Monday, June 23, 2014

Gabriella

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 d├ęcor, 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.
                Gabriella,
                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.

                Herm 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

And then there was a single large caliber rifle shot.

     When you live high on a mountain and deep in the woods, you experience a diversity of sight and sound like no place else.  Whether it is watching an Eastern Screech Owl and her baby roosting just feet away from my deck, listening as the moonshiners ply their illegal trade deep into the night, the rhythm of a Pileated Woodpecker rocking out to some unheard heavy-metal song, the rustle of leaves as chipmunks and snakes scurry off to their daily chores, the staccato reports of the yahoos up above me who target practice each weekend, or the screams of some birds that sound reminiscent of old Tarzan movies, there is always something to grab and hold your attention.

     Oh, and then there is the occasional bear that wanders through the neighborhood.

     Sandra Lynn was sitting out on the front deck one sleepless night a week or two ago, when she heard heavy footsteps on the slope to the east of my house.  She scrambled to turn on the lights in time to see a moderate sized black bear step from the woods and meander down the driveway.  As it crossed the gate line, it set off my driveway alarm and awakened me.  We laughed and talked about the inevitability of a visit from an Ursus americanus; we do live in the Great Smoky Mountains.
     We have repeatedly heard the alarm sound in the nights since then.  I have elected to keep the outside garage lights on at night to deter our nocturnal neighbor from investigating the house and its surrounds.  I do have some trepidation for the dogs that run free on the mountainside, especially my beloved Angel (see old blog post), but from the size and the time of year, it is probably a juvenile exploring the area, and it will fear the dogs too much to attempt an attack or make this a permanent territory.

    That brings me to the events of today, well, today and the last several days.  For a few days now, about mid-afternoon the dogs up and down the mountain have been going crazy with excited barks and anxious yelps.  Several have taken to chasing something through the woods down below my home.  I can’t see them, but from the sounds, I can track their movement as they drive their prey along the fence lines.
     Sandra and I have speculated that it was, in fact, our neighborhood bear being tormented by the dogs.  So today as I worked on a couple of expedites, the dogs took up the chase again.  Their agitated calls summoned my big, brave Sebastian to go out front and interpret the language of his brothers.

     And then there was a single large caliber rifle shot.

     Sebastian ran to cower under my chair, and the other dogs went silent.

     I can’t say for sure what was shot, but I will be listening intently for my driveway alarm in the days that follow.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Boojum, the Monster of Eagle Nest Mountain

The day Tank McDonald died, no one was surprised.  He was a pain-in-the-ass bully as a kid, and grew into a major pain-in-the-ass as an adult.  He took his talent for extorting lunch money from school mates to a whole new level in his chosen career as an unemployed beer-a-holic; borrowing money from anyone and everyone who might be intimidated by his brute size.  He relied on that fear, knowing that they would not expect to be repaid.  Tank was smart enough to never accept anything that wasn’t readily offered to him, so except for a couple of minor public intoxication charges, he had no official police record.  But officially, there wasn’t a deputy in Haywood County that didn’t want to see him gone, and gone can have so many connotations.

Tank, whose given name was Jedidiah, was found face down in the Pigeon River out in Bethel.  He had been beaten to the point of mutilation.  There was not much of an investigation; everyone assumed it was a case of redneck justice, and no one seemed particularly upset at his violent demise.  But that was before they knew all the facts.

As a young man, I used to go camping a lot.  Friends often ask me why I have never been camping since moving up here in these mountains.  The easy excuse would be the black bears, the occasional, almost extinct, catamount, poisonous snakes, venomous spiders, or the usually friendly hill folk who after a couple of beers or a mason jar of shine might take offense at a flatlander like me trespassing on their ancestral land.  But like I said, that would be the easy excuse; the real reason I stay away from the woods at night lies deep in that ultra-perceptive part of the human soul where a societal paranoia can be birthed from happenstance too rare and too unlikely to be believed, and every individual needs a rational alibi.

A week before Tank disappeared, three young couples had set up camp in the DuPont forest for a weekend of heavy partying.  It was on the second night that an argument broke out between two of the campers.  Fueled and fortified by alcohol and stolen prescription narcotics, one of the young women grabbed a flashlight and her keys, vowing to drive herself home.  She had apparently made it to her car because the 2004 CRV was gone, but no one has seen or heard from the camper since.  Over near Brevard, even after all this time, there are still missing person posters in store front windows and each weekend, informal search parties comb the woods for the missing girl.  But everyone in the region, knowing what we all know now, is sure that there isn’t any chance they are going to find her.

The next three incidents reported were equally as odd and as seemingly unrelated to both Tank and the missing camper.  There was a farmer working late in his fields who vanished; his tractor was found abandoned and still running.  Only his prepubescent niece was secretly relieved by his disappearance.  A mechanic and his three pit bull fighting dogs were found hacked to death in a makeshift garage of a secluded country barn.  The third was an 81-year-old grandmother sitting on her porch enjoying a cigarette and a glass of bourbon.  Her husband, daughter and two grandbabies were just feet away watching television inside the family trailer; not one of them heard a sound, but the old lady was found dead, her neck twisted all the way around so that she faced backwards.  The family was devastated by the loss of the social security income from their four long-deceased neighbors.

It wasn’t until a married 26-year-old Canton police officer and a 17-year-old high school cheerleader were found naked and mutilated in the trooper’s patrol car that rumors started up about Boojum, the area’s native Bigfoot.  The speculation began as the fantastical rationalizations of a group of schoolboys trying to literally “scare the pants off” their girlfriends, but like dowsing a campfire with grain alcohol, the story inflamed the community and spread like flames through the dry underbrush of the rural society.

Within the next three weeks, there were seven new cases of people being killed or inexplicably disappearing; each victim with their own unsavory secret.  Boojum was blamed.  Our quiet community was suddenly overrun by television crews, news media, cryptozoologists, self-important cynics and naysayers, and scores of professional and amateur Bigfoot hunters.  It was entertaining to watch the panic and excitement spread.  Of course there were dozens and dozens of unsubstantiated sightings, a few blurry iPhone videos, plenty of audio recordings of howls, whistles and grunts, and many more stories of close encounters than there were factual incidents.  The legend of Boojum, the Monster of Eagle Nest Mountain was alive and well with all of its history, lore, fear and tourism garnering insatiability.

Of the outsiders here to document the details, only one had the misfortune of succumbing to the monster.  His name was Jared Spence, I know his name because he interviewed me three times.  He was a particularly good investigative reporter who was boasting of the discovery of evidence indicating that a human was the perpetrator and not some unknown species of bipedal primate.  Spence was found face down in a field off Crabtree Mountain Road.  His arms, legs and head had been severed from his torso, but carefully positioned in their proper place to give the appearance of an intact body.  Interestingly, his camera, voice recorders and notebooks were missing and never found.

I personally do not find it hard to believe that a monster of this sort could live so close in proximity to a population and stay hidden from view.  Whether it be man-like or some other type of beast, unseen monsters live.  They reside in the unexplored backwoods of the imagination, and are sheltered in that incongruous amalgam of factual misinterpretation and our fear of the unknown.  The one thing that I am certain of is that these incredulous tales that arise from time to time in secluded communities throughout the world bring a color, vibrancy and a communal cleansing to the lives of the inhabitants.  It is most unfortunate that there has to be the occasional death attributed to these fables, but without verifiable facts, no one would be tempted to believe in the unbelievable.

I think now is the time to give Western North Carolina a rest.  Boojum needs to be gone, and gone can have so many connotations.  The mystery of the Eagle Nest Mountain Monster should be boxed up, stowed in the archives of backwoods folklore and relegated to ghost stories told around campfires.  The mountain people must resume their quiet rural lives, but preserve the excitement of what once terrorized their community as a mythology whispered to the grateful, visiting tourists and adventure hunters. 


For me, I think it is time I was gone, too.  I’m considering a move up into the remote Appalachian region of West Virginia and to see what kind of stories I can scare up from those people.  I think I have gleaned enough real-life experience from these hills to pepper my true-crime fiction with the goriest of details and first-hand descriptions to keep my readers happy.  Who knows, if things get a little too quiet here in Haywood County, maybe I’ll come back, but then again, there are so many places I have yet to visit and too many legends left locked away.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Birthdays? Seriously?

