It Won’t Be Long
Hal Morris stood, shoulders bunched tightly in a heavily collared coat, and fumbled with his key ring. First the padlock, heavy and frigid under his gloves, then the door itself. He let himself into the plant, stamping away the dirty slush rimed in the treads of his rubber overshoes. He felt for the light switches, and watched as his bay, then two beyond lit up in sequence. Hal and his crew traversed roughly four hundred square feet of the northern end of the Capitol Records plant in Scranton, Pennsylvania in a day, an expanse that was seldom adequately warmed by the plant’s furnace.
In the bay’s breakroom he began coffee, then walked back to his office, a pallid room adjacent the production line. The wire basket on his desk held but one stapled sheaf of papers. A memo, a work order, and (unusually) a packet of promotional material.
The first shift filtered in slowly, murmuring through scarves, wakening eyes and final cigarettes. After a few moments Hal collected his clipboard and mug and walked back into the breakroom for a sleepy head count. Eight stampers, two loaders, a runner and a couple guys from the dock. May as well get started.
“Morning,” he began. “Everybody awake? We’ll need to get right to it today. We’re just coming off Christmas, good job, but it’s about to pick up again. We need the rest of the Nat Cole, the Beach Boys, and yes, we are still gonna finish out that Kingston Trio run even though they’re going to Decca.” So far, no problem. It’d be a busy, though manageable Monday. Hal paused to top off his coffee.
“Got a new order, though, kind of a rush.” A few of the crew exchanged tired glances. “An initial run of two thousand—we’ll kick it off today, probably half the stampers—for a band called the ‘Beatles’.” He pulled the promotional material loose from its staple and passed it to the first table. “They’re from England, pop,” he said, then sat down on the edge of a table and awaited response. The crew passed the papers down the tables, glancing at the photo on top.
“The hell are they grinning at?” asked Scully, a jowly fellow from the dock. The papers made their way back to Hal.
“What’s the deadline?” asked one of the stampers.
“It ships this Friday, goes out next Monday,” said Hal.
“A week turnaround? With everything else?”
“Gonna put us behind,” offered a wiry loader, sighing.
“That’s why we’re gonna get on it. All y’uns, hey. You act like we don’t ever get stuff dropped on us.” He stood again, and the crew followed him out onto the floor. He assembled the stampers, who donned aprons and gloves, and then indicated the new plates hung in racks like gleaming silver moons. “Here they are,” he said. “Burned special this weekend,” then his four rightmost stampers affixed the plates to their presses and were underway.
A slim bottle-blonde named Tammy Wallace arranged a tray of labels into Side One and Side Two, placed a biscuit of vinyl onto her press and waited for the grumbling to her left and right. She stood between two fellow stampers who—if they weren’t complete malcontents—spent most of their time in high dudgeon. And here it came.
“…as if we’ve got time for this?”
“Surely they can get a third shift for some of this order? I need a little time this weekend. My boy’s right in the middle of his games.”
“Hmf. No gettin’ around it, I’ll bet. If they say we hafta, we hafta.”
Tammy steadily pulled away the gleaming specimens from her press, the black label against the black of the record and set off by the Capitol rainbow. It was a job, it kept food on the table.
Phil Franks, making his way through the plant toward the production bays, was less worried about the extra hours than about the woman who was now leaving her press, blotting at her neck and ready for a quick break. He worked for a local rack-jobber that helped with Capitol’s distribution during heavy workloads, and the plant was certainly running hot at the moment. Tammy dated him, though not exclusively, and he walked with her toward the break area, pulling a smoke from his shirt pocket.
“When will you know?” he asked, breath framing his face in the dim cold. She shifted on her feet and looked at the ground, then at Phil.
“Soon,” she said with little conviction. Phil nodded.
“All right,” he said. “Because the rumors are flyin’.” He took one slow drag and stalked back toward the building, cigarette into butt can, as Tammy stared after him.
The line moved through the morning, putting a decent dent in the order. Hal was pleased. He had good people, and they knew when he needed that little extra push. The bright, pale green cafeteria opened at 11:30, and was quickly filled with its first round of customers. Tammy’s two burdens, Jimmy and Irv, sat in the cafeteria and animatedly worked their way through slabs of meatloaf.
“Didja hear?” Jimmy asked Irv. “Phil’s got his hands full.” He shoveled in two bites then took a huge drink of his tea. “Tammy’s in the family way,” he reported.
“You really think?” asked Irv. Jimmy looked into his co-worker’s eyes and affected an air of confidence and ease.
“I know,” he said.
“That’s what you get,” said Irv, considering one last clump of potatoes atop the tines of his fork. This exchange didn’t go unnoticed, and a friend of Tammy’s leaned in from two tables over.
“You’re wrong. I can’t believe it. Why are you saying all that? It’s between her and Phil, and nobody’s even supposed to know about them anyways.”
“Ha! Shows what you know. She’s going with Phil and that guy from the art department.”
“So who cares?”
“I don’t. I’m just sayin’.”
“Well, maybe you should mind your own business.” Jimmy gave Irv a bob of the head. “Look who’s touchy on a Monday,” he crowed. The woman slammed her silverware onto her tray and turned to leave.
