Ada had heard the song for the first time last winter. She was still living in New York then, and working at the bookstore where the freeform radio station was always on. It was okay for the radio to play whatever it was playing because people expected to hear difficult music in that kind of bookstore, and it was okay because the volume was low enough that to anyone other than the person working the register the radio was little more than a vaguely rhythmic hum. The store was open until 11 every night, and during the final hour customers rarely came in. Ada would turn up the volume on the radio and refresh her email every five minutes and resort, ultimately, to reading the newspaper, despite all the books in the small, well-curated, jumbled bookstore, but unlike books with language worth noticing, the newspaper was all eye-reading. All she had to do was direct her eyes to the left side of the column, and the lines of black newsprint did the rest. It was the right kind of reading for listening to music because if she got taken with a particular song she could stop paying attention to the article for a few lines and her eyes would keep tracking. Nothing in a newspaper article was so surprising that you couldn’t tune out for a few lines and still get the gist.
When the song came on the radio, Ada stopped paying attention to the article she was reading. It was a completely predictable song for her to be into. It was exactly like the other songs like it that she was a sucker for: the drummer who favored the rack-tom and snare, the cool-bored bass line, the singer female and British or British-sounding, no guitar until one riff sharded in halfway through and then it was as if it had always been there. Ada had listened to the entire song and then gone back to reading an article about an old dive bar down the street that was going to be destroyed when the Atlantic Yards got developed. She planned to pay attention when the DJ came on to back-announce the playlist. But then an actual customer had come in, Matthew, a regular, who wasn’t as creepy as he had seemed at first, and he wanted to talk to Ada about Levinas, and another thing Ada did in that last hour was indulge customers’ conversations because conversations, even those that were mostly one-sided, made the time go more quickly. So Matthew had come in and started talking and she’d turned down the volume and forgotten to listen to the back-announcing, and then she’d forgotten about the song, in the midst of pulling in the dollar-book carts and grappling to close and lock the roll-up gate and considering whether it was worth it to trek up to Williamsburg for Sammie’s birthday drinks, which had gotten underway two hours ago. She had enough cash to call a car and get there faster, but did she want to?
Of course, Ada had no idea if the night she’d first heard the song had been the night of Sammie’s birthday drinks (which she had, of course, called a car and gone to, pushing her way through the packed bar to the corner where her friends assembled, already drunk), or whether the article she’d been reading that night was about the Atlantic Yards or the demolishment of that particular bar. And who knew if that was a night that Matthew had come in and if that was the night he’d wanted to discuss Levinas, who Ada still hadn’t read, but she loved the sound and look of his name, and that he was French and Jewish and Lithuanian, or he was Lithuanian but wrote in French. And she knew, from Matthew, who really had seemed creepy at first but soon clearly wasn’t, he was just smart and old and lonely, that Levinas had a whole thing about the face, something about how the face represents the other and also the other’s vulnerability, so the face is always saying, in a way, take care of me. That’s what Ada saw the cute kind old French-Lithuanian face of Levinas as saying, from the cover of the book that had come in on a major haul from a Philosophy PhD-dropout, and the book had been out on the shelf for less than an hour before Matthew found and bought it. It was also no revelation to remember the night she’d heard the song as one when she’d grappled with the gate and the chain and the lock, because that was what always happened. She’d bring in the dollar-book carts and print out the Z-tape and turn off the lights, and she’d leave and lock the door. Then she had to reach up for the metal pole-hook and un-loop it from the top of the metal chain so that she could pull the chain, hand-over-hand, to bring down the metal roll-up gate that covered the front of the store. The hook inevitably got tangled in the chain, or she looped the hook through the wrong link of the chain for proper alignment with the lock because she wasn’t tall enough to reach the right link, and at that hour neither the salon to the right of the store or the bodega to the left were still open and anyone could have come up behind her and forced her to give up her wallet and phone or, worse, forced her to reopen the store and hand over the cash from the register inside, as well as some of the more expensive books. Some books were really expensive. The particular trouble Ada had with the gate highlighted her non-commanding height and shoulder breadth, as well as her lack of dexterity, and so she felt like an extra vulnerable target. The bookstore was still standing but in the short time since Ada had been gone from Brooklyn, the developers had razed the old dive bar down the street and whatever other businesses and homes they’d needed to and started building the stadium and the rest of the Atlantic Yards, and from what Ada had heard all of her friends who had raised a mild stink about it were now looking forward to going to basketball games at the new stadium.
