Read The Girl Next Door Online

Authors: Brad Parks

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BOOK: The Girl Next Door
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Our editors thought of the interns as packages of ramen noodles: cheap, portable, and surprisingly filling, but not something you put a lot of care into making. I, on the other hand, tried to take an interest in their personal development. I guess it’s because I don’t have time to volunteer at animal shelters. I push for the humane treatment of interns instead.

Our interns come in all shapes, colors, and talent levels. Some of them are actually quite good, or at least have the potential to become good.

Others are like Lunky. In the few weeks he had been here, the only thing that had distinguished him at all was his size, which was, to be sure, quite impressive. He was about six foot five and had the kind of heft to his chest and shoulders that suggested his weight was somewhere in the neighborhood of 275. He had an abundance of bushy hair protruding out of a massive skull, with a sloped forehead a pronounced ridge above his brow, all of which made it tempting to surmise he had some Neanderthal DNA floating around in him. Combine his general, hulking appearance with the last name Lungford, and it didn’t take long for his nickname to originate or stick.

The rumor was Lunky had played defensive end on his college football team—probably at one of those jock schools that had majors like “Personal Communications”—and that the sports department had hired him without much vetting, mostly with the intention of having him bat cleanup for their softball team.

But for reasons that were still unclear, sports promptly shipped him over to news, where he wasn’t considered much of a value-add, either. His byline had, so far, been suspiciously absent from the newspaper. From what I gathered, people tried not to talk to him. So he hung around the newsroom, all day and halfway into the night—long after most of the other interns had gone home—with apparently nothing to do.

As I approached him, sitting in a chair that looked too small for him, alone in the raft of desks where we stick the interns, I actually felt sorry for him. Poor Lunky, dim, dull, and friendless, was reading a thin paperback that more or less disappeared in his massive hands. I couldn’t tell what was on the cover, but it was about the size and shape of a comic book.

“Hi, Kevin,” I said. “I’m Carter Ross. We’ve been assigned to work on a story together.”

He held up a finger, as if he didn’t want to break his concentration from the exploits of the Green Lantern. I watched him read for a second—at least I couldn’t see his lips moving—then he finally looked up.

“Sorry, I just got to a good part,” he said, then turned his attention back to his reading. “Listen to this: ‘The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. What is a day? What is a year? What is summer? What is woman? What is a child? What is sleep?’”

I felt my head cocking to one side.

“What … What are you reading?”

“Emerson.”

“Excuse me?”

“Emerson.”

“As in Ralph Waldo?”

“Of course,” Lunky said. “I actually started out with Thoreau—he was going to be my ‘summer beach read,’ if you will. But I just wasn’t getting the most out of my Thoreau because I wasn’t as current as I wanted to be on my Emerson. Trying to understand Thoreau without being solid with Emerson would be like”—he paused, groping for the right analogy—“trying to make sense of a baby without having ever met its mother.”

“Uhh,” I said, mostly because it expressed the sum total of my knowledge about the subject. As an English major at Amherst, I should probably have been a little more conversant on all things transcendental. But I put in more hours at the student newspaper than I ever spent in the stacks. I usually just tried to fake my way through these kinds of discussions.

“This is some incredible stuff,” he continued, fanning back pages in what I now recognized was no comic book. “Check this out, ‘… why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields.’”

Lunky leaned back, blown away. “
There is more wool and flax in the fields!
Can you imagine writing that in 1836? The
nerve
it took.”

His eyes were fixed on some far-off point, his thoughts weighted with profundity.

“Kevin, I thought you … played football in college.”

“Huh? Oh yeah.”

“Where did you go to school again?”

“Princeton.”

Oh. Yeah. A real football factory, that place.

“I finished my undergraduate degree in the spring,” he said. “I’m actually starting my Ph.D. in English there in the fall. I’m planning to write my dissertation on Philip Roth. He grew up here in Newark, you know.”

“Yeah, I, uh, knew that.”