“Putz,” she spat over her left shoulder. The two smirked and shook their heads.
“Irv,” said Jimmy. “Gimme your roll.”
Phil was tapped for the first run.
The albums were boxed and sealed with the shrinkwrap on them barely cooled. Carton after carton, stack after stack of the same four guys, guys that could use a haircut, according to Hal.
Loaded, and following a few moments for the engine to warm up, he was off and clattering out onto the road. Two warehouses and three one-stops. It’d be a long day, but also a chance for some solitude and a chance to think. Phil’s anxiety was spotted with anger, and as he trundled down the road he realized that he was squinting. The sun had risen high, and was burning away a little of the morning’s haze.
He replayed the chronology in his head. Meeting Tammy, the few dates they’d shared, some of the guys they both knew—a couple of whom weren’t exactly tight-lipped about their affairs. There was no getting around it, though. He felt it deep within himself. The question of Tammy…of having a child with both of them all of 22, of figuring out how to make it all work, what shape it would take. The questions prodded at him.
He stared through the cab’s glass blankly. The road in front of him may as well have been the stone enclosure of a well, the bottom of which held his feet fast and from which he looked upward and out toward his receding freedom.
The sign for his exit jarred him back into his seat.
His eyes locked onto the sloping downward turn of the off-ramp, as his palm sat wet on the ball of the gearshift and began the sequence of downshifting. He stabbed at the clutch and then brake and made the exit, but halfway over the turn failed to straighten the wheel and punched into the frozen grass, coming to rest in a nimbus of powder.
He got out of the cab, shaken, and pulled flares from under the seat. These he snapped open and placed roundabout the rear of the truck. He skidded through the grass back toward the roadway and set off toward the previous exit, a mile and a half up the freeway, maybe two, his legs powered by thoughts of harried shipping clerks, irate production managers and 112 cases of potentially warped product. It fell to another driver (called in on an off-day and none too happy) to report to the dock, sign for a duplicate copy of Phil’s bill of lading, then make off eastward.
Jacket up and cap rolled down, Phil strode down the shoulder. Cars approached periodically, and a couple of them even slowed, but he waved them away thanks and trudged onward. Tammy hugged him close, brushed his neck with soft kisses and giggled a bit into his ear. She wanted…he realized…no other. She wanted him. A man who could go out into the cold, hammer out a living, hold her close, let her know she was special—a precious thing. If she’d love him thus, it followed that she’d love a child of theirs. A baby. Of his own. All at once it didn’t seem so distant, or even unusual. It seemed natural, and Phil smiled into his collar.
Jimmy and Irv prided themselves on momentum, on the ability to establish a rhythm of furiously ratcheting arms, deftly extracted product, racks filled and filled again. Nothing intruded on their efficiency or their imperative. By late Thursday they and their co-workers had seen to most of the initial order, and it felt good: a job well done. Tammy had been silent most of the day and now she finished a batch, took off her gloves and walked briskly away from the two, headed for the pay window. It was payday, with the promise of a good meal, a few drinks, some fun, and the crews welcomed its arrival. After a few moments she passed back through, headed for the breakroom, and she glanced briefly at Irv. He paused, his hesitation visible only as a brief turn of the eyes.
“She’s knocked up,” he said to himself in a mixture of conformation and wonder. “The bitch is knocked up.”
The plant manager, Philips, was short and barrel-chested, attentive yet preoccupied, given to excitability, so it was with relish that he collared an assistant, that man’s red-haired secretary, and a reluctant Tammy and swooped onto the production floor Friday afternoon, television camera crew in tow, beaming happily.
What gives murmured the production crew, as the cameraman set up and tested a microphone while the producer consulted a spiral notepad.
Philips gestured toward the nearest worker sleeving LPs on the line, a gaunt black man, and pointed at his stack of jackets, motioning for him to hand Philips two of them. These he was given, and he handed them to the girls, who were instructed to smile and hold them aloft. For their part, he and his assistant pulled something dark and shaggy from their suit pockets and placed them on their heads amid a wash of titters from the floor.
“The wild men of Borneo,” said someone, to which Philips cut his eyes briefly in mirth and said “No, no: they’re Beatle wigs!” The cameraman framed the shot, but then paused and looked over the top of his equipment and said “Shouldn’t you be…holding their hands?”
“Yes yes yes,” said Philips, gesturing accordingly toward his group. The two reconfigured themselves to hold the girls’ hands while they somehow brandished the album jackets, grinning maniacally after Philips’ lead.
The producer chuckled, raised his left hand for silence in the bay, then dropped his right to signal the piece’s start.
A frosty gray permeated the weekend, hanging full in the air, and occasionally worked itself into gusts before returning to its still watch under the distant sun.
Small numbers of people (although every kid) heard the song, and with each hearing propelled the news outward in thrill and wonder. Phil and Tammy heard it on their way to the diner, this insistent bauble, this bright nugget pressed into vinyl and leaping magisterially out of Chevrolet speaker grilles and tinny transistor radios into the ether of Scranton.
The two seated themselves into the diner’s rear booth, ordered coffee, then sat looking at each other across the checkered plastic tablecloth.
“How was the trip?” she asked.
“Coupla bad breaks. I almost jack-knifed, then put myself off into a ditch.” He shook his head. “Some deal: the big boys getting that news crew over to the plant.”
“It was strange.” The two shrugged and nodded.
“Baby, I—“ she began, but Phil reached across the table and took her hands in his. He smiled at her warmly.
“I’ve been thinking about it, you know—us,” he said. “One thing driving does…it gives you lots of time to think.” Tammy didn’t want to interrupt, but raised her eyebrows slightly and dipped her chin in query.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay. I started.” The coffee arrived, and Phil ordered sandwiches and fries.
“Oh,” he said, as he sat back, picked up his cup and searched for further words.
“Yes,” said Tammy with a half-smile. She picked up the pitcher of milk, poured, stirred, and waited for Phil’s thoughts. Phil peered into his cup with great interest and considered her words. He’d come to a conclusion in the cab and then during the walk, hadn’t he? Hadn’t he made a decision? That conviction, that certainty, it had been there, hadn’t it? Why would things be different now…they were the same two people. She was a good girl, as good as anyone he’d ever find, and he had no doubt she’d be a fine mother. She wasn’t going to be a mother yet, however. Not right now.
The food arrived, and as she salted her fries he looked at her, his face fixed in pleasant companionship, and sought to feel again the zeal he’d so recently drummed up. They sat and ate, fingers burrowing periodically into the folds of napkins to scrub away the griddle’s film.
Someone needed to say something.
“I still love you,” he said finally, as he finished his coffee.
“And baby,” she said, pleased and affectionate, “I love you.”
There it was, then. He’d kept it afloat, saved it for another day. There was time to think about it all. Maybe being tied down wasn’t the thing for him. Whatever the case, he thought, it was settled for now. For tonight.
He dug out some change for a tip, and stood to help Tammy on with her coat.
“We got that damn record out, eh, babe?”
Sales clerks fortified with pep-talk adrenaline prepared for the steady, if unspectacular weekly event known as Monday morning. They traded box cutters, magic markers and price guns for cash register trays and stools behind counters laden with displays and clutter. The radio played ads for local markets, weather reports dreary with frosts and flurries, the doings of the new president and so forth. It played the song: it played the band who sang the song, and the album from which it sprang, that record plunked by modest handfuls into the bins of the sales clerks. Crammed in here, perhaps, or dislodging artists in the “C” bins there, where they sat, unassuming, awaiting discovery.
As the day progressed:
– Harold Knotts, out in a biting Philadelphia afternoon was spending a little time at Snell’s Variety while his father was next door at Warminster Meats, purchasing hoagies. He turned the album over and over in his hands, taking in its excitement and bracing, exotic feel.
“C’mon!” yelled the clerk. “Buy it or don’t!”
Harold placed the album back in the rack and left quickly, pulling his cap on again over reddening ears.
– Vi Abrams, out and about at Pierre’s in Scranton with her mother due to a school closure deliberated between the bold black lettering on both the Beatles’ and Beach Boys’ LP jackets. Choosing the known quantity (and needing to go the bathroom besides), she handed the record to her mother with a quick, questioning smile.
– Syl Lucca, set loose in H.L. Gold’s in Manhattan with ten dollars in birthday money, looked over singles and albums alike, having as she did a brand-new record player and only the same old Paul Anka and Connie Francis to play on it.
She chose some new galoshes instead, white with pretty green stripes that matched her overcoat, and a heavy red scarf as a complement.
– Lettie Kram, ending a trip to Bargain Appliance in Parsippany with her father, picked up a copy of the album and read the back-cover copy, intrigued as had been Harold Knotts, until her father’s business was settled and he issued a brief “Now. Let’s go,” whereupon she left, back out into the chill, disappointed.
– Wendy Hirsch was sick at home in Brooklyn when her aunt suggested that a bit of shopping might perk her up. She wanted nothing from the candy shop, no toy, no piece of clothing. Wendy had heard a lot of commotion each afternoon on the radio, but she couldn’t place the name of the act in question. It was unusual, though—
–then, at Record Town, she remembered. Wendy liked the smell of the small store, the pictures on the wall and large placards lining the shelves. Here it was…Meet the Beatles, the band’s name spelled with an “a.” Odd.
It was the picture below the title that caught her eye.
Four young men, bangs cresting above their eyes like Tudor nobility, stared out in steely blue monochrome. She liked it: she liked them—especially the boy to the right, who seemed to be sharing a confidence. Whatever they sounded like didn’t matter. She took the record over to her aunt, who was flipping through Jack Jones singles, and held it out for inspection.
“Is this okay?” she asked. Her aunt looked the record over, reading out the song titles and bits of the copy on the back.
“Sure, sweetie. Aren’t they kind of handsome?” She reached into her purse and handed Wendy a five-dollar bill.
Wendy took the album to the counter and placed a pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint next to it.
Spearmint, she’d been told, made the stomach feel better.