.”
“Yo, but didn’t your moms also say she’d been seeing an awful lot of patients with the clap last year, back when you started going out with Campbell?”
“Yeah,” Mikey sighs. Mom could be so subtle that way.
“You could always take her to prom.”
“No, jackass. Campbell. Word around the playground is she wants you back.”
Campbell Brzezinksi, the sophomore whose perky laugh and lilac perfume Mikey once found intoxicating; whose breasts pushed her corduroy overalls to the point where one strap hung perpetually loose; and who had Walt Whitman tattooed in cursive along the small of her neck, just below her blond hair: “And your very flesh shall be a great poem.” But it wasn’t just her hyper-sexuality or the fact that she’d been poetically tattooed at 14 or the way she would hold forth about things Mikey had never thought about before, like Bob Dylan owing his lyrics to Whitman; Campbell had this ease with people that Mikey both envied and mistook for sophistication. She was his first.
“Out of the question, and you know it,” Mikey says. He and Campbell haven’t talked in at least seven months. Not since she cheated on him with Stewart Kolby, an Ultimate Frisbee player from the North Lawn, who always wore a beat-up army jacket and rings of hemp necklaces—an ensemble that Mikey thought looked more idiotic than ironic whenever Stewart sat in History extolling pacifism’s myriad virtues.
The LeBaron screeches right onto Hunting Park Avenue, cutting toward North Philly along the bottom of a concrete canyon that bisects Laurel Hill Cemetery. Always so eerie here, Mikey thinks, what with the dead suspended above the road. Stranger still that they’ve got a fake grave somewhere in there dedicated to Rocky’s beloved Adrian. Leave it to Philly to give as much historical weight to the fictional wife of their fictional underdog hero as they do to real people like General Meade. Yo Adrian, Rocky’s got nuthin’ on this kid!
“Listen,” Smiles says. “Forget Campbell then. Sorry I even brought her up. There ain’t no hottie on campus who won’t want to go with Prez to prom. You’re gonna have pointy-titted Marilyns all over you, popping out of cakes and shit, singing, ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President.’”
“You’ve just got cakes on the brain because we’re passing the old Tastykake factory,” Mikey snickers as the buttery smell of baked goods invades the car, dueling with the air freshener. “But better Marilyns than Monicas, I guess.”
Smiles ignores him. “And second, as your campaign advisor, it’s my official duty to advise you to stop cramming. You’re gonna burn out.” He snatches the book from Mikey’s hands and flips it into the back seat with a heavy thud.
“Easy for you to say,” Mikey replies. And it is. Smiles never has a book in hand, much less becomes stressed to the point of text strangulation. His backpack hangs loose with nothing to weigh it down except a pen, a legal pad filled with more rhymes and doodles than notes, and a carefully rolled joint or two. Yet somehow, whenever test time rolls around, they both end up in the B/B+ range. “Besides,” Mikey adds, “you’re the one still burning out on the South Lawn.”
“Well, well, well, if that isn’t the pot calling the motherfuckin’ kettle black!”
Mikey laughs. “Always gotta make it a race thing, huh?”
Wyclef trails off and Green Day’s “American Idiot” thrashes on with guitar and drum riffs. “Don’t want to be an American idiot…”
“Yo, but wouldn’t you know it?” Smiles says. “Pops gave me a little heart-to-heart on burning out last night when I said you were running.”
“I never said I was running.”
“Okay, okay, have it your way.”
“So what did Judge Peterman say?”
Smiles removes the pick from his short ’fro and wags it for added emphasis. “He’s all, ‘Smiles, I trust you and Mikey aren’t still smoking dope out on the South Lawn, if you know what’s good for you. His presidency and your entire future are at stake, son.’ My future? How does Pops know my future? Now he’s all Doc Brown and I’m Marty McFly, or some shit. Great Scott, Pops, you’ve disintegrated Einstein!”
“So, what did you tell him?”
“I was like, ‘Thank you for taking an interest, Your Honor, sir, but let the record show Mikey and I never inhaled.’ I mean, is that batshit crazy or what?” Smiles fluffs his ’fro at a red light with more tonsorial care than necessary. Mikey laughs, running his fingers through his own unkempt hair and realizing he should have used a comb when he had the chance.
