He wanted to know he could return to a predictable life. My husband John insisted on the purchase of our row home before he left for the war in Vietnam. He was not drafted like many men were. Instead, he proudly enlisted. He was my sun I orbited around even in his two-year absence. The key to our house reminded me of him and his plans for when he returned. The small row home in Baltimore, Maryland was on a quiet street, filled with moms and children. Every weekend I would crouch down alongside my neighbors and scrub the marble stoops. The mailman hovered over me one Saturday, his outstretched hand clenched a Western Union telegram from the Secretary of the Army. He said to me in a slow voice, “Oh, Patti. I’m sorry.” The airstrikes started, and more of our boys were being sent home. Mothers and wives fell silent when the mailman made his rounds. Russian roulette. Where will he stop? That day it was me.
As a war widow, I was expected to be brave and march on, but I was also openly pitied. Forced to ask John’s parents for money, then my own, was humiliating but necessary. Both helped me for several months but it was clear, I needed a job. Poor John, I know he would have hated the idea of me working, and truth was I did not want to work. Even with a degree in English Composition from Goucher College, I had never practiced writing outside of school. College was a status of social class in my family. It was not intended for us girls to do anything with the degree.
John and I were introduced to each other by our parents during my senior year. He encouraged my writing as a hobby and found it endearing. My heart ached. It was never supposed to be like this. We were to be like every other occupant on the block. He working and me staying home with the children; the children we never had a chance to have.
My mold was broken. Unsure of my other options, I decided to pursue a career in writing. There was only one game in town worth going after, The Baltimore Sun. In recent years The Sun had expanded into several markets, including developing offices overseas in Rome and India. Working forced me to go against John’s plan. I was a traitor.
I felt the full weight of his absence as I dressed for my first interview. Using my parent’s money, I bought new stockings and a purse to match my white shoes. The style dress was shorter than I thought appropriate for a widow, but I was not taking any chances, I didn’t want to come across as uptight. My bob was quaffed with enough Aqua-Net to hold up in a hurricane. Out the door, I went.
The Baltimore Sun’s building was enormous and busy. Like an ant at a picnic, I tried not to get squashed. Everyone buzzed with a purpose and had an air about them that made my heart race. I was lost, stupid; I felt sick and turned to walk away when someone linked their arm around mine.
“Hi, friend. Where you headed?” A girl with long flowing locks of red and a short brown dress turned me back towards the entrance.
I stumbled, “…I have an interview with Mr. Nelson.”
“Ah ha. Fresh meat,” she laughed short but wide; I could see her molars. “I’m kidding. Well, kind of. Watch out for his…never mind. Hey look, I’m Susan. I’m a research assistant in the newsroom. That’s where Mr. Nelson is too. I’ll take ya there.”
She whisked me away. I was on the Susan ride, linked at the elbow. Honestly, I would have run off if not for her. Susan became my ally and the best friend I needed.
Mr. Nelson looked to be sixty years old, though I’m sure he was much younger. His office filled with cigarette smoke and smelled of brandy. His hoarse voice pounded on my shoulders with each barking order. I was hired on the spot and sent to work immediately as a print editor’s assistant for a group of grumpy old men. The title was loose as I later found out. Often Susan and I would find ourselves doing everything from research, interviews, copy, editing, writing, and jumping as high as anyone told us to jump.
It was a hard job, but it was my job I had earned. Mr. Nelson would call me into his office to blow off steam about something or another. Sales, lack of content, recants, and the war were all revolving fuses. His wife, Milly Nelson, was a significant topic of conversation. Three days into the job I was introduced to Milly. She wore a mink coat even in July. Her boobs were pushed up and separated so harshly I wondered if they had their own weather system. The heat would begin to peel away the layers of her makeup when she blotted the white tissue turned beige. Susan and I called her Mrs. Hot Dog, and she treated us like personal assistants.
In time, I began to love the newsroom despite my previous thoughts on owning a career and my boss. I swam in chaos with a pride. The flurry of men talking in ways I didn’t hear men speak outside; woman clicking away at their typewriters, phones ringing and being slammed down, shouting, laughing, the occasional crying. I loved the scene and being part of it. The smell of cigarettes burned the air, masking what lay beneath, which was salty paper and inky chemicals. When I worked late into the night, the smoke cleared, and I felt the silence in my bones. It brought me closer to John. I would talk to him alone in the newsroom as I sat typing final copy or making edits. The tap of each letter echoed, and my fingers tap danced the night away. Leaving meant going back to my empty home.
John. How I still missed him. The key to our home reminded me of his American dream. Though over time the key taunted me with the life I would never get to live. Even with his fashioned ways, John meant well. After almost a year of trying to hold myself up to John’s plan, I began to realize the rest of my life couldn’t be carved around his ghost. Coming to these terms made his death real all over again. I knew I had to let him go. I cried harder than when telegram marking his grave was put in my hand. It was time for me to live without his presence, and it terrified me.
I was not alone, I had my family and Susan who was like a sister to me, even when she met a fellow who had proposed marriage. She insisted she would continue to work and he agreed. I was happy for her but hated myself for the jealousy that beat in my chest. Alone, I was stained with the war widow title that so many of us carried. I wanted something else.
Thinking about next steps did not come naturally. Though with time I determined my goals were to ask for more pay and for my name to appear under my work, which was not given. Several women wrote and co-wrote articles only to have their male counterparts receive the credit in print. It took me days to practice my delivery for Mr. Nelson and build the gumption I needed to face him.
Staring at myself in the mirror I practiced, “Mr. Nelson. It is a pleasure to work here, and I have put in a lot of great effort with the newsroom. I would like…NO. I need a raise to continue. Furthermore, I want my name printed under the articles I assist and write.” My reflection bore back at me loud and confident. I wanted to be the Patti in the mirror all the time.
The next morning with my chin held high, I marched into Mr. Nelson’s office prepared with my speech. Another news girl was sitting in front of his desk, tears streaked her face. My expression dropped as she rushed past me her burring her face in her hands. I looked at Mr. Nelson who acted as if someone told him today would be the perfect weather for golf.
“Patti. What can I do ya for,” his grin stretched over his creased cheeks. He tapped a cigarette on the desk and then lite it. Nodding to offer me one; I shook my head.
“I’ve come to talk to you about my work.”
“I see. Well close the door and come in.”
Closing the door always felt like I was betraying my senses as a woman. Being shut off to the outside world with Mr. Nelson, I felt like a mouse in the snake’s cage. It would not stop me today, I belted right into what I rehearsed.
“Mr. Nelson. I have been working here for some time, and I feel I deserve a raise and credit where…”
“Patti. Patti,” he threw his hands up in defense. Standing he walked over and put his hands on my shoulders. The cigarette in his hand came dangerously close to my hair, the smoke’s warmth filled my ear. “Sweetheart look here. I like you. So I’m going to see what I can do. Favor? Don’t go mentioning this to those other girls, okay? I’m sure we can work something out quietly.” His hand with the cigarette remained planted on my shoulder, while the other grazed down my sternum and around my waist towards my bottom. Before he could squeeze, I took a step back.
“Yes, sir. Thank you for your time.” I forced a smile and left the room. My face burned, but I bit back tears.
At lunch, I unloaded on Susan. It all poured out; missing John, living my own dream, the men taking our credit, our boss the creep. She squeezed my hand and said, “Patti, what is it that you really want here?”
“I want to be empowered! I want credit. I want a raise. I want my boss to keel over.”
“Okay. I have a radical idea on how to get you at least one of those things. What’s your maiden name?”
“Your name is Pat Peterson. When you write an article, sign that name. It’s a man’s name! No one will know, there are hundreds of writers here. Then one day when you’re ready, WHAM! You confess, and the credit is yours.”
Her idea was far out, but the paper could print 60 pages some days and articles were jammed in tighter than sardines, I took a chance that no one would notice. I tried it that very day. It was a small article on Attman’s deli and their famous corned beef sandwiches. The line to get into Attman’s was circling around the block; Baltimore was head over heels. It was a small article but destined to be read.
I walked across the newsroom floor, article neatly typed in-hand with Pat Peterson as the author. I dropped the piece in Mr. Nelson’s inbox and stared. The metal bin seemed to sway, and the floor felt like it was tipping to the right. I nearly fainted. My nerves were doing me in.
That night the sheets on my bed tangled around my restless body as I tossed. At 4am the phone startled me. Only having one phone, I ran downstairs to catch it.
“Patti! Did you see it! Pat Peterson is published!”
“Unreal. That’s just…unreal.”
“You did it…” her voice followed the phone to the ground. With numb hands and a bottomed out jaw, I shook my head. Then I noticed, sitting on the table was the key to the row home, only for the first time, it represented my dream and not John’s.