Authors: Brad Parks
* * *
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
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
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
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
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.