The South Lawn started as a sanctuary freshman year. A safe haven whenever Mikey and Smiles would reverse cut—arriving too late to be marked “present” in Homeroom, then skipping inessential classes to study for critical ones like world history, where that whiny Abe Lincoln-looking fart Mr. Rooney would flunk you for missing so much as a pop quiz on the parts of a medieval knight’s body armor. Soon the South Lawn became a place to chill during free periods and after school. A paradise where people were always laughing at lame jokes, playing guitar, and passing a pipe. Where no one got in your face to be all like: Whaddya get on your PSATs?
“Still,” Smiles continues, “the Honorable Judge Peterman’s got a point. Hope Dr. Knapinski and The Centralizer don’t make a federal case out of it.”
“Oh for Chrissakes!” With everything happening so fast between yesterday’s fight and In Your Head, Mikey hadn’t thought of this at all. “Of course they’ll make it an issue,” he says. “You know how good The Centralizer is at getting up in people’s grills, especially when Campbell’s sister Amanda is editor-in-chief. And L’il Knap? He’ll probably sit me down for a heart-to-heart and throw around big words that don’t mean what he thinks they mean. Rambling on like Grandpa Simpson about the days my dad went to Central. And how Dad would be shocked—shocked—to hear his son was hanging out on the South Lawn.” Though come to think of it, Mikey might never have gravitated toward the South Lawn in the first place if Dad were still alive.
Central could be so cliquish with its predetermined hangouts. Besides the South Lawners and ball-field jocks, you could always find Ultimate Frisbee kids like Stewart Kolby on the North Lawn, the Asian Students Association congregating further down around the flagpole, cheerleaders practicing in the dance studio, the Drama Club rehearsing backstage in the auditorium, mentally gifted geeks playing mancala in the second floor rear corridor, and the orchestra crew practicing away in the middle corridor on the third floor. Hang out for a few weeks in any one place and it’s hard to move around. Hang out for a year or two and you’re damn near branded for life. It won’t matter that Mikey hasn’t smoked or cut school since the beginning of the school year, which he claimed was because Mom was hounding him to take his studies seriously (she even ended one concerned text: “What would ur dad say?”), though everyone knew the real reason was because Mikey couldn’t stand the sight of Campbell anymore. Still, in the eyes of The Centralizer and Dr. Knapinski, Mikey may as well have a crimson-and-gold “SL” seared into his hairless chest Hawthorne-style. It would take a hell of a lot more than Dad’s coat to cover that up. Hasta faggiore!
“I’m sayin’,” Smiles continues, “as your press secretary, I got your back deflecting that shit. And I advise you to roll with some other bulls for a while too. Lay low on the Lawn.”
“But even if no one brings it up—and I can guaran-fucking-tee they will—you really think I got a shot at beating Psyched for Slyke?”
“Yo, would I have made these jawns last night if I didn’t think so?” Smiles reaches into the backseat and hands his heavier-than-usual backpack to Mikey. Inside, Mikey sees a stack of multi-colored papers with the words “MAD FOR MADDON” printed on the first few pages in different fonts and sizes.
“What else would you expect from your chief publicist?”
They hang a left onto Broad Street, where shabby storefronts butt against each other in no apparent order. Church’s Chicken next to Wally’s Cell Phone World next to ABC Carpets next to Leave Them All Day Care next to Pablo’s Ice Cold Beer—all left to decay until they’re bought out and torn down to make way for 24-hour pharmacies with ample-parking plazas. The one place that strikes Mikey as oddly appropriate is Exodus, a seedy hole-in-the-wall bar that’s open (at 7:43 in the morning) right next to a shuttered church, where only the outline of a cross remains.
“Now as for how to press the flesh,” Smiles continues. “First, you gotta kiss them babies. Absolutely gotta kiss them motherfuckin’ babies, or Central’s equivalent of babies, which are…”
…Mikey Maddon has been in politics less than 24 hours and already we’re hearing reports of rampant drug abuse within his campaign. If these allegations are true, they could have a serious impact on voters when they go to the polls less than a week from today. We bring in our Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Edie Riley, for the type of analysis only The Best News Team You Could Ever Imagine can deliver. Doctor, is Maddon putting the “high” back in “high school,” and should we be worried?