“I visited his boyhood home yesterday—81 Summit Avenue, as any good Roth fan knows. I spoke to a lady who lives there now. She was so nice. She let me look around the house and everything. I’m endeavoring to better understand his milieu: see the things he saw, learn about his influences, get some real-world Newark experience before cloistering myself in academia.”

“Yeah, well, speaking of real-world Newark experience … We, uhh … We’ve been assigned to work on a story about a bear.”

“Bears are highly symbolic in Eastern European literature,” Lunky lectured.

“Yes, I’m sure they are. But right now there’s a bear—not a figurative bear, an
actual
bear—wandering around Newark. Which is sort of unusual because Newark is, you know, kind of urban.”

“Ah yes, indeed,” Lunky said philosophically, considering this information. “I guess I can see how that would be newsworthy—in a certain voyeuristic sense.”

I smiled with what I hoped was insincerity. “Yes, the philistines get quite a charge out of this sort of thing.”

Missing my attempt at irony, he said, “Okay. So where is it?”

“Well, that’s part of the challenge.”

“I see. How do you suggest we go about finding it?”

“It’s a bear in Newark, New Jersey,” I said. “We head down South Orange Avenue and listen for the sound of screaming.”

“Oh,” he said, then after a thoughtful pause asked, “Where’s South Orange Avenue?”

*   *   *

Realizing Lunky was going to need a little more mentoring than the average intern, I got him armed with a notepad and a pen—things he might have forgotten, if left to his own devices—and walked him out to the parking garage. We got into our respective cars, and I gave him instructions to stick to my bumper like the elbow patches to his professors’ tweed jackets. We wound our way out of downtown toward the Vailsburg section of Newark and what I hoped was a rendezvous with something dark and furry.

Vailsburg is a small chunk of western Newark that, a century ago, was actually considered the countryside. These days, approximately 87 percent of its surface area is covered by manmade substances—primarily concrete, asphalt, and discarded chewing gum. It is not easily confused with grizzly country.

As I trolled down South Orange Avenue with my window down, I kept my eyes and ears peeled for something that would suggest the regular order of things was askew. Not long after passing over the Garden State Parkway, I found what I was looking for: a teenaged kid—who appeared to be a member of the Junior Gangbangers League—had shimmied up a light stanchion and was clinging to it like he planned to still be there the next time the census came around.

I hand-signaled to Lunky to pull over, and soon we were on foot, approaching the kid. He was whip thin with a big head of braids, and his clothing choices suggested he frequently consulted the league’s fashion manual, “31 Ways to Dress Like a Blood,” which advocated a lot of red accessorizing—red bandana, red shoes, red hat, and so on.

“Excuse me,” I said, “you haven’t seen a bear by any chance, have you?”

He looked at me like he couldn’t understand how white people managed to do so well on the SAT.

“You think I’m up here ’cause I like
the view
?”

“Which way did it go?”

He pointed down a narrow side street with a shaky finger.

“The
one day
I come down here without my piece and look what happens,” he said, shaking his head.

I looked in the direction he pointed. “I don’t see anything. I’m guessing it’s probably safe to come down now.”

“Helllll no!”

I grinned. Here was a kid who probably stood out on this busy street corner all day long and half the night. In a state where there are roughly 150 pedestrian fatalities a year—and exactly zero people killed by bears—a fast-moving Chevy was, statistically speaking, a far greater threat to life and limb. But this youngster didn’t look like he wanted to engage in a breakdown of the mortality and morbidity tables with me.

“Aw, come on, it’s just a little bear,” I teased.

“Yeah, but what if he likes dark meat?
You’d
be all right. But I’d be lunch.”

“Skinny guy like you? You wouldn’t be much more than an appetizer.”

“Laugh it up, white boy. I ain’t going nowhere.”

I listened for sirens but didn’t hear any. So I turned to Lunky and said, “This young man has seen the bear. Interview him. I’m going to go find the little critter.”

I bid them good-bye and started jogging down the middle of the side street. A few houses in, I saw an old woman on her porch, looking wary, clutching a broom—as if that would give her all the defense she needed when the bear decided to climb her front steps. She was craning her head to the right.

“That way?” I asked.

“I think so. You with animal control?”

