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Authors: Tom Matthews

Like We Care (10 page)

BOOK: Like We Care
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Daljit’s eyes went wide with outrage. Stealing the inventory—
this
he had been trained to allow. But do it no harm.

“You go!” Daljit cried, causing the customers in line to squirm warily. “You get out of my store. You do not come back until you be buying something!!”

“Fine, you dick!” Joel sneered, running on adrenaline now. He took a swipe at the beef jerky carousel, causing it to spin merrily. The tangy delightfulness of spiced, dried meat wafted into the air.

Reflexively, through his rage, an order was issued from some intricate part of Joel’s machinery long beyond his control:

“Buy beef jerky.”

He’d be butt-fucked before he’d spend a nickel in this guy’s store right now. And yet, even at the height of his defiance, as he sought to deprive this greedy bastard of his coin, his brain was instinctively going for his wallet:

“Package colorful. Smell good. Rack spinning, like toy.

“Buy beef jerky.”

This was a fractionated second. Joel didn’t consciously register anything here.

He just wanted out. He pushed past Todd for the door. Todd, who
did
understand, looked to his friend with admiration, then to the simmering storeowner, who was already fixing his contempt on the next customer.

“You know what?” Todd said softly, surprising himself. “I’ve changed my mind.” He held up the bottle of Coke.

“I’d like my money back.”

Daljit Singh couldn’t believe how his morning was going. “What?”

“I’d like my money back. Please.”

“No refunds.”

Now Joel was watching. Which emboldened Todd.

“I’ve got my receipt right here. I haven’t opened the bottle yet. You can just return it to the cooler. I’m pretty sure you have to give me my money back.”

The students in line began to groan. If Daljit didn’t deal with this quickly, business was going to flee out the door.

He grabbed a dust-caked pad of forms with the Happy Snack logo printed jauntily across the top.

“Fill this out. Check will be mailed, four to six weeks.”

“It’s a dollar sixty-nine!”

“Company policy.”

“You have to give me my money back.”

“Don’t know how.”

“Look, it’s easy.” Todd boldly leaned into the cash register. “We have registers just like this at the video store. You push this button here.”

The register chirped an alien, menacing new chirp—the sound of money, once collected, being freed.

The cash drawer popped open compliantly. In complete surrender.

“And that negates the transaction. When you do your audit at the end of your shift, it’ll show up as a cash refund.
We
have to initial them on the tape, so the corporate office doesn’t think we’re stealing.”

He smiled at Daljit Singh pleasantly. He was being somewhat of a smart-ass, but he was also just trying to help.

The merchant dug his hand into the cash, eyeballing the exact count of paper and coin that would get this terrible, terrible boy out of his store.

“You, too, get out of my store! Don’t come back until you will be buying something!!!”

“Okay. Thank you!” Todd said brightly. Now he was just being a smart-ass.

He met Joel at the door, each supremely proud of themselves. They were blocking the electric eye, causing it to “bong” incessantly.

“Go!” Daljit shrieked.

They burst through to the parking lot to discover that it was raining in sheets, the gathered teens flushed away like rats from a crawl space. Todd and Joel were equal parts annoyed and entertained as they squeezed together under the building’s narrow overhang. Joel’s car was a long half-block away.

The boys laughed. “Shit!”

At the curb, a nearly perfect cigarette had been thrown down as the sky let loose. It was still lit, and its ash snapped with an illicit sizzle as rain dropped from the gutter.

Joel eyed it longingly. Todd knew the look.

“Come on!”

He leapt into the torrential rain, sprinting with a crazy laugh toward Joel’s car. If Joel didn’t follow with his keys, Todd would get drenched.

Joel giggled boyishly and jumped into the rain after him.

“Motherfucker!!!”

The two created a wake sloshing across the parking lot, getting soaked to the skin but not minding much. This felt familiar, from when they were small.

“You’re splashing me!” Joel howled. “Quit!”


You
quit!”