Thanks, Bill. The use of drugs is never something we on In Your Head condone, but let’s be realistic. Drugs are pervasive on high school campuses across the country, particularly when those campuses are in rough neighborhoods like North Philly, where marijuana is likely the mildest narcotic floating around. In a recent study that In Your Head conducted in collaboration with Philadelphia University, nearly 82 percent of over 2,000 Philly-area students admit to having tried some type of recreational drug in high school, while 97 percent say they are likely to try drugs in college. Qualitative research suggests the serious careerists may start sooner so they have more time to “toke up” and clean up before some future employer makes them pee into a cup.
Simply astounding, Doctor.
Look, we’ve come a long way from the “I didn’t inhale” Clinton era, especially when you consider President Obama admitted to cocaine and marijuana use in his memoir, published prior to his election run. And let’s not forget President Bush’s DUI and sordid track record, which all but disappeared after he reportedly cleaned himself up and found God. My guess, though, is that voters in the coveted teen demographic might be willing to give Maddon a pass on this issue if nothing more is made of it. And the latest In Your Head Public School Opinion Poll backs up that conclusion. 57 percent of voters say they don’t care if their president has smoked marijuana, as long as he doesn’t do it while on the campaign trail or in office. Of course, those numbers could plummet if his opponents or the press hammer him on this issue. Interestingly, while 17 percent claim they won’t vote for a candidate who admits having tried pot, another 6 percent think he’ll need to keep toking up in order to handle the pressures that come with the job, such as working with Central’s Head of School, Dr. Reginald Knapinski.
Thanks, Doctor. We now turn to Senior Legal Analyst Ezra Savage. Ezra, do you agree with Dr. Riley’s assessment?
Well, Bill, the good doctor said we can’t condone smoking dope, so let’s not. Marijuana is against the law, to put it bluntly, no pun intended. That means even if Maddon isn’t using drugs anymore himself, he’s still going to have to distance himself from the criminals within his own campaign. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before voters follow the spliff-smelling trail that leads right from those drug-addled doofuses on the South Lawn to the extremely dangerous dealers in the neighborhood.
My thanks to Dr. Edie Riley and Ezra Savage. Stay tuned for more on In Your Head, as the sweet-smelling smoke continues to—
“Are you hearing this?” Mikey shouts, slapping the dusty dashboard and turning up the radio.
“What, Radiohead? This ain’t new. It’s off ‘Hail to the Thief,’ in your honor.”
“What?” Mikey says. Then he hears Thom Yorke’s melodic voice return with haunting sonic undulations. “Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there. Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there….”
“Bro, you all right?”
“I’m fine, fine,” Mikey says. “I just can’t run is all. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I know this could be a chance to make a name for myself. And it could guarantee a good college for me or even you as my campaign manager/press secretary/private chaffeur/whateverthehell you’re calling yourself. But I don’t belong on the campaign trail or in the class office. I belong there.” He points to the oak-shaded South Lawn sweeping up toward Central—a squat brick-and-concrete fortress on a hill. The South Lawn has been eerily empty on recent mornings, what with Dr. Knapinski’s rule that all students must enter through metal detectors at the top of the North Lawn. “Let’s just go back in the fucking DeLorean to yesterday afternoon. I won’t step into that fight. I’ll just keep myself to myself, keep my head down in my books, and keep praying for a miracle from the prom gods.”
The grin fades from Smiles’s face as they drive along Ogontz Avenue, silently making two quick lefts around a throng of students entering Central, and pulling onto the Blacktop.
Two very different high school boys hear a voice “in their heads,” that comes to
them as a news report. Are they going crazy? Should they each run for class president?
What’s up with all that? Funny, fast-paced, intense, with a veneer of danger running
throughout. Mikey and Steve are dealing with the cards they’ve been dealt, but only
barely, and it’ll take more courage then either of them have to get through the daily news.
—Kathi Appelt, 2012 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge