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By Michael Ledwidge
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The Old Sod
“Mike, Mary Catherine here said you’re NYPD. So you’ve gunned down a lot of people, then, have ya?”
I raised an eyebrow over the rim of my glossy waiting-room magazine at Billy, the slim, scruffy law-office receptionist typing at his computer.
Like many of the Irish folk I’d come into contact with in southern Ireland over the last week, Billy had a distinctive, mischievous twinkle in his Irish eyes. Akin to hurling and Gaelic football, pulling the legs of dumb Yanks like me seemed to be an Emerald Isle national pastime.
“The land of saints, scholars, and sarcasm,” I whispered to Mary Catherine, who was sitting on the leather couch next to me.
“Well, that depends, Billy,” I said as I went back to reading about what Camilla was up to in my OK! London celeb mag.
“Oh? On what, pray tell, Detective?” the receptionist said, finally turning from his screen.
I casually put down the magazine and lifted the floral-patterned china cup of Gevalia coffee he’d fetched us when we came in.
“On what you consider ‘a lot,’” I said.
The law office was in the city of Limerick, around ninety minutes west of Mary Catherine’s family’s tiny farmhouse outside Clonmel, in Tipperary. It was in a new modern brick-and-glass building on a bustling street called Howley’s Quay that ran along the rippled slate ribbon of the River Shannon. Outside the floor-to-ceiling window behind the wise-guy receptionist was a high-rise apartment building and a ten-story silver glass office tower.
Not exactly midtown Manhattan, but definitely not the traditional thatch-roof rural Ireland I remembered from the last time I had been here with my family to visit relatives when I was fourteen.
The office belonged to a real estate lawyer, and we were there to close on the sale of the small hotel and golf course Mary Catherine’s mother had run before she’d passed away. Since it was a quick sale, money was being left on the table, but Mary Catherine hadn’t minded because they’d found a buyer who would keep the place running. Twenty-three people worked there, old family friends and cousins, and Mary Catherine needed to be sure that they would be taken care of before we went back to New York.
“Mary Catherine, sorry to keep you waiting,” said the real estate agent and lawyer, Miranda O’Toole, as she poked her head out of her office a few minutes later.
I took my coffee with me as she waved us into her bright office. Miranda was a tall, milky-complexioned woman in her forties with dark-red hair. She unbuttoned her elegant tailored navy blazer, slipping it on the back of her chair before turning down the Haydn playing softly from the Bose speaker on her desk. She smiled as she rolled up the sleeves of her cream-colored blouse.
“I hope your writing hand is limber, Mary Catherine,” she said, pointing at a high stack of papers on a small conference table by the window. “We have a lot of documents to sign.”
“But wait,” Mary Catherine said as we sat. “Where’s the buyer? I thought Mr. Hart would be here with us. There was a lot I wanted to go over with him. You know—details about the place, the employee roles, and all the different shifts and such.”
“Oh, yes. Mr. Hart,” Miranda said, smiling pleasantly as she sat down beside us. “Unfortunately, he had a business thing today up in Dublin, so he came in and signed yesterday evening. I hope that’s not a problem.”
Mary Catherine looked at her, still a little confused.
“I…suppose not,” she finally said.
“Perhaps you could call him this afternoon,” Miranda said, uncapping a red-and-gold Montblanc pen and offering it to Mary Catherine. “Go over everything then.”
“Perhaps,” Mary Catherine said, finally taking the pen as Miranda deftly turned over the first sheaf of documents and opened it to the signature page.
“Um, Mary Catherine, before you get started, I’d like to ask Miranda a question,” I said as Mary Catherine was about to sign the first line. “If that’s okay.”
“Yes?” Miranda said a tad curtly as she darted her intelligent gray eyes at me. “I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”
“I’m Mike Bennett,” I said, smiling the most vacant, stupid Yank smile I could muster. “From New York City.”
“Oh, yes. Great city, that. Tell me your concern, Mike. I’m all ears,” Miranda said impatiently.
“I know it’s probably nothing, but what’s all this here?” I said as I pointed at the document. “Under Mr. Hart’s name. What exactly is Red Rover Services, LLC?”
“Oh, that’s just one of Mr. Hart’s companies,” Miranda said with a shrug. “He wanted to purchase the property through his LLC for tax purposes. It’s nothing to worry about. Happens on contracts all the time.”
“Oh, good,” I said brightly. “I wouldn’t want there to be anything out of the ordinary.”
“Completely normal,” Miranda said, nodding gently. “Any other questions? Shall we get started?”
“Well, actually, just one,” I said as she frowned again. “What does Red Rover Services do?”
“You know, I’m not completely sure,” Miranda said, biting on a knuckle.
I grinned some more as I slowly took out my iPhone and placed it on her desk with a click.
“Before we continue, why don’t I look it up? These smartphones are just incredible, aren’t they? Curiosity would have never killed that darn cat if only he’d had a smartphone,” I said.
“What is it, Mike?” Mary Catherine said, frowning over at me.
“Red Rover is a construction company, okay?” Miranda was starting to sound impatient. “They build housing complexes. Mostly in Northern Ireland, but they also had a few developments up in Westmeath.” Miranda paused, folded her arms. “But you heard Mr. Hart’s assurances that he’s going to keep the hotel running. You’ll not find another buyer, at any rate. Not in this market.”
She turned to Mary Catherine.
“You’re going back to America, Mary Catherine, right? So go ahead and sign. Take the money for your family. It’ll all work out, I’m sure.”
Mary Catherine stared at the lawyer. The Montblanc made a screech as she flicked it across the glass tabletop at Ms. Miranda O’Toole.
“No developers. I told you that at the very beginning. Several times. You’re a dishonest person, Ms. O’Toole. Putting my friends and relatives out on the street in order to make a few euro isn’t the kind of thing I do. Unlike you.”
“And you’re a very naive young woman, Ms. Flynn,” the lawyer said sharply. “That old place is on its last legs. Has been for a decade, and everyone from around here knows it. That ratty course has more rabbit holes on the fairways than the ones on the ragged greens. Take the money.”
“Mike, it’s time to leave,” Mary Catherine said, standing.
“Thanks for the Gevalia,” I said to the grim-faced lawyer as I clicked my china cup on the glass and retrieved my phone. “It was really awesome. Just like the good ol’ USA. And smartphones. Bye-bye, now.”
“Why don’t we just bring the kids here?” I said for the hundredth time as Mary Catherine and I lay on the guest-room bed staring up at the ceiling.
Instead of answering me, Mary Catherine’s warm hand found mine. She lifted my hand to her lips. Her lips soft and warm on my palm. Her soft cheek on my shoulder, warm and wet with silent tears.
I listened to the low murmur of rain against the roof. I knew what Mary Catherine wasn’t saying. She wanted me to stay. Or she wanted to come with me. One or the other. It didn’t matter. As long as we were together. As we’d always wanted to be. Only we couldn’t.
The dreaded morning of my flight was here. The real world was back and getting in the way, as usual. There was no way around it. No matter how we adjusted things. We’d have to be apart again.
What a week it had been. Like something out of a dream. We’d never spent so much time together—alone. For three days, we’d tooled around in my little Ford rental hitting bed-and-breakfasts. We’d seen the Ring of Kerry, the Lakes of Killarney. The best was the fabulous sunny day we’d spent at the Cliffs of Moher, enjoying a windy picnic of Champagne and Irish soda bread as we held each other, staring out at the sea and listening to the crash of the surf five hundred feet below.
I’d never laughed so hard in my life as I had in the previous few days. Or allowed myself to be quite so recklessly happy. It had been an unplanned, unexpected bubble of paradise. One we didn’t want to end. Ever.
Yet it was ending. Mary Catherine had to stay and sell the hotel to someone who would keep it open. I had to go back to the kids and my job. There was nothing either of us could do. At least not now.
“What if…,” I said as Mary Catherine suddenly sat bolt upright in bed.
“What?” I said.
“Shh!” she said.