Keepin’ It Real (Underpants)

T
he issue at hand was the impending release of the new album from something called ScroatM.

A spindly white rapper with acne scars, a sunken chest, and a catch-all societal rage which could be dialed up effortlessly to ape whichever hateful stance would move the most units, ScroatM went six-times platinum with his previous release,
Right White Nigga
, and in the process, transformed a sniveling canker of a human being into an industry.

The album’s leering success (6.5 million units sold in the U.S. alone), combined with a sold-out eighteen-month tour and ancillary product, had made the skeevy, chalk-toned rapper a millionaire several times over, and had single-handedly turned the fledgling Tok$ic label into an industry player.

Bottom-feeders who had cashed in their mob-supported restaurant supply empire in Jersey in order to crash the glamorous world of entertainment, the Tok$ic brain trust had spent the past two years building to this event, the debut of
Freakal Matter
, ScroatM’s sophomore effort. The street date wasn’t until mid-April, but the rumble in the recording industry was already taking for granted that the album would break the rarefied million unit mark its first week, and in order to ensure that, promotional work had to begin several months out. Everyone with a piece of ScroatM’s magic—either directly or as a media conduit—stood to score riches beyond their imagination.

It had been a heady couple of years for Scroat. He had entered the studio to record
Nigga
just days after beating a charge that he had caused a girlfriend’s kidney to fail by kicking her repeatedly in the back, and had lived as a pop star prince ever since.

Born Ronald Gerber, a fact not known until the first lawsuit was filed against him, Scroat started as a deejay at clubs in his native Pittsburgh, and then came up through the properly funked-up boroughs of New York, crafting for himself a bile-hissing persona that laid suitably obscene rhymes over samples and phat beats provided by uncredited, soon-to-be-litigious friends.

Without even breaking a sweat, he could rhyme “diarrhea” with “try to see ya” and “die next year (
yee-ah
)” in “Ass Cancer,” his legendary, never-to-be-recorded contemplation on the AIDS crisis in the gay community. He broke new ground with the introduction of “gash” as a rhyme-rich alternative to the over-worked sobriquets “bitch” and “ho” (cash, rash, stash, flash, hash, trash, bash, crash, mash, dash, thrash, moustache—all by himself, he thought of words that rhymed with “gash”).

He had many fine tattoos. He loved his mama.

He was money.

The disorienting success of
Right White Nigga
had brought problems along with the millions, keeping Scroat busy the past two years with a series of lawsuits filed by leeches from back in the day, a pro forma child abandonment charge brought by the kidney-kicked mother of his three-year-old daughter, and one nightclub assault that had caught Scroat a cred-enhancing night in jail (the final words of Scroat’s victim before being hit across the head with a Corona bottle: “You
do
realize you’re not black, don’t you?”).

The most serious of his legal hassles, though, were the seven sexual assaults stretching across the country, all of which grew out of his massively popular track, “Hey, Baldy.” A frolicsome little tune about diddling prepubescent girls, the song culminated in Scroat’s exhortation to his listeners that they use tweezers to pluck and collect a little girl’s first pubic hair as a trophy. “Hey, Baldy” had inspired a leering video that remained in R
2
Rev’s heavy rotation for weeks, featuring a smirking ScroatM rolling around in a sea of unclothed Kewpie dolls, slathered up with K-Y jelly. Merely adding to the fun was the video smear Hutch Posner had deemed necessary when the artist was given to licking and rubbing the plastic baby doll genitalia.

Not having all that much fun, however, were the 11- and 12-year-old girls who found themselves stripped naked in rec rooms and backs of vans, getting crude gynecological exams from rap-frenzied, tweezer-bearing teenaged boys out to party the ScroatM way. The attackers were all white, all caricatured suburban trash.

And they were “child molesters,” Scroat declared in the contrite, legalese-laden statement that Tok$ic’s bank of attorneys had drafted for him to read in a frail, troubled voice. He “wasn’t down with” any of his fans who would act upon his lyrics in such a deplorable fashion.

