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Reading his own newspaper's obituaries, veteran reporter Carter Ross comes across
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About the Author
BRAD PARKS is the first author to win both the Shamus Award and the Nero Award for Best American Mystery for his debut novel, Faces of the Gone. A former reporter for The Washington Post and The [Newark] Star-Ledger, he lives in Virginia, and The Girl Next Door is his third novel.
Read an Excerpt
The Girl Next Door
By Brad Parks
Minotaur BooksCopyright © 2013 Brad Parks
All right reserved.
To anyone who says newspapers only print bad news, I say: read the obituaries.
For the most part, obits are the uplifting stories of people who led long and full lives, enriched communities with their accomplishments, died at peace with the world, and left behind many loving relatives. And sure, the subjects of these articles have to be more than just slightly dead in order to appear in our pages—that part is, admittedly, a bit of a buzz-kill. But otherwise, obits are some of the happiest news we print.
My paper, the Newark Eagle-Examiner—New Jersey’s largest and most respected news-gathering and content-producing agency—organizes its obits alphabetically, last name first, followed by the deceased’s town and age. And I defy anyone, even the most jaded cynic, to read one day’s worth of obits without feeling at least a little bit better about the state of the world.
Sometimes all you have to do is read one letter’s worth—like, say, the M’s. You start with a guy like Milazzo, Vincent, of Elizabeth, 92, the high school football star who served his country in World War II, then worked his way up to foreman at a lawnmower parts manufacturer before enjoying a long retirement. You work your way to Monastyrly, Jane C., of Wharton, 81, the beloved mother of four, grandmother of ten, and great-grandmother of eight, who was an avid gardener and won the Wharton Elks Club pie-baking contest five times. Then you finish with Muster, Edward L., of Maplewood, 77, the son of South Carolina sharecroppers who earned scholarships to college and law school, set up his own practice, and became the first black treasurer of the Essex County Bar Association.
All the wrinkles of their days on this planet have been smoothed away and turned into one seamless narrative. All their trials and struggles have taken on the aura of parable. All their successes have been magnified, while their failures have been forgotten.
And by the time they “passed on”—or “made their transition,” or “entered into eternal rest,” or any of those other wonderful euphemisms for the Long Dirt Nap—they seemed to have achieved some kind of understanding of why they walked this planet in the first place.
Or at least that’s how I like to imagine it.
There’s also something about obits that, as an unrepentant newspaperman, I find comforting. Over the past dozen years or so, my business has ceded its dominance in any number of areas—classified advertising, national and international news, sports scores, and so on—to the Internet. But we still have a monopoly on obits. So while you can go anywhere to find out if the Yankees won, you have to come to us to learn if your neighbor is still breathing. It makes the obit pages a throwback to a better day for newspapers, one part of a crumbling industry that has somehow held strong. For me, it’s just one more reason to love them.
Some folks, especially the older ones, scan the obits each day to see if anyone they know has died. Me? I’m only thirty-two. So hopefully it will be a good fifty years or so until anyone has to read about Ross, Carter, of Bloomfield. And it will probably be forty years until my high school classmates start popping up with any regularity.
In the meantime, I read them strictly for the inspiration.
So there I was one Monday morning in July, sitting at my desk against the far wall of the Eagle-Examiner newsroom in Newark, getting my daily dose of good news—once again, from the M’s—when my eyes began scanning the entry for Marino, Nancy B., of Bloomfield, 42.
I read on:
Nancy B. Marino, 42, of Bloomfield died suddenly on Friday, July 8.
Born in Newark, Nancy was raised in Belleville and graduated from Belleville High School. She was a popular midday waitress at the State Street Grill in Bloomfield. Nancy also had one of the largest delivery routes in the Newark Eagle-Examiner circulation area and was proud to serve as a shop steward in the International Federation of Information Workers, Local 117.
She is survived by her mother, Mrs. Anthony J. Marino of Belleville; two older sisters, Anne Marino McCaffrey of Maplewood and Jeanne Nygard of Berkeley, Calif.; and many other friends and relatives.
Visitation will be held today from 1 P.M. to 3 P.M. and from 7 P.M. to 9 P.M. at the Johnson-Eberle Funeral Home, 332 State Street, Bloomfield. A Funeral Mass will be offered Thursday at 10 A.M. at St. Peter RC Church, Belleville. Interment will be at St. Peter Parish Cemetery following the service.
In lieu of flowers, please make a donation in Nancy’s name to the IFIW–Local 117 Scholarship Fund, 744 Broad St., Newark, N.J. 07102.
Even though we were employed by the same newspaper, I didn’t know Nancy Marino. The Eagle-Examiner has hundreds of carriers, all of whom work at a time of day when I try to keep my eyelids shuttered.
But I have enormous respect for the work she and her colleagues do. The fact is, I could spend months uncovering the most dastardly wrongdoing and then write the most brilliant story possible, but we still rely on the yeoman paper carrier to get it to the bulk of our readers. That’s right: even in this supposedly all-digital era, our circulation numbers tell us the majority of our daily readers still digest their Eagle-Examiner in analog form.
So every morning when I stumble to my door and grab that day’s edition—always one of life’s small pleasures, especially when it contains one of those stories I busted a spleen to get—I receive a little reminder that someone else at the paper, someone like Nancy Marino, takes her job just as seriously as I do.
I leaned back in my chair and considered what I had just read. In obit parlance, “died suddenly” was usually code for “heart attack.” But that didn’t seem to fit. A just barely middle-aged woman who delivered newspapers and waited tables was probably in fairly good shape. Something had taken Nancy Marino before her time, and the nosy reporter in me was curious as to what.
By the time I was done reading her obit a second time, I had concluded that the newspaper she had once faithfully delivered ought to do something more to memorialize her passing. Most of our obits are relatively short items, written by funeral home directors who are following an established formula. But each day, our newspaper picks one person and expounds on their living and dying in a full-length article. Sometimes it’s a distinguished citizen. Sometimes it’s a person who achieved local fame at some point, for reasons good or ill.