Sometimes when Ada was walking from her new apartment in Northampton, Massachusetts, to the bus stop, the song made its way back into her head—not the whole song but the rhythm and its overall feel, and the only line she remembered was “I’m trying” or “I was trying,” which was obviously too generic a lyric to look up online to find out the song’s title and artist. It didn’t bother her that she couldn’t remember the rest of the words, and she had made up her own version that went, “I was trying, I baked a cake, I was trying, I baked a cake,” and the staccato way she heard the line was the perfect evocation of a floppy failed cake that in a movie one character would make a big deal of baking to win another’s affections, and it would fail miserably, the crowning glory of a meal gone wrong, but the couple would fall for each other anyway, have sex in a pile of collapsed cake and burnt spaghetti, whatever. The cake version had become the song itself, the tunelet that insinuated itself into a certain lilt of walk Ada must have sometimes affected. So it was surprising that Ada had been standing still, flipping through records at the shitty record store on Pleasant St., hoping to pre-spend the 50 bucks she’d get paid to DJ at the Palace that night, when the song’s full refrain came back to her. She was flipping through the 20th Century Classical section, because she’d already exhausted the sections that might contain records she could actually play out at a bar at the first installment of the monthly night the bar manager had given her, which she was provisionally calling Falling Out of Context, and it wasn’t a dance night but 20th Century Classical would be pushing it. If it had been her third or fourth month at the Palace, she might have felt comfortable playing a short set in tribute to RobertAshley, who had just died, and whose records she might have found in 20th Century Classical if this had been a better store. She loved Robert Ashley primarily for a song she’d first heard on the freeform radio station in which a voice repeated the phrase “She was a visitor” for almost six minutes, a little wind-tunnel sound in the background. Something about the repetition or the stilted delivery made it so that the emphasis fell less on the duration of the “visit” and more on the visitor’s impending departure. At home she only had Robert Ashley on CD, which felt like entirely too shiny a medium for a lonely song like that—though lately, in the face of MP3s and other music that lived only on the computer, or on the phone, Ada had started to reconsider CDs’ relative materiality, and she’d begun to let herself love them a little, to make herself believe that it would be so hard to part with them, and she’d kept her CD collection intact and lugged it up to Massachusetts, in addition to all her records, to crowd out the slope-ceilinged attic apartment she’d rented, sight unseen. It was bigger than her apartment in New York but not by as much as she’d expected. While she was unpacking, the hippie neighbor from across the hall had come over to introduce himself, pet rat on his shoulder, and asked, “Do you really listen to all those records?” Ada had given her usualreply: “Not all at once.” This record store was deeply shitty, fluorescent-lit and incense-smelling, and Ada let herself inhale and settle into the whole thick cloud of disappointment. Then the full line from the song she’d first heard at the bookstore sailed into her brain.
The record store was in a half-basement so she had to go up to the street level to get a signal on her phone. She entered the remembered lyric, found the name of the song right away, and went and asked the record store guy, who had heard of the band but said, without looking it up in the inventory, that he was sure they didn’t have anything by them. There were a few other, slightly better record shops in the Valley, but the DJ gig was only a few hours away, and Ada still had a ton of reading left to do for Media and Society, she shouldn’t have been wasting time record-shopping at all. Ada had thought that library school would feel like a full-body immersion in a rangy torrent of information, but instead it was a dry amalgam of the arcane and the vapidly technological, with unending assignments to create a “finding aid” for this or that. They were told on the first day that they should understand from the get-go that not everyone could be an archivist. Ada left the record store without buying anything and went home instead of back to the café where she should have stayed to study, and at home she used Google, the most famous finding aid of all, to search for an MP3 of the song, just to hear it. It took two seconds to find it and download it from a site that shared uploaded versions of rare post-punk singles. The song was exactly as she’d remembered it. Ada listened to the song a few times in a row, drinking a cup of her favorite tea. The tea tasted like dirt, in a good way. The song reminded Ada of the bookstore—or not reminded, nothing that organic, it made her think about the bookstore, and then about how crazy it was that it had been almost six months since she’d left, another manufactured thought. Ada had thought she’d dream forever about her nightly struggle with the metal rolling gate and the hook and the chain, but now she couldn’t remember the exact order of the steps involved in closing and locking thegate, or what precisely it was about the process that had been so frustrating.
Ada clicked to play the song again. It would be a really good song to play at the Palace, dancey enough to keep the mood up without being a concession to actual dance music. The song was a perfect version of something, though the thing it was a version of wasn’t perfect itself. That precarious balance of shamble and structure was what made the song work. Ada listened hard. Whoever had uploaded the song had done it from vinyl, and she could sense, if not hear, the needle’s occasional pop and skate. Forcing herself into a pose of disinterested curiosity, Ada looked up the record on eBay, and found the original single selling in Sweden for $35, which wasn’t a completely outrageous amount to pay for a record you’d been dying for, even a single. But had she really been dying? It was moot, even the fastest air delivery, even a drone couldn’t get a record from Sweden to Massachusetts in three hours. Ada saw the sleek black plane whistling over the Atlantic. Then she tried to unsee it, it was only a fucking song.
Though Ada knew she had been asked to DJ at the Palace with the expectation that she would play mostly if not exclusively vinyl, she also knew that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she went and got out the cord and put the song on her phone and brought her phone to the bar and hooked it up to the mixer when the time came. She loosely told herself something she knew about unproductive fixation versus being in the moment. Ada got up and got the cord and plugged it into its holes. She clicked the checkbox on the screen to load the song and went over to her shelf and started pulling other records. The feeling of the night, she decided, would be “deceptively upbeat,” in both senses of the phrase. She considered various nodes of deception: drumbeats flat as cardboard boxes, high-melodrama lyrics, Frankie Lymon, trapped forever pre-puberty. She checked the computer and the phone to make sure that the song had properly transferred. She pulled Dusty Springfield and “Hungry, So Angry” and let herself begin to get mildly psyched for the DJ night, for the particular muscles it would allow her to exercise. Ada texted Elo and Danny to remind them to come out—they were her favorite people in library school, both so sweetly determined to become archivists—and, fleetly sidestepping her better judgment, texted Xtina. She wrote “if you feel like it,” erased it, and wrote “if you’re free.” Their date three weeks ago couldn’t have been as awkward as she remembered it.
Ada pretended to do schoolwork for another half hour, then packed her records into crates and heated up some soup and ate it. With her tongue she felt the smooth bottom edge of her top front tooth. A week ago she’d misgauged the density of a bite of baked potato and come down too hard on the fork, chipping off a flake of enamel. The next day the chipped spot looked yellow. In the dentist’s waiting room Ada had gotten ready to be as insistent as she needed to that she didn’t care about the chip cosmetically, and that she only wanted to do something about it if there was anything more insidious that could come to pass in her mouth if it went untreated, something related, perhaps, to the question on the intake form that asked: Do you want to have all of your own teeth for your whole life? The dentist had taken a whirring tool to her tooth for 30 seconds, smoothed down the chip, and not charged her for the visit. If she’d still been in New York she would have walked around for months, maybe forever, with a chipped front tooth, out of the hassle of getting to the part of the city where the dentists were, and out of fear of how much the visit would cost. She’d have looked at her reflection in shop windows she passed to see if a chipped tooth suited her.
Ada spooned her soup carefully. The Palace was another of those half-basement spaces a few steps down from the street, a way to make a space feel secret without making it difficult to find. She would get to the bar right on time and load in her crates. She would see if she could talk the bartender into letting her trade in her drink ticket for a Makers, though it was supposed to only be good for well drinks, and she would get her Makers neat and sip it while she started her set off with long songs that were slow and spacey, a rumble or scrape here and there. People would come, not because of her but because people came to the Palace on Fridays, because it was Northampton, Massachusetts, and there were only so many places for people to go, and around 10:30 or 11, when the place was full, or certain people had gotten there, she would move into music she had come there to play, building to the song that was her centerpiece. She couldn’t match beats or eyeball the groove that held the microbe of silence before the track launched in—she couldn’t and didn’t, it wasn’t her thing—but she’d handle her records with the easy efficiency of a teen boy slinging pizzas, tipping them from their sleeves, blowing off the dust. She’d build up to the songs with glassy angles and cardboard-box beats that were dance songs for the forever undextrous, pennies of songs with their shine rubbed off, songs that were rakish and bold in their imperfections, and it wasn’t about whether anyone in the room was paying attention to the specific songs Ada played, if they’d heard or heard of any of the songs before, but about the shell the songs built for her, or the coat, the skin, the way she wore them. The songs fabergéd her into a version of herself.
It was quiet in Ada’s apartment and, as was often the case when it was quiet, she heard what she thought was her neighbor’s rat scratching at the wall, the rat’s spawn escaped and gone feral in the walls. She pressed the spacebar to play her song again. She should get up and get the RCA-to-eighth-inch cord she’d need to connect the phone to the mixer. She should get up right now, before she was done eating, and find the cord and put it in her bag so she wouldn’t forget it. She sent the song back to the beginning and strained to hear the surface noise of the original recording. She could see herself up on the raised DJ platform, switching the mixer input from Phono to Line. She could see someone seeing her squinting in the glow of the phone’s small screen, tapping at the screen to pull sounds from the ether. Across from the DJ platform were couches where couples nested on un-awkward dates. The song hadn’t played through but Ada clicked it back to the beginning—it was still a good song—and got up to find the cord she needed. The cord was in a plain wooden box somewhere. Since she’d moved to Massachusetts and had more space, she’d started collecting small wooden boxes that ranged in size from matchbox to cigar. She had many more boxes than she could possibly fill, not that she bought them to fill them.
Sara Jaffe’s first novel, Dryland, will be published by Tin House Books in September 2015. Her short fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She co-edited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata.he is also co-founding editor of New Herring Press, a publisher of prose chapbooks. She lives in Portland, OR, where she teaches creative writing at Reed College.