But should there be any confusion, ScroatM—it turned out—was merely a character through which Ronald Gerber portrayed, with high levels of satire, a crude barbarian rendered immoral by the influences of the world around him. You could no more blame Ronald Gerber for ScroatM as you would Robert DeNiro for Travis Bickle.

Still, a civil suit was mounted against Gerber (aka ScroatM); Tok$ic Records; Soundstream, the monolithic parent company of Tok$ic that had just recently been bought out by the British distillery Fine Geneva; R
2
Rev Industries; and MediaTrust—the latter two entities having been dragged into the action by R
2
Rev’s incessant playing of the “Hey, Baldy” video.

The case fell apart almost from the beginning, the ACLU and the recording industry’s raft of lawyers falling all over themselves to assert ScroatM’s First Amendment right to give a wise-ass thumbs-up to fingering seventh-graders. Another suit, filed by the parents of the molesters, who were determined to blame someone other than themselves for the depravity living down the hall in their ranch houses, never got out of the gate.

Still, the trial was an embarrassment for all concerned. Figureheads at Fine Geneva and MediaTrust made appropriate noises approximating a commitment to clean up the acts of revenue-generating tentacles they not only could not control but without help couldn’t even find on the flow chart of company holdings.

Dragged to the stand to defend himself, Ronald Gerber—sporting a suit he appeared to have bought from Wal-Mart and scowling like a petulant ten-year-old—was momentarily discomfited when required to give a deadpan recitation of his lyrics in order to have them read into the record:

“Gonna slap you silly ’til you show me your twat/Beggin’ on your daddy to show you what’s what/When I’m finished on the topside, gonna work on yo butt. . .”

A song for a twelve-year-old.

This is how men made money in the early 21st century.

“S’bout keepin’ it real,” ScroatM sulked into his Froot Loops.

R
2
Rev interns, rattled at the high-level stakes surrounding this strategy meeting, had been charged with having fifteen different breakfasts at the ready for the star, nine of them sugary cereals designed for first-graders. Orange juice (pulped and unpulped), toast, bagels, donuts, eggs, pancakes, waffles, and French toast were all standing by in an area just outside the plush R
2
Rev conference room, despite the very real chance that the talent might not make the meeting at all. It was scheduled for very early in the morning, and Scroat was more and more inclined to let his handlers take care of business. Their nut was banked on Scroat cleaning up. They’d see to it that his fortunes remained stoked.

But he understood what was on the line.
Nigga
had been a scary success, begging for a backlash. There had always been a cruel, bloodless tradition of eviscerating a pop titan for making them care the first time around, but each generation of fans had gotten progressively more vicious. That earlier album—the one that had fused itself to their core being like an opiate-secreting parasite—had spackled in the pock marks of their universe, providing a caricature on which they could base their pose. Their sludgy, lord-don’t-make-me-work-too-hard-for-this search for rebellion, preordained to fall in behind
some
cynical play for their hearts and wallets, had randomly lighted on ScroatM.

The zeitgeist, in its maddeningly indiscriminate way, had pissed him golden.

And now, here he came again, bearing new tracks that would be expected to somehow mesh organically with the ScroatM oeuvre that had long ago passed into halfwit hagiography. Tracks that would now be peddled by an artist barely able to hide his contempt for his audience the first time around—he had done everything but pick them up by their ankles and shaken them to get their every last dime. Tracks that were being forged and market-tested with the icy efficiency of a NASA launch, by middle-aged men trying to perpetuate the ScroatM gravy train for an ever-broadening stable of trophy wives. Tracks that would have no choice but to compete with the Scroat clones who had risen in his wake and eclipsed him in the pantheon of moneyed sociopaths you can dance to.

Tracks that sought to do no less than engender the same zombified loyalty that the ScroatM demographic had succumbed to two years ago—a lifetime in pop fandom.

BOOK: Like We Care
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