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Authors: Brad Parks

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The Girl Next Door (6 page)

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
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She had me there. My last serious relationship was now several years in my rearview mirror, and it had ended rather poorly. The lady and I had been living together at my house in Nutley—the house also ended poorly, but that’s another story—and we were entering that period in our late twenties when we spent a lot of time going to friends’ weddings. I thought we were heading in the same direction, even thought I was happy about it. Then she explained to me I wasn’t, then explicated all the reasons. The short version: she didn’t like anything about me, after all. I’m not even sure I had digested the long version by the time she was off shacking up with someone new.

And now? I seemed to have become a rather committed bachelor. I had sporadic and nonrecurring dalliances with the opposite sex, though nothing that stuck. My life pretty much consisted of deadline (the job) and Deadline (the cat).

“Well, okay, fair point,” I said. “I’m just not a big symphony guy.”

“Come on, I’ll wear a dress and pretend not to notice when you stare at my legs all night.”

“Tempting offer.”

“Perhaps you missed the point earlier,” she said. “It’s not an offer. It’s an order.”

*   *   *

As promised, Tina changed into a regulation-issue Little Black Dress, one that stopped several inches above the knee. She coupled it with a dash of perfume, a thin gold choker, and four-inch heels. And it was a good thing we were leaving the building because she was starting to set off all the smoke detectors.

We took her car—a Volvo being a better fit for the symphony than a used Malibu—and scooted across town to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, a handsome brick edifice that really shines when lit up at night. Built in the late nineties, NJPAC was trumpeted as the catalyst that would bring nightlife roaring back to downtown Newark in a way not seen since the city’s long-ago heyday.

And while those expectations had perhaps been unrealistic—they were building a concert hall, not a miracle machine—there was no disputing that the surrounding area, while still a bit grungy, was far better off for its presence. In a lot of ways, it was typical of the urban renewal process. People somehow thought it should happen instantly, simply because you poured money into a shiny new building. But the fact was, it had taken America many long decades of concerted effort to systematically destroy its cities. It would take at least that long to build them back up.

And sure enough, Newark was getting better. A new arena, the Prudential Center, had eventually joined NJPAC downtown. A cultural community was slowly taking hold. New restaurants were cropping up. So now at least when suburbanites announced they were going to Newark for the evening, their peers looked at them only slightly crookedly.

Tina and I arrived at seven-thirty for an eight o’clock show. The
Eagle-Examiner
was one of the event’s sponsors, which meant we were invited to a special, preshow cocktail party. Once inside the building, we found the gathering simply by following the sound of overly boisterous chatter.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been sober long enough today,” I announced as we entered.

“Yeah, why don’t you do something about that for both of us,” said Tina, who didn’t seem to notice or care that she was being ogled by every man in the room with usable eyeballs.

I elbowed my way toward the bar, procured a Sam Adams for the gentleman and a white wine for the lady, and returned to find Tina alone but still not lacking for attention.

“Wow, that was a tough choice,” I said. “They had both of my favorite beers up there.”

“What are those?” Tina asked.

“Free and Free Light.”

“You can dress him up, but you still can’t take him anywhere,” Tina said, shaking her head.

We scanned the crowd, which was decked out in its finery, as if the orchestra would refuse to play if a single person wore jeans. There was nothing like the symphony to bring out the heavy-duty pretense in people, and it was being layered thickly in every corner of the room: men acting more important than they really were, women masking insecurities in catty comments, wannabe aristocrats hoping not to be outed as members of the proletariat.

As a newspaper reporter, I’m required to move in all strata of society. I get to observe human behavior everywhere, from the meanest housing projects to the gilded symphony hall. And what always strikes me is that when you strip away the superficial differences in clothing, setting, and dialect, groups of people everywhere are more or less the same. We all have our pretenses. We all posture to a certain degree. But, ultimately, most of us are just trying to find a way to fit in.

Still, in any crowd, there’s always one guy who—in a strictly symbolic sense—thinks his dick is bigger than everyone else’s. And in this crowd, that man was the guy in the middle of the room with the pocket square: Gary A. Jackman.

