Myrna Athena
Louise Marburg

 

“Did you see that?” Myrna says in that voice of hers, a raspy screech just short of loud. She’s standing by the floor to ceiling window at the south end of the office, the one with a partial view of the river. We’re on the 10th floor, and my cubicle is four rows in, so obviously I can’t see much. I keep on working as if I haven’t heard her, but her face is in my line of sight and I can see she’s plenty agitated. I’ve always thought she looks like her voice: frizzy red hair, dowel legs, sharp little elbows, pre-teen breasts. She wears sweaters on top of sweaters – “sweater sets,” my wife says they’re called – even though it’s sweltering. They crank up the heat from September through May, then the air-conditioning kicks in and we freeze all summer long.

George Wild is the first to pop up from his cubicle, a chinless Jack In The Box. “What?” he says. “See what?” Then heads are popping up all over the room. People are walking over to the window.

“A man just now jumped off the top of the building across the street. I saw him do it! I was standing here enjoying the view and finishing my yogurt from lunch.” Myrna holds up the empty carton, exhibit A, as if what she was eating has anything to do with it. “He came out of that door beneath the water tower and went off the edge of the roof right there.” She presses her forehead against the window, her nose-breath fogging the glass. “There he is on the sidewalk! Oh my God, how awful.”

“So much blood!” Elaine Yen says. “It looks like he’s floating in it.”

This is too much for me. I have to get up and look. I squeeze through the group and stand in front of the window.

“There,” Myrna says. She doesn’t need to point. It’s obvious. A crowd has already gathered. The guy is lying on his back, enclosed in an amoeba of blood. Otherwise he looks strangely unharmed. I imagine him standing up and walking away.

“He jumped?” I say stupidly.

“Well, not really, that was the odd thing, he didn’t actually jump. He sort of strolled off, as if he didn’t realize the roof ended there.”

“How sick,” says Gervaise Hoff. “You watched a man kill himself.” She’s Steve’s secretary, or assistant, or whatever they call it. I don’t have one myself. She loathes us all, that’s obvious — and her job too, because she’s always threatening to quit. She’s wearing acid green tights and tiny orange skirt, her golden hair shining like a kid’s in the sun.

“Well, what was I supposed to do, Gervaise?” Myrna says. “Cover my eyes? It happened in a flash.”
An ambulance and a few police cars arrive. The crowd is encouraged to stand back. The paramedics zip the guy into a bag and heft him onto a gurney. The ambulance drives away without a siren, its red light rotating sluggishly.

“Show’s over, folks,” Steve says. I could do his job with my hands tied behind my back, but that isn’t the way things work. Cheerful idiots run whole divisions and hang on until retirement, while the really competent people are the first ones to be laid off, or be fired if they’re unpopular. He tells Myrna to take the rest of the day off, so she puts on her fuzzy plaid overcoat and leaves, and the rest of us go back to our cubes.

___

I tell Frances about it as soon as I get home. She’s a nurse and works nights, so she has just woken up and is flipping pancakes for her breakfast. She doesn’t know the people in my office, but she’s heard enough about everyone to follow the stories I bring home.

“Myrna said it seemed like he didn’t do it on purpose,” I say. “He was walking across the roof and he just kept walking – ‘strolling,’ she said – as if he didn’t see the edge.”

“That’s absurd,” Frances says. “Of course he knew what he was doing.” She frowns at a pancake she’s scooping off the griddle. “Unless he was blind. Was he blind?”

“He got up to the roof by himself.”

“He probably had decided to do it and didn’t want to pause and think about it anymore.”

“That makes sense,” I say. Frances always has an answer to whatever question is posed. When I married her she was whippet-thin and so articulate as to be intimidating. She has plumped up considerably since then, but she’s still smarter than anyone I know.

“If I were to kill myself, I wouldn’t jump off a building,” she says. “Too much time for regret going down.”

“You would never kill yourself,” I say.

“True. But a lot of mentally ill patients come into the hospital, so I know how badly a person can suffer in their mind.” She takes a bite of pancake and talks through the food. “People take their lives every day.”

“If you had seen this guy lying on the street, you wouldn’t have believed it. I didn’t know there was that much blood in a body.”

