When Susannah had gathered the girls around her in the crumbling dormitory at Nation to take them through the first part of Operation: Sha La La, she’d never considered, but found out fast enough, that the plan would need a part three with nine steps total, as follows:
- Stand there in front of the growing pile of ashes that used to be Nation with the girls around her, watching the taillights on Francis’s motorcycle vanish in the sunset, until the police arrived.
- Reassure the officer who spoke to them first that this building used to be a monument to hatred and pain that they couldn’t let stand, and he’d find proof of that if he and his men dug through the rubble to find a smoke-stained ECT machine and a singed, triple-sealed folder containing the files on Harriet Asp.
- Get arrested, along with Kitty, Judith, and Rat, because Ya-Ya had taken off running as soon as the officer mentioned that this was a clear-cut case of arson, Dorothy had chased after her, and no one had wanted to take the time to follow them.
- Spend twelve hours in the police station, two of which were devoted to retelling all the horrors of Nation to a dubious officer and a bored stenographer, before being released into the custody of her parents. (She left there before the other three girls, and still doesn’t know what happened to them.)
- Get into an argument with her father on the ride home that lasted all the way through the front door, because she was in juvie less than three weeks and is already back because the goddamned building burned down, and Francis came by the house two weeks ago to ask for her hand in marriage and a week ago to announce he was going to Mexico, where she clearly isn’t, and for Christ’s sake, have you lost your mind completely, are you even the same person any more, Susie, are you even our daughter?
- Go up to her bedroom, pack what remained of her things and all the money she could find in two suitcases and a purse, and walk out of the house.
- Walk three blocks to the train station, wait there until the New Haven line to Manhattan arrived, the one she’d taken a few times to see Francis at Columbia, and get on.
- Spend the entire hour on the train wondering if she really had lost her mind and struggling not to stutter through a reply every time another rider said hello.
- Arrive in Harlem at the station on 125th Street and drag her luggage up the stairs without any help, emerging at street level to squint in the morning sunlight and decide what on earth to do now.
Susannah had stood there for a few minutes, then picked up her bags and started walking downtown with no goal in mind but to find something to care about. That something turned out to be a record store near the Village, which took nearly three hours to reach on foot, with a HELP WANTED sign in the window and an owner so impressed by her listing off the Marvelettes’ last five singles without hesitating that he’d offered her a job and a tip on where to find a cheap apartment right off.
That was in October. It’s August now, she still works at that store, and lately every news story out of Washington or Mississippi or Alabama seems to scream that the world is ending, or else starting completely anew. But the most earth-shaking thing happening on this block of Manhattan today is the delivery of a crate full of 45s of the Ronettes’ new single.
Henry, who works the cash register on weekends when he’s not busy with his classes at NYU, announces the arrival of the crate with just his head poking through the door. “Help me bring this in, Susie, it’s terrifically heavy.”
“Sure,” Susannah says, setting down a pile of Ella Fitzgerald records she’d been sorting. “And it’s still Susannah.”
They maneuver it in through the door, propped open with a discarded brick, and lower it to the floor beside the checkout counter. Henry digs around under the counter until he finds a claw hammer, immediately setting to work at prising the crate open. It’s morning still, early enough that no customers are there browsing the shelves to be bothered by the lid finally coming free and crashing to the floor with a clatter that makes Susannah wince.
“Oh, sorry,” Henry says. “I should have put down a cushion or something, huh?”
Susannah sighs. “Let’s just get these on the shelves and sorted.”
“Well, we’ve got to listen to them first, don’t we?” Henry picks a single record from the crate and takes it out of the sleeve, the red-and-yellow label blazing like a sunset. “Have to know what we’re selling when we’ve got this many to sell.”
He’s got a point. And she’d be lying if she said she didn’t care to hear the song. “I won’t be paying if it gets scratched.”
“Wouldn’t dream of making you, Susie.” Henry strides over to the record player placed proudly in the middle of the store for exactly that reason and starts fumbling with it. Susannah’s caught up to him just as he gets the turntable spinning; she’s leaning on the table with both hands when he drops the needle.
Boom, boom-boom, tsh.
Susannah claps both hands to her mouth.
Boom, boom-boom, tsh, the drums insist, repeating again and again even as a symphony of castanets and strings and voices bursts to life, trying and failing to drown the rhythm out. She’d recognize that beat anywhere, tapped out on the floor of Nation with a chipped mug or rattling in her rib cage or echoing back to her through rusting pipes, sooner than her own pulse — or is it the very same rhythm? And how did it get onto this record in this dusty store?
The drumbeat shifts, to something unfamiliar and forgettable, just as the chorus begins, and for the first time Susannah hears the words. So won’t you please, Ronnie Bennett wails, clear and unmistakable, and a choir chimes in to say what she can’t, be my, be my baby… How many times had she wanted to ask the same in just a few short weeks? My one and only baby, say you’ll be my darling… Could ten thousand volts across her brain be anywhere near as electrifying?
“Sounds great,” Henry says. Susannah could scream at him for talking over the song. “Phil Spector is just, the man’s a genius. …Are you all right?”
“What?” Susannah realizes that she’s talking through her hands, and carefully lowers them to her sides. She must look as rattled as she feels. “Yes, I’m… it’s very good. I’m fine.”
Henry looks dubious but doesn’t ask again, just shoves his hands in his pockets and watches the record spin. Susannah clasps her own behind her back, squeezing tight, trying to release the hectic energy coursing between her head and her heart where no one can see.
Abruptly, everything else drops out. Only the drums play, demanding to be heard.
Boom, boom-boom, tsh. Boom, boom-boom, tsh.
The chorus bursts forth one final time, repeating be my, be my baby, my one and only baby… even as it fades into silence. Then the crackle of the vinyl is the only sound in the store.
Susannah stands there, aflame, staring at the record, until Henry lifts the tone arm out of the way and flips it over to play the B-side, some jaunty, meaningless instrumental track. And a customer pushes in through the door, then two more, choosing to trust the taped-on schedule that says they opened five minutes ago over the sign hanging above it that’s still flipped to CLOSED, so Susannah has to drag herself back to this time and place and start the workday with a smile.
All that day, she finds herself tapping out the rhythm whenever her mind drifts, doo, da-doo, dah on the floor with her shoe or against her hip with one hand, while restocking shelves or resorting misplaced records. She hums the melody, or mumbles what she remembers of the words under her breath, when she isn’t helping customers or gritting her teeth as they go to ask Henry the same questions she’d just answered for them. The song revolves around and around in her head, stuck like a needle in a locked groove. It won’t leave her.
When her shift finally ends, she picks up one of the records, now placed neatly beside their Crystals collection, and carries it to the counter, to a surprised look from Henry. “You want to buy that?”
“You could just play it in the store whenever you like, you know. It’s one of the perks of working here.”
“I know.” It’s a perk Henry takes advantage of often, and often obnoxiously. “But I want to have it for myself.”
Henry shrugs and punches the numbers into the cash register. “That’s ninety cents with your employee discount.”
Susannah hands over the money, taking the record back in return, and is out the door at once. Most days, she likes to take her time walking back to her apartment, just to soak in the sight of the city and remind herself that this is real, that she made it out, that she’s still making it. Today, though, the three blocks and two flights of stairs between here and there fly by.
She’s barely locked the apartment door behind her before tugging off her shoes and sitting down on her bed. The apartment is small and dim, with paint peeling from the walls, but it’s hers alone, and a mile better than Nation. Her record player, which she’d lugged here from Connecticut in one of those suitcases nestled alongside her record collection and padded with dresses she hasn’t worn in years, sits near her pillow, on a rickety end table she picked up from the sidewalk last November.
With trembling hands, she slides the record from its sleeve. The label is stark and simple — THE RONETTES, BE MY BABY, a few names. Time: 2:20. Flipping it over reveals the title of the B-side, TEDESCO AND PITMAN, and little else. The drummer’s name is nowhere to be found.
Are you like me? Susannah wonders. Trying to say something to someone that you can’t speak in words? Are you talking in code, too?
And why did they bother listing the Ronettes on that side of the record? There’s not a word being sung. It’s misleading, plain and simple.
Our very own one-woman Ronette, Kitty had called her. Kitty, who’d taught her to smoke and told her about ocelots and stood up for her when no one else would, or could. Of all the girls, Susannah misses her the most, other than — well. That’s obvious.
Sheila, who had called her Susannah from the start, and partner, and baby.
She turns the record back over, sets it on the turntable, turns it on, lowers the needle, and waits.
Boom, boom-boom, tsh. Boom, boom-boom, tsh. The drumbeat still sends a jolt up her spine, but this time she’s ready for it. What she isn’t prepared for is the verses, now that she can hear them.
The night we met I knew I needed you so, Ronnie sings, plain, simple. And if I had the chance, I’d never let you go… Susannah blinks, tears welling in her eyes. So won’t you say you love me? I’ll make you so proud of me, we’ll make ‘em turn their heads every place we go…
She imagines it. Walking through the streets of the Village with Sheila, shoulder to shoulder, or even hand in hand if they were feeling brave. Passing by other couples like them, old or young, and wide-eyed children who’d watch them to the end of the block, realizing there’s another way, there’s a different picture of what a life can be. Squeezing into this tiny apartment together, huddling close when the winter chill seeps through the thin walls and knocking elbows when they cook dinner. Playing her songs for Sheila, without caring who might hear.
A sob rises in her throat, choking her, like stuttering on silence.
The song continues on, unhesitant. Oh, since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you, you know I will adore you ‘til eternity, so won’t you, please…
She’d thought that maybe now, after almost a year apart, it wouldn’t hurt quite so much to think of how far away Sheila must be, that the nagging sting wouldn’t be so keen or so terrible. That she’d have fallen out of love. But she’s just as far gone for Sheila as she was the day they met, the day they parted, and every moment in between.
And she’s wishing just as desperately that their paths will cross again someday, somehow, and that Sheila will still feel the way she feels here and now.
The tone arm bobs at the center of the silently spinning record, on the edge of her vision — the song must have finished while she was too lost in thought to notice. Susannah lifts the needle and sets it on the outermost groove of the record again, and she hopes.
Boom, boom-boom, tsh. Boom, boom-boom, tsh.