Our First Meeting
The storm rolled in from the southwest; I watched it with studied disinterest, numbed by the day’s events. Not much luck had visited my mountain in more than a few years; the chilled updraft from the approaching thunderhead was a welcomed change from the stagnant humid air, but it was hardly fortuitous for anything other than the freshened scent of my perspiration. It would be another long night of hopeless pondering and aimless planning.
The once gentle roll of the thunder now became punctuated with infrequent snaps like angry cannon fire; the dog whimpered and shook. In a storm, I was less comforting to him than he was for me in my isolated, wearisome existence. In some ways I like living like this and in others, I hated life and the obligation I had to continue.
The dog and I listened as a worn transmission pushed an aged pickup up the steep grade of the access road. We both knew it would not make the turn into my drive, all of the neighbors had learned from experience that my cabin, in spite of its staging and décor, no longer contained the warmth of invitation and friendship. Although the words had never been shared with me, the town’s people feared my hermitage and the grizzled man and dog that resided there. The once flirtatious cashier at the grocer now turned her head when I shopped for provisions. The jovial crowds at the cafes and taverns disavowed our former friendships, and I graciously left them to their dishonesty by eating at home and buying my whiskey from the package store. They would argue that it was I who changed, but if I were ever so disposed to engage in such a polemic dispute, I could remind them of what once was, and how that affected everyone, not me alone. What once was is no longer, and that is only a part of the story, but all of the truth.
There would be no dispute that in the years before the scandal, things were different. You must forgive me for using such a provincial term as scandal for something that had such wide sweeping effects. The money that once flowed so easily from my coffers to the local merchants and charities, the support I lent to the now defunct banks and businesses, the gala community celebrations, my stature as an elected official, and most significant, the angel under whose halo I was shaded, are all gone now. What is left of what I once had is unimportant; what is left of the town, scarred and deformed, is the legacy of my beloved Gabriella.
She arrived in town as a member of a South American dance troupe here for an international festival hosted by the small town of Waynesville. I would learn later that her lilting accent, although rooted in Columbia, was from her upbringing in New Mexico. Her English was as near perfect as her Spanish, the result of a valedictorian high school education and two years at Dona Ana Community College.
The first time I saw her was in the opening grand parade. She appeared to be somewhat older and certainly less graceful than her troupe mates, but her smile and her beauty captured the attention of all who watched. Some people say I was immediately smitten; I don’t remember it that way. Oh, I noticed her; there is no heterosexual male that would not have noticed her, but smitten, no. She was half my age, and at best, a temporary tourist; the most I could hope for is to collect a memory full of exotic smiles to ponder when the festival ended.
Gabriella was the only dancer among the hundreds that attended the annual event that traveled with an entourage. She was, by festival rules, confined to the gender segregated dormitories in the Folkmoot Center, while her companions, later introduced as brothers and cousins, took rooms at a nearby bed and breakfast inn. Her protectors walked her to the dorm entrance each night at lights out, and were waiting for her when she left each day. She was kept isolated from the throngs of tourists and locals at all times. That is why the evening we met was so unexpected.
I was enjoying some oak aged spirits and the camaraderie of the members of our Arts Council at the Frog Leap Public House. We sat at the bar and occupied ourselves with the minutia of the community theater season of performances and the details of my expected financial support, when Gabriella, still wearing the vibrant colors of her dance costume, arrived with a party of nine companions and four of her ever-present body guards. Frog Leap is never a quiet place, but the din of their rapid syllables and the hasty rearrangement of tables, brought the noise level to near raucous.
The party attracted the eyes of every patron in the eatery, including my own, so when she made eye contact and raised her glass to acknowledge me, my involuntary reaction was to wink and raise my own glass to her. Looking back, it is likely that that sophomoric act of flirtation was what set the wheels in motion that would end in my disgrace and incarceration.
I suffered in vein to stay attuned to the theater business and ignore the clamor from the dining room at my back. The few stolen, opportunistic glances over my shoulder were never met with returned looks, so when a felt a soft hand on my shoulder and turned to face my beloved angel for the first time, I was dumbstruck.
“Excuse me. Hi, my name is Gabriella. I hate impose, but I suspect you may know which wine on here would be best for both steak and pasta.” She handed me Chef Whelan’s all-too-familiar wine list.
I swallowed hard and attempted to look relaxed, “The chef has a nice selection of reds, any of which would work.” I smiled and felt an unexpected intimidation by the inquiry into one of my favorite subjects. Looking up from the triptych of varietals, I told her, “My favorite is his Barolo Chinato, but I am afraid it is quite pricy. As an alternative, there is a very nice Merlot from Columbia that is somewhat more affordable.”
“But if the Barolo is your favorite, then I am sure it will be mine also. Thank you.” She started to turn and asked, “I did not get your name.”
“Herm, Herm Sutton. You said Gabriella?”
She held out her hand, “Gabriella De Oro. I am so happy to meet you. You are quite well-known in this town.”
“Well-known? I don’t know about that, but I have friends and I keep myself busy, if that equates to being well-known and well-known is enough to earn me the right to make your acquaintance, then I am most fortunate.” I hesitated long enough for her to notice before I released her hand, “Enjoy the wine Ms. De Oro.”
Her smile pierced me like an arrow, “I am sure we will. Thank you, Herm.”
As Gabriella returned to her table with a deliberate gait, I summoned Marc from behind the bar for another glass of bourbon and a request to see the dining room captain. Before the words finished leaving my lips I felt a firm backhand across my left shoulder. I turned to see the disappointment in the faces of my friends and realized that in my awed state I had committed the social faux pas of not making formal introductions. My stammering apologies were met with tacit acceptance until I was rescued by the approach of the Maitre ’D.
My instructions were simple; Ms. De Oro’s party’s check was to be charged against my account and she was not to be informed until I had left the premises. I requested a piece of stationary to write a note to convey my wishes to her. I told him I would leave the note with him upon my departure.
I then instructed Marc, in the presence of my friends and as an act of atonement, to charge all of their tabs to me also, and should anyone decide to stay for dinner, that too was to be included. As the paper was brought to me, I called my driver and ordered one more Wild Turkey.
I hope the wine was satisfactory. I realized at your departure that I had committed the unforgivable mistake of failing to introduce my friends, some of Waynesville’s cultural elite. I hope to redeem myself in your eyes and assure you that I do possess some degree of social etiquette; I have instructed the house to charge your party’s entire dinner bill to my account. The few dollars that it will cost me is a small price to pay for your forgiveness and the honor of your acquaintance.
Please enjoy your stay in our friendly, little town.