Protection

An O. Henry Prizewinning Short Story by Paola Peroni

May 25, 2017  By Paola Peroni
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Last year, Antonio Greco committed suicide after attempting to kill his wife with a hammer.

The doctors refused to speculate on the prognosis of his wife, hospitalized in critical condition. When we heard the news, I said I was only surprised Antonio had waited so long to try to kill Maria.

My grandparents had employed Antonio as a driver and butler when he was a young man. In their house in Rome, Antonio had met Maria, who worked there as the cook. The couple remained a stable presence in our lives through the years, always in attendance to help with Christmas dinners and other celebrations. But my grandmother knew him first.

“I warned him he was making a mistake,” my grandmother said whenever discussing his marriage. “That woman is an insufferable litany of complaints. She could drive anybody mad.”

Antonio was the most efficient butler she had ever had, and yet after he married, my grandmother willingly let him go and got him a higher-paying job as a driver in the family company. Maybe she felt responsible; after all, he had met Maria while working in her house, and with a family to support he needed a bigger salary.

My family decided not to tell my grandmother of the attempted murder and Antonio’s suicide. She had endured enough, they said. I disagreed. She was alive and alert, and for her that meant being in charge. Nobody listened to me. I had been living abroad for many years. I had chosen distance to prevent family’s interference; now I was prevented from interfering.

I was living in New York then, but I had returned to Rome to be with my grandmother during her final Christmas, a family festivity I had carefully evaded for the past six years. The chaos that plagued Rome throughout the year became claustrophobic during the holidays. The splendor of its ancient past, alive in its monuments, churches, cobblestone streets, and fountains, disappeared amidst the frantic activity.

My grandmother lived in a residential neighborhood that was spared some of the turmoil. Her apartment was on the top floor of an 18th-century building, austere in its elegance. The high ceilings and the antique furniture were imposing, but the kitchen, with the old stove and sink, devoid of any modern appliances, was an inviting gathering place. The refrigerator was fully stocked at all times, and there was always a freshly baked cake. When I went for a visit, I never failed to stop in the kitchen. A superb cook, my grandmother supervised the preparations of every meal. It was a comfort to know that you could show up at any time and find a snack or a meal as if she had been expecting you.

The day I arrived in Rome, I went directly to my grandmother’s apartment. I did not stop in the kitchen as was my habit, but went straight to her room. Her 96-year-old body was ravaged by leukemia, but she had retained her sharp mind.

“I was waiting for you,” she said when I entered her bedroom.

I stood at her bedside. She looked me over and said, “You’re too thin.”

She said, “When are you planning to get married and have children?”

She had never asked before. “I don’t have any plans,” I said.

“It’s time you start making some,” she said. “I don’t want you to be alone when you get old.”

“A family is no guarantee against loneliness,” I said.

She said, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

Her own father had committed suicide following a financial collapse shortly after she got married. Her husband’s death had left her a widow at 54. Her daughters were both divorced. That her family was gathered at her deathbed was evidence of her strength of character in having kept us together.

“What is it you want?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

She said, “You built a house in Los Angeles, and as soon as construction was over, you put it on the market and moved to New York. You keep moving, but you’re still lost.”

On her deathbed she was still a commanding presence, but unlike others, I had never been intimidated by her. From early on, I questioned authority. My defiance was a challenge my grandmother had come to accept, and through our disagreements she had earned my respect.

“I never liked Los Angeles. I only lived there because of my job, but I got tired of it.”

“And I am tired of watching people I love make mistakes,” she said.

“Didn’t you ever make mistakes?” I asked.

“I made plenty,” she said. “But I did not run away from them.”

In the 80s Italy was swept by a wave of kidnapping. The prominence of my family made us targets. My uncle had barely escaped an attempt when he left his home earlier than usual, and the kidnappers were not quick enough to snatch him before he got into his car and drove away.

My brother and I were in high school at the time, and my parents were concerned for our safety. My father decided to have Antonio drive us in the company’s bulletproof car to the bus stop. We were not allowed out of the car until the bus arrived, and he escorted us onboard. This was a source of great embarrassment to me. I hated being driven in a fancy car to the bus stop and having to wait indoors, apart from the other kids. In winter we were shielded from the cold and rain, and I watched with envy my schoolmates talking and seeking shelter together. I would have liked to invite them to sit with us, but there was not enough room for everybody, and I could not bring myself to choose among them. My brother made things worse when, because of his slackness, we were late and missed the bus. Antonio was then forced to race after it in an attempt to reach the next stop, as the kids on the bus cheered us on. I remember my desire to disappear from a world where I was forced to be in a sleek car driven by a man in uniform as my schoolmates looked on and my brother, untroubled by a delay of his own making, lounged half-asleep in the back seat.

I doubted Antonio could prevent us from being kidnapped. But I would have also doubted anybody who had told me he was capable of murder and suicide. He was short, flabby, alert, argumentative, and with a sunny disposition. I could imagine him talking the kidnappers out of kidnapping us, if not rescuing us from them. But I was wrong. There is no predicting who can protect us and who can attack us, nor whom we will harm and whom we will save.

An undercurrent of tension marked the days preceding Christmas. The doctor had warned us my grandmother might die any day, but she was determined to spend a last Christmas with her family, and to me that counted more than the doctor’s words. I brought an armchair into her room and sat reading while she drifted in and out of sleep. People came and went, but I did not move. At times when we were alone, I caught her gaze.

She said, “That brain of yours. Does it help you to stay out of trouble?”

“It makes trouble interesting,” I said.

“That’s what I feared,” my grandmother said.

I too feared trouble’s appeal. I had just ended an affair with a man in Los Angeles whose sick wife I had befriended and tended to until she died. Dissecting my lack of shame and guilt was a distraction from the heartache of watching my dog die, and the sole reason I had engaged with the couple.

“Is anybody waiting for you back in New York?” she asked.

I looked up from my book. “My job,” I lied.

I not only did not have a job, but was not looking for one, simply because I had no idea what to look for.

“You don’t give anybody a chance,” she said.

I said, “I give plenty of chances.”

“Stick with someone; it’s the only way to find out if he is worth it,” she said.

I said, “Maybe I’m not worth it. Maybe I am the problem.”

She said, “Is that what you’re so scared to find out?”

“I’m scared of what I am capable of.”

She said, “I’m glad to hear it. We should all be scared of what we are capable of.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I said.

She said, “Nothing is wrong with you, and you’re not so different as you like to think. Pass me the oxygen mask. You’ve used up my breath.”

When the nurse came to attend to her, I stayed. I liked the nurse, and so did my grandmother. She was a big woman, and her sense of humor and ease in performing her duties made them less degrading, or so I hoped. That day, she entered the room while I was collecting my books, and removed my grandmother’s dentures. In an effort not to show my unease and make my grandmother uncomfortable, I did not look away. But as I stood there, an incident in my childhood returned. I had been spending a few days at my grandmother’s, and in the middle of the night I felt ill. I walked into her room, and with a movement of her hand she stopped me from moving forward. She did not prevent me, however, from catching a glimpse of her reaching for her dentures and putting them into her mouth. A woman of taste, she was careful not to elicit distaste from others. This was part of the reason she never discussed her father’s suicide with anybody. Though everyone knew about it, she only spoke of it when I had ventured to ask her a few years before.

 

“Love is grief: love we have, love we lack, love we give, and love we miss.”

 

“There is no end to what you want to know,” she said.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” I said.

“Nobody ever asked, and I never told my story. Maybe it was a mistake,” she said, and I sensed relief mixed with reluctance.

“I was very close to my father, but I knew nothing of his troubles. His death came as a shock. He did not leave a note, an explanation, not a word. All he left were debts, including those of my lavish wedding he had organized.”

He had been a prominent attorney, and she had grown up in luxury, but he had deserted his family rather than face financial ruin. Disappointment in the father she had loved was repugnant to her.

“Did you have to pay the debts?” I asked.

“Your grandfather’s family had to intervene. They were gracious and generous, and could afford to be, but it was no less humiliating,” she said. The humiliation was exacerbated by her knowledge that her mother-in-law had not approved of the marriage, believing her a spoiled woman, too frivolous for her son. My grandmother was determined to prove her wrong, and her father’s suicide only strengthened her determination.

“I never asked for anything. I never pretended anything. I never complained. It took years, but my mother-in-law finally wrote me a letter apologizing for having misjudged me.”

“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” I said.

“I am ashamed of my father,” she said.

After she died, I found, among the correspondence she had carefully preserved, letters from her husband, her children, her grandchildren, other members of the family, and friends, but nothing from her father. Even in her diaries, there was no mention of him. But omissions reveal more than confessions. The unwavering effort to negate him never dispelled his prominence in her life.

Love is grief: love we have, love we lack, love we give, and love we miss.

I remembered Antonio’s son, the reserved boy with whom I had played in my childhood, now a married man with two children of his own, having to cope with his father’s suicide while he assisted his mother in her recovery. But the gap between what we can imagine and what we can endure leaves room for surprises, and I hoped this son of Antonio and Maria would amaze everyone, and himself above all.

Maria’s return to her senses was harder to envision. She might forsake sanity to survive. She might add the tragic topic to her litany of complaints. She might resort to silence to quench the shame. She might be unable to endure the pain and follow her husband, or find the will for a needed change. But the glare of the past would dim the future she had left to live.

The day before Christmas Eve I did not tell anyone where I was going. It was a chilly afternoon, and the city was all glitter and traffic. Antonio’s funeral was being held in a neighborhood that was a peaceful village during the day but lost all its charm at night, when crowds flooded its streets in the desperate pursuit of amusement. The church was not crowded, and in the front row Antonio’s son stood next to the casket. When the service was over, people gathered around him with downcast eyes, unable to face him. I recognized some of them, and we exchanged silent greetings. He saw me and came forward. He extended his hand, and I held it briefly in both of mine.

“Any news about your mother?” I asked.

“Last night the doctors declared her out of danger,” he said. “I didn’t know what to wish for.”

I let go of his hand but not of his gaze.

I said, “My grandmother’s father committed suicide.”

“Her father did not try to commit murder before he killed himself,” he said.

I said, “Her father had a different reason. He had squandered all his money.”

“How is she doing?” he said.

I said, “Determined to make it through Christmas.”

“I wish I had the same determination,” he said.

I set out to make my way home on foot, and crossed the bridge. Glimmers of light over the surface of the water dimmed under an unrolling blanket of darkness. Streaks of pastel colors dripped from the sky as if a painter had been rinsing his brush after a long day’s work. The pale variations of pink blurring the fading canvas over the Eternal City struck me at once with that familiar torpor I dreaded. To love Rome, I had to leave it.

My grandmother was asleep when I returned. The nurse was resting in the adjacent room. I sat in my usual chair, but I could not read.

“Where have you been?” she asked with her eyes closed.

“To Antonio’s funeral,” I said.

She opened her eyes. “Antonio Greco died?”

I said, “Nobody wants you to know, and you should pretend you don’t know.”

I told her what happened without leaving anything out. She was attentive, but age and exhaustion dimmed shock and surprise.

“You did the right thing,” she said, and I was relieved to see she did not need to be spared the truth.

My grandmother made it through Christmas. She got out of bed and sat on the wheelchair at the head of the table the way she always did. She had not cooked the meal but had ordered it from a catering service. She tried a bit of everything and grimaced: It did not compare to her cooking. While I ate, I got my first taste of what Christmas without my grandmother would be like.

The day before, my aunt had asked me to go buy a present from the family for my grandmother.

I was incredulous. “We are exchanging presents?”

“It’s Christmas. We always exchange presents,” said my aunt.

“Grandmother is dying. She knows it. It’s insulting to pretend it’s just another Christmas,” I said.

“Keep quiet for once, and do as you’re told,” said my aunt.

“I don’t want any part in this charade. Find somebody else to do it,” I said and left.

Despite my remonstrations, after dinner we proceeded to exchange presents, and my grandmother asked me to open hers.

“I am not in the mood to open presents,” I said.

She said, “Neither am I.”

My younger cousin, an apprehensive woman, stepped forward and opened it for her. It was a pretty negligee. It was put on her when she was dressed to be buried. I don’t know who had gone shopping for it, but I am sure it was not bought with this in mind. The living have an uncanny proclivity to ignore death when faced with it.

She glanced at her present and said, “I am tired.”

I helped to put her back to bed, and it was then I saw the ordeal she had gone through to sit with us at the dinner table.

When we were alone again, I leaned my forehead on the edge of her bed.

“It’s hard to stay put,” she said without opening her eyes. “But even trouble gets tedious after a while.”

A few days later I received a call in the night, and rushed to her apartment. The nurse was taking her pulse. My grandmother looked exhausted, and I knew she was ready to go. My aunt called the doctor, and when she arrived, the doctor instructed the nurse to add a palliative sedative to the I.V. The nurse obeyed. Yet it was not long before my grandmother revived and asked for a sip of coffee. Then her breathing got heavy again, and the agony that lasted twelve hours began.

She was conscious to the very end, and to the end she squeezed my hand to let me know she knew I was there. I believe she wanted to reassure me, but I did not need reassurance. I needed it to be over.

The pain she had to endure in those hours enraged me. The nurse had removed her dentures, and when I protested, she said at that point they were an impediment to comfort. I waited to be alone in the room, and with my grandmother’s collaboration I eased the dentures back into her mouth.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

My father and his sisters came in and out at brief intervals. I later learned they had been busy making funeral arrangements. I remained at my grandmother’s side with my cousin. She could hear me, and I leaned over and said, “I want to find out what I’m worth.”

She winked at me. I would have to find out for myself.

I knew my grandmother’s religious beliefs were a comfort to her, and I knew she wished I had them too. To her dismay I had rejected the Church, but it was my friend, a young Jesuit, who came to give her the extreme unction.

“This is the greatest gift,” my grandmother said, taking my hand.

That I was the one to have delivered it was unexpected, and maybe promising to her. As I watched her dying, the only idea of paradise that came to mind was the one I heard a friend describe, as that place where we do not hurt the ones we love.

It was night when my grandmother left us.

Nobody can protect us.

 

This story originally appeared in The Common. See the rest of the 2017 O. Henry Prize stories here.




Paola Peroni
Paola Peroni was educated at the University of Pennsylvania. Her stories have appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, the Antioch Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fence.




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