“Arise and Go Now” is an exquisitely written short story, also sad and funny and a beautiful character study. It has a deft exactness, a precise forward progression. Nothing is wasted. The identification of the mother/friend is clear and poignant. And, because dg knows the author, all the more poignant.
Sheridan is an old friend, dating back to the time dg used to teach novel-writing at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College when she charmed him by drawing a map of Australia in the air with her fingers and said it was her heart. She is Australian, he is Canadian—they shared a common background in the colonies.
Sheridan Hay holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her first novel, The Secret of Lost Things (Doubleday/Anchor), was a Booksense Pick, A Barnes and Noble Discover selection, short listed for the Border’s Original Voices Fiction Prize, and nominated for the International Impac Award. A San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and a New York Times Editor’s Choice, foreign rights have been sold in fourteen countries. Sheridan is currently teaching Moby Dick at The Center for Fiction in Manhattan.
Cathleen gave me the money to take on the plane — ten thousand dollars in cash. I was to take it back to New York and give it to the Polish woman who cleaned her studio apartment. She took out bundles of American dollars from a yellow padded postbag, the money so fresh and crisp it looked fake — a prop in a movie, or the haul from a bank heist.
“You shouldn’t have all that money in the house,” I told her. She didn’t lock her door in Clare, and I’d had to ask the neighbor to knock before he wandered in with the newspaper at seven every morning.
“Sure, I’ve no more use for it,” Cathleen said. “I like giving it away.”
She handed me a packet of cash, more than I’d held in my life, and changed the subject.
“That book on Courbet you bought me, love. I know you meant well, but I’ve decided I hate Courbet. The Desperate Man and all that — he’s not authentic.”
“Well, you’d be the one to know all right.”
“I’m more authentic with every passing day,” she said, but a shadow crossed her face, and she lay back on the pillows.
The money was cold in my hand. I pushed the padded envelope, with more than fifty thousand remaining, back under her bed. The ten thousand I wrapped in a crumpled plastic grocery bag and stuffed into my purse.
I would take it home to New York, I would do as she asked, and leave her to herself.
I knew her well for twelve years, but it’s hard to say why we became so close. We met in New York when she was working for the same newspaper as my husband. But Cathleen couldn’t give up Ireland, so she moved, in six-month increments, between Manhattan and a cottage in County Clare. She was at best prickly, but I liked that. And she was brilliant, with a mind I couldn’t always follow. There’s nothing more interesting than not being able to imagine where a person is going. I took her capacity to occasionally insult me as a mark of intimacy, which for her it was. She didn’t bother with anyone she didn’t like. I was familiar with the adamant, with taking things straight, for my own mother had been an acerbic woman.
Cathleen saw me through my mother’s death, a year into our knowing each other. But if I’d known how much our friendship would come to resemble that configuration, I might have been less committed. It’s hard enough to lose one mother.
Cathleen wouldn’t stand for a hedge of any kind. I was either sworn to her or not. To choose her friendship was a sort of pledge, and I took it. In just the same way, she was pledged to me. I had known nothing like it.
We spent a summer weekend in the country at a cabin I have, the same weekend I picked up my young daughter from camp. I made dinner and, after we ate, set about clearing the table and washing up.
“Sure,” Cathleen said, gesturing to my ten-year-old. “She’s young and strong. Why not make her do the washing up?”
“She’s hasn’t been home for a month, Cathleen. Let her be.”
My daughter got up and went over to the couch, as far away as the small cabin allowed. She took up her book and held it in front of her face.
“You’ll get nowhere spoiling her,” Cathleen muttered, as if she knew one single thing on the subject, never having had a child. She despised the word “parenting” and had told me so on more than one occasion. To get her started on the tyranny of American children was to settle in for a jeremiad.
That night, my daughter slept with me, Cathleen took the other bed. The following day, I packed the car installing Cathleen in the back seat — feet up, her cat on her lap — ready to be chauffeured back to the city. My daughter had disappeared, and although I hit the horn once, twice, she didn’t appear.
“She’s just selfish,” Cathleen said of my daughter who had given up her bed for my guest.
“She is not.”
“Well, what do you call it then, leaving us waiting?”