“No! It’s a car! What time is it?” she said as she leaped onto her feet and ran to the window. “Oh, no. She’s here! I knew she’d be early!”
“She” was Mary Catherine’s great-aunt, Sister Terese, come to take me to the stupid airport for my stupid flight.
“Get up and dressed! Now!” Mary Catherine said as I continued to lie there. “We can’t have this! If she sees you come down these stairs, we’ll need the coroner!”
“Oh, please, Mary Catherine. It’s the twenty-first century,” I said. “She’s a grown woman.”
“A grown woman? She’s an eighty-year-old Tipperary nun! It’s the thirteenth century to her every day! And the coroner won’t be for her! Out the window and into the backyard. Now!”
“Out the what? It’s the second floor!” I cried.
“Hang-jump it. I’ve done it before. You’ll be fine. Do it now!”
We heard a door come open downstairs.
“Mary Catherine? Are ye here?” came a voice.
Mary Catherine shoved me toward the window.
“I’m not going out that window in my boxers, Mary Catherine. That’s nuts.”
“Get!” she scream-whispered at me, and then suddenly I was hanging off the windowsill, letting just about everything hang out in the rainy breeze. For a moment. My hand slipped, and I landed on my bare feet with a squish in a muddy lettuce garden. I was barely able to catch the pair of jeans that flew out the window after me, followed a second later by my shirt, Top-Siders, and bag.
“Close your eyes, ladies,” I said as I ran into the clucking henhouse at the other side of the garden with my bundled clothes.
I’d just gotten my jeans buttoned and my muddy feet into my shoes when I heard Mary Catherine open the back door.
“Oh, yes, Sister. The hotel was nice enough to drop him off about ten minutes ago,” I heard Mary Catherine say. “He said he was going to take a little walk. He has to be around here somewhere.”
“Hey, everybody!” I said as I finally tucked in my shirt and stepped out of the henhouse. “Wow, you’re right, Mary Catherine. Those are some real nice chickens in there. Shiny…eh…coats on them and impressive…beaks.”
I turned to Mary Catherine’s aunt. She was about five one and stocky. The expression on her face seemed to indicate that she didn’t suffer fools well. Which was unfortunate, because she was about to be spending some time with me.
“Hi—I’m Mike,” I said. “You must be Sister Terese.”
The little old woman, wearing a plain, light-blue dress that matched her eyes, looked even more skeptical as we shook hands. Nothing new there. Skepticism was pretty much par for the course with me.
“Mr. Bennett,” she said sternly. “If yer all done with the…chickens, I’ll be waiting fer ye in the car.”
Mary Catherine grabbed me and kissed me as soon as the nun was out of sight. I kissed her back even harder, if that were possible.
“I’m not getting on that plane, Mary Catherine,” I said, finally letting go. “I don’t care. I’ll quit my job. I’m staying here.”
But it was too late. Mary Catherine was already running back to the house. The door slammed, and it was just me, the stupid Yank, standing in the rain in the lonely gravel farmyard.
Off the Rails
Up, up, and reluctantly away four hours later, I sat midcabin in my Aer Lingus flight’s Airbus A330 feeling pretty darn sorry for myself.
Forgoing the movie on the little TV in the seat back in front of me, I leaned my forehead against the cold plastic window, staring at the rags of dirty clouds and the gray North Atlantic sailing away beneath the long, slender wing.
What I had said to Mary Catherine still held very much true. I did not want to be on this plane. Not without her. Not after the previous week. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the wind in her hair atop that white-rock cliff. The moonlight on the curve of her back in those cold farmhouse rooms night after night.
I mean, was my brain broken? No matter the complications, parting just didn’t make sense. You flew toward a woman like that. Not away.
This plane is heading in the wrong damn direction, I thought, shaking my head as I squinted down at the gray sea and sky.
I was going into my pocket for some gum I’d bought at the Shannon duty-free shop to ease the ratcheting pressure in my ears when I found the folded note.
MICHAEL it said on the outside in Mary Catherine’s perfect script.
She must have slipped it in my jeans pocket before she chucked the pants out the window. I quickly unfolded it.