“Ten pints. But an accident victim, like your man on the roof, can require as much as ten times that to be revived. That is, if he’s not already dead, which I assume your guy was. More than five stories is a fatal fall.” That’s the kind of information she knows from being a nurse in an emergency room.

After Frances leaves for the hospital, I heat up a Lean Cuisine and turn on the TV in the extra bedroom we use as a computer room and den. There’s no reason for me to feel mournful, I didn’t even know the roof guy, but I’m not interested in my usual TV shows and I can’t settle down. I keep imagining it was me who stepped off the edge of that roof. Looking down at the guy from the 10th floor, it was impossible to make out his facial features, but I could see he was dark-haired, like me, and he was wearing, as I was, a suit and tie. Like a million other men, I remind myself; like practically every guy in my office. Still, it gives me a shock to realize that someone who, at least superficially, wasn’t so different from me, would choose oblivion over the pleasures of life, however small those pleasures might be.

I go to the computer and Google “man jumps from roof downtown.” A lot of useless garbage comes up, so I go to the website of the local newspaper and type the same words into their search box. I figure it’s too early for anything to have been written because I don’t get any matches. In the morning the story will be on the front page, and everything about the guy will be revealed: his name and occupation, his wife’s name, his kids and siblings and parents. “Survived by,” as they say in the obituaries, meaning the guy’s next of kin, though it occurs to me that if you’re dead you’re “survived by” every living thing on earth from elephants on down to algae.

Since I’m at the computer anyway, I Google Myrna. I don’t expect to find anything, but her phone number and address come up under her bizarre full name: Myrna Athena Bierce. I attach my Bluetooth to my ear and tap her number into my cell. Either she has just hung up from talking to someone, or is expecting the phone to ring, because she answers immediately in a pert phone-answering voice even though it’s after ten.

“I’m fine,” she says before I ask. “Yes, I was very shaken up this afternoon, but everyone has been so nice, calling me to see how I’m doing. It’s always helpful to be able to talk things out when you’re feeling upset.”

I mute the TV, then turn it off altogether. “People from the office have been calling you?”

“Oh gosh, yes. Steve and Elaine, and George, of course. He’s such a good man, George. Harrison in Marketing, and Melissa from Reception. Why, I even heard from Gervaise!”

“Gervaise! What did she want?”

“She was sweet. She apologized for speaking thoughtlessly. She said that death ‘freaked her out,’ and I can well imagine why, what with her brother killing her father on the family farm that way.”

What way?” I say. I don’t know jack about Gervaise, but the last thing I would have suspected about her is that she grew up on a farm.

“Her brother ran over their father with a combine harvester. He was backing up and didn’t see their father standing behind the machine, and their father was looking the other way and didn’t see it coming. Gervaise’s brother wasn’t checking the rear view because he assumed he had a clear path. Gervaise saw it happen. Terrible. We had a long talk about it.”

I didn’t realize that Myrna is so popular with our colleagues. I assumed she was universally annoying. I can’t tell if she is surprised to hear from me. It’s me who’s surprised to hear who else has called, and even more surprised at myself for calling.

“So you’re feeling okay now,” I say.

“Well, I wouldn’t say okay! I’ll be thinking about what I saw for a long time. I can’t understand what would make a person do that. And then seeing him on the street. He didn’t really look dead, I thought.”

“That’s what I thought too! I even imagined he might still be alive. I wonder if that’s denial. My wife thinks I’m in denial a lot. Like when the plane went into the World Trade Center? I thought, oh, they can fix that. Here’s all this black smoke billowing out of the building and I’m like, it’s not that bad. She says because I watch so much violent TV, real traumas don’t affect me very deeply.”

“Oh, no,” Myrna says. “I know that’s not true because you wouldn’t have called me if you weren’t upset by what happened this afternoon.”

“I’m not upset. I called you to see how you’re holding up.”

“Honestly?” Myrna says. Her voice is truly screechy.

I get up and walk into the long narrow hall off the den that leads from the kitchen to our bedroom. Frances is always talking about hanging photographs on the walls, but we’ve owned the house for two and a half years and haven’t done it so far.