Sometimes it’s a Nancy Marino, an ordinary person who spent her life serving others—whether it was with newspapers or coffee refills—and whose presence had graced the world for far too brief a time.
* * *
After eight years with the Eagle-Examiner, I had reached the stage in my career where I was afforded a fair amount of latitude to write what I wanted. Sure, I received the occasional assignment, but otherwise I was left to my own devices. It was a trust I gained the hard way. After earning a job at the paper thanks to a philandering state senator named Lenny Ryan—his girlfriend crashed his car into a go-go bar at what turned out to be a very opportune moment for my career—I put in several years’ hard time in a suburban bureau. After working my way to the main city newsroom, I finagled a coveted spot on our investigations team, where I had won the right to pursue the things that interested me.
Not that it meant I had some kind of blank check. Yes, I could write what I wanted. But if I actually wanted it to run in the newspaper, I had to make sure I cleared it with my editor.
And there, my life had recently become a little more complicated. My previous editor had been Sal Szanto, the assistant managing editor for local news and a gruff old-time newsman. We had forged a relatively easy understanding: he had high standards, and as long as I worked tirelessly to meet them, we got along famously.
Unfortunately, Sal had been “invited” (read: forced) to take a buyout in the latest Eagle-Examiner herd culling. In the consideration of the fiscally constipated bean counters who had been given full rein over our newspaper, Sal was “overpaid” (read: fairly compensated). His long experience and many contributions to quality journalism actually counted against him because he had accrued so many raises during the good years. Now, with the good years long gone, he was rewarded with a one-way trip to early and unwanted retirement.
His replacement was Tina Thompson, the former city editor and my former … something. I would say “girlfriend,” but that wasn’t right because she made it clear to me she wasn’t in it for that. I would say “lover,” but that was also inaccurate because we never quite did that, either.
My interest in Tina was that, in addition to being fun, smart, and quick-witted—in a feisty way that always kept me honest—she’s quite easy to look at, with never-ending legs, toned arms, curly brown hair, and eyes that tease and smile and glint all at the same time.
Her interest in me was more … chromosomal. Tina, whose age might best be described as forty-minus-one, is keen on trying motherhood. But she doesn’t want to bother with the kind of pesky annoyances some women take prior to childbirth—meeting a man, courting him, perhaps even marrying him.
Tina had explained to me, quite matter-of-factly, that she long ago abandoned the idea of actually having feelings for the opposite sex. She claimed her approach was now more practical. She was looking for a tall, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered man of above average intelligence, all in the hopes he would pass on some of those traits to her yet-to-be-conceived child. As I possessed these characteristics, I had an open invitation to jump into her bed three days out of every twenty-eight.
Still, I had never taken her up on the offer. For whatever you may read about the male animal, I don’t believe in emotionless sex—and, even if I did, I’m quite sure I would find it somewhat less interesting than a game of one-on-one basketball. Plus, I never wanted to have to tell my son that his mother chose me primarily for my nucleotides.
Tina’s promotion had eliminated that possibility, at least for the time being. Newspaper policy dictated an editor couldn’t sleep with one of her reporters, even if it was strictly for reproductive purposes. So Tina had gone elsewhere in her search for Mr. Right Genome.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that Tina’s claims to romantic imperviousness were a false front, and that behind them was a woman who really did want to be loved, just like any other human being. And if I was being honest with myself, I regretted that we hadn’t at least provided ourselves a chance to figure out what we could be together—a failure I hoped to rectify at some point in the future.
As I slid into her office with a copy of Nancy Marino’s obituary in my hand, those unresolved feelings were floating around, somewhere above her desk but below the fluorescent lights.
“Hey, got a second?” I said.
Tina was a yoga fanatic and could usually be found sitting in one contortionist position or another. This time, she had a knee drawn up, with one arm wrapped around it and another stretched at an odd angle while she read something on her computer screen. Call it an Ashtanga Pixel Salutation.
“Please tell me you have a big story for me,” she said, already looking defeated by the day. “If Lester runs another floater photo of some bikini-clad, Snooki-wannabe bimbo on the pretense of it being a slow news day, I’m taking a baseball bat to the morning meeting.”
I grinned. Lester Palenski, our photo editor, was a notorious pervert who dedicated no small amount of resources to documenting the young, female population that migrated toward the Jersey Shore at this time of year.
“Well, it’s a story. Maybe not a big story. But it’s one I’d really like to do,” I said, then slid the obit page at her. “Read Marino comma Nancy.”
Tina moved her attention to the newspaper, frowning as she scanned it.
“You want to write a story about a dead waitress?” she asked.
“A waitress and a newspaper delivery person, yeah.”
I grabbed the obit from her desk as she narrowed her eyes at my mouth.
“Were you sleeping with her?”
“Tina! Have some respect for the dead!”
“Well, were you?”
“Oh, yeah, I was shagging her rotten,” I said. “I’d throw a quick one in her every morning. Her customers complained their papers were late if I took more than five minutes, so it was always wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.”
Tina often claimed I had certain tells when I was lying, though she would never say what they were. For a while I tried sticking to the truth, but it just made me feel even more self-conscious. Since she became my editor, I had changed course and lied to her whenever possible. She knew this, of course. But I had to keep her off balance somehow.
She scrutinized me for a moment, then said, “Okay, so you didn’t know her. Why do you want to write about her again?”
“I don’t know. It would just be a nice story about the kind of everyday person you don’t miss until she’s gone—call it a Fanfare for the Common Woman.”
“All right there, Aaron Copland, knock yourself out,” Tina said. “What killed her, anyway? Anything good?”
Only a newspaper editor would describe a cause of death as potentially being “good.” Only a newspaper reporter would know exactly what she meant by it.
