Jumper

“There’s more than one way to do it, you know,” said Elizabeth.

She gestured with her drink toward the bridge, and I shrugged at the obviousness of her comment. Of course there were any number of ways to end a life, and on a cold, rainy Saturday like this, you might think the man clinging to the railing would have preferred a dryer method of exit. Standing beside Elizabeth at the glass doors to her balcony, I focused the binoculars for a clearer view of the jumper. He wore what appeared to be a gray sweat suit, and splayed against the equally gray bridge under a slate-colored sky, he had disappeared momentarily like a lizard camouflaged on a leaf.

“Just once I’d like to hear what the police are saying,” I said. “Do you suppose it’s anything original?”

“I doubt it. Toss another log on the fire, Anne.”

Elizabeth gestured toward the fireplace, an angry red mouth in the otherwise unlit room. It was four o’clock, and already the November afternoon was merging into twilight. But neither of us felt any desire to turn on the lights and brighten the apartment; it would have destroyed the mood cast by the weather and the scene outside. No, this was really ideal, lounging in Elizabeth’s stylish living room, a spread of cheeses and pâté on the coffee table, bar cabinet close at hand, and an unobstructed view of the bridge through the sliding glass door to the balcony. No need to put up with the push and pull of the crowd below.

I went to the fireplace and added more wood. Then I took a seat on the sofa, one eye still on the bridge. There had been little activity in the past fifteen minutes; the jumper seemed frozen in place, the police calmly trying to talk him down. Two squad cars blocked the lanes, and the traffic waited in stalled lines, drivers and passengers gathering to gawk. Elizabeth gazed on the scene, not saying anything. Not cooperating, I thought to myself.

“Well, I can’t think why you let Edna give the speech at the honors assembly yesterday,” I said, changing the subject to force her to speak. “There were parents in the audience, after all.”

Elizabeth downed her drink. “Exactly. Let them see what I have to put up with.”

“But it gives a bad impression of the school.”

“And of the teachers—which wouldn’t happen if you didn’t have a contract protecting the incompetent.” Elizabeth sneered. “Maybe after yesterday’s performance, the parents will go to the School Committee and demand the old coot be removed.”

She thrust her empty glass toward me, and I silently fixed her another drink. Her sniping at the contract rankled, though privately I and every other teacher agreed Edna Cooper was a growing embarrassment. In a simple opening speech she’d lost her place twice, mispronounced faculty names, and given the entire audience a glaring glimpse of encroaching senility.

“At least the smart parents know enough to put their kids in the other fourth-grade class, so all Edna gets is the dorks.” Elizabeth took her drink back to the balcony door and gestured impatiently toward the bridge. “Jump, you twerp.”

I refilled my wine glass and spread a cracker with foie gras. Elizabeth always had the best: caviar, Camembert, imported English crackers. She wasn’t eating much this afternoon. I shrugged and helped myself.

“All right, let’s talk about someone else. Rita? Helene? Bert?” I ran through the roster of teachers and staff—not that the predictable doings of our little school provided much to dissect. Though there had been the time a student teacher was caught in a closet with the visiting poet Elizabeth had obtained through a grant. The young man had fancied himself a romantic in blouson shirts and tangled hair; his odes left the children scratching their heads. But to the impressionable student teacher he’d been Lord Byron reborn. “Silly girl,” Elizabeth had scoffed, signing the letters of complaint against them. “If anyone had a right to him, it was me.”

She pointed now to the bridge. “Look, they’ve brought someone. Give me the binoculars.”

I hurried to join her. Down on the bridge, the police ushered forward a woman in a red raincoat. She held a black umbrella, and as the wind blew it back I saw a white face and long brown hair. She gave an impression of being pretty, but it was too far away to tell. The gray form clutching the railing lifted its head at her approach.