“No, ma’am, I’m with the newspaper.”

“And you
chasin’
that thing? You some kinda crazy?”

I kept jogging, which I suppose answered her question. About midway down the next block, I found the source of everyone’s excitement on the left side of the street: a mass of black fur roughly the height of a Great Dane, with tulip-shaped ears and dirt-covered hindquarters.

In my entirely inexpert opinion, I judged this to be a young adult male
Ursus americanus,
maybe 150 or 200 pounds and well fed. He had knocked over a garbage can and was having a fine time pawing through its contents, his nose eagerly exploring the various odors. Banana peels. Potato chip bags. Chicken bones. It was bear manna.

Every once in a while, he’d take a nibble at something and I’d get a glimpse of his rather well-developed incisors. So I kept a safe distance, probably a hundred feet or so, though I wasn’t particularly worried. This fella was so happily engaged in yesterday’s dinner he was oblivious to my presence. Bears have good hearing and an excellent sense of smell but notoriously bad eyesight. As long as I kept quiet and stayed downwind, he’d never know I was there.

Then, to my horror, I felt a sneeze coming.

It started as a mere suggestion, a small tickle somewhere in my sinuses. I thought I could keep it at bay until the feeling passed, only it kept getting more insistent, like it wouldn’t be denied. I held my finger under my nose to try and stop it, because isn’t that what they always did in cartoons? But that only made it worse. So did a variety of other efforts: Lamaze-style breathing, biting my lower lip, making funny faces.

None of it worked. The more I fought it, the greater the urge to sneeze became. Plus, I could tell my resistance was only going to make the inevitable explosion that much more percussive. When I finally succumbed to the sneeze and let it loose, it sounded roughly like a shotgun.

The bear immediately looked up.

I froze.

He regarded me with interest, no longer engrossed by the balled-up diaper he had been sniffing. He held his nose in the air and then, in an ominous development, reared up on his hind legs, with his front paws dangling, like he was some kind of circus bear.

Except, of course, I don’t think he was planning to dance around on a giant beach ball for my amusement. I’m no park ranger, so I didn’t know what this signified. Mere curiosity? A display of aggression? A challenge to his hegemony over the Jones family garbage can?

I once read a wilderness safety pamphlet that said if you ever encountered a bear in the wild, you were supposed to be big and noisy—the idea being that bears are naturally shy and would easily be scared off. So I went up on my tiptoes, raised my arms in the air, and said something that sounded like, “Raaaarrrr!”

But I guess this bear was more of an extrovert than most, because he just tilted his head and sniffed at me some more, thoroughly unimpressed by my version of big and noisy. I let out my roar again, though perhaps it was less convincing this time, because it sounded more like, “Rarrr?”

The bear dropped back on all fours and I felt my shoulders relax.

Then he charged.

*   *   *

For a second or two, I just stood there as he lumbered toward me with a pigeon-toed gait, making a guttural noise that was somewhere between a woof and a bark. I seemed to recall the wilderness safety pamphlet counseled that you should never turn and run, that you should hold your ground. Running doesn’t work, the pamphlet advised, because bears are faster than people. Plus, bears were big into what it called the “bluff charge,” meaning he would pull up before he reached his target.

So this was a bluff. Just a big, nasty, snarling, drooling, growling, menacing, intimidating, teeth-baring … bluff.

As he narrowed the gap between us from a hundred to perhaps seventy feet, I told myself he would stop short any second, just put on his bear brakes and come to a skittering halt. This was all about the sound and nothing about the fury.

I just wished the sound—which was throaty and primal and utterly believable—wasn’t making my sphincter tighten.

I couldn’t really just stand there, could I? I began to question the wisdom of the pamphlet. What if it was misinformation put out by the bears themselves? Some kind of slick, bear propaganda? Shouldn’t I, as a trained journalist, weigh the veracity of my source a little more carefully—and, more to the point, weigh the possibility the source might be hungry?

The rational part of my brain kept repeating those simple safety tips.
Don’t run
.
Stay calm. Running only makes matters worse. This is a bluff.

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
5.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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