“Don’t know yet. I’m sort of curious about that, actually.”
“Well, unless she died of some exotic and heretofore undiscovered strain of swine flu, you’re not going to get more than sixteen on this. So don’t go crazy and file forty or anything.”
We measure stories in column inches, and the Incredible Shrinking Newspaper had a lot less of them than it once had—especially in the middle of July, the absolute doldrums of the news calendar. It was a bit of a problem for me, as I was notorious for writing as if we still published a paper as thick as a phone book every day.
“I won’t go so much as a word over budget,” I promised.
“How many times do I have to tell you,” she said, as I departed her office. “I know when you’re lying.”
* * *
There’s no easier way to report a story about the newly dead than to attend a service in their honor. You have to be somewhat discreet—since leaning on the casket, flipping open your notebook, and asking for comment as people pass by is considered a tad gauche. But if you show the proper respect and make it clear you’re just there to write a few kind words about the deceased, you generally get a line of people waiting to chat with you. It’s cathartic for the aggrieved, and it gives you everything you need to write a glowing tribute.
My trip to Bloomfield for Nancy’s visitation included a change-of-clothing pit stop at my house, which was not far from the Johnson-Eberle Funeral Home. Then again, since Bloomfield is only about five miles square, more or less everything in town is not far.
On a map, Bloomfield looks like a bowling alley—a long, narrow chunk of land with the Garden State Parkway running through the middle of it. The town was carved away from Newark sometime in the early 1800s and now serves as the unofficial dividing line between the parts of New Jersey that scare white people and the parts that don’t. To the north and west are well-to-do towns like Montclair and Glen Ridge, where people are mostly concerned about sending their children on to their first choice four-year college. To the south and east are rough-edged cities like Newark and East Orange, where people are mostly concerned about their children getting shot.
In the middle is Bloomfield, which doesn’t always know what to make of itself. Case in point: when you get off at the Bloomfield exit, you see a BMW dealership on one side of the street and a check-cashing place on the other.
It’s not quite urban, inasmuch as there are no high-rise buildings; yet it’s not quite suburban, either, inasmuch as the houses are packed together so closely you tend to know if your neighbor has a cold because you can hear the sneezing.
The citizenry consists of some young professionals like me, some blue-collar folks, some senior citizens, and a lot of guys named either Tony or Vinnie who like to pretend The Sopranos was really about them.
The Realtors trumpet the town’s diversity because otherwise they’d have to talk about the property taxes, which are levied by the local chapter of the Barbary Pirates. I pay $11,000 a year in tribute, in exchange for which I am spared from having to walk the plank and I enjoy curbside leaf pickup.
Oh, and just to get the New-Jersey-What-Exit thing out of the way: 148 off the parkway.
I pulled into my driveway and waved to my neighbor, Constance, who was watering her lawn. Constance lives alone, having divorced Mr. Constance long ago. She spends a lot of time watering her lawn. She also prunes her roses, weeds and reweeds her flower beds—not that they have any in them—and generally makes my yard look like it is tended by wild rabbits.
Constance is, at most, sixty-five. But she has one of those old-lady perms that ages her appearance a bit. She has two grown children who live in Colorado (I think) and Florida (perhaps), but have not seen fit to give her any grandchildren. I think she plans to move in with whichever one spawns first, which is perhaps part of what dampens their urge to procreate. But, in the meantime, she likes to keep an eye on the neighborhood and inform people about things they already know, starting conversations with, “You came back late last night” or “You were visited by a lady friend.” (Though, sadly, I haven’t had many of those lately).
My house is a tidy, two-bedroom ranch that is perfect for an on-the-go bachelor like myself: one bedroom for me and one bedroom for my extraneous stuff, so the rest of the place can stay relatively uncluttered in the event I do get to entertain a member of the fairer sex. Or at least that’s the theory. Most of the time, I share my home with just one other living creature, a black-and-white domestic short-haired cat named Deadline.
Granted, it’s not always readily apparent that Deadline actually is living. The act of sleeping all night exhausts him so much he can only compensate for it by sleeping all day. He has some brief periods of activity in the late morning and early evening, during which time he mostly eats and uses the litter box. Then it’s straight back to dreamland. Some people describe their cats as curious or playful or affectionate. Mine is best described as dormant.
“Don’t let me wake you,” I said, as I slipped into my bedroom, where Deadline was snoozing on the radiator cover by the window, bathed in sunlight.
I opened the door to my closet and selected a charcoal gray suit. Not that it was much of a choice. I only own one suit, which is still one more than a lot of newspaper reporters. I bought it my senior year at Amherst College for job interviews. Now that there are no jobs left in print journalism, I use it exclusively for weddings and funerals. I couldn’t begin to count how many people that suit has married or buried.
I dressed quickly. It helped I had already been wearing my usual reporter uniform, which included a white shirt and half-Windsor knotted tie. It’s a bit formal by the standards of my profession, which went business casual sometime around the invention of printed type and slowly degraded from there. I get teased by my colleagues for my stodgy attire, but I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, hey, sometimes I wear a blue shirt. Sometimes it even has stripes.
So, yeah, my wardrobe isn’t especially hip. But neither am I. Over the years, I have resisted the flat-front pant revolution, the slip-on shoe insurrection, the hair product revolt, and a host of other rebellious fashion movements I felt would take me further away from what I really am: an upstanding, prep-school-educated, clean-shaven WASP with freshly cut side-parted hair and absolutely no interest in changing styles.
“Try to keep it down,” I told Deadline as I departed. “I don’t want the neighbors calling in a noise complaint on you.”
Deadline signaled his acknowledgment by keeping his eyes screwed shut and his body unmoving. “Good boy,” I said.