“Wife? Girlfriend? Sister?” I peered, impatient for my turn with the binoculars. Elizabeth’s apartment building gave a sweeping view of the bay, and in summer we could scan the water and observe the people in the marina on the point. The bridge was just to the north, a busy four-lane span, and in the three years I’d known Elizabeth we had witnessed half a dozen would-be jumpers, two of whom had actually dived in. The first time she’d summoned me to her apartment, I’d felt honored. “Come on over,” she’d said on the phone, “there’s something interesting going on.”  When I arrived and learned what she found amusing, I felt sick. But I didn’t leave, and by the third or fourth jumper, it had begun to seem ordinary and almost comic, like a silent movie watched from afar. In any case, there was nothing we could do to alter the outcome. Some jumpers we missed; they took advantage of the 200-foot plunge during school hours or after dark, and we had to be content with the media reports. Most, of course, let themselves be talked down. “They’ll be back,” Elizabeth would say.

“Well?” I demanded. She handed me the binoculars, and I adjusted them to my eyes. The woman in the red raincoat was holding one hand toward the man, talking obviously, but not yet resorting to dramatic pleas. Perhaps the cops had coached her to go easy. Her face remained indistinct, her hair and the umbrella whipping this way and that, and I remembered how gusty it could be on the bridge as the wind funneled up the bay from the ocean. Not a pleasant day at all, and by now the people in the backed-up cars must be steaming. By chance, I’d arrived at Elizabeth’s only minutes before the commotion began, and while I wanted to prolong the event as much as possible, on the other hand I hoped our man would leap before it grew too dark to see.

As if echoing my thoughts, Elizabeth spoke. “Jump, you fool! You’re already soaking wet.”

Her voice had an edge I’d not heard before, and I noticed her glass was empty again. Drinking a little much, aren’t we? I thought to myself. On the bridge the woman was beckoning gently, but the man had gone flat against the railing once more, this time in limp indecision. I offered Elizabeth the binoculars. If I kept her appeased, she’d be more likely to do what I wanted later.

“Did you make up your mind about Sam’s retirement dinner?” I asked, thinking that might be the cause of her bad temper.

“Yes. I’m going with Hal.”

“What?” For a moment I forgot all about the scene on the bridge. “Elizabeth, what are you thinking of? Sam’s been superintendent for over twenty years. He’s on boards all over the city. The mayor, the council will be there. And photographers…”

My voice trailed off as I tried to assimilate the news. Elizabeth’s choices had been whether to go alone or to be conspicuously absent from another important function, an option she’d been exercising increasingly of late. But to flaunt her married lover—I stopped, surprised at my own sense of scandal. Elizabeth studied the jumper, ignoring my shock.

“You can’t do that,” I said. “You talk about Edna getting fired, but what do you think will happen if you’re seen in public with Hal? There’s bound to be someone at that dinner who knows him or his wife. What are you going to introduce him as—a friend?”

Elizabeth shrugged.

“Surely Hal hasn’t agreed to this?”

“He doesn’t think anyone will spot us. His business is on the other side of the state.”

“But he’s well known, Elizabeth. Rumors will fly. Think how it sounds: an elementary school principal having an affair with a married CEO.”

Elizabeth shrugged again, and I felt a maddening rise of frustration. What the hell was the matter with her? This wasn’t the way our afternoon was supposed to go. We were supposed to please ourselves with food and wine, talk about life, pity the poor fools below. Then, if I maneuvered her properly, she’d let me take her to bed. Hal didn’t even belong in our conversations, damn him, and what right had she to jeopardize our relationship by opening herself to scrutiny? We should go to the dinner together—I’d said so from the start—perfectly natural for two women, colleagues, to choose the safety of car pooling to a late night winter event. For that matter we could round up any of the other faculty whose spouses were unavailable and arrive en masse. But to bring Hal…

“You’re trying to force the issue,” I said, “make him leave his wife. Do you really think she’ll let him go?”

“We’ll see.” Elizabeth handed me her glass. “Fix me another drink.”

I spared a quick glance to the bridge where the drama remained at a standstill, then went to the bar cabinet to splash ice, whisky, soda into the glass. Elizabeth raised the binoculars.

“Who cares what they think?” she said. “It’s bound to be another stupid, stuffy affair. Want to take bets?”

