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By Steven Fromm

Even before Hall settled into his chair he looked out his window and saw that Mary Tyler Moore’s office was dark. He called me in. I didn’t feel any honor in that. I was just about the only one left.

“She’s not there,” he said.

“Maybe she’s late.”

“She’s never late,” Hall said. “In at 7:45. Sharp.” He didn’t turn to look at me, but sat hunched forward in his chair, elbows on knees and staring straight ahead as if willing her lights to come on.

“Maybe she took the day off,” I offered.

“On Wednesday?”

“Right,” I said, “she only takes off Fridays or one week at a time for vacation.”

“And vacations are the first week in July and Christmas week,” Hall said with the conviction of a priest citing a few lines from Exodus on the construction of the Tabernacle.

It wasn’t Mary Tyler Moore’s office, and it wasn’t Mary Tyler Moore. It was an office on the 8th floor of the building across 30th Street from ours, a replica built by the same firm some 20 years ago. We were on the 8th floor as well, directly across. It was as if we had an unobstructed view into a parallel universe.

The woman we called Mary Tyler Moore had moved into the office across from Hall’s about 18 months ago. No one could remember who she replaced, and we really didn’t care. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, with straight, dark blonde hair, more than enough to transform a bunch of bored, middle-aged male office workers into voyeurs.

Hall started it off, of course, then clued me in. McNichol was next, followed by Sullivan, Peitras, Saidt, Weissman, Mullins and Perkins.

We were like a fan club, but with a different purpose. We didn’t try to find out anything: her name, position, circumstances. Nothing. There was just an outline, and it was up to us to fill in the narrative. I guess the purpose was distraction.

Starting with the name. You’d think we would have made the connection straight off. We were all old enough to remember the series, or at least the reruns of the reruns. But we had help from Eight-Week Emma, a kid fresh out of Rutgers who started in the News Division of our office a few weeks before Covid triggered the quarantine. When we finally returned to the office, she lasted six weeks before getting caught in the cutbacks. She received her pre- ordered box of official business cards on the very same day she was summoned to HR for her official termination.

Emma hadn’t yet learned the unwritten commandments of the laid off, and showed up at the office about three weeks later to visit office friends who had almost forgotten she’d worked there. Amid the aimless chatter about exhausted severance, unemployment checks, unanswered resumes and the nauseating realm of daytime TV, she mentioned that she’d joined the She Just Might Make it After All Club, a group of recently-axed young women who banded together for support in the despairing wasteland of the jobless.

No one could figure out what to say to her as she chattered away, a ghost among the living, but we did know what to do with the accidental inspiration.

After she had a name, MTM came alive through a kind of daily pantomime that we recorded and debated: her breakfast ritual of herbal tea and a raspberry Yoplait (we could see the packaging); the way her posture went rigid when talking to a client on the phone, but slumped back in her chair, one leg tucked under her, twirling her hair as she chatted with a friend.

There was the brief infatuation with yoga, her little yoga matt sticking jauntily out of her back pack as she marched out the door. Then there was the mid-week pub crawling that led to hangovers so palpable Mullins alleged he felt woozy as he watched her delicately sit down at her desk, pasty white, blouse uncharacteristically untucked in back.

We even catalogued her wall art, which seemed to change every few months. She started with two large Thomas Hart Benton prints: People of Chilmark and Burlesque. Then she went through a feminist phase, a mini-Mount Rushmore of portraits: Martha Gellhorn, Susan Sontag and Gertrude Stein. These were eventually replaced by urban photography, which were tougher to identify, but Perkins finally tagged them as works by Zhou HanShun, Fernando Sanchez and Andrew Mace.

“Zhou HanShun?” Peitras asked. “Our young lady is growing up.”

All of it bits and pieces, hieroglyphics of movement and idiosyncrasy gathered like warm matter and sculpted by our hands.

Two of MTM’s office mates, women about the same age from down the hall—Mullins called them The Rhodas, named after Mary Richards’ sidekick on the show–would stop by on Friday mornings, coffee mugs in hand. They were no doubt exploring the potential of the approaching weekend: bar hopping, brunch, strolls through the produce stalls along Union Square. Sometimes the talk was clearly animated, all of them laughing and leaning in close.

This triggered speculation of a different sort.

“It’s a boyfriend,” Perkins declared.

“You think she dates?” Mullin asked dryly. He seemed offended.

“I think she does a lot of things,” Perkins said.

“You always think everybody does a lot of things,” Sullivan said.

“Mary Tyler Moore didn’t,” Peitras said.

“You mean the real Mary Tyler Moore or Mary Richards?” I asked.

“Mary Richards,” Mullin said. “She never dated.”

“That’s bullshit,” Perkins said. “She dated plenty.”

“I didn’t mean she didn’t date,” Mullin said, “I mean she didn’t date, if you know what I mean.”

