Authors: Brad Parks
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
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 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
” 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.
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
instead of going back to your cult—”
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
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
* * *
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.