Story: Hanging On

By: Gaither Stewart

Hangon

Professor Emiliano Madero liked to profess publicly that he felt he was in the midst of an epic battle between the two gods of ancient Mexico: Quetzalcoatl, the hero–founder of agriculture and industry, and Tezcatlipoca, the ubiquitous god of darkness, patron of sorcerers and evil ones. The struggle between the two gods for supremacy, he solemnly pronounced in his famous lectures, is the history of the world.

Emiliano Madero had been a full professor of Latin American literature, culture and mythology at Rome University for ten years. A collection of his lectures on pre-Hispanic Mesamerica had just been published by Montaenelli-Rivera Editori in Milan. He had finally achieved the success and renown his parents and maternal Italian grandmother dreamed of and was a hero in his native Guanajuato, but he had not realized his own secret ambitions – he had wanted a big family as his favorite grandmother had and needed people to relate to around him; instead he had no one but Marge.

Now he watched her light a cigarette and pour herself another glass of Pinot Grigio. At the precise moment the glass touched her lips she looked up and met his cold eyes. Immediately he softened his look but he knew it was too late – she had registered his disgust.

Sono cosi brutta?” she said in the American accent she had never lost in her 32 years in Italy.

He didn’t answer. But he knew Marge worried that he thought her ugly because of her drinking. It was true. He was disgusted. Every day the same – at five o’clock she asked him to open the first bottle and day after day, 365 days a year, it continued until midnight while she smoked a pack of Lucky Strikes. Certainly she no longer exuded any of the freshness of their early years together. Her long, narrow face, now pinched and pale, was the face of her grandmother whose faded photograph stood on the mantle over the fireplace.

Bevi, bevi,” he said. “Drinking is so good for you.”

This evening they had returned to their Via del Corso apartment later than usual after a shopping spree on Via Borgognona. Shopping was one of the few remaining activities that united them; nothing better than good shopping to make a day – and delay the evening drinking hour too.

Circling around the big living room of the penthouse apartment, he stopped at the door to the sprawling terrace and looked out toward the illuminated dome of St. Peter’s across the river. Then he glanced down at the shoes he’d just bought. Not bad, he thought, $300 at Ferragamo’s.

Marge, why don’t you try on the tailleur,” he suggested, in order to ease the tension. With a smile he poured himself his first glass of the white wine they both preferred. How often he drank just for her! If his drinking too made it easier for her, for Mexicans, he thought, it seemed more natural. Instead it made her, the rich American, seem like the lush she was. She was inexpert in concealing anything, either bad habits or her generosity.

Oh,” she said and waved her hand in her most bored manner, “that can wait. I tried it on in the store.”

The $2000 garment was bound for the closet of never-worn clothes. Only the acquiring counted. He knew the sensation. He looked down at his shoes and blushed inwardly, thinking of the dozens of pairs of new shoes in his closet. Why, at an average of $400 a pair, he must have of assets of over $30,000 in shoes alone. He still wasn’t used to such careless wealth.

As a boy in Guanajuato, Emiliano Madero had listened enraptured to his parents speak of the wonders of Italy. His grandmother, Marta Serafin, was from Friuli. Sometimes she spoke Italian with his mother. Italy was the symbol of Europe. He had long dreamed of going to this magic land. So, at Nonna Marta’s urging, when he finished high school they sent him off to Italy, to see Europe and learn proper Italian. He was 18, small and skinny, when he arrived in Perugia to study in the Language School For Foreigners. He had lived in Italy since.

He met a co-student, Marjorie Vanderval, in the first weeks of the introductory course and, though they had never married, they had been together since. Marge towered over Emil in her high-heeled leather boots that he loved. Still slim today, with the same skinny legs of 32 years earlier, Marge’s graying black hair and light complexion made her seem pale and sickly. Yet she had always been strong and her only real illnesses were frequent head colds. Her reddish nose came as much from her colds as from the wine. Her big eyes were green, set close together under a low forehead. She was not pretty but had a wonderful smile and a good word for everyone. Seldom did she even raise her voice.

Like Emil, she worked out for over an hour each day in the palestra – aerobics which she called dancing – she, just to do something, he, to combat an incipient paunch. Marjorie avoided the sun like the plague. She might sit on their terrace on a sunny June day, but wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat acquired years ago on her only trip to Mexico, big dark glasses, and her body well covered.