“Aren’t we being delicate,” McNichol said.

“What’s wrong with a little delicacy?” Sullivan asked.

“Nothing’s wrong with a little delicacy,” Perkins said. “She’s a little delicacy.”

“Watch your mouth,” Sullivan warned.

There was at least one breakup.

Or at least it looked like a breakup: her office door closed as she held lengthy conversations on her cell phone—not her office phone— followed by quick hang ups and long, still silences, elbows on desk.

“Is she crying?” Weissman asked.

“Maybe. Are there shoulder shudders?” Hall asked.

“What’s a shoulder shudder?” I asked.

“You know: get angry, get ready to cry, try and suppress it, then you see the shoulders kind of shudder. It’s a shoulder shudder.”

“This isn’t Bette Davis,” Mullins said, “this is Mary Tyler Moore.”

The three of us stood at Hall’s window, not directly in the center but a bit to the side—we weren’t complete fools—and watched in silence. It took about 90 seconds, but we saw a slight movement of her shoulders, something more like a shiver that seemed to start on her left side and shimmer over to her right.

“I’ll be damned,” I said.

“And you,” Hall said, glaring at Mullins, “owe Bette Davis an apology.”

I can’t say exactly how long this went on. I sure can’t say how much we got right and how much was the flotsam of imaginations churning away day after day. But I do know it worked. Or at least it helped.

We all knew what was creeping up on us. Every ring of Hall’s phone added to the cluster of empty cubicles and desktops that spread out like trenches deserted after battle, littered with abandoned company calendars, stained coffee mugs and scattered constellations of yellow Post-Its. We were journalists, and journalists were going extinct. Covid had transformed a steadily eroding situation into an outright conflagration. The layoffs kept coming. Round after round. Members of our little clique were spared in the early going, but we knew it was just a matter of time. There was no place to go and nothing we could do. So we took turns loitering in Hall’s office, gazing out his window. It was a great diversion, until it wasn’t. Hall noticed it first. One of the windows at the end of MTM’s floor suddenly went dark.

“I think it’s Rhoda One,” Mullins said.

“Which one was One?” I asked.

“The blonde,” Mullins said

“Shit,” Perkins said. “I liked the blonde.”

It indeed was Rhoda One. Rhoda Two, the brunette, the one fond of tiny floral cardigans, still made the daily pilgrimages to MTM’s office. But the light, giggly atmosphere was gone, and Rhoda One’s office stayed dark.

It spread at an exponential pace from there. Next was the window directly above Mary Tyler Moore’s office, on the 9th floor. We had no idea who had been there, but there always had been a light burning from 8 til 5. Now it was like the dark side of the moon. Then it was one below, on the 7th floor, and two offices over.

Another office on 8 was next, three down from MTM. We all knew the choices were narrowing, so we hoped for something that seemed unimaginable just two weeks ago: for Rhoda Two to go under the bus. I guess it’s a reflex that comes with survival. At least that’s what we told ourselves as we fought the self-loathing.

Rhoda Two’s office went dark the next Monday.

Every week brought with it another Friday massacre. The window next to MTM’s, then another two doors down from the other direction lost their light in quick succession. We all stood there, the dry, bemused comments thinning out to silence. It was like some kind of distorted mirror reflecting back our own world.

And then it hit home.

The first to go in our group was Mullins. Peitras was next, followed by McNichol. Saidt and Sullivan were called in at the same time. Perkins saw the handwriting on the wall and quit, sacrificing the unemployment checks and severance for a sure thing at his father-in-law’s printing shop.

The dirty work was left to Hall. His phone would ring and he’d be summoned up the internal staircase to the 9th floor where some VP from HR would give him the names. No one knew how they were chosen. We were just names on a list.

Hall, accompanied by someone from HR, would call the latest victim into his office, mumble his way through a corporate script and watch the pall creep across their stunned faces. He ended each one by sliding an HR packet across the table. At that point it was the only noise in the room. They were like toe tags for the corpses.

I was just about the last man standing. I have no idea why. And there Hall and I stood, staring across 30th Street at MTM’s dark office.

“Did you check out what she had on her wall the last week?” Hall asked.

“Not really,” I said. “Mullins was the guy who usually tracked the art.”

“She went back to Benton,” Hall said, looking up at me. “Just one. I Googled it. The title was Burning Barn.”

“Quite appropriate,” I said. I peered back into her office. From what I could make out, the walls were bare.
“Do you think she was sending us a signal?” Hall asked. He wasn’t looking at me anymore, but back across the street.

“A signal?”

“You know,” Hall said. “Her way of making some kind of joke out of it, like a gallows humor kind of thing. But sending it over to us.”