I went back outside to my car, a five-year-old Chevy Malibu that often turns women’s heads—but sadly, only because it keeps getting holes in the exhaust line. I’ve been told that driving an aging Malibu isn’t good for my “image,” to which I usually have two responses: one, it doesn’t make sense to spend money on a car in a place like New Jersey because even if the tailgaters don’t get you, the potholes will; and, two, people who judge others based on what car they drive are idiots.
It took four minutes to get to the Johnson-Eberle Funeral Home, a pristine white Victorian with immaculate landscaping. I parked on the street because the lot behind the building was already full of cars driven by people who had come to pay their last respects to Nancy B. Marino.
* * *
If you want good attendance at your funeral, die young. Almost everyone you ever knew is still alive and mobile enough to make it out. It’s only the people who hang on to ninety or one hundred—and outlive their would-be funeral audience—who get the lousy crowds.
As such, the Johnson-Eberle Funeral Home had put Nancy in the largest of their three viewing rooms, and it still wasn’t big enough. Some of the mourners sat in the rows of white folding chairs set up in the middle of the room. Others stood around the edges. Still more spilled outside into the lobby and down the main hallway that split the center of the building.
I’m sure some of them were fellow employees of the Eagle-Examiner, but I’d have little chance of knowing them—the distribution arm of our operation is so separate from the newsroom, they might as well be different companies. The Belleville High School Class of 1987 also appeared to be well represented, as was the staff of the State Street Grill. It was, all in all, a nice cross section of regular folks from Essex County, New Jersey.
Really, there was only one person in the crowd who didn’t fit. He was a tall, patrician-looking man standing self-consciously against the far wall, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. From his perfectly coiffed ash-blond hair to his waxy pale skin to his insincere blue eyes, I’d know him anywhere: Gary A. Jackman, the not-so-esteemed publisher of the Newark Eagle-Examiner.
It was a nice gesture for him to show up, and I might have even given him credit for it if I didn’t otherwise detest the man. He had come to us from a chain of smaller papers in Ohio or Michigan or something similarly Midwestern. His lone qualification for the job appeared to be that he knew how to cut a budget better than anyone else. He did not have a background in newspapers before that—I think he operated a national chain of sweatshops, or something like that—and I held it against him every chance I got.
In the newsroom, where he was universally despised, he was known by a variety of nicknames. The features desk, with its appreciation of alliteration and poetry, called him “Greedy Gary” or “Scary Gary.” In sports, where the locker room influence tends to make them a little crude, he was “Jackoff.” In my corner of the newsroom, where we’re more direct about things, he was “Jackass.”
In the two years he had been at the paper, he had made it clear to us that he cared deeply about how much money we spent but very little about anything else we did—those forgettable things like telling great stories, uncovering grave injustices, or holding powerful people accountable for their actions. He actually admitted he did not read the newspaper each day, an unforgivable sin in the minds of the people who toiled so assiduously to produce it. Yet his most despicable act may have been that, at a time when he was sacking editors and reporters with lunatic glee, he kept three secretaries. What he did to occupy them was a source of constant speculation.
His personal appearance only made him easier to dislike. He was perhaps best described as foppish, with his expensively tailored clothes, monogrammed cuff links, and—his personal calling card—a predilection for pocket squares. It was also rumored, though never confirmed, that he had a manicurist come into the office once a week to keep his nails trim, as if he couldn’t just buy nail clippers like everyone else.
As I approached him from the other side of the room, he had those well-manicured hands crossed in front of him. He was talking with a man who had stubbornly refused to give in to his male-pattern baldness, with one of the worst comb-overs I had ever witnessed: the piece of hair stretched across his shiny head had come loose and was sticking up and to the left, sort of like a single horn on a lopsided unicorn.
Jackman and the unicorn were having a rather animated conversation—correction: the unicorn was animated, while Jackman just seemed to be tolerating him—and I observed from a distance. The unicorn kept gesturing broadly, occasionally pointing a finger at Jackman, like he was accusing him of something dastardly. Maybe he didn’t like pocket squares? Tough to tell.
I finally got curious as to what had the guy overstimulated, so I closed to within eavesdropping range. But I was too late. All I heard was Jackman end the conversation with, “… I’m sorry, this just isn’t the time or place. We’ll have to talk later. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Jackman rather pointedly turned his body away from the unicorn, who forced out an exasperated sigh and then walked in the opposite direction. A small part of me wondered, Not the time or place for … what exactly? Was the unicorn asking Jackass to dance the polka? But a much larger part of me had a story to write and a deadline to respect. I gave Jackman a moment or two to clear his head, then sidled up to him.
“Mr. Jackman, Carter Ross, we’ve met before,” I said in a low voice, extending my right hand.
He looked at me disdainfully and did not uncross his arms, leaving my hand hanging in the air. We had met before, on several occasions. He had even presented me an award for outstanding reporting once. Yet he was examining me like I was something that fell out the back end of one of his foxhunting dogs.
“I’m doing a feature obit about Nancy Marino for tomorrow’s paper and was hoping I could get a quick quote from you,” I continued, undeterred by his aloofness. “Could you just say a quick word or two about her?”
Having tossed him the mushiest of all softballs, I slid my notepad out of my pocket to capture whatever dribbled out of his mouth next.
“If you want to talk to me, you’ll have to call my secretary and set up an appointment,” he said in a cool, clipped tone.
During my long career in journalism, which began when I was a freshman in high school and was now nearing twenty years, I had been blown off for interviews plenty of times, and by people far more important than Jackass. But I had never been blown off by someone who, at least in theory, was supposed to be on the same team as me. I did my very best to keep my voice down and remind myself that the man had the authority to fire me on a whim.
“Sir, with all due respect, this will just take a minute or two,” I said. “I’m sure it would mean a lot to the family to have the publisher saying something nice about someone who worked very hard for our newspaper.”
I stressed the “our newspaper” part, but it did not seem to move him.
“Call my secretary,” he said, then turned his back on me and started walking to another part of the room for no other reason than to get away from me.