“I call it being a child.”
“Well, tell the child that the adult is ready to leave. And if you didn’t know, it’s adults who are supposed to run the world.”
All the way through security at Shannon airport I waited for a tap on the shoulder, a hand at my elbow, a “Please come this way, Miss.” None came. But the wad of ten thousand dollars turned hot inside the bag on my shoulder, and the heat traveled up my armpit until my shirt grew damp. I kept thinking about that story, The Tell-Tale Heart — how when you’re trying to hide a thing, it declares itself. When I found my seat on the plane I fell into it and lodged the bag between my feet. I called Cathleen to tell her I’d made it.
“Of course you did, love,” she said, her voice breathless. “You’re the most competent of individuals. You could run a small nation.”
“Except I’d never have made a good criminal,” I told her.
“No,” she agreed. “You’re far too upright and vivid.”
These were traits I so hoped to possess, that her naming them left me bare. I hung up so she wouldn’t hear my voice gone thick with tears.
Cathleen’s boyfriend cheated on her three months after my husband cheated on me. I’m sure at some stage the cheating was concurrent, but that’s hardly the point. At our annual Christmas lunch, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she told me how she’d handled the discovery.
First, she called her boyfriend’s boss and insisted it was probably illegal, what he had done betraying her with a part-time employee in his office. Only she called her a “temporary woman.” Next, she emailed her boyfriend’s young daughter to tell her that her dad was having a “sexy affair” and that she might not be seeing so much of her as she had been. Then she emailed the woman with whom he had been sleeping – she got the address from her boyfriend’s computer. She told the woman that Cathleen and her boyfriend were as good as married, were registered domestic partners, and that this was the bond that had been transgressed. As if the woman in question cared a fig for Cathleen and her sensibilities. The other woman wrote back proving more than her indifference with a comment along the lines of “he couldn’t keep his hands off me.”
After Cathleen related these three forays into outré conduct, I stood at the Met elevators staring at the blank unopened doors. In part, I was thrilled. I had kicked my erring husband out of the house, but I couldn’t have moved beyond that to incorporate those whom it might peripherally effect to make my case. I was impressed, in an embarrassed sort of way. But when it came to the mistress and the “couldn’t keep his hands off me,” I understood exactly why I hadn’t gone there. Cathleen didn’t just leave herself open to more injury – she invited it.
We were wincing in our respective spaces – she, fiddling with her handbag strap and me, reading every notice posted on the walls around us: The Avant-Garde Is Coming! See Renoir! Enjoy lunch in the café, lower level. Anything but think about hands not being kept off.
“And what did you do after that?” I asked, touching her on the shoulder as it seemed only reasonable to do.
“Well, love,” she said. “After that I went out and had a drink and a good meal. I bought the paper on the way from that newsagent on Broadway.”
“You were all set for an evening out — by yourself?”
“I was glad, if that’s what you mean.” Her chin trembled but her voice was strong. “I was glad I’d made my feelings known. I didn’t just take it, you know?”
I did know. I had taken it, at least compared to her.
We stood staring at the elevator doors waiting for a chance to get in and be lifted up and out of our conversation, out our troubles, whisked away to the calm realm of art. But it didn’t arrive. Lights flickered and we heard the lift carriage pass with a mechanical sigh. We were passed over again, and then again. I pushed and pushed on the elevator button. We were stuck, but together at least, thinking over our predicament.
“But it caught on fire,” Cathleen said.
“What? What caught on fire?”
“The Irish Times,” she said. “I was sitting alone at this lovely restaurant, and you know, I’d rather sit with the paper than with just about anything or anybody. I’d got to the opinion page, when the edge caught the little table candle. The next thing the waiter was hitting me with a towel and throwing water and stamping the rest of the paper onto the floor.”
Her expression was one I’d not seen on her face in all the years I knew her — haplessness.
“You set it alight?”
“I did. And everyone was looking …”
I smiled, trying not to laugh.
“You may well smile, love,” she said without enmity. “But that burnt newspaper carried with it the full force of tragedy.”
“I can certainly see why it was the last straw.”