I looked down at him. Hall had never been much on sentimentalizing. That’s why the VPs chose him to do the dirty work. I guess things can change when the circumstances get bad enough.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s possible.” Even though I knew it wasn’t. But I could tell it was something Hall wanted out there, and he wanted it left alone. So I left it alone.

We were silent for a few minutes, and then Hall mumbled something.

“What?” I asked.

“Her name,” he said.

“What about it?”

“I know it,” he said, looking up at me from his seat. “I found it out.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just looked at him, waiting.

“Do you want to know it?” he asked.

“No,” I said. I didn’t even have to think about it.

Hall didn’t say anything else. He sat at his desk, chair swiveled toward the window. I’m not sure he was even looking at MTM’s office anymore. He just seemed to be staring through the glass.

I went back to my desk and started sorting through papers, though it didn’t seem to matter much. McNichol had been my boss, followed by Perkins. Hall was the only one left in a supervisory position in my little division, and my productivity didn’t seem to be a priority.

I was surrounded by empty cubicles. The nearest live human being, beside Hall, was Gibbons, a copy editor, but he was well beyond ear shot. I gave him a little wave, but he didn’t nod back. It was like I was invisible.

I decided to chew up more time by playing Wikipedia Drift. I’d just let my mind wander until a name popped up, then look him or her or it up on Wikipedia. Yesterday it was Frederick March, Myrna Loy and Dana Andrews, because I’d recently seen the end of The Best Years of Their Lives on public TV. Today maybe I’d concentrate on people who’d died suddenly or mysteriously, like Pete Duel, James Dean or Joe Kennedy Jr.

I was five minutes into Pete Duel when I sensed someone reading over my shoulder. I thought it might be Hall, but it was Gibbons. That made sense. Gibbons was the quiet type. He didn’t enter a space, but just seemed to appear. He was so close his protruding belly was nearly touching my elbow as he peered over his smeared spectacles at my screen. He knew what I was doing. Just about everyone in the office was doing the same.

“Pete Duel?” he asked.

“The one and only,” I said. “Bet you a buck you can’t name the series he was in.”

“Alias Smith and Jones,” Gibbons said. He didn’t miss a beat. That’s the thing with copy editors. They know the oddest stuff.

“You are correct, sir.”

“But why are you reading about him?”

“He died mysteriously.”

“Not really,” Gibbons said. “He shot himself.”

“There you go.”

“But that’s not mysterious. He was depressed or something. So he shot himself.”

“He had a hit series, was doing quite well, and then all of a sudden on Dec. 31, 1971, he just caps himself?”
“That’s still not mysterious,” Gibbons said. Gibbons was the type who didn’t care much for any interpretations other than his own. Gibbons was not a popular man.

I deleted the page, turned and looked up at him. “Is there anything I can do for you?” My tone was as dry as parchment, but such theatrics were lost on Gibbons.

“Hall,” he said. “I need him to look over the Bateman column.”

“Hall is most likely in Hall’s office.”

“Hall is not in Hall’s office,” Gibbons said.

“Maybe Hall is in the can, or maybe Hall is getting a cup of coffee,” I suggested.

“Hall is doing neither. I think Hall is gone.”

“Then wait ‘til Hall gets back.”

“No. I don’t mean gone. I mean gone.”

We looked at each other for a moment, Gibbons still hovering close. I knew what he meant. Gone as in gone.

“I’ll take a look,” I said, getting up.

“What about the Bateman column?” Gibbons asked, stepping back to give me room.

“Send it to me,” I said as I walked toward Hall’s office.

“And what about my dollar?” Gibbons said.


“We bet a dollar. On Alias Smith and Jones.”

“I’ll send it to Pete Duel’s widow. She needs it more than you do.”

“He wasn’t married,” Gibbons called after me. “He only had a girlfriend.”

Copy editors. You can’t get anything past them.

Gibbons was right. Hall’s office was empty. It was more than empty. It was vacant. His coat was gone, along with all of the personal artifacts and detritus that collects on someone’s desk over the years like substrata from an archeological dig. The photos of his wife and children, the paper clip puppy made by his youngest girl in art class, the miniature baseball bat that some intern had bought for him after a visit to Cooperstown. All gone.

It took me a little less than a minute to take all this in, and maybe 90 seconds to realize that I’d probably never see Hall again. I wasn’t surprised. If you have anything remotely resembling normal DNA there’s only so much you can take. You pack your paper clip puppy and head for home.

I walked to the window and looked down at the intersection of 30th and Madison and the steady stream of people passing through. There were always so many, an inexhaustible flow no matter what time of day. I only got to see them for about 200 feet or so before they disappeared from my view, disappeared forever, but that didn’t stop me from wondering where they were headed, what they were
carrying in all of those bloated backpacks and most importantly what they were thinking. Not generally, but just within those 200 feet. What would their thoughts sound like? Would we hear splinters of bedlam or some kind of unified melody? I’d vote for a melody, a sound that lit up the spheres. Something soft and intricate, a sound we’d never heard before but instantly knew was smoothed and sculpted by the hands of some creator. It would give us the feeling that we were part of some plan, some design, some kind of direction that would eventually give us good reasons for why we have to live in fear, for why we’re stripped down to nothing but one urgent little prayer, like some kind of mantra for the new century: Please don’t push the button that sends me out onto the very street I’m looking down at from Hall’s desolate office.