“Which one of the three?” I shot back, a little louder than was perhaps needed.
“Just call my secretary,” he said again.
I frowned. I’m a big boy. I’ve been spurned before and will be spurned again. It was just annoying that it would have taken this man absolutely no effort to say something that would comfort a grieving family, but he still wouldn’t do it. He had taken perhaps three more steps when I momentarily lost my filter.
“What a douche bag,” I said, in a voice I hoped was loud enough so he could hear it. But he kept walking. My childish insult was lost in the din.
* * *
It’s a peculiar thing, being a reporter at a wake. Because you have absolutely no reason to be sad—after all, you’re the only one in the room who never knew the guest of honor—and yet, hanging around a bunch of people in mourning, you’re something less than human if you don’t start feeling a little melancholy, too. Empathy is a burden that way. You start to feel like you actually did know the deceased. And it wasn’t long until Nancy—if you’ll pardon the phrase—started coming alive to me.
The family had assembled some photos of Nancy, who was petite and, while not a knockout by any means, pretty in a girl-next-door kind of way—or at least she was the girl next door if you happened to live in an Italian neighborhood. She had olive skin, brown eyes, dark hair, a nice smile full of white teeth.
The pictures, which had been mounted on poster board and displayed on easels, basically told Nancy’s life story. There was Nancy as a carefree kid at the Jersey Shore, with skinned knees and a summertime tan; Nancy at her first communion, looking like the starch in her white dress was chafing her very soul; Nancy with a face full of braces, wearing a softball uniform that bore the name of a local podiatrist; Nancy as a teenager with a head full of eighties Jersey hair, teased up to elevations that could only be described as alpine; Nancy at her graduation, trying to act like a woman in a cap and gown but still looking like a kid.
After high school, there were fewer photos. It was never Nancy alone after that, just Nancy with family at holiday time, the obligatory Thanksgiving-and-Christmas shots. There wasn’t a single picture of her waitressing or delivering newspapers, the things she spent the majority of her time doing. No one had deemed those activities important or noteworthy enough to permanently record. Such was the life of the common woman.
I pulled my eyes away from the photos and focused on the rest of the room. Nancy’s family was up front, accepting a stream of visitors by the casket, a highly polished—and conspicuously closed—oak-colored box adorned with large sprays of flowers on either side. A closed casket meant one of two things: a long, slow wasting disease that left the deceased withered beyond repair; or a quick, violent end that left the deceased shattered beyond recognition.
Whichever it was, it had obviously taken a toll on the mother. She was sitting in the front row, looking frail and aged. I wondered how many of the years on her face had been applied in the last few days. According to the obituary, forty-two-year-old Nancy was her youngest. You never expect to bury any of your children, much less your baby.
Seated to the left of Mrs. Marino was another woman, and I could guess it was one of Nancy’s sisters. She was dabbing her face with a tissue and swaying gently to some unheard music while she clutched her mother’s hand, patting it occasionally. I surreptitiously slid Nancy’s obituary out of my pocket to refresh my memory with the names of the survivors and immediately pegged this one as Jeanne Nygard, the sister who now lived in California. She had long, salt-and-pepper hair tied into a braid; wore a loose, floor-length floral-print dress; and had those photochromic glasses that turn darker in sunlight but still appear to be semishaded even indoors. Then there were her feet. Anyone who wears Birkenstocks to a funeral home has to be from Berkeley.
The other sister, Anne Marino McCaffrey, was standing, and had assigned herself the job of greeting each successive group of mourners as they came to pay their respects. She was the take-charge sister, the strong one who was holding it together because neither her devastated mother nor her hippie sister were capable of playing that role. She looked businesslike in a black skirt suit and white blouse, with nude hose and sensible pumps. Her hair was short, dark, and bobbed. The three women shared a certain family resemblance, with dark features and curved noses that left little doubt about their Mediterranean ancestry.
The line continued to shuffle forward. Each successive group offered the obligatory hugs and handshakes, paused to stumble over a few kind words, then moved on, relieved to be done with the whole uncomfortable thing.
I waited for a slight break in the action and then made my move, aiming for take-charge Anne. I introduced myself, finishing with, “I’m writing a story about Nancy for tomorrow’s paper.”
The woman considered me for an instant, then greeted me with all the warmth of gazpacho.
“Thank you, but we’re not interested,” she said, articulating every consonant so there was no misunderstanding.
It took me a second to register that I was being blown off again—and again by someone who should have been quite happy to speak with me. I was beginning to wonder if perhaps, on my drive over to the funeral home, I had developed a pronounced case of leprosy. Was my ear falling off or something?
“Maybe I didn’t explain it right,” I said, feeling off balance. “I’m writing a feature obit, which is—”
“We don’t want any more written about the accident, thank you,” she interrupted.
Accident. Of course. That explained the closed casket and, depending on the circumstances, her reluctance to chat with me.
“I’m sorry, I have to apologize, I don’t know about any accident,” I said.
This seemed to surprise her. She studied me for a moment and I returned her gaze. Most people—Tina Thompson notwithstanding—tell me I have an honest face. And since I really was telling the truth, I let my earnest blue eyes do the convincing.
“You don’t?” she asked.
I swiveled my head left-right-left. She took four short steps and bent down, reaching under a chair to pick up her purse. She twisted open a small clasp, pulled out a newspaper clipping that had been folded in half and handed it to me.
It turned out to be a six-inch brief from Saturday’s newspaper. And before I could even begin to read the article, the headline told me most of what I needed to know:
“BLOOMFIELD POLICE INVESTIGATE HIT AND RUN.”
* * *
It took only a few more seconds to read the story and pull away the pertinent details. Nancy Marino had been struck by a speeding car while delivering newspapers on Ridge Avenue early Friday morning. An anonymous caller had tipped off the police about the accident but had provided no further details. The Bloomfield Police Department was asking anyone with information to call their tips line, which is cop speak for, “Yeah, we got nothing.”