“Okay, I admit I’m preoccupied by it,” I say. “The guy…well, he kind of looked like me, and I keep imagining he is me, or rather I’m him, jumping off the roof. I can’t help wondering about his life, you know? Like was he married, did he have kids?” I look at my fingernails, which need clipping. There’s a pen mark on the ball of my thumb. Sometimes I doodle on the palm of my hand, though mostly I doodle on paper. A little known fact about me is that I majored in Art at college.

“Do you have kids?” Myrna said.

“No,” I say, and add, “Not yet.” Why I say “not yet” I don’t know, because we don’t plan to have kids ever. One of the things Frances and I have in common is we both had horrible parents. Mine were raging, angry alcoholics; hers were neglectful and abusive in turns. Neither of us can stand the idea of reliving a particle of our childhoods through being parents ourselves. “Another thing I wonder is what he did, what his job was. Did he like it? Was he successful? Or did he wish he did something else?”

“Like you,” Myrna says.

“Like me what?” I’m in the kitchen by then, looking in the fridge for something to snack on. It’s what I always do, eat hardly anything for dinner, then get hungry later and gorge myself. Frances knows this, plus she likes to eat, too, so the fridge is always bursting with food. There’s a chicken in there that I pull a leg off of. I spoon a mound of chocolate ice cream into a bowl. I’m getting fatter and so is Frances, but we aren’t fat enough yet to gross each other out.

“You wish you did something else,” Myrna says. “Don’t worry, it’s not obvious, but I have always sensed that your heart’s not in your work. If you could do anything you choose, what would you do?”

That’s a no-brainer. “I would move to Italy and paint for the rest of my life.”

Myrna’s delighted. “Oh, imagine!” she says. “Grapevines on a hill, dark cypress trees. A stone house.”

“With an arbor and a pond. And I would eat pasta every day.”

“Perfect,” Myrna says. “And your wife? What would she do? Grow roses and have babies?”

This stops me. Frances has never figured in my Italy fantasy. She would hate living outside the U.S., for one thing, and she goes to her job at the hospital every evening with a bustling determination that shows she can’t wait to get there.

“My wife is very practical,” I say. “And truthfully, we don’t plan on having kids.”

“I didn’t think so,” Myrna says.

“Why do you say that?”

“You told me once that you’ve been married for six years. If you were going to have children you would have done it already.”

“We still can.”

“Absolutely you can.”

I take my ice cream and sit in the dark living room. Sometimes I wish we had children, especially during the holidays. Frances and I go to the movies on Thanksgiving and usually take a cruise between Christmas and New Year’s. If I liked my job, I might not think about it – I know Frances doesn’t – but it’s lonely sometimes, not having any family.

“It isn’t a very original fantasy,” I say. “But that’s what I would do if I could. What about you?”

“I would live in a hut on the beach in Goa and swim in the Indian Ocean every day.”

“Goa?”

“It’s a town in India on the sea. I’ve always wanted to go there. They have wonderful diving, I hear.”

“You scuba dive?”

“Yes, I got my license a few years ago. It’s great fun, you should try it.”

I put my feet up on the coffee table and imagine Myrna scuba diving, moving slowly down and down through green water glittering with colorful fish, her skinny legs scissoring and her frizzy hair floating, her freckled face obscured by a mask.

“I never learned to swim,” I say. “My parents didn’t teach me and I didn’t go to camp or anything. They were assholes, my parents. I don’t know how to ride a bike, either. They taught me how to make a martini, though.” Suddenly I want to make a martini. I go back into the kitchen and get out some gin and vermouth and find a Tupperware pitcher to use as a shaker.

“Let me tell you how,” I say as I pour the gin into the Tupperware and follow it with a splash of vermouth. I dump in a load of ice.

“How to make a martini?” Myrna says. “I know how to do that. I learned from a bartender at the Waldorf when I lived in New York.”

“Bullshit!” I say. “You lived in New York? I always wanted to live in New York.” I put the top on the pitcher and shake it.

“Only for a few years. I had a ball, but I was ready to come home.”

There’s plenty left over even after I pour myself a generous drink. I take the glass and the pitcher back to the living room.

“Okay,” I say. “You have to tell me. How did you get your middle name?”