“On what? Sam’s retirement dinner?”

“On the jumper. I say he doesn’t have the guts to do it. It’s been what—forty-five minutes now.”

She checked her watch, then accepted her drink as I came to her side. Her jaw was set, eyes cool, face hard and taunting. She wore a lavender sweater and gray slacks, expensive like all her clothes, and her dark hair shaded with silver had the precise style of a salon ad. Subtly, not overtly, I’d learned to copy, molding myself for success. What benefit Elizabeth derived from our relationship, I wasn’t sure. Once, when I asked her why she’d never married, she’d countered with “Why did you?”, but at least my ten years of marriage and subsequent divorce diverted curiosity about my single state. As for Elizabeth, the conclusion in the teachers’ lounge was that her highness didn’t think any man good enough. Or any woman either, I could have told them.

“All right, I say he will.” I nodded toward the jumper and helped myself to the binoculars. The woman in the red raincoat seemed agitated now, her gestures more urgent. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, and suddenly my mind began to spin their story: she had rejected him, he was desolate, now she’d have to compromise herself to coax him down. She’d have to promise him a second chance and emotions that had already died. And even if it worked to save him this cold rainy day, Elizabeth was right: he’d be back.

“Don’t go with Hal,” I said. “At the very least, it will ruin your career.”

“What career? Don’t tell me you consider this the pinnacle of success?”

“But you could move up. You might have had Sam’s job if you’d applied for it.”

“I don’t want it. They’re all dead ends.”

I mulled her words. Not news exactly—she’d complained along these lines before—and half of me agreed that to wind up with twenty years as superintendent and a black-tie retirement dinner was less than a crowning achievement. But the other half of me disagreed. Damn it, I liked my job, I felt good about teaching little dorks to read and write, and I kept the valentines they gave me and returned their hugs when we said goodbye at the end of the year. And if Elizabeth didn’t value her position as principal, there were plenty of others willing to take her place. Including me. I stopped at the thought, then let it grow. Why not? I was qualified, dedicated, popular with the parents. As principal, I could set the tone for the whole school. I gazed at Elizabeth, beginning to count my advantages: eight years younger, more energy perhaps, a better compromiser, still in touch with the rank-and-file. If I had the position, I certainly wouldn’t endanger it by a foolish affair.

“Look.” Elizabeth motioned, and I jerked my attention back to the scene.

On the bridge, the woman was still pleading, but two of the cops had moved into the crowd. They seemed to be leaving, then they split, one right, one left, working in a semi-circle back toward the railing. Their dark uniforms eased through the press of spectators in the deepening grayness of twilight and rain. Slowly, they began to close on the jumper.

“They must think it’s time to act,” I said.

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “All it will take is one little slip, and gravity is on his side.”

For another minute we watched spellbound. The jumper’s head was turned toward the water, and he appeared not to see the cops approach. The woman in the red raincoat ceased her pleas; her arms fell to her sides as she awaited the outcome of the maneuver. Yes, do it, I urged, as the man gazed down at the lapping sea. You’ve held us all hostage to your despair. Now give us a thrill. Take the plunge. My pulse quickened in anticipation. Never before had conditions been so favorable, the position of the jumper, his lover, the crowd, so optimum for our view. Jump, you fool!

“He’s going to do it,” Elizabeth said with satisfaction, and I turned my head toward her in sudden intuition. She’d scorn anything she could have too easily. Once Hal was free, she wouldn’t want him. And it might surprise her to learn that he wouldn’t want her either. But if she was intent on jumping…I pressed my lips together.

“All right, go with Hal then.” I feigned an injured shrug. Let her think I cared. Once the scene outside ended I’d be leaving, and I wouldn’t be back.

On the bridge, the police were closing on their quarry. The man on the railing was almost invisible in the rain. Then suddenly a gray form launched itself, spread eagled against the empty sky. In silent agony it tumbled over and over, falling awkwardly toward the waiting sea.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1995)

Nexus, Volume 30, Winter 1995

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