After wine drinking, Marjorie’s favorite occupation was shopping for clothes – only the most fashionable and most expensive, from leading stylists in Rome, Milan and Paris. Her closets were jammed with clothes – tailleurs, short wool jackets, coats, slacks, and above all shoes – most of which she had never worn, most of which she had forgotten she had. For she didn’t dress fashionably at all, usually content in old, tight-fitting jeans and high brown boots. Although she ate little, she loved good restaurants that she classified according to the wine list.

Marge,” he began cautiously, “we should get out of Rome for a while. It would do us both good. You know that I have a long break coming up, why don’t we go to Mexico for a couple of weeks. We can stay at my old home and then drive around a bit. There’s so much I still want to show you.”

Since both of his parents passed away now ten years ago, he’d only been back twice although he kept up the family home a few doors down the street from Diego Rivera’s family house. Sometimes the urge to go back overcame him although he well knew he could never live there again. Each year he proposed the trip but she always found an excuse not to go.

Oh, Emil, you know that…. I wanted to tell you….”

He knew. The usual. The cats, the dog, where would they go? The flying itself. So tiring. So boring. Since her mother died, she’d even stopped going to New York. “I hate tourism and tourists,” she always said.

In the last ten years her tourism had consisted largely of taxiing across the river to St. Peter’s every six months or so, walking under the Bernini arcades – occasionally she asked again who “that architect” was – and rather distractedly strolling through the basilica. Then it was time for lunch in one of her favorite places around Piazza Navona.

The only traveling she would do was to train to Milan or Paris – for shopping only – the little black and white cocker traveling with them in a double first class compartment. Nothing better, she might think on a normal evening at home just before midnight when the entire world seemed rosy, than an evening departure for Paris in a comfortable compartment on the Palatino, two bottles of Pinot Grigio in the conductor’s refrigerator, Fred at her feet, salmon and dark bread spread on the table as the night lights of Tuscany and Liguria flew by.

Emiliano stared at her sadly and repeated under his breath a Nahuatl poem he’d come to love – “If in one day we leave, In one night descend to the mysterious regions, Here we only come to meet, We are only passersby on earth.”

Yes, I know, Tesoro,” he said. He contemplated. He felt his affinity with Mexico’s ancient peoples. Always searching, trying to understand who and what they were. What was their relationship with the universe? What about afterlife? “Where shall I go?” he recited to himself the Aztec song of the gods. “Where shall I go? The road of the gods of duality, Could your house perchance be the place of the fleshless? Perchance inside heaven? Or is only earth here, The place of the fleshless?”

They had no children. That time had passed. They were too old and she had her dog and the cats. And all her money stashed away. They were the true passersby on earth. Leaving no traces. They were just hanging on. He sometimes felt that he already belonged to the world of the fleshless.

No, Emil, no… not that. Something serious.” It was still early and she had started late. There was still time for serious matters. As long as they avoided social problems or politics or elections. She hardly knew who the candidates were in the United States.

It’s this lump under my arm … and I seem to feel a hard spot on my left breast. It worries me … during the night.”

Tesoro, Tesoro! Why didn’t you tell me?” He stood up and went to her. “I’ll speak with the doctor in the morning and we’ll go to the clinic immediately.” She was still so helpless. She didn’t even know how to manage her own body.

The only fear Marge knew was her terror of cancer. Her mother had died of cancer of the pancreas, her father of colon cancer. If her knee hurt, it was bone cancer. If her stomach hurt, it was liver or duodenal cancer. Any bump or ache was most likely cancerous. He knew that she worried about cancer when she woke up at drinkers’ hour or early mornings, a concern that then gradually diminished each evening.

Not that place again! I can’t bear it.”

Fear was one thing. Doctors another. She hated the clinic in Parioli where he took her each time her terror arrived at an acme.

All those old rich people there holding hands and praying. I only see wasted lives there! Their misgivings. I always wonder why I’m there.”

Now you sound like an Aztec!” Emiliano said, with a reassuring laugh. “And anyway you don’t have to worry. Those glands easily become inflamed – or something like that. And there are so many new medicines today. And we both know about your fertile imagination. It’s all in your head,” he said, tapping his forehead.

Going to the clinic for a checkup had another existential side. It regularly provoked in each of them the never articulated, the never discussed question of her money.

