Christmas Day, 1944
The office buzzed with quiet conversation and the whispering sounds of paper being stowed away and coats shrugged on, the sounds much softer than was usual. Where there were usually at least twenty-five desks occupied during the day and twenty-five women making going-home noises, today there were only seven, including Mary Katheryn. According to his secretary, who only stuck around long enough to impart their boss’s instructions before she packed up and left, Mr. Johnson sent out telegrams to all of his typists, demanding they come in for a last-minute client who needed the job done before the 26th. Mary Katheryn knew better than to believe that. None of the women who’d come in today had rings on their fingers – had families to tend to. Their Christmas Day was much more expendable than someone with children to worry about.
Sighing, Mary Katheryn dropped her last stack of finished sheets on a cabinet in Mr. Johnson’s office and took her glasses off, cleaning them with a handkerchief. It was late, much later than their usual dismissal, which meant that by the time she got home, she’d have to get straight into bed if she wanted to be able to wake up in the morning. Some Christmas. She’d looked forward to this day for weeks, decorated her little apartment with what she could, and planned on spending the entire day in her favorite pajamas and house slippers. Instead, she’d spent most of the afternoon and all of the evening doing the same thing she did every day: typing.
She couldn’t help feeling a little resentful.
A sudden rap on Mr. Johnson’s door made her jump and nearly startled her into dropping her glasses. Whirling around, she peered at the blurry pink and black figure standing just outside. “Coming out for coffee? Virginia knows a place that’s open a while.” Hooking her glasses back over her ears, Mary Katheryn looked past Frances Norton buttoning up her coat to see the rest of the women standing in a small cluster near the exit. Most of the women she worked with were older, or at least definitely older than twenty, and were either much more serious or much more flighty. She liked Frances, and Virginia, but they were the two she got along with best. No one else seemed to want her around much, and the idea of sitting in a shop listening to their gossip and having nothing to add was almost enough to make her face flush.
“That’s all right, Frances,” she said, stowing her handkerchief away as she moved around her out of the office and back to her desk. “I’ll stay here and get a head start on tomorrow.”
“You wanna be cooped up alone in this place on Christmas?” Virginia asked, raising an eyebrow. “This late?” Aware of all the eyes on her, Mary Katheryn smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
“I’m already here. You and the girls go on ahead, I don’t mind. I’ll lock up and everything.”
“Suit yourself, kid,” Frances said, offering her a small smile back, and with a short and disjointed chorus of “Merry Christmas,” and “See you tomorrow,” they trooped out.
As soon as she was sure the other women had left, Mary Katheryn slid off her shoes and stowed them under her seat. Curling her toes, she glanced around one last time to be sure there was no one to catch her, and then went to a low table toward the front of the room. On it sat a radio: a beat-up old thing that had seen plenty of better days, but it still did its job fine. Sometimes, when they were on breaks, one of the supervisors would turn it on low so that it hummed quiet under the buzz of conversation. She liked those days best, comparatively. A little music helped wash the unending click-clack of the typewriter out of her ears, even if only for a little while.
Mary Katheryn checked her watch as she turned the dial: about a quarter past eight. In fifteen minutes she’d have to fiddle with it again to catch the latest Rathbone episode, but for now she waited until she could hear a slightly fuzzy voice that slowly turned into the new song from that Judy Garland picture. She turned up the volume a little, only just louder than they’d play it during the day, and headed back to her desk. There was a little pile of unfinished work next to her designated typewriter, but instead she reached for her bag and pulled out a book.
Back in late November, her parents had sent her a package in the mail that was labeled in her father’s scrawled handwriting, Hands off until Christmas! She’d almost given in and opened it several times, but now she was glad she’d waited until this morning: it was Agatha Christie’s latest, and her spine tingled to finally have it in her hands. Nice new books were getting harder to come by these days, and even if part of her felt guilty that her folks had spent even a little money on her, it had been a while since she’d read something new.
Scraping her fingernails lightly across the pages, she sat down in her stiff chair and curled up as best she could. The music echoed lightly around her, the book smelled brand new, and it was probably warmer here than it was back in her little apartment (though not by much). She felt, for a few peaceful moments, content.
After a few minutes, Mary Katheryn’s eyes slid up from her book. Leaning forward, she put a hand on her chin and her elbow on the desk, frowning mildly towards the radio. This was, she had realized, the most content she had ever been inside this building. On her best days she was blessed with an almost apathy towards her job, where she went through the motions and mentally clocked out in the hopes that it would make the time go faster. On her worst days, she hated everything about it. She hated the boss, and the way he ranted and threatened and roared to get what he wanted; she hated the sounds of never-ending discordant typewriters clacking; she hated the other typists; but most of all, she hated the way it made her feel, coming to the same boring job every boring day to do the same boring work.
She had no right to feel that way, truly. She was lucky to be employed in the first place, and to be able to send a little money home every month and live in her own apartment, but she still couldn’t shake the feeling that secretly, if she thought about it long enough, she was desperately unhappy.
For a moment the radio warbled, catching her attention as the sound cut in and out and then slowly faded into a new song – “White Christmas.” Turning a bit to see out one of the distant windows, Mary Katheryn’s lip quirked a little at the snow she could see lazily drifting past. She’d never had a white Christmas before New York.
“Things will be better next year,” she murmured aloud, tilting her head. Lots of people were unhappy, for much better reasons than she had. She felt stuck in this place, sure, and had felt stuck for a while, but it didn’t mean she had to be miserable. She could always look for another job in a different office, although whether it would be much different was questionable. Maybe on her next day off she’d take a walk somewhere… somewhere like Broadway, where crowds still flowed thick and all the noise and lights gave her back that feeling she had when she first arrived in this city – that feeling of infinite possibilities, of being able to do anything and be anybody.
Checking her watch again, Mary Katheryn unfolded her legs and grunted her way out of the chair, going back to the radio and playing with the dials again. As soon as she was sure she was on the right station, she paused for a minute, and then decided not to go back to her chair. Instead, she sat down on the floor in front of it, the way she remembered doing as a girl listening to Little Orphan Annie, and pulled her skirt back over her knees.
“Things will get better,” she said again, leaning back against one of the desks and closing her eyes.
She had hope, anyway. That was something to be thankful for: a lot of people these days didn’t even have that.