I just stood there and let the thoughts coast through my head. It was kind of a relief. I didn’t have to answer anything or make any decisions, and I didn’t have to leave Hall’s office and go back to my useless little cubicle and a room filled with echoes. Echoes and Gibbons.

That’s when I saw a shadow in MTM’s office, a quiver of movement. I moved closer to the window and peered across 30th. There was someone in there. At first I thought it was a secretary or intern sent in to clean out the last remnants of MTM’s existence. It wouldn’t be a replacement. No one was hiring that fast.

It was a man in a blue shirt. He eased himself behind MTM’s desk and sat, his back to me. He was motionless for a full minute or more, seeming to stare into the dark screen of MTM’s cold computer. Then he reached out and touched it with his fingertips.

It was Hall. As soon as his fingertips hit the screen, I knew. He’d somehow conned his way past the building security to get up to her office. I moved into center view of Hall’s window and tapped on the glass with my knuckles. It was more out of instinct than any real expectation that he would hear me. I thought of opening the window, but remembered they’d been sealed shut for as long as anyone could remember.

I didn’t move from the middle of the window. Hall would eventually turn around. He’d want to know what his window looked like from MTM’s vantage point. That’s what I’d want to see. I’d stare over from the opposite side of 30th Street and think of how Perkins or Sullivan or Mullins looked all those months ago as they peered through our little portal and waited for some tiny detail to be rationed out by the happenstance of MTM’s life. It wouldn’t matter if they had no idea what was going on. It never did.

Hall turned and noticed something to his right. He stood up from the chair and walked out of view, then came back a few moments later, moving in front of MTM’s desk toward the far wall near the door. He was carrying something. His arms were raised up and out, and then went slightly down. Hall was hanging something up. When he was done he sat back in MTM’s chair and looked straight ahead, as if surveying his handiwork. Then he suddenly swiveled around and faced me. Our eyes locked. Just like that. I waited a beat, then did the only thing I could think of: I smiled and gave him an anemic little wave.

He shot back a full grin and spread out his arms in a ta-da kind of way, like he was a magician who’d suddenly materialized from a puff of stage smoke. I hadn’t seen Hall smile like that in months. He was really pleased with himself.

I pantomimed a call-me-on-the-phone gesture by placing my hand near my face and shaping it like a phone, the little finger and thumb stretched out. He shook his head no. I did a little inward-arcing wave, the universal come-on-back gesture. He did the head shake again. I tried again, but a bit more emphatically. He shook me off one more time. I didn’t know what to do, so I gave him a shrug and as confused a look as I could muster. He held up his index finger, got to his feet, bent over and pulled MTM’s window wide open. It was like peeling back some kind of murky film. His light blue shirt popped in the sudden light, starkly contrasting with his pale face.

I noticed the visitor’s decal on his left shirt pocket, his official visa to MTM Land. He shouted something over. I pointed to his window. He shouted some more. I guess he didn’t remember, so I acted out trying to open it, giving it a few exaggerated, ineffectual tugs before he raised his chin and nodded. Then he snapped the fingers of his right hand as if remembering something, took a few steps to the side so I could see into MTM’s office, and pointed to the far wall. I stooped down and looked straight ahead. He was pointing to the picture he’d hung. It was Benton’s Burning Barn. I guess MTM had left it behind. I flashed Hall a thumbs up, then started clapping. It wasn’t any gesture. I was really clapping. Gibbons could probably hear it. I didn’t want him coming in, so I stopped.

For a few moments we stood still, looking at one another, two mimes at a loss. I was about to give him another come-back wave when he made his move. It was so fluid and sudden it was like he was on one of those old 8-millimeter films that skipped a few frames. One second he was standing in MTM’s office, the next he was on the ledge, his shirt and hair rippling with the wind.

He gave me another ta-da gesture, but tighter to keep his balance. I don’t know what my face looked like to him. All I could do was watch and wonder what it was like to be out on that little window ledge, the generations of dry pigeon shit crackling under your shoes, the noise from the unwitting street below like some kind of rushing river. Just you and merciless gravity. Just you and the delicate, humming skin of your own existence.

All stripped and bare and down to that, as simple and clean as it can get.

I wanted to ask him all about it, to get all the details, all the sensations. I had so many questions. I was lining them all up when Hall smiled at me, gave me a playful salute, closed his eyes and leaned forward.