“Speaking of people you can’t take anywhere…” I said, pointing Tina’s attention toward our publisher.

We studied him for a moment. Something was obviously off. His face was flushed, as if he had just been running. His hair, which I had never seen even slightly out of place, was mussed in a haphazard way. His tie was askew. His voice was too loud. His posture, much like the amber-colored beverage anchored in his right hand, was sloshing from side to side.

“Is he…” Tina started, giggled, then finished: “Oh my God, Jackass is drunk.”

“Correction: Jackass is
hammered,
” I said.

Tina tittered some more, putting her hand in front of her mouth to hide her giggling.

“That is just so regrettable,” she said. “He’s not a very subtle drunk, is he?”

I didn’t find it quite as funny as Tina. For better or worse, this was the man charged with being the public face of the
Newark Eagle-Examiner.
And here he was, surrounded by some of the finer members of polite New Jersey society, totally inebriated. He wasn’t just embarrassing himself. He was embarrassing all of us.

“About as subtle as a car alarm,” I said. “It just makes me … Oh, would you look at that!”

At that moment, Jackman was in the midst of spilling his drink on the unsuspecting woman standing next to him. She was wearing a red cocktail dress, which immediately acquired a dark stain down the front. The woman was mortified, but it was about to get worse: Jackman removed his pocket square and started attempting to dry her off, essentially groping her breasts in the process. The woman twisted away to free herself from molestation, but he didn’t seem to understand and clumsily pursued her for several steps until she finally got away.

The entire group around Jackman was politely pretending nothing had happened. For his part, Jackman was too oblivious to know how ridiculous he looked. In the meantime, a waiter had supplied him with a fresh drink. I noticed everyone was now giving him a wider berth.

“What a fool,” I said.

“Oh, give Jackass a break,” Tina said. “He’s under a lot of pressure these days. He’s just blowing off some steam.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I guess ruining a perfectly good newspaper can be tough on a guy.”

“Say what you want. I know he’s not exactly beloved in the newsroom, but he’s doing everything in his power to save our paper right now. It’s got to be a strain.”

“Yeah, why don’t you run over and give him a backrub to relieve the tension?”

“I’m serious,” Tina said. “Those negotiations can’t be easy.”

“What negotiations?”

Tina was about to answer when she was interrupted by a chiming sound being piped in from somewhere above us. The show was about to start.

“Drink up,” she said. “Let’s go find our seats.”

*   *   *

I drained my beer as Tina finished her wine, then she grabbed my arm and escorted me into the concert hall, where she made for the front of the orchestra section.

“Not exactly the cheap seats, huh?” I said.

“My best reporter is worth every penny I paid for these,” she replied.

“I thought you said they were free.”

“Exactly.”

“Ouch. Now you’re hurting my feelings.”

“If you’re nice, I’ll make it up to you later.”

She gave me a flirty smile and a quick peck on the cheek. Tina had a long history of being all bark, no bite. So I mostly just dismissed the comment as the wine talking. Still, as we made our way to our seats, she pulled more of her body against my arm, bringing me in close enough that I fell under the spell of her perfume. Before I could exert any control over my brain, I began wondering what she might or might not be wearing under her dress and, more to the point, how I could get myself in a position to find out.

We had to break contact when we made it to our row, which snapped me out of it. I reminded myself Tina was, essentially, my boss. And as nice as it might be to temporarily ignore the prohibition on reporter-editor fraternization, we both knew it would make things too weird in the long run.

Or at least I think we did.

“Anyway, you were asking about the union negotiations,” Tina said as we settled into our seats. “Have you really not heard about them?”

“Sorry, I don’t sit in meetings all day where these sorts of things are discussed, remember? You’ll have to enlighten me.”

Tina stared straight ahead for a second, as if she needed to summon the strength to explain it all.

“Gosh, I don’t even know where to start,” she said. “You know we’re losing money, right?”

“Buckets of it, yes.”

