Editor’s note: Suspended Aggravation is an original, Wheeling-centric novel by Nora Edinger and is published exclusively through Weelunk. While some of the places mentioned in Suspended Aggravation are real (or nearly real), the storyline and most characters (with the exception of a few cameo appearances by actual city residents) exist only in the author’s imagination. For the backstory, read our Q&A with the author.
They left the newspaper building together — not talking, but walking so quickly it was almost a jog.
Location: Wheeling Heritage Trail, 40.0649° N, 80.7246° W
Emotion: “I think we’re alone now.”
Breezing past the cramped parking lot where Allie’s car stood waiting, by some sort of unspoken agreement they headed onto the paved trail that ran alongside the river. They’d probably gone a good quarter mile to the south — away from the Suspension Bridge and the bright lights around Wesbanco Arena — when Allie cried uncle.
“Gabe, I’m wearing heels.”
“Sorry,” he said, stopping so quickly that inertia propelled her a couple paces beyond him. She had to turn around to face him.
“Allie, what was going on back there? Your boss made a threat — against my job, I think. And, a couple of the guys in your office looked like they wanted to deck me.”
She sighed for the millionth time that day. Co-workers could be as bad as family. “I was already working here when I was engaged to Simon.”
“And, that means?”
“That means most of the guys in the newsroom and on the sports desk are older than I am and already married with kids or even grandkids. I’m one of only a few women at this paper. I’m kind of like everybody’s daughter or little sister. They don’t want me …”
“… to get hurt again,” Gabe finished her sentence.
Allie’s body was pointed toward him, but she stared past his shoulder, watching a coal barge churn the night-blackened water as it headed south. Gabe turned her face toward him with a soft touch to her cheek. “I don’t want that to happen again, either,” he said. “I am not going to hurt you.”
Allie flinched and backed away from his touch. She knew he was talking as much about their own distant past as what had happened with Simon more recently. Suddenly, it was just too much. The fall. The lack of sleep over the weekend. The horrid day at work.
The lingering distress she’d tried to laugh off in the Wild About Wheeling office on Saturday came back in a flood, swamping her pride just long enough for her to speak with candor.
“But, you do hurt me, Gabe,” she cried. “You humiliated me in high school. There was more than one reason I didn’t date back then, you know. What you did might not have seemed like that big of a deal to you … but, it really, really hurt me. And, now, all these years later, you kiss me again and we wind up being a public spectacle and … and, we — we aren’t even dating. I don’t like looking like a fool, and that’s exactly how this makes me feel — like a fool.”
She pivoted on her heels and set off in a near sprint back toward her office and her car. She was tired. She was hurt. She was hungry for dinner. She just wanted to go home.
Gabe caught her easily enough, holding her loosely by the waist but making no attempt to turn her to face him. “Please stop, Allie,” he said, the words spoken so closely to her hair it tickled.
The way he said “please” was enough to stop her from elbowing him in the ribs, which was her first inclination. The air kiss of sorts was enough to make her listen as if she was trying to hear every fish splash or flap of a duck’s wing along the entire river.
“We could be dating,” Gabe whispered against her ear.
That was more interesting than a fish splash. That, Allie had not expected.
“Do you want to date me?” she asked simply and quietly, her back still to him.
Gabe made an odd noise that sounded almost like he was choking, then he circled around her and bent close enough that his mouth brushed her hairline. “Yes, Allison Bennett. I want to date you,” he spelled out just above a whisper in volume. “I wanted to date you in high school, but the time wasn’t right. And, I’m glad it wasn’t even though I handled it like an absolute idiot. The time is right now. More importantly, I’m right now.”
He just looked at her then, backing away enough that she could see his eyes, black in the early darkness of the winter night. And, Allie looked back at him for the longest of moments, only slightly surprised when he brushed a kiss along her eyebrow before he spoke again.
“What about you, African Queen? Will you date me?” he finally asked. “I know I’ve hurt you. I know I’m probably not the kind of guy you’re used to, but I really am a Christian now. A good guy, or trying my best to be. You don’t have to be … I will never hurt you again. Never.”
Allie was frazzled by his nearness, his kiss, his question.
Will you date me?
Her thoughts fired so quickly at that she felt her brain might explode. Gabe was right. He totally wasn’t the type of guy she was used to. He was the type of guy — no, he was the very guy — who terrified her even more than diving boards and catwalks suspended across nothing.
But, she had to admit, he certainly could elicit something other than fear from her. It wasn’t fear that was making her heart race just now.
She made the decision suddenly.
She, Allison Bennett — geeky, somewhat flat-chested brainiac that she had been in high school and pretty much still was — was going to date Gabe Morelli — gorgeous jock-turned-engineer that he was. Long-departed cheerleaders might be turning over in their graves all over the city of Wheeling, but that was just how it was going to be.
Yes! That is what she was going to do. Yes! That was what she was going to say.
“Maybe,” was the word that actually came out of her mouth.
Gabe made another choking noise and fished up her hand from between them. “OK, African Queen,” he said, teasing each of her fingertips with a feathery kiss.
She shivered, unsure whether it was him, the wintry cold or the possibility of being mugged out here in the dark, dark night that made her do so. He seemed less unsure. His mouth twitched in a way that Allie suspected was amusement.
“Can we celebrate that ‘maybe’ with dinner?” he asked.
Location: 34 McCulloch Avenue, Warwood; 40.1165° N, 80.6982° W
Emotion: We’re all in this together.
She wasn’t expecting to wind up at his parents’ house. “Your mum won’t care?”
“My mum will be thrilled,” he said firmly.
Gabe was clearly telling the truth. No sooner had they stepped through what turned out to be the kitchen door than they were both caught up in a hug that included Gabe’s parents and at least two rather large and furry dogs. There might have been a cat in the clinch at one point, too. There was so much kissing, hugging, wagging and shedding that Allie couldn’t really tell.
“Gabriel Anthony, how did you know I was making your favorite?” Michelle Morelli demanded, kissing her son yet again on the cheek before she backed away and looked Allie up and down with friendly but unabashed interest.
If Allie had had time to imagine what Gabe’s mother would be like, this woman would have never crossed her mind as a possibility. This was no Italian mama. This was a graying-ginger spitfire who couldn’t be more than five feet tall — in shoes. A solid five-foot-eight and wearing heels, Allie felt like an Amazon.
“I hope your friend likes lasagna.” Gabe’s mum smiled so warmly, the butterfly wingbeats that had appeared in Allie’s stomach as soon as they’d pulled up to the curb almost went away. Almost.
“Mom, Dad — this is Allison Bennett, Allie. Allie, this is my mom, Michelle Morelli, and my dad, Tony Morelli.”
The formal introductions provoked another round of hugs. There was a cat, two of them, in fact. Allie felt them slip-sliding around her ankles in figure eights. The wonderful smell coming from the oven seemed like it joined the embraces, as well. It was the definition of comfort.
Then Gabe and Tony and all the pets mysteriously melted away, leaving Allie and Michelle alone in the tiny kitchen. Allie heard a great deal of laughter coming from wherever the men had gone. She wondered what was so funny.
“Can I help with anything?” Allie asked in a voice that was bordering on cartoon squeaky. She hadn’t realized she was that nervous.
Michelle pointed Allie to a giant wooden bowl empty except for a peeled clove of garlic and instructed her to rub the latter all over the bowl’s inside surface beforehand mixing a salad of greens that were already prepared on the mauve Formica counter. Allie deposited her bag and coat in a corner of the room, washed her hands and got to it.
“You seem to know your way around a kitchen,” Michelle observed, watching Allie do expertly as she had been asked. “That’s unusual for someone your age.”
Allie could have been offended by such a remark. It was just a salad. But, one look at Michelle’s face told her it was intended as a compliment. “I cook a lot,” Allie admitted. “I like to bake bread, especially. I haven’t bought any from a store for at least a couple of years.”
“Bread!” Michelle was obviously impressed. “I make donuts six days a week for our shop, but I never do bread.”
“You have a shop?”
That series of questions somehow sealed the deal. Like they had known each other for years, the women sank into a discussion that began with Downtown Donuts, which Allie had seen but never actually visited. She gathered that the Morellis had opened the store after Tony had injured himself and retired from contracting work.
They moved on to the action of yeast to the pepperoni rolls that both of Tony’s grandmothers had made for their coal-mining husbands back in the day.
The oven timer announced the lasagna was ready, but Allie was so engrossed in their conversation that she actually jumped when Michelle used a spatula to smack a silver diner-style bell that sat on top of the oven.
“Sorry, baby,” Michelle laughed. “That was the only way I could get Gabe to the table when he was a kid. Old habit.”
