By Elizabeth Kelly
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price: $23.99
I grew up on Martha's Vineyard in a house as big and loud as a parade—the clamor resonated along the entire New England coastline. Calliope whistling, batons soaring, trumpets bleating, everything tapping and humming, orchestrated chaos, but we could afford it. My mother was rich, her father's money falling from the sky like ticker tape, gently suppressing the ordinary consequences of all that noise.
We lived up-island on several remote acres on the south shore of Chilmark. I'm still shaking the sand from my hair and scraping it off the soles of my feet, the sand from the beachfront filling every crack in the aging floorboards of our large, faded, shingle-and-clapboard captain's house.
The private saltwater shorefront of Squibnocket Beach made up our front yard, rugged surf pounding away, monster waves obscuring the skyline. On turbulent days the surfers almost landed in our kitchen, my uncle Tom chasing them off, using epithets as his broom.
Tom was my father's older brother. I'd call him the resident lunatic, but he faced tough competition for the title. Skirmishes abounded in our family, where arguments and opinions were as profuse as the tracks left by sandpipers