She was the type to order warm ice; to demand clairvoyance from her subordinates—a peddler of flippant and negative feedback, unable to express expectations; a vision inarticulate, if one happened to exist at all. That’s who Toby was spending her evening with. She could hear the uproarious laughter, chatter, and music through the walls and the perforated ceiling tiles, rising in dull tones from beneath the beige carpeting. Holiday parties in full swing were visible through the lit windows of the offices across the street—ties hung loose, cheeks flushed. Yet Toby sat, the taste of glue thick on her tongue as she counted to 1,000.
Her boss was hosting an event for another promising candidate, who with her boss’s help would likely win. And with her boss’s help came Toby, whose happiness and wellbeing was second to the whims and wishes of the hand that snapped its fingers. The work was never hard, but it was made hard by how it had to be conducted; people with people think little of how they wield their power, and absolute power micromanages absolutely.
“I should have finished days ago,” Toby thought, licking an envelope and placing it sealed alongside 574 others. “First it was the arrangement of the guest list. Then she didn’t like how the envelopes bulged, after she ignored my suggestion to buy the ones that match the invites. And then there was the stamp fiasco,” Toby thought, letting out a sigh. This was the third batch this week. The repetition, piles of wasted paper. And now her holiday. Her boss entered the room, clearing her throat.
“Where are we on the invites?”
“About 400 to go. These don’t have to be postmarked until after the new year, right? The event’s not until March…”
“This needs to be done now! Any idiot can stuff an envelope, what’s your excuse?” The question hung in the air between them as Toby stared blankly at her boss’s face. “Her eyes look like flat tires,” Toby observed with satisfaction, licking another envelope.
“I can’t stay late again tonight.”
“You’ll leave when it’s finished, or you’re fucking done,” her boss croaked, coughing wetly into a loose fist. Catching her breath, she walked over to the rack that held her fox fur coat. “After the holiday I want us to think about how you can be more efficient. This is not OK. Remember, I’m like New York; maybe you just can’t hack it,” her boss said, raising two drawn-on eyebrows. She let slip a cloying smile thick with venom and walked slowly towards the door. “Merry Christmas, Toby.”
Toby was among the last to leave her building, and rode a nearly empty bus home through the snow, and thought about her boss: the way she entered a room and bent it across her lap; the arrogance of her demands; the miasma of perfume and opulence that thickened the air she touched. “I need another job,” she thought, stopping short to remember her liberal arts degree, her lack of experience. No one gets hired for having read Middlemarch, or for understanding the nuances between successive waves of feminism. While Toby admired a meticulously stocked and well-worn home library, such a quality never appears on an HR hiring rubric.
Feeling charmed by the snow, Toby got off a few stops before her own to walk the rest of the way along the lake. The city was bulldozing a new bike path, and the path was increasingly hard to distinguish beneath the accumulation. Toby stepped gingerly. “I never want to be like that,” she said aloud, startling herself. Toby had a habit of talking to herself, a cliché of living alone, but she tried not to do it in public. “I at least had somewhere to be. Friends; what about her?” The question hummed in Toby’s mind. She’d always been struck by how her boss’ personal life blurred with her professional one. Friendships watered like cash crops, mailing lists constantly in flux. Toby read all her boss’s email and caught glimpses of a vacuum at the center of a broad network.
She quashed a glint of empathy and focused again on the falling snow. Ahead, the path arced left to hug the lake around an outcropping. Toby followed it, turning her head as the skyline, buried in clouds, came fully into view. It was with her head in this position that she collided with a mass of fur clung fast with fresh snow. A familiar scent, a cough: her boss.
“I… I… what are you do—I didn’t see you,” Toby stammered. Her boss continued to look in the direction of the lake, away from the city lights.
“I used to take my children swimming here when it was warm,” her boss said, taking a drag from her cigarette. There was a pile of ash and butts half obscured at her feet; her coat resembled a different breed of fox entirely.
“It’s lovely in the sum—”
“My son used to scramble up the rocks on all fours, he was uncontrollable. He lives in Arizona now; much less water.”
“I hear it’s lovely ther—”
“We haven’t spoken in months,” her boss said as the wind picked up, swirling the fallen snow in eddies around their feet. Despite the sudden gust Toby felt a profound quiet to the moment ushered in by the candor. She and her boss never spoke this openly—distractedly even, as if Toby were a sounding board to her boss’s thoughts; much how Toby spoke to herself when alone, it was as if her boss took no notice of Toby’s presence, never once taking her eyes off the dark expanse of roiling water.
“I don’t remember…” her boss trailed off. The sound came out muffled, obstructed. She threw away the half-smoked cigarette with a gloved hand, the cherry extinguished in the snow. Toby held her breath. “Like a kite string… Arizona. I can almost picture it,” her boss said, turning towards Toby as she spoke. Their eyes met: Toby’s tearful from the wind, her boss’s glazed, pupils wide. Her boss tightened the collar of her coat and walked off, her steps parallel to the tracks Toby had left behind.
Toby tried not to drink, but kept a bottle just in case. She lit a few candles and switched on the four-color revolving lamp she relied on each year to make her drab apartment appear festive, a fire hazard from a bygone era. Much like decorations, Toby kept certain records squirreled away for December: a record, rather. “Say what you will about Phil Spector, but this truly is a gift,” talking to herself again, as she placed A Christmas Gift For You on the felt of her turntable. She dropped the arm and unleashed a wall of sound that rushed to fill the room. Toby poured three fingers of the brown liquid into a jam jar half full with ice and sat on the floor, leaning her back against a bookshelf as the aluminum Christmas tree by her window changed from yellow to blue.
“Well, Darlene, you got your wish,” Toby said, looking out at the heavy flakes. Of course she knew all about Phil: his aggressive artist motivation tactics, his penchant for gunplay. The murder. Yet Toby felt rocked to comfort by this recording; each time was like coming home. She poured another.
The soft glow of the room swirled with the brandy in Toby’s head. “Can a monster redeem itself? Aren’t we all just good and bad?” She said, fully animated now, her hands shadowed large in the revolving glow. The dull grind of the light’s motor filled the room as she fumbled the record over. Sitting down again, she sighed heavily, raising the jar to her lips.
“Time offers everyone a second chance, but it never promises forgiveness,” she thought, quietly this time. She was leaning fully into her night: alone on the eve of Christmas Eve, thawing her isolation steadily with every sip. She could feel a pang throb beneath the wash of brandy as she thought again about her boss’s gait disappearing into the cold night, her son off somewhere warm. Toby refilled her glass.
Did Darlene Love sing “White Christmas” down the barrel of a gun? Is this moment worth the fear she might have felt, the sweat beading between the notches of her spine as she hit each note just as she was told? Is success at any costs still worth celebrating—for the perfect take or a seat in the Capitol? Toby couldn’t keep pace with her thoughts as they began to spin, taking in the whole of the room, flashes of the day filed past in her mind like a row of stuffed envelopes. The record wound down, and the room nestled again into the soft hum of the light’s motor. Toby slowed her breathing to its rhythm, and drifted off to an image of confetti and faces, and stacks of ballots disappearing into the ceiling overhead.