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The Switchboard Operators

By Allison Clausen

It seemed like every time Helen returned to the telecommunications office, there were fewer women working and more calls to connect. The office was only slightly brighter than the dusk outside, illuminated by a few flickering lights that hummed above the rows of consoles. Each console had hundreds upon hundreds of jacks that made Helen’s head swim when she looked at them, and multicolored wires she tried desperately not to tangle.

“The only person who ever looked at her was Rose O’Neal, another woman at the  office, whose smile brightened the room more than the large industrial lights.”

She had started developing a callus on her thumb and index finger from the strain reliefs dragging across her fingers as she connected call after call, though she told herself she didn’t mind. It wasn’t like anyone was looking at her hands. The only person who ever looked at her was Rose O’Neal, another woman at the office, whose smile brightened the room more than the large industrial lights. The two of them had become something close to friends over the past few months. They had always known each other—they lived in the same area, ran into each other in shops or restaurants—but had only started talking when they started working. Not during work, as Rose connected international calls, and Helen was in a different room with domestic ones, but afterwards.

When Helen arrived at the office, Rose beamed at her from the position at the first console, causing their supervisor to snap, “That’s four more hours, Ms. O’Neal,” though Rose accumulated four hours each shift, so it was hardly worth saying.

Helen never smiled in response, keeping her gaze steeled forward. If she offered anything in return, she was bound to receive extra hours as well, and her shift wouldn’t end at the same time as Rose’s. Rose was only doing what she could to ensure the two of them didn’t have to walk the darkened streets of Providence alone, and though she had never said so, Helen appreciated it.

The supervisor’s eyes raked heavily across Helen’s face, but she refused to glorify him with so much as a glance. She moved to the next room, head raised, back straight, and set her purse down on a chair before the console, hanging her hat on the back. There was no use sitting down—there weren’t enough of them working the night shift, and Helen had to stay standing to sprint back and forth between each jack. There was only one other woman with her at the moment. But under their supervisor’s harsh glare, they weren’t allowed to speak. There was hardly time to talk, anyway, not with the constant ringing and connecting, over and over and over.

As usual, Rose and Helen left the office together that morning and stepped down the sidewalk in unison.

“That building gets so stuffy,” Rose complained, making a big show of taking a deep breath in through her nose.

Helen took a breath too and walked lightly in her heels. “It is,” she agreed. “Especially after being on your feet all day.”

“And never talking. Ugh!” Rose exclaimed. “You know, when we all started getting jobs I thought, ‘This is it. We’re finally going to be treated like men.’ But we still aren’t, are we?”

“I don’t want to be treated like a man,” Helen said with a scoff. “But I wouldn’t mind some decency.”

“They could at least let us talk,” Rose said, crossing her arms and tilting her head back. “Or smile, even. You remember Betty?


“Word is she hasn’t been around because they fired her for laughing. Can you believe that? Laughing!”

Helen shook her head in vexation. “I heard they’ll fire you if you get married.”

“Mm, I heard that too,” Rose said, “and that’s a real shame because I’ve had an eye on someone for a while now.”

“You have?” Helen turned her head to look at her. Rose was focused on something in the distance, something Helen couldn’t see. “Since when?”

Rose didn’t look back at her, fiddling with the bag around her shoulder. “Since we started this job, that’s when. Part of me got it to impress him.”

“Well, who is it? What’s his name?”

Rose shook her head. “I’m not telling until I know he and I are serious.”

“Oh, please,” Helen said. “There’s not a man at all, is there?”

The two of them fell silent, accompanied only by the noise of their heels on the pavement. The sun was just barely making its way past the horizon, a dim green peeking in between the buildings behind them. Helen’s house was only a block or two away, and Rose’s a little farther, but there was no way they were going to walk so long without saying anything, though what to say was troubling. Helen had a hard time imagining Rose in a life outside of their job, not that she couldn’t believe Rose wasn’t out and about flirting with men. No, the thought was entirely believable. But Helen never did anything like that. She went home to her parents, ate a small meal, woke up, ate again, and went to work. She hardly talked. She hardly laughed. She had no man to impress. Only twenty dollars a week, sore feet, and calluses.

After mulling it over in a few short moments, Helen broke the tension and asked, “They let that new girl wear skates.”

Rose’s hand on her bag fell still, and she glanced over at Helen, eyebrows raised curiously. “Who?”

Helen shrugged. “Think her name is Louise.”

Rose looked a little dubious. “What, she just skates around the place taking calls?”


“Could be fun, I guess.”

“I never learned.”

“It’s not too hard,” Rose responded, a smile starting to crinkle at the corners of her eyes. “I’d teach you if we ever had a second to ourselves. Heaven knows we need some fun around here.” The smile fell as quickly as it had appeared. “Did you hear about the girl in Boston?”

“Do you know how many girls in Boston there are?” Helen asked instead of answering.

“She worked switches, too,” Rose continued as if she hadn’t heard. “Killed herself last night. It was in the paper.”

Helen let out a heavy exhale, murmuring, “Can’t really blame her.”

Rose made a noise of agreement, then asked, “You wouldn’t though, would you?”

“No,” Helen said. “I need the money. Besides, I’d miss this.”

“Miss what? Taking calls?”

“No way,” Helen shook her head. “I’d miss talking to you.”

She had spoken before she even realized she was thinking it, and the thought surprised her. Now that it had been said, and the words were lingering in the early morning air, Helen realized speaking with Rose may be the only thing she ever looked forward to. It was starting to stump her, but she didn’t dwell on it too long, Rose’s voice cutting through her thoughts:

“I have considered leaving, but I wouldn’t go to any extremes or anything.”

Rose was full of surprises tonight, sharing more than she usually did, so Helen asked another question. “Why haven’t you?”

“Why haven’t I left?”


“I told you, to impress someone.”

Helen raised an eyebrow. “Well, is it working?”

Rose shrugged. “I’m not sure, yet.”

“I doubt anybody’s worth working this job for.”

Rose met Helen’s eyes for a brief moment. “Some people are,” she said.


About the Writer...

Allison Clausen is a senior Creative Writing student at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. Even outside of school, she spends most of her time writing, and has an appreciation for all genres. Her favorite genre to write is fiction.

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