I was embarrassed I hadn’t seen the story the first time around. Sure, it was a mere six-inch brief buried in the guts of the Saturday paper—an easily ignored spot in our least circulated edition of the week—but that didn’t excuse my ignorance. A reporter doesn’t have to know everything, but he ought to know what’s written in his own newspaper.
Now I understood why Publisher Jackass didn’t want me quoting him. Nancy was killed in the line of duty. He was worried about the paper’s exposure to a lawsuit and feared if he said anything it might be used against him later.
My cynical side—a not insubstantial part of any newspaper reporter—also wondered if that’s why we hadn’t written a bigger story about it. Wrongful-death lawyers read the newspaper like everyone else. An unknown hit-and-run driver is impossible to sue and probably wouldn’t be worth much even if you could find him. But the state’s largest newspaper is a juicy target, one with considerable assets.
All it would take was some lawyer making the argument that because the paper didn’t provide reflective vests for its carriers—or didn’t give them proper training in how to dodge oncoming traffic, or didn’t give them car-repellent deodorant, or whatever—the paper was therefore legally responsible for Nancy’s death. That would open up the possibility of damages for pain and suffering, loss of survivorship comfort, and a host of other things that juries just loved to award suffering families. Jackass didn’t want any more attention given to this than was absolutely necessary.
At least in theory, the publisher has no say over how the paper covers the news—a division we take so seriously we refer to it as the separation of church and state. But Harold Brodie, the seventy-something executive editor who had run the Eagle-Examiner newsroom for the last quarter century, was inexplicably deferential to Gary Jackman. It was a curious thing, something most of us wrote off as a sign the old man’s Corn Flakes were going a bit soggy. Nevertheless, if Jackass were to make a phone call and apply some gentle pressure … well, let’s just say that while there’s separation of church and state, priests still tend to listen when they get phone calls from congressmen.
I refolded the clipping and handed it back to Nancy’s sister.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I had no idea.”
Anne kept her head bent as she stowed the piece of paper in her purse. I glanced over at Mrs. Marino and sister Jeanne, who was still moving her head back and forth to some disjointed rhythm, one she alone could hear. They were receiving visitors and seemed to be paying no attention to either of us. I turned back to Anne.
“I really just want to write a tribute to Nancy. From reading the obit, she struck me as the kind of hardworking person most folks probably don’t appreciate until they’re gone.”
The sister looked up from her purse, her eyes suddenly moist.
“Nancy hadn’t missed a day of work in nineteen years,” she said, then bit her lower lip. The unflappable sister was struggling to keep her composure.
Not wanting to push her over the edge, I eased back on the emotional throttle.
“You’re her sister, yes?” I said.
“I’m Anne McCaffrey, yes.” She blinked a few times, glanced up at the ceiling for a second, then looked back at me. “I’m sorry I gave you a hard time. This has just been so difficult for … my mother.”
“I understand. And I didn’t mean to be a bother.”
“You’re just doing your job.”
“No, actually, this isn’t my job,” I corrected her. “Normally I’m an investigative reporter. This is something I’m doing on my own initiative. If you really don’t want a story done, I’ll walk away right now. Otherwise, I’d like to talk to the people here and get them to say some good things about your sister, which I’m sure won’t be difficult. Would that be okay?”
Anne actually smiled for the first time.
“We’d really like that,” she said. “What did you say your name was again?”
“Carter Ross. Let me give you a card,” I said, reaching into my back pocket for my wallet. I was just pulling out one of my business cards when Nancy’s other sister—who, as far as I knew, hadn’t been following our conversation—suddenly spoke up.
“I’d like one, too,” Jeanne said.
I looked at the woman, with her semidark glasses and groovy, Berkeley-esque head swaying. Suddenly, I recognized she wasn’t dancing to any music. She had some kind of neurological disease—Parkinson’s, perhaps—which meant she had little control over her head’s wobbling. The movement made her hard to focus on, and I realized my attempts to do so might create the impression I was staring.
“I’d like a card, too,” she said again, reaching out a trembling hand.
“Jeanne, no,” Anne said, gently but firmly.
“I’m her sister, too, and I have a right to say what I want to the reporter,” Jeanne said. Her voice had a monotone quality to it—another Parkinson’s symptom?—yet she was clearly growing agitated, and her volume was rising to indicate it.
“I know you have a right,” Anne said, making her tone softer as Jeanne’s got louder. “I’m not here to debate your rights.”
“She’s a lawyer; she’s always debating people’s rights,” Jeanne told me, spitting out “lawyer” in a way that made it clear she wasn’t a friend to the American Bar Association. “Could I have your card, please?”
I acquiesced, if only because I wanted her to be able to put her hand down—the longer she kept it outstretched, the more it shook. Anne looked disapprovingly at the transaction. The family dynamic was becoming clear to me: there was Anne, the oldest sister, the controller, always trying to maintain order; Jeanne, the middle sister, the free spirit, trying to keep things disorderly; and Nancy, the youngest sister, the worker bee, who had probably just tried to stay out of the way and keep the peace.
“Jeanne, I don’t know if it’s the best idea for you to—”
“She doesn’t want me talking to you,” Jeanne told me, ignoring her sister. “She’s afraid I’ll say something embarrassing that will hurt her reputation.”
“Jeanne, that’s not fair—”
“Fair? We’re going to talk about fair now? Was it fair that you stayed in law school when Daddy died?”
Anne’s face flushed red and her jaw locked.
“About as fair as you running off to California,” Anne replied tersely, saying “California” with the same kind of vehemence as Jeanne said “lawyer.”
There’s nothing like a funeral to rip open old family wounds. And this was evidently not the first time these two sisters had gone for blood on this particular topic. I wished I hadn’t stumbled into the middle of it. I needed a few nice quotes about Nancy for my obit, not a reprise of some ancient sisterly squabble.