Dinner was just as fun as its preparation. Tony was an older version of Gabe in looks and temperament, a handsome smile springing to his lips at the least provocation. When, over bowls of ice cream, Tony dredged up stories of how many times and in bizarre ways Gabe had wound up in the ER when he was a boy, Allie and Michelle laughed so hard their eyes were glistening with tears.
“It’s a miracle you’re still alive,” Allie said, turning to Gabe. He reached across the table to take her hand.
“Dad! Let’s not scare Allie off in one night,” Gabe said almost nervously, but he was laughing, too.
Tony smiled and muttered something about, “if you haven’t already,” that Allie didn’t quite catch.
It wasn’t until Gabe was driving her back to the newspaper parking lot to get her car that Allie realized no one had mentioned the photo all evening. “Do you think they saw it?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Gabe said quietly. “They saw it.”
Allie thought about Gabe’s parents for a moment. They saw the photo. But, not one peep. “I like your parents, Gabe. Thank you for … tonight.”
Gabe was already out of the truck and at her door, offering her a hand as she slid off the seat and down to the ground. She was pleased when he pulled her into his arms for the briefest of kisses before she settled into her own vehicle.
“I’m sure they liked you, too, African Queen. I know I do,” he said, kissing her lightly once more before he closed her car door.
Allie smiled all the way home.
Location: 56 Pin Oak Avenue, Woodsdale; 40°04’33.9″N 80°41’04.1″W
Emotion: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.
Gabe’s phone rang at 10 p.m., not long after he’d dropped Allie off. He checked the caller ID. That was odd. He didn’t know his mom ever stayed up this late. She started her day at Downtown Donuts at 4 a.m.
“Hey, mom. Thanks again for dinner. We had a really great time.”
Michelle didn’t want to chat about dinner.
“Gabriel Anthony, have I ever interfered with your personal life?” she asked.
Gabe wasn’t sure how to answer that. His mom rarely said anything, true. But, she had always managed to let him know in subtler ways that she didn’t approve of his string of “girlfriends,” for lack of a better term. Not that she’d had much of an opportunity to meet many of them. He didn’t bring women home. Ever. Tonight with Allie had been a first.
Michelle didn’t seem to need an answer. She went on. “Allie has an orange cat named Marmalade. Did you know that?”
“No,” Gabe said slowly. What did Allie’s cat have to do with anything?
“She bakes her own bread and crochets prayer shawls for hospice patients. Did you know that?”
“No.” But, it didn’t surprise him. This was Allie, after all.
“Gabriel Anthony, if you looked up ‘nice girl’ in the dictionary I’m pretty sure Allie’s picture would be there. If you are not dead serious this time, mister, I want you to break it off with her right now.”
Gabe rubbed his eyes with his free hand. Great. First Allie’s boss and now his own mother. In one day.
Is there no one who thinks I am capable of treating Allie right?
Gabe didn’t expect an actual answer to that internal question. The “I do,” he somehow heard deep in his heart was, therefore, a total surprise.
The out-loud answer he gave to his mother went one better. It was a shock.
“I’m going to marry her, Mom,” he said.
Michelle answered without pause. “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. Love you, Son. Good night.” Michelle ended the call before he could respond.
Gabe stared at the phone in his hand.
What just happened here?
INSIDE THE STORY:
• No city is crime free, but Wheeling is a city that seems made for walking — even after dark in many locations. In addition to the Wheeling Heritage Trail — which is kept in excellent condition for walking, biking and in-line skating — every neighborhood in the city has literally miles of sidewalks.
• During a newspaper interview several years ago, former state Sen. Joe Minard (D-Harrison and owner of Minard’s Italian restaurant of Clarksburg, West Virginia) taught me how to season a wooden salad bowl exactly like Michelle taught Allie. Try it. It really does add some zip.
• The fictional Morellis follow a storyline that would be familiar to the many Italian families who came to Wheeling and elsewhere in West Virginia in the early 1900s: Moving from the Calabria, Campagnia and Sicilian regions of Italy to coal mining jobs in the Mountain State and, over the next century, working their way into the trades, business ownership and the professional arena. U.S. Census records show about 70,000 residents of Italian descent (4 percent of the general population) living in West Virginia as of 2000. Wheeling is among a handful of communities that celebrates this population with an annual ethnic festival.
• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.