Read The Girl Next Door Online

Authors: Brad Parks

Tags: #Fiction

The Girl Next Door (2 page)

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
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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
, 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
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

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
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.

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
4.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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