“That is not how it happened, and you know—” Jeanne started until Anne’s low-but-fierce voice drowned her out.
“If you could have just stayed around for one year instead of going back to your cult—”
“It was not a cult, it was a—” Jeanne started, but again her voice lacked the strength to compete with Anne, who turned her attention to me.
“I was in my final year of law school when our father died,” Anne said, apparently trying to win me over because Jeanne was beyond convincing. “I couldn’t quit at that point, not when I was that close. Nancy had just started college and she shouldn’t have had to quit, either. But she dropped out to be with our mother because my sister here felt it was more important to spend time with a bunch of strangers in—”
Jeanne was drawing breath to dispute that point when the fight was abruptly halted by a terrible noise:
Their mother began bawling.
* * *
There’s nothing like an old woman wailing at a funeral home to send people, particularly the guys, scurrying to action. Men in suits were suddenly diving in from all directions with handkerchiefs and offers of support. At a WASP wake—the kind with which I was more familiar, given my ethnicity—the grieving woman would have been shushed. This being an Italian affair, Mrs. Marino was allowed to moan as loudly as she wanted, but she was not going to do so alone.
In the meantime, two men—cousins or husbands, it was unclear—dove in between Anne and Jeanne, ostensibly breaking up the fight by driving the women into their respective corners. As the jerk who started it all, I found myself trying to slink away quickly so no one could identify me as the culprit.
Chastened, I retreated into the hallway, where I eventually began interviewing a representative sample of the people who had been in Nancy’s life: high school classmates, fellow Eagle-Examiner carriers, coworkers from the State Street Grill.
I got a good dose of the usual clichés—everyone liked her, she never said a bad word about anyone, she didn’t have a single enemy, and so on—but also managed to ferret out some of the details of Nancy’s life.
She had been an outstanding student at Belleville High, graduating in the top ten percent of her class and making All-County in softball. After high school, she enrolled at College of New Jersey, then known as Trenton State, a well-regarded small public college. Her father died a few weeks into her freshman year, and Nancy moved back home to be with her mother. And, somehow, that’s where she stayed. She got a job as a waitress. A few years after that, she took over the newspaper route.
And that became her life: she worked two jobs, kept her mother company, and maintained her friendships from high school and the neighborhood. She didn’t have much time for anything else. She was never married. She dated occasionally, but there hadn’t been anyone special in that capacity for quite some time. Friends said she seemed content, never considering what life might have held for her if her father had stayed alive or if she had gone back to school.
Eventually, she saved enough money to buy her own house, a source of pride. It was just a few blocks over from her mother’s place, but in that part of New Jersey—a jigsaw puzzle of tiny towns fitted next to each other—a few blocks crossed a municipal boundary. So it was she ended up living in Bloomfield, not Belleville.
Beyond those biographical details, I mostly heard about Nancy’s kindness and generosity of spirit. She not only had two jobs that involved serving others, but she did it in her off-time, too. It seemed Nancy was everyone else’s biggest fan, the kind of person who always knew when someone had done something good and was the first to congratulate them for it.
“She just existed to cheer on other people,” one of her friends told me. “It’s like her hands were made for clapping.”
It was the perfect first quote. And since it was nearing three o’clock, the end of the afternoon session at the funeral home, that made it the perfect time to get back to the office and start writing.
I was on my way out the door when I recognized one last person who could make for a useful interview: Jim McNabb, the executive director of IFIW–Local 117 and a well-known figure on New Jersey’s political scene.
Local 117 was a large conglomeration of unionized employees, encompassing workers who could loosely be considered in the communications business—everything from newspaper deliverers to bulk mail assemblers to cable TV installers to the people building the latest wireless network. All told, it claimed something like a hundred thousand members, which made it a force in the state capital, where vote-hungry legislators remained cognizant of the need to pander to its leadership.
For as long as anyone could remember, that leader was Jim McNabb, who greatly enjoyed being the recipient of said pandering. His primary talent was knowing all the players and, more important, where they buried the bodies. (And this being New Jersey, I mean that literally.) He was a gregarious guy with a full head of silver hair and a stocky frame, and he was like the politicians he lobbied, in that he enjoyed working a room.
Unlike the politicians, though, he was actually likable. He had a gift for names and faces, and once he met you the first time, he treated you like a long-lost best friend every time he saw you thereafter. To some that might seem disingenuous, inasmuch as he reacted to everyone that way. But to me, you couldn’t be that enthusiastic about other human beings unless somewhere, deep down, you really liked them.
Plus—and this always counted for something in a newspaper reporter’s estimation—he was a colorful quote, the kind of guy who was always available for comment and could be relied upon to say a bit more than he probably should.
So we had some good history, and as I approached, he greeted me with a quiet-but-enthusiastic “Carter Ross! How is the star investigative reporter!”
“Hey, Jim, pretty good. Wish we were seeing each other under different circumstances, but—”
“Is there something to investigate here?” he interrupted, not bothering to hide his intrigue.
“Not a thing. I’m just doing a little appreciation piece about Nancy for tomorrow’s paper.”
“Are you sure there’s no smoke here?” he quizzed. “Because you know what they say about places where there’s smoke.”
His natural friendliness aside, McNabb was the kind of guy who was always looking to exploit any angle that might help the union cause or, at least, get his name out there. If I told him I was doing a piece on businesses that refused to let their workers eat hot dogs, he would launch into a windy sermon about the health benefits of the roasted wiener—all of which he would have invented on the spot—and rail against anyone who deprived employees of their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of Oscar Mayer.
“Nope,” I said. “No smoke, no fire.”
“Okay, okay,” he replied. “Well, it’s real kind of you to do a story about Nancy. She was a terrific kid.”
We chatted for a few minutes about Nancy, whom he described as one of his best shop stewards. He said the obligatory nice words about her, sharing the opinion that she was a loyal employee and a trustworthy friend. Then, as we began to wrap up, he jerked his silver mane in the direction of her coffin.
“Hit and run. Hell of a way to go, huh?” he said. “I just hope they catch the bastard that did it and tie him to the center lane of the Turnpike so we can run him over.”
* * *
By the time Jim and I parted, it was after three and the funeral director was gently shepherding the crowd out onto the street. He was subtle about it—a funeral home can’t exactly announce last call—but people were getting the hint.
I climbed into my Malibu, feeling my reporter’s notebook pressing against my thigh. I don’t know what it is, because ballpoint-pen ink barely weighs anything, but a full notebook just feels heavier than an empty one. And I knew I had filled this one with enough good stuff to easily get me to sixteen inches.
My favorite anecdote was shared by one of Nancy’s fellow paper deliverers. As any longtime resident of New Jersey knows, one of the Eagle-Examiner’s nicknames is “the bird.” For one of her shop meetings, Nancy made T-shirts with a picture of a guy tossing a rolled-up Eagle-Examiner onto someone’s front porch, Frisbee-style. Underneath, it read, IFIW–LOCAL 117: PROUD TO FLIP YOU THE BIRD!
I wasn’t sure whether I could get that line past some of our prissier editors. But as I returned to the newsroom and started writing, I figured I owed it to Nancy to try.
The words were just starting to flow onto my computer screen when my cell phone rang. The caller had a 510 area code, which was neither a New Jersey number nor one I recognized.
“Mr. Ross?” said a monotone female voice on the other end, and I knew who it was before she could say her name. “This is Jeanne Nygard, Nancy Marino’s sister. We met earlier today.”
“Hi, Jeanne. Thanks for calling.”
The line hissed with the sound of no one talking, though I could faintly hear her breathing. I shifted my weight, and my chair creaked in response. I cleared my throat and soon found myself talking, because I felt like someone ought to be.
“I’m sorry if I triggered a little bit of a spat at the viewing,” I said. “I didn’t mean to stir up ill will.”
“My sister and I don’t always get along,” Jeanne said, and I fought the urge to reply, No, really?
“She’s not a happy person,” Jeanne continued. “She seeks fulfillment in worldly things, in money and power. They will never lead her to enlightenment.”
Okay there, Siddhartha, I nearly replied. But again I resisted. And since I didn’t want to enter into a conversation about Anne’s self-actualization or lack thereof, I asked, “So what can I do for you, Jeanne?”
“My sister would be angry if she knew I was talking to you,” Jeanne said, which didn’t exactly answer my question. “She said I should keep my mouth shut. But I gave up trying to please my sister a long time ago. Do you have siblings, Mr. Ross?”
“An older brother and a younger sister.”
“So you know what it’s like.”
“Family can be a joy and a pain,” I confirmed.
The line hissed silence.
“I’m sorry, is there something I can help you with?” I said, trying to prod the conversation toward … wherever it needed to go. “The story about your sister is going in tomorrow’s paper, so I’m on a bit of a deadline.”
“I wanted to call you because your card says you’re an ‘investigative reporter.’ Is that true?”
I put my hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t say something like, No, Jeanne, I’m actually a taxidermist with an active fantasy life.
I gave myself half a beat, then removed my hand and said, “Yes, it’s true.”
More faint breathing was followed by “Don’t you think it’s odd, her being killed in a hit and run?”
“I’m not sure I would choose the word ‘odd.’ I would just say it was a terrible tragedy.”
“The police said it was probably a drunk driver. What do you think about that?”
“That people shouldn’t drink and drive?” I said, trying not to sound like a smartass.
“I’m told bars around here close at two. Would anyone still be drunk at six in the morning?”
I sighed. Where was she going with this? “People get drunk places other than bars, so there’s—”
“And there were no skid marks,” Jeanne interrupted, her voice managing to rise above the flatness of Parkinson’s disease to gain some inflection. “The police said they didn’t find any skid marks on the street. Don’t you think the driver would have slammed the brakes after hitting something as large as a person?”
“Depends. The guy might have been so bombed he didn’t even realize he hit someone. It happens.”
Jeanne took a moment to consider this. She was nothing if not deliberate.
“Your card says you’re an investigative reporter,” she repeated. “Are you going to investigate the accident any further?”
“I’m not planning on it, no.”
I tilted forward in my chair and rested my elbow on my desk. The bottom right corner of my computer read 5:17. Obits, which are not considered breaking news, have to be filed by six, no exception. I wanted to be considerate to Nancy’s grieving sister, but I had to find a way to gracefully exit this conversation.
“I need to know if I can trust you, Mr. Ross,” Jeanne said.
“And why is that?”
“Because I have something I think you should investigate,” she said.
Another pause. Then:
“It wasn’t an accident.”
“You mean Nancy’s death?”
“Yes. It wasn’t an accident. I believe Nancy had reason to fear for her life. I believe someone killed her.”
“What makes you think that?”
“She’s my sister. Sometimes sisters just know things about each other.”
“Yes, but do you have any proof?” I asked.
“No,” she said. Then, after a pause, she added: “And yes.”
“I was the last person to talk to my sister before she died. She called me at ten on Thursday night—that’s one in the morning, her time. Mr. Ross, my sister went to bed at seven-thirty and woke up at three-thirty. She never had trouble sleeping like that.”
“So what was bothering her?”
“She was having … problems at work.”
“What kind of problems?”
The line went quiet again, causing me to press my ear to the phone. From somewhere in the background, I heard a door open. Jeanne drew in her breath sharply.
“Jeannie, whatchya doin’?” I could hear a male voice inquire.
And at that, Jeanne promptly hung up.
Copyright © 2012 by Brad Parks
Excerpted from The Girl Next Door by Brad Parks Copyright © 2013 by Brad Parks. Excerpted by permission.
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