From the very moment our eyes met in your apartment foyer all those years ago, I felt it in my heart. That you were mine. And I was yours. Which makes no sense. And yet it is the truest thing I know. I saw you and suddenly knew. That I was somehow finally done with all my silly wanderings. I saw you, Michael, and I was suddenly home. This last week with you has been the best week of my life. You will always be my home.
“Dear God, woman,” I whispered as I reread the note.
Dear God, I thought as I turned and looked out at the world rushing by through my tears.
Pretty much everything was gray as we made our final approach to New York City. The city skyline, the raining sky, the depths of my soul. I mean, I guess it was possible that things could have been more depressing as the plane touched down on the puddled tarmac.
But I doubt it.
I hadn’t slept a wink, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that Mary Catherine still wasn’t with me. What else was there to say? Or think? Or do? Not much. In fact, nothing at all.
“Jet lag and a broken heart,” I mumbled as the flight attendant spouted some peppy “Welcome to New York” crap over the plane’s intercom. “Winning combination.”
Half an hour later, finally having escaped from the happy people over at customs, I was at a grim JFK-concourse fast-food joint trying to keep down a lukewarm burrito when I remembered to power my phone back on.
I yawned as the message bell went off like a slot-machine win. Then I stopped yawning. There were six text messages and five missed calls, all from HOME.
A dark swirl of panic ripped immediately through my jet lag. Because of the egregious cell-phone charges, I’d left explicit instructions for my family to call only if there was a true emergency. Something was up. I thumbed the Return Call button. Whatever the hell it was, it couldn’t be good.
“Hello?!” came Juliana’s panicked voice on the first ring.
“Juliana, it’s Dad. I just got off the plane at JFK. What is it?”
“Thank God you’re home. It’s Gramps, Dad. He’s missing. He was supposed to come over here last night to babysit around ten, but when we called the rectory at eleven, they said he’d left at nine thirty. He never made it back last night, Dad. Seamus is missing. We don’t know where he is!”
“Is the rectory housekeeper, Anita, still with you?” I said, grabbing my bag and hustling immediately back onto the concourse.
“No. I told her to go home last night, Dad. Don’t worry: I’m watching everybody.”
“I know you are, Juliana. You’re a good girl,” I said as calmly as I could as I tried to read the impossible terminal signs to find the exit. “What am I saying? I mean young woman. Don’t worry about Gramps. I’m sure he’s okay. Probably met an old friend and stayed over with him. I’m going to find him right now. I’ll call you the first I hear from him.”
“Okay, good. I’m so glad you and Mary Catherine are home,” she said.
I decided to leave out the fact that Mary Catherine was still stuck in Ireland for the time being. One catastrophe at a time.
“And don’t worry. Things are under control on this end. I love you so much, Dad,” Juliana said.
“I love you, too,” I said before I hung up.
My next call, as I finally spotted an actual exit sign, was to my buddies at the Ombudsman Outreach Squad on 125th Street.
“Brooklyn, hi. It’s Mike Bennett,” I said when Detective Kale answered. “I need a favor. You ever do a missing persons case?”
“Sure, plenty of them. Why? What’s up?”
“I just got off a plane out at Kennedy. My grandfather, Seamus Bennett, has been missing since around ten last night. He’s eighty-one, white male, white hair, five seven, around a hundred and seventy-five pounds, probably wearing black priest’s clothes. He left the Holy Name rectory on West Ninety-Sixth and Amsterdam last night around nine thirty, probably heading west for my building on West End and Ninety-Fifth. We’re especially worried about him because he recently had a stroke.”
“Seamus?” Brooklyn said. “Oh, no. I remember meeting him at Naomi Chast’s wake. I’m on it, Mike. I’ll check all the local hospitals and precincts.”
I finally went through some sliding doors into the cold, grim predawn street. Above the curbside taxi stand, rain pelted off a fading rusted sign from maybe the eighties-era Koch administration.
WELCOME TO NY. HOW YA DOIN’? it said.
Luckily, I didn’t have my service weapon with me because I might have emptied a magazine into it in reply.