He had always believed the reason she’d never wanted to marry was her money. Though she didn’t seem to care at all about money, somehow, by dent of some atavistic blood loyalty, she thought her money had to go to her estranged sister whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years. He instead feared that she might believe he was with her because of her money. That he was itching to get his hands on her fortune. He knew that she believed that he had never insisted on marriage for fear she might think it was for money.

So money and marriage were taboo subjects. She’d bought the huge luxury apartment 20 years earlier. He paid the expenses. When they used to travel she would write a big check, perhaps leaving it discreetly on the kitchen table, and he would manage it. Or from time to time, every five or six months, she wrote a check for maybe $100,000, and leave it on his night table. So that they never discussed her mysterious fortune, which she once said she believed was about $100 million – in U.S. bonds and securities in a New York trust fund.

The question was, Why did they stay together? For her, he knew, the answer was simple – habit, his protection, and the fact that she had no other place to go. Not that she didn’t feel real affection for him. He knew that too. But the passion had been extinguished long ago. They had no children, no family, no common roots, no common interests, few common values. She was content to remain as they were.

He instead wanted change. A revolution. He wanted to change profession, apartment, change neighborhood, change country. He felt empty. Fleshless, he sometimes whispered. Uprooted, yes, he was. But that wasn’t the real problem, for Italy was almost his homeland. And he too was linked to her – by habit.

Though he longed for love and passion and also children and occasionally had his flirts or now and then a one-night stand, he couldn’t leave her. She needed him. And he needed to be needed. His dilemma, he knew, was understanding himself – who he was, where he was, what he was. He told himself he was half Aztec, just as he would have liked to be.

The black skies opened with a crash. A flash of lightening leapt across the big living room and a simultaneous blast of thunder ripped across the terrace and shook the French doors. A river of rain mixed with hail quickly covered the terrace in a layer of white.

Emiliano stood at the closed doors and opened the white drapes. November rains! Every day it seemed. Once he’d kept a calendar of November rain days. He had always loved those verses in Romanesco dialect of Zanazzo that it always rained the 30th of November, verses that ended with the signs that the rain was near: “Our females feel it when their neck itches. In fact they say when they grab the flea that bit them, Le purce al collo: l’acqua a Ponte Mollo. Fleas on your neck mean rain at the Milvio Bridge.”

He watched her reflection in the plate glass window. She was flipping through some woman’s magazine. Marjorie couldn’t care less if it rained or not.

They had just returned from the Parioli Clinic. The specialist had examined her, did the third mammogram of the year, felt the nodules and pronounced her sound and healthy as a fish.

Why do Italians say healthy as a fish?” she asked, as he opened a bottle of 1995 Pinot Grigio to celebrate. She loved folksy expressions like that. She used them indiscriminately, often in the wrong place. If she was going out and he asked where she was going, she always answered with the children’s expression, a leccamerdo. She thought it was French.

Fish are proverbially healthy. They live in clean water – or they used to – eat only clean food and … drink only water.”

Very funny,” Marjorie said lighting a cigarette and drained her first glass. “I like drinking during the day, occasionally,” she added.

Clearly she was still worried. The nodules hadn’t vanished. She refused to take the prescribed medicine Emiliano had picked up at the pharmacy – a mysterious product called P53 – together with which the oncologist had strictly forbidden alcohol. She instead took a double dose of the recommended vitamin A.

Secretly Emiliano considered her a hypochondriac. Yet a visit to one doctor or another five or six times a year was after all not excessive. The average Italian, healthy as a fish, probably outdid her. Why not pamper her in this?

Marge, I’m going to Florence this Thursday and Friday. I’ve been invited to give two lectures at the Institute of Latin American Studies up at the European University – about the Olmecs. Why don’t you come along? We can stay at that wonderful hotel at Fiesole, sit by the fire, and mornings maybe see a little art. It will be a nice change for you.”

Florence?” she said in her doubtful way when a subject didn’t interest her. “I’ve seen everything there. And in this rain and cold!” Marjorie crushed her cigarette and took a sip of wine, a puzzled look on her face.

Who were the Olmecs now? Before or after the Aztecs?”

Emiliano looked at her in dismay. “After the Aztecs came no one. That’s when we started exterminating them all. It’s an old lecture. I’m going to compare them to Italy’s Etruscans. You remember my theory that the two peoples had contacts maybe one thousand years ago.”

He spoke with pride in his voice and would have liked to share with her his theories and historical projections. But she was no more interested in indigenous peoples or the real discovery of America than she was in tourism or the Uffizi Galleries. It was another of the disappointments of his life; he had no one next to him with whom to share his successes. Marge just didn’t care about abstractions like the Olmecs. Who knows, she probably thought, if they had even existed?

And so he sailed away toward the east. But the indigenous peoples of Mesamerica long awaited his return when he would then restore their former paradise. Some saw him, the great good god. He was seen! That’s what was important. And the word spread all over the Mesamerica world. He existed. He’s only in hiding, people said. And he would one day return to set things right….”

Emiliano folded his notes and put them in his breast pocket. The audience of students and professors was silent for long moments before the eruption of the applause that his lectures never failed to provoke. He perceived the familiar sensation of omnipotence when he spoke of the old Mexican gods. His Catholicism itself had always been tainted by his academic investigations. His was a Catholicism without Christ. A Church without a god. He had long ago surrendered his childhood religious indoctrination to the legends of former times. The legend of the old gods. Quetzalcoatl was much more than legend in his mind, more real for him than the Messiah of the Jews.

At such moments the urge to share a corner of his power was irresistible.

Oh, Professor Madero, the lecture was so marvelous,” the young women said as he stepped down from the platform. He recognized her immediately. He’d seen her in the hotel bar and noted her in the front row during the lecture. A striking blond shorter than he, about 30, her slacks and sweater only highlighted her shapely body.

That god, Quetco- how is it? Yes, Quetzacoatl, he sounds like a fairy-tale prince. I would like to know more about that crazy world.”

Maybe we can talk more. I know we’re staying in the same hotel.”

Yes, I always stay up at Fiesole. By the way, my name is Sharon Meyers.” She offered her hand and turned on an inviting smile. “The European University is a major client of my firm. I handle their computer systems, you know.”

Pretty far from my Olmecs,” Emiliano said, holding onto her hand longer than necessary.

Maybe,” she said curiously.

He knew he couldn’t sleep. He sat on the couch by the window with his eyes fixed blankly on a print of the Church of Santa Croce on the opposite wall. He’d turned on the TV and all the lamps in the spacious room. Again he dialed his number in Rome. Still no answer. A glass of cognac stood untouched on the coffee table. He looked at the electric clock on the night table. Five minutes after midnight. Had he perhaps dozed off sitting there? He felt he was outside of time.

They had taxied back to the hotel together, chatting about one thing and another. He knew she was offering herself to him. He had no illusions about his seductive powers. He was no womanizer. But he’d never turned away from such chance encounters. It was his fame, he knew, and the fascination of his subject matter. After a beer together in the little bar, they’d said goodnight in the second floor corridor. Her room was at the end of the narrow hall.

At 12:30, there was still no answer in Rome. He brushed his teeth, methodically undressed and put on his robe, and walked down the corridor. She opened the door immediately; she had only a big white towel wrapped around her.

When he returned to his room, he called Rome again. It was 4:30. A male voice answered. “Professor Madero is it? I’m a medic of the emergency team. We’ve been trying to reach you. The ambulance just took your wife to the San Giacomo Hospital. You’d better come. It’s her heart.”

She died at 6:15. Later he calculated that at the precise moment she departed, alone to the place of the fleshless, he was passing Orvieto along the Autostrada del Sole.

He would always remember his bewilderment. Strange, he so precise, he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. Friends at the Faculty helped in the arrangements. Thanks to his fame and the university’s influence, she was buried in the small Protestant Cemetery behind the Pyramid in a section not far from Shelly and Keats, just behind Goethe’s son.

Emiliano immediately informed her sister in Seattle but Nancy didn’t come for the funeral. There was no word from her at all until one day a week after the funeral, her lawyer called from New York about Marge’s estate. She had left a will ten years earlier – all the capital was to revert to Nancy, while the interest would go to Emiliano for the rest of his life. Marge’s Italian real estate – the apartment on Via del Corso and the country house in Tuscany – were left to her lifetime companion, Emiliano Madero.

Two weeks later, just after he’d opened a bottle of Pinot Grigio, he picked up the white cell phone and carefully dialed Sharon’s office in New York.

© 2001 Gaither Stewart

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