I woke up yesterday older than I was the day before.  Not a day older, a whole year older!  Now when I fill out some dumb form or an on-line survey, I have to remember to check the box below the one I was just getting used to.  Why?  Really was this Monday any different from the one last week?  Oh, I get it; it was my birthday, but that is such a ruse perpetrated by card makers and jewelry hungry women.  Yes, it was the anniversary of the date recorded on some hospital record in a city that I never lived in (except that one day), but that date is nothing more than random, and birthdays (well, my birthday) should not be considered so significant, and certainly not important.
June 2nd, my birthday, that is the day that my mother and her Air Force obstetrician decided to schedule her cesarian section.  Totally random.  Why not June 1st or the 7th?  It is technically elective surgery, you can do it whenever you want.  Seriously, everyone knows you can’t win one of those baby-store pools with a cesarian; the mother gets to pick her delivery date and she will always be exactly right.  
In a way, even those more traditional "dilate-and-push" deliveries are pretty random, too.  On average, how many women actually give birth on their “due date”?  Everyone’s body reacts differently; sometimes the babies come early; sometimes they come late.  So what’s the big deal about the arrival date?  (Other than the obvious relief of an empty womb.)  Are birthdays really all that important?  My business partner, Adriana Joleigh’s twins were born premature, so does that mean they are actually younger than their age reveal?  Their scheduled birthday would have been much later.
There are some people that think we should base our age on the date of conception.  That is one date that is not very random.  But that brings in a whole other set of complexities.  I have known women that in order to calculate their date of gestation, they would have to first have paternity DNA tests done and then compare it to a contemporaneously written diary.  Even that might have a flaw, what if the little swimming guy is having so much fun (at the expense of that Friday night bottle of wine Daddy drank) that he decides to hang around the water park riding the tubes and splashing in the pools before doing a leisurely back stroke up to Lady Egg’s place and doing the nasty?  It might not be until Saturday afternoon before Baby Embryo is conceived.  And what if Mommy suddenly remembers all of that inappropriate attention Daddy was showing the visiting college babe at the party last night and throws Daddy Donor out of the house Saturday morning?  Nine months later her diary is still going to be off by one whole day.  See, even conception age is random.
I guess we do have to measure age somehow.  And of course, we use the Gregorian calendar, not the Jewish calendar, not the Zodiac calendar; no we use the calendar with the biggest flaw in the history of time keeping.  The Gregorian calendar is roughly approximated on the Earth’s solar orbit and measured by the Atomic clock that is so accurate that every four years we have to sneak a 29th day into the month of February.  Yes, our age is measured by the great Monk-devised system that managed to skip an entire year!  It went from 1 BCE to 1 AD.  What happened to year ZERO?  Hey, maybe we should do that each millennium.  Think about it, we would never have had that horrific Y2K scare if we had only followed the precedent and gone from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2001.  If was good enough back then, why not now?
Oh, and about those so-called leap years, do people who are born on February 29th really age slower that the rest of us?  See what I mean about the randomness of birthdays?  Leap-babies go through life like the polar opposites of dogs.  Think about it, I turned 14 ½ yesterday that sounds much better than the box I have to check on those surveys.  Geez, here’s an idea: we could measure our birthdays in months instead of years.  Yup, yesterday I turned the ripe old age of 696.  That would make me feel almost Biblical.  Oh, wait a second, that would really mess up my budget if everyone had a birthday every month, never mind.
Numerical age is a number, nothing more.  The great author Zora Neal Hurston went her entire adult life telling people she was ten years younger than the records actually indicate.  And once while growing up, our entire family had to renew our military IDs due to a change in my father’s assignment.  My ID came back with my older brother’s birthdate.  The whole time we lived in Puerto Rico, I was four years older than all my friends in school.  Believe me, when you are on the up-side of the hill, being a little older is not so bad.  Once you top the crest and start down the other side, being older is not a preference.  No, at this point I think I would rather be a few years younger (especially when I see all those beautiful women still making their way up the hill).
Don’t get me wrong, as dumb as the idea of birthdays is, I still celebrate them.  Gifts, cards, flowers, dinners, I do it all.  Well, most of the time I do it all.  I was born with the defect of a Y chromosome, so I tend to miss a few.  It is a little known fact that Bill Gates wrote the code for Outlook long before he wrote his famous (or is it infamous) operating system.  He realized that he needed something to help him remember his wife’s birthday.  Every time he forgot, the lovely Melinda would throw all of his stuff out of the windows.  Yup, that’s where the name comes from.
For my lady friends out there, please don’t follow in Melinda Gates’ footsteps, if your male significant other messes up, it is not really his fault.  If you check chapter 12 of the Male Handbook and Users Guide, third edition, volume II, you will note that it is required that men forget at least 35% of all important dates, including birthdays, anniversaries, first kisses, and your mother’s visit.  Please go easy on him, the last thing this world needs is another Windows operating system.

Seriously, thank you to all of my friends, from all over the globe, for your wishes on my 14 ½ birthday.  It meant a lot to me to hear from every one of you.  I even got a text message from my ex-wife (she spelled 4 out of 6 words right; she either had help or was using a dictionary).  I guess we are all happy I'm still alive and made it through another year (okay, maybe not the ex-wife).  So until next time, may you all feel as young as your best deluded self-image.