“Well, one of the reasons is that a lot of the contracts we signed with our unions date back to better days,” Tina said. “So, for example, even though our revenues have plummeted, the guys who drive our distribution trucks are still working under a collective bargaining agreement that guarantees them a three percent raise.”

“No kidding. Damn, where do I sign up for
that
?”

Our newsroom wasn’t unionized. Once upon a time, it hadn’t seemed all that necessary. As reporters and editors, we fancied ourselves highly specialized, highly skilled, highly mobile workers who did not need group representation: if management didn’t keep wages competitive, we would—in the fine tradition of LeBron James—take our talents elsewhere. We told ourselves unions were for auto workers and factory linemen, people who worried their jobs would be outsourced to Bangladesh, not for stars like us.

Then our business collapsed, taking those illusions with it. Suddenly we were no different from employees in any other contracting industry. And we had grown so comfortable during the good ol’ days, we didn’t have any kind of collective bargaining to give us some shred of leverage.

So I hadn’t had a pay raise in six years. The pay
cuts
started three years ago. And really, I was just happy to have hung on to my job. Szanto and a lot of my other (now former) colleagues weren’t as fortunate.

“Yeah, well, we’ll go out of business if we can’t renegotiate those deals, and Jackman obviously knows that better than anyone,” Tina said. “And it’s not just the drivers. It’s the delivery people, the press operators, pretty much all the unions. None of them want to give in. But they’re also realistic enough to know that if the paper goes under, they won’t have jobs.”

“And a three percent pay raise doesn’t do much for you if you’re no longer getting a paycheck in the first place,” I said.

“Exactly,” Tina said. “So it’s like this big game of chicken. We tell them we need concessions. They say they’ll go on strike if we keep pressing for them. We say we’ll go out of business if we don’t get them. And round and round it goes.”

The audience was getting settled in, as were the musicians, who were fiddling with their instruments and readying themselves for the appearance of their concertmaster and conductor.

“I guess it just bothers me that all I ever hear about is how we need to cut costs. You never hear about new revenue initiatives,” I said, as a drummer tested the timpani. “It’s going to take a pretty bright person to figure out how a newspaper can monetize the Web, and I don’t have a lot of confidence Jackass is the guy.”

Just then, as if on cue, Jackman came stumbling down the aisle toward us. He was being loosely steered by an usher, who led him to a row two ahead of ours, where there was just one empty seat. Naturally, it was in the middle of the row. And Jackman, whose dexterity was several scotches behind him, began falling over people on his way toward it.

“Jackass is made of tougher stuff than you think,” Tina said, keeping her voice lower now that he was in the vicinity. “I know he plays the part of the dandy. But at the paper he worked at in Michigan, he pretty much broke one of the unions he was negotiating with. He just refused to blink. Supposedly it got pretty nasty.”

“Nasty … how?”

“Well, he bashed some guy’s brains in, for one.”

“What!”

“I’ve heard this story from a few people, so I’m pretty sure it’s true. The union was trying to intimidate Jackass and sent some muscle to his country club, just to scare him, show him they meant business. The story I heard is that Jackman took a seven-iron and buried it in the guy’s skull.”

“Holy crap! Didn’t he face assault charges or anything?”

“Apparently the guy who came at him was carrying a concealed gun. He hadn’t pulled it, but it was on him, so Jackman was able to claim self-defense, and his golfing buddies backed him up. There were no charges.”

I shook my head as I watched Jackman find his seat and sink heavily into it.

“All I’m saying is, don’t underestimate Gary Jackman,” Tina finished. “The man has brass balls.”

I was about to comment on Jackman’s balls when suddenly, from two rows ahead of us, there was a commotion. A woman let out a horrified shriek. Two men jumped up from their seats, as if there were debris falling on them from above. Another man stood up and was staring down at a whitish mess dripping from his tuxedo pants. It was difficult at first to discern what, exactly, had happened.

Then it all became clear: Gary A. Jackman, the
Newark Eagle-Examiner’
s dandy, brass-balled publisher, had thrown up on the guy next to him.

*   *   *

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
4.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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