“I’m stressed-out, New York,” I mumbled. “As usual. Fuhgeddaboudit!”
I was stuck in my taxi on the 59th Street Bridge staring at the towers of Manhattan in the honking suicide evening rush-hour traffic when Brooklyn called me back.
The good news was that she thought she’d found Seamus, but the bad news was where she’d found him. I had the cabbie take me straight to West 106th between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. Brooklyn was actually waiting for me on the sidewalk twenty-five minutes later, when my cab finally made it to the Jewish Home Lifecare facility.
“He’s fine, Mike. I was just in there. He’s up on eight, and he’s fine,” Brooklyn said in greeting as I flew from the taxi to the facility’s front door.
“He’s in a nursing home, Brooklyn!” I snapped at her as I went inside and showed the security guard my shield. “I don’t call this fine. What the hell happened?”
“Twenty-Fourth Precinct was called at around ten fifteen,” Brooklyn said as we maneuvered around an old lady in a wheelchair and another one lying on a bed in the hallway. “Somebody reported a confused old man on the uptown platform of the Ninety-Sixth Street number one subway line.”
I shook my head picturing it. Seamus helpless on a subway platform, wandering around as the trains blew past. Dear Lord, did that hurt. No, please, I thought, not wanting it to be true.
“He wasn’t wearing his priest’s clothes, Mike. He was in sweats, and he didn’t have any ID on him. When police questioned him, he got emotional, so they brought him here. It’s the biggest old-age home in the area, so they thought he might have wandered away from here. They also have an Alzheimer’s special care unit, so it was actually a smart move,” she said as we arrived at the elevator.
“Alzheimer’s?” I said, panicking some more as I pushed the elevator’s call button about eighty-six times. “Seamus does not have Alzheimer’s.”
“I know, Mike,” Brooklyn said. “I just spoke to him. He just woke up. They sedated him when he came in, but he’s lucid now. You’ll see.”
Brooklyn surprised me by squeezing my hand.
“Listen, Mike. My grandmother is ninety-one. She’s usually fine, but every once in a while, she forgets things. Stuff like this is going to happen going forward. It’s natural.”
“Dad?” called a voice.
I turned around and saw Juliana coming in through the doorway of the facility with her siblings in their school uniforms. Behind her were Ricky, Eddie, Trent, Jane, Fiona, and Bridget, holding Chrissy and Shawna’s hands.
“Look! Daddy really is home!” Chrissy said, grabbing Shawna as she jumped up and down.
“Juliana, what are you doing?” I said as I hurried toward the children and convinced the utterly confused guard that they were all with me.
“I thought everybody was supposed to be in school,” I said to Juliana.
“They are, but then when you texted me about Seamus being here, I went and got everyone out. Brian just left from Fordham Prep, too. He’s on the train now. We all need to be here for Gramps. Is he sick?”
“Is Gramps going to die?” Shawna said, tears springing up in her eyes.
“No, no. He’s okay, honey. He just got a little confused, and they brought him here. He’s upstairs on eight,” I said as I lifted up Shawna and gave her a kiss.
“Where’s Mary Catherine? Upstairs with Gramps?” Juliana said after I thanked Brooklyn profusely and convinced her that I had things under control so she could go back to work.
“Wait,” I said, changing the subject. “How did you get everybody out of school?”
“I cannot tell a lie, Dad. I had to forge a note with your signature. Well, actually two of them. One for me and one for all the munchkins. You have to call Sister Sheilah, by the way. She didn’t want to release them to me, but I was kind of pushy, I guess, and she finally relented.”
Under normal circumstances such chicanery would, of course, be a no-no, but this was a four-alarm Bennett family emergency. Juliana knew as we all did that rule-bending was allowable when it came to being there for a family member in need. Especially Seamus.
I gave my oldest daughter a hug and a quick fist bump as we walked toward the elevator.
“Forgery and lying to nuns?” I whispered to her. “Right out of the old Bennett playbook. I admire your technique.”
“Michael Sean Aloysius
- On Sale
- Feb 16, 2016
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing