Hello It’s Me (A Short Story)
A black piece of plastic spun around and around, etched memories carved into grooves and transmitted into the ethers through diamond cut magic. Timeless. Better than digital. Warmer and somehow, more human. Vinyl never closed, it just cut its hours and came back with a vengeance in the new millennial, unlike coal, the hackman and the currier. And, the Groove Tone was ready for it. Located in the heart of New England, a few miles from where Robert Frost took the road less traveled, the Tone as it was called, sat inconspicuously in a strip mall by a Japanese restaurant and a computer repair shop. Chances are it was once surrounded by a Denny’s and a video arcade, as time and the records therein had taken root, been pruned, and remerged throughout the past three decades. It was like pong, only different. A cell phone went off, clashing with the retro vibe.
“Yes, szats right, I never close. I will have my niece Jessica taking over Wednesday and Thursday, and maybe I’ll be back on Friday, I don’t know yet.”
Sam, the owner, spoke with certainty, but the words came out distorted and worn, the years having taken their toll on his vocal cords. Tony Bennett still sang in the original key, but most folks met a different fate as the road becomes well-traveled regardless of which path you choose. Despite the dust and clutter around him, Sam dressed nattily, in button down shirt and cream colored slacks, but his body was shrinking, drawn down into itself into humble crookedness. A customer and his daughter sided up to the counter.
‘That’s right, I’m going to the hospital,” Sam spoke over the phone. “ My niece is taking me to the bus stop and then I take the bus downtown and I’ll get the cab over to the hospital for the procedure. But I should be back Friday. If I don’t feel well, I won’t come in.
The customer nodded as Sam hung up,
“But, you know,” Sam added, speaking to the customer now, “I never close.”
The customer nodded again
“Not even on Christmas. You know, someone, on Christmas, once they came in and bought my whole stock of Firestone Christmas records. Perry Como and the like, you know. Percy Faith. And, let me tell you, young man, that Edie Gorme was a looker…”
“Ur, uh,” the customer said, patiently waiting, “can I play this record?”
“Sure, but you know I’m very fussy about my records. It will be in perfect condition.”
The Groove Tone’s records were laid out like jewels, row upon row categorized by genre, alphabetized and categorized as meticulously as the nation’s great libraries, each jacket encased in plastic, excellent to near mint, and sometimes immaculate. There had been a day when all vinyl was sealed, but of course, this was the new normal. Prices were going up, and people would pay for records that weren’t scratched. The question was what would happen when all these records dried up, when all the attics of the world had been uncovered, cleaned and decluttered. Just like fossil fuels, the end was in sight, and unlike climate change deniers, the industry was hip, building and expanding pressing plants.
The customer cued up his selection on a turntable set out for shoppers, and listened to the first cut on an obscure jazz disc by Michel Legrand, the French Composer. Sure, enough, that was Miles on there, blowing plaintively, café time. The customer smiled and his twelve-year old daughter looked up anxiously. “Let’s try yours now.” She was clutching a Sting record. Once again, it was perfectly clean. The owner looked on intently and his skewed face turned into a smile. The girl shifted her feet back and forth, excited, holding onto the headphones. “Look, baby, this is how you do it,” her father said, “ this is how you check the condition.”
Sam, the owner, smiled. “Nowadays all the kids are into vinyl. They want vinyl first” Silence. “I knew it would come back.”
He sounded like the Buddha of vinyl, living in the moment, yet knowing that all things are impermanent, and that like rain in the clouds, all things return in one form or another
True to this creed, the customer returned the next day – Wednesday. It was Alphabet Sale day, a quirky twist whereby every record starting with the letter G was on sale for half off. The customer decided to look for some Dexter Gordon and Robert Gordon, for himself, and some Police records, for his daughter. It’s funny, he thought, flipping through the past with his fingers; his record collection epitomized his life. He’d kept some of it and let some of it go. Some records were like old friends, never departed; others slipped away easily, left to the time in which they connected. And, some of the ones he valued most, those he struggled so hard to hold onto, disappeared in ways he couldn’t have imagined. Lately, he’d been repurchasing some of those lost gems, as if revisiting a childhood home. Every trip to a store like the Groove Tone was a flashback scenario.
In his hometown, after he got his first job making milkshakes at Cock Robin, he used to ride his bike downtown and stop at a store on Main called the Music Shop. It was more of a head shop, really, sold lots of “paraphernalia” which he never used and didn’t quite understand, to boot. Later, there came a place called “Waves of Joy”. Every payday, he’d stop by and listen to tunes with the Gus, the owner, an unassuming, gentle guy in his early twenties, who wore cut offs every time of year, chain smoked, and loved Todd Rundgren. Once Simon (the customer) shared a moment of silence with him, the week after John Lennon died, at Yoko’s bequest. It was a nice memory. It felt terribly naïve now, but it mattered somehow, at that time, in that space.
Simon’s hometown grew from simple farm town to sprawling upscale suburb and along the way, rents skyrocketed. His friend, Gus, had a hard time making ends meet, keeping up with the posh, and so he increased his line of paraphernalia and in the sign of those times, the cops busted him.
Think of me, sang Todd in the background as they chatted.
“Yeah, man, they set me up, I know it,” said Gus.
It was just a couple bongs, nothing more.”
I’d come around to see you once in awhile.
“Don’t worry man, it’s nothing. You’ll cruise through the hearing and be back in the shop the next day.”
Simon was 17 at the time; what did he know about such things? Nothing, but there was a scary immortal optimism to that age, at least for him. He was just trying to be positive.
“My lawyer thinks so. Yeah, I’ll be okay,” Gus said hesitantly, as if considering th4e possibility of watching his future disappear like the smoke rings he blew across the counter. “It’s going to cost me a fortune, though.”
Or if I ever need a reason to smile.
They remained quiet for awhile. Simon focused on the spaces between the notes as he excused himself to shop. He picked out Todd’s double LP, Something Anything, not because he liked the record, although he did, but because it was the most expensive record in the shop, and it was his way of contributing, financially and otherwise.
“Good choice, my man”
“I’ve always wanted to pick it up.”
Simon told him he’d see him next week; he’d grab a couple slices of pizza from around the corner, on the way in. They could talk about Gus’s brush with the law and listen to new releases. Tuesday was always new releases day. But, it never happened. Gus wound up spending six months in jail. His girlfriend Crystal kept the shop afloat, by selling hippie dresses and lace-up moccasins alongside the vinyl and cassettes, but it wasn’t enough. She kept erratic hours, and sales bottomed out with the “scandal” that went with Gus’s incarceration. Gus would never recover; two weeks after he was released, he was gone. Simon never saw him again. Looking back, he wondered if there hadn’t been more to the story.
Although they hadn’t been that close, Simon still remembered those days with vivid clarity and he always felt for Gus. All the man had wanted was a little piece of freedom – running his shop, hanging out with his girlfriend, listening to music with friends. But, the simple had become complicated, the tangible, elusive. Sometimes Simon wished they’d had a proper goodbye; other times he felt his last purchase at the shop was enough, and that somehow, his friend was still around. Every time he heard Rundgren on the radio, he smiled. Hello It’s Me.
At the moment, Simon was having a hard time finding any “G’s” he liked, by either Gordon, Gaye or Gorillaz. He did run across Ghost in the Machine by the Police, but that counted as a P, the letter that went on sale the following week. Why did the Groove Tone skip from G to P? Did his daughter like the Police because she thought Sting was cute? Was he being sexist to think that, or was he just being a dad? Pretty soon she’d be a teenager. He shuddered at the thought of her dating.
Sam, the owner, recognized him from the day before.
“Where is your daughter?”
“She’s at robotics camp this week. She’s doing well.”
“That’s good, it’s good that girls are doing the science more these days” Sam chuckled. “My niece is like her. Older, but smart. Good at math. And, loves vinyl.” He paused. “I’ve got four boxes of records back here I’m giving away to a vintage store across town, if you want to look through them.”
“Sure, some are scratched, I don’t know why you’d want them, but take a look.”
Simon went in the backroom, crowded with cardboard boxes and metal shelves and oddly silent. He suddenly realized that Sam was piping conservative talk radio throughout the store, instead of cool jazz or tricked out hip hop. It was possibly the first time Simon had ever been in a hip music store that didn’t play hip music. The talk show host was raving on about the latest conspiracy theory, voice filled with hate. Music went beyond words and for him, lived outside of hate. Worlds clashed and the owner suddenly appeared, hovering over Simon as he browsed
“I’ve been in this business 27 years. Used to teach,” he offered. “ I had hundreds and hundreds of records I’d been collecting and opened up a shop to sell them. I really like talking to people.”
“Do you do much mail order?”
“I used to, not so much anymore. There’s a guy from England. One from Germany.”
Simon continued digging through the boxes in the back. When he was younger, his tastes were focused on the day and represented that time in his musical education, what turned him on in the first place. Therefore, he had begun with tons of old punk and reggae discs, but not much else that predated it. Now, when he went looking, it was wide open – jazz, old-timey, esoteric, anything.
“See, there’s not much in there,” Sam said, feeling his thoughts. “My records out front are all in good condition,” he added, proudly. “….and the Groove Tone never closes.”
Simon went back to the front of the store, to browse some more, checking his watch to see how much time he had before picking up his daughter. In the back, a truck pulled up to the open door, the sound of the brakes squealing to a halt.
“Hey Sam,” how are you, are these the boxes?
“Yeah, you can take them away. Take them. Take them away.”
The two men from the truck started taking them away, groaning as they lifted and lugged the oversized boxes. “I’m going to the hospital tomorrow, but I’ll be back on Friday,” Sam the owner said.
“Where are you going?” said a young man in jeans and t-shirt, skinny, with tattoos of anchors and clouds on each arm.
“Oh, well, you’re in good hands,” said the second man, a paunchy middle aged fellow with streaks of gray hair and black Buddy Holly glasses. “Is it outpatient?”
“No, one night.”
“You ever think of selling, Robert?” said Buddy’s aging visage.
“Yeah, I’d sell you some of my back stock”
“No, I mean everything.”
“Only if they took everything, fixtures, record players, everything.”
There was a long pause. Whispering between the two men. “Would you take payments?” said the tattooed skinny.
“No, I want my money. I’ve been in business 27 years.”
Simon was in the jazz and R&B sections by that time, cascading through 78s, 33s, and 45s, picturing big bands in studios with microphones hanging from the ceiling, and combos playing into reel to reels across the country, in garages and warehouses, places like Detroit and Memphis; Chicago and New Orleans. Before his daughter was born, he used to take road trips around the country to visit legendary recording studios. It was amazing to see where so much magic was made, in often unassuming and unpredictable spaces. How did they get that sound at Motown, in a tiny basement with a time clock on the wall? It was always the passion and the players, the human element.
A man next to him nudged and pointed, “Look at this, a Stan Getz 78, can you believe it?” He had a salt and pepper beard, deep creases under the eyes and a waistline too big for his black t-shirt. Probably in his sixties, but at that particular moment, his eyes sparkled like a teenager and his grin lit up with discovery and wonder. “I can’t believe it!” he shouted with glee. “Hey, Sam, where did you find this?
“Oh, I have many contacts,” Sam said, in the know and happy to be there. “It is pristine.”
“Why did someone get rid of it, I wonder?”
“Who knows? Maybe the man who sold it got another copy somewhere. Or he decided he needed the money. Or he downsized.”
Or he died, thought Simon
“Or he died,” said Sam.
The Getz lover went up front to buy the record. Thirty bucks, but to him, worth every penny. He stood in line behind a couple of college kids, boy and girl, each with a stack of records, all rasta hats, canvas bags and close spaces. Simon held the Police record and something by Al Green he didn’t have, but after looking at his watch and the growing line, he put them back and headed for the door.
Sam saw him out of the corner of his eye, while ringing up the couple. “You not getting anything today?” he asked
“I saw some interesting things and something for my daughter, but I have to run and pick her up. I’ll stop by tomorrow morning.”
“Okay, then. My niece will be here tomorrow, I have a surgery. But, she will be here. I never close.”
“Good luck with that. I’m sure you’ll sail through it and be back in the shop in no time.”
“It’s nothing,” Sam added. “Everything is nothing at my age.”
Simon and his daughter ate Mexican food that night, and she talked about her camp, the programming, and what she was learning about robotics, in practical terms. They were booked for a night flight home right after Friday’s competition, so they’d have some weekend time at home. Simon listened with respect at her native intelligence, her deep wisdom, and her enthusiasm for her studies. She was a joyous and mindful twelve years old and he hoped she would retain that joy throughout all her days and all her albums.
On Thursday morning, Simon dropped her off at camp, per usual, in an old factory repurposed for science and technology, including a museum and the robotics camp. The city used to be a textile center, home to cotton, paper, and cigars, and after a dip, was bouncing back into present. On the way back to the hotel, Simon stopped for a coffee and then pulled into the Groove Tone parking lot, anxious to pick up the Police as a surprise for his daughter. The lot was empty and the store was dark. He checked his watch. 10:15, well after opening.
There was a note taped to the door. The handwriting was as immaculate as the vinyl inside.
“To Sam’s friends and customers of the Tone. We are sorry but the store will be closed today, Wednesday, and perhaps, through the end of the week. Sam is very sad about this, as he has not closed in 27 years and it was expected that I would substitute. However, he has had complications from the surgery and it is important that my mother and I stay close to him during this time. We do not expect it to be serious and hopefully he will open again next week. Thank you for your love, patience, and prayers.”
Simon read the note twice, concerned for the owner, and sad that he missed the boat on the record for his daughter. Then, he got back in his car and drove to the closest drug store where he bought a get well card and a pen, writing something about how he was the man from out of town who came in with his daughter, visiting for science camp, and that while they’d only met twice, he enjoyed chatting and loved the shop, and wished him well with his recovery.
Simon slipped the card into a little space between the door and the frame, looked around the empty parking lot, and pulled a picture from his fertile imagination. He was disappointed, sure, but over the years, he’d learned something about which records to keep, which ones to let go of, and what happened when he struggled too hard to hold on.