“I had nothing then,” she said. “And I still had to get through the meal, with all the couples arranged about …’
“I do see,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t go on. Now I was ready to weep. This was how it was with Cathleen – comedy and tragedy all at once.
“Ah, well,” she said, in her generous way. “Let’s take the stairs. We could use the exercise. I do have to see Leonardo’s drawings.” She headed for the fire stairs saying, “After all, he’s dead and here we are fully alive …”
In Cathleen’s studio apartment, the Polish cleaning woman fell to her knees when I gave her the money.
“It’s not from me,” I said, trying to pull her up. “It’s from Cathleen. I just bought it back for her because she’s too sick to travel.”
Huge tears ran down the woman’s face. It seemed her tears were red, but it was the crimson of her cheeks made dazzling by the water coursing down them. I’d never seen anything like the raw way she wept and held the money to her bosom. She didn’t stop crying even as she agreed to get up, and she didn’t release my arm after I helped her rise.
“It is a gift from God,” she said, gripping me, her face not more than an inch from mine. “She is God’s angel. She saves my whole family with this money. It is from God.”
Once Cathleen knew she was ill, she wasn’t exactly angelic. She still told me to fuck off when she lost her temper, not that that had ever bothered me. But with her bald head and face swollen from steroids, she did look like a saint or at least a monk.
She took to ducking her head down and looking up into my face with so much trust I’d have to look away; I couldn’t bear the absence of guile, her face peeled of guard. I heard her weeping into the night behind the door of her bedroom in Clare, but she would smile beatifically the next morning. A snatch of music on the radio, fresh chives in the scrambled eggs, the dog favoring her over me — heading straight to her bed to be petted — would bring forth a sublime expression. I saw how literal is the truth that darkness, night, brings despair – but that despair lifts with the coming of another day. I didn’t think witnessing her tiny, fleeting moments of pleasure would be unendurable. After one particularly happy morning I had to get out, and drove to a place called the Rock Shop to buy fossils. Cold and ancient, the stones seemed fitted to my hand. I bought half a dozen of the smaller ones — those I could close within a fist. Fossils, it seems, last forever.
It was impossible to offer comfort; I didn’t try. I made the cottage tidy and clean, and cooked her favorite foods.
“You do a great mash,” she’d say, tucking in.
She was best when I went out and left her alone — briefly happy when I came back, until she grew restless again with fatigue and nausea.
“Can I get anything for you?” I would ask her.
“Ah, now,” she would say. “Go on with yourself …”
When Cathleen was in New York – half the year – we met for weekly breakfasts. On that spring morning, instead of breakfast, I took her to the emergency room. She didn’t have a doctor in New York and after she broke up with her boyfriend she’d lost her health insurance. She’d been to exercise class, and was convinced she’d pulled a muscle due to assiduously following the trainer. It was enthusiasm that injured her, she insisted — she was determined to lose weight now that she was once again single.
I waited with her behind a curtain. A young resident questioned her.
“My leg’s not working.”
“When you say, “not working” do you mean you can’t pick up your leg?”
“Of course that’s what I mean,” she told him.
“We’ll need to do a brain scan,” he said, looking at his clipboard.
“But it’s my leg,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. “Why a brain scan?”
“It’s standard,” he said. “Are you her daughter?”
Cathleen huffed. This had happened before and she took the assumption of her age, and our relation, rather hard. I admit it always pleased me. Certainly I didn’t think of her as much older than me, most of the time. But I could have been her daughter – we discussed it once — if she’d had me at twenty.
“I’m her friend,” I told the resident.
“Only family is supposed to be in ER.”
“She’s not leaving.”
He sized the two of us up and left.
We waited. They wheeled Cathleen off for a scan and then brought her back. Three hours passed. I phoned my children to say I’d be late. I no longer had a husband I needed to call.
I’d gone to the bathroom for two minutes and when I came back the same resident had told Cathleen the results of the scan.
“Cancer,” she said, when I sat back on the edge of the gurney.
“You don’t have cancer.”
“They just told me. You weren’t here. Tumors in the brain are making my leg not work.”
I leapt up and went to find the resident.
“What do you mean by telling her she has cancer … how can you know something like that… what are you on about…”
He held up his hand like a crossing guard.