“I found it in a book of Greek myths when I was a child. Athena is the goddess of wisdom. I liked it, so I gave it to myself. My middle name was Lynnette, which I hated.”

“Myrna Lynnette,” I say. I make a face.

“Exactly,” she says, as if she can see me.

The martini is smooth and I’m enjoying it, but I’m such a lightweight that it’s going straight to my head.

“I think you made the right choice,” I say. “About the name.”

“Yes, I think so too. It’s certainly a conversation piece.”

“I forgot how much I like martinis. I made a whole pitcher of them.”

“Well, don’t drink it all for goodness sake! You’ll feel terrible tomorrow morning.”

The thought of tomorrow morning makes me want to break something. Lately, preparing for the day has become a chore so dispiriting that I have to force myself to open my eyes. I can hardly find the energy to squeeze the toothpaste onto the brush. The shower takes ages to warm up while I hop around naked on the cold tiles, and instead of using a wash cloth, Francis makes me “exfoliate” with a loofah. She wants me to put on moisturizer, too, which I never do; the time it takes to wash, and then dress, my widening body is about as long as I care to think about it. Because I don’t read the paper, I listen to the news on the way to work. Francis loves the news, nothing happens that she isn’t up on, which is the reason I turn on the radio, to have some idea of what she’s talking about. I probably should have married an ignorant woman who doesn’t care about soft skin, because the morning news and exfoliation are two things I can live without. Another thing I’d like to eliminate is riding the elevator at work, because if there is anyone in there who I have to talk to, my mood goes from gloomy to crap.

Now I am getting tipsy; two martinis are my limit. My parents would drink five or six of them before they crossed the threshold to crazy. Then they’d go at each other like fighting cocks, and at me, too, if I didn’t escape. Later, they would pass out in places that made me wonder what they’d been doing: halfway up the stairs, or on the kitchen floor, and once in the front yard, side by side on their backs. That time I had to revive them in case they froze to death overnight, but usually I just left them where they lay, only to wake up the next day to my mother frying eggs and my father eating them as if they had never said a cross word to each other.

“I always feel terrible in the morning,” I say. “Maybe if I drank martinis every night I’d feel better.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” she says. “I don’t take you for a drinking man.”

“What kind of man do you take me for?” Never in my life have I wondered what Myrna Bierce thinks of me, but now I really want to know.

“Truthfully, I don’t know you well enough to say what kind of man you are. I only want to keep you from drinking too much and coming into the office with a hangover. Alcohol is a depressant, and you are sad enough, don’t you think?”

“Sad!” I’m astonished. “You think I’m sad? You’re the one that’s sad.” I sit up and put my drink on the table beside me. “A sad old maid is what you are. Goa! Right. Like you’ll ever get to India. What a crock. I really feel sorry for you.”

“Oh, now,” Myrna says. “I’ll forget this conversation ever happened, and I’ll see you at the office tomorrow.” Politely, she says goodnight and then the line goes dead.

It takes me a moment to understand that she isn’t there anymore. Every now and then I fly off the handle and act like a prick for no good reason. Frances thinks I can’t help myself because my parents were that way. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is her stock cliché. I could say the same about her because she isn’t the most loving person in the world, but Frances has a whiplash tongue that I go out of my way to avoid.

I redial Myrna’s number and listen to it ring, then pour the rest of the martinis into the kitchen sink and go back to the dark living room. I wait there, doing nothing, listening to my wristwatch tick. Around three o’clock I call Myrna again, and she answers in a sleepy voice.

“You’re right,” I say. “I am sad.”

“Of course you are,” she says.

I ask her to talk to me until the sun rises, so I won’t have to wake up in the morning. She says she will, and she does: we talk about everything that enters our minds. Francis comes home around five o’clock and is alarmed to see me up.

“Is that your wife? Well, then I’ll let you go,” Myrna says, as if she’s the one keeping me. But I don’t want her to let me go. I want to hang on forever.

 

Louise Marburg is a graduate of the MFA Program in Fiction at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She has been published in Redbook, River City, The Crescent Review, Prime Number, and forthcoming in Labletter and Reed. She has been a contributor at the Sewanee Writers Conference and is a member of the community of writers at Squaw Valley.