“There are tumors in the brain.” He was all business. “She was a smoker. I’ve seen it before. A dragging leg is a sure indication. We’ll have to keep her overnight.”
In the reception area of the ward, on a high floor, we waited for a room to be readied. They took her credit card to make sure she could pay.
We sat in appalled silence.
Cathleen asked me, “When Alice James died, what did she die of?”
“Well, she was neurasthenic – she was bedridden for years without any apparent illness.”
“Yes, love, I know that, but when she did finally die, what was it from?”
“Breast cancer,” I told her. “It was almost as if she was happy then and started keeping her diary. She wrote the whole thing while she was sick.”
“That’s interesting,” Cathleen said. “I won’t be doing any more writing.” I looked at her but she was staring straight ahead. “Do you have the newspaper?”
“I’ll go and get you one.”
She sat up straighter. “I’ll have to get back, you know.”
“I can bring you anything you need.”
“No, love. Ireland. I’ll have to go home now for good.”
“If I’m the best God can do, giving out money, no wonder I never believed in Him,” she said, when I described over the phone the scene in her apartment and her evidently being God’s angel. She was pleased with the effect of the ten thousand, as if the Polish woman’s fresh emotion expressed something for both of us by proxy.
“How does the place look, love? You wanted to stay after she left?”
“I did,” I admitted.
I’d had to recover from the cleaning woman’s gratitude. And I stayed because I’d wanted to pretend that I was waiting for Cathleen to come back from an errand or an appointment. She always hid her key, wrapped in tin foil, under a brick beside the stoop. I could let myself in if I arrived before her, as if Manhattan was a small Irish village and a friend could make tea and wait if they needed. She’d bought the place without having seen it, based on my description. That she loved it was a private triumph. All her things were still about – the cat’s dish, books on the shelves, the silk curtains I knew she was proud of finding. An old press card with her picture lay on the mantle and her expression in the photo was one of astonishment. After surviving her Irish childhood, America often left her astonished.
“And what time is it there, love?”
“About four in the afternoon,” I said, knowing what she would ask me.
“And are you sitting in the brown chair?”
“And is the sun coming in all yellow and warm through the curtains?”
“It is,” I told her.
“And is the tree outside a sort of wavering green with new leaves?”
I listened to her panting breath.
“It’s beautiful in your room,” I said.
“Ah, now,” she said. “Don’t.”
When I arrived in Dublin for the funeral, I got off the airport bus at the wrong stop and walked around St Stephen’s Green looking for a hotel I’d stayed in once before. My feet hurt in impractical heels, working at a blister on my right foot. Now that I was single I seemed to always be buying shoes I couldn’t walk in — sexy shoes that just made everything worse. I’d missed the hotel, after walking the three sides of the Green, so I entered the park to cross it. The wind blew my hair about and although it was warm, I was chilled, then suddenly hot — feverish. Halfway across the Green, I heard Cathleen call to me and turned about with fright, dropping my rolling suitcase on the grass and tripping over it as I tried to set it to right. I fell hard on one knee. I lay flat on the grass then, listening to her voice, uncanny in my ear, as clear and breathy as if she were beside me. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, apart from my name, repeated over and over, just as my mother had done before she died.
At the viewing, Cathleen lay in the casket, a transparent veil of lace over her face. She was covered from the neck down with a shiny fabric, as if tucked in a narrow bed.
How’s that for a metaphor, I thought: it’s not a bed and she’s not sleeping.
Before I knew it a wild sob escaped my throat, and I clapped my hand over my mouth and ran from the room. The last, and only other, dead body I’d seen was my mother’s – likewise veiled and in a casket.
Grief is a great harrowing presentiment, and loving Cathleen had kept me armed against this knowledge, despite my own mother’s death. It was not quite three months since we’d sat in the hospital and she’d asked about Alice James. In that Dublin funeral parlor, I saw that nothing more than a veil separated me from the obdurate example of both women.
They meet in me — my mother and Cathleen. I am daughter to them both and, sooner or later, will follow in their wake.
Beautiful, heartbreaking. This story literally took my breath away.
Sheridan, thank you for this story. Nuala would be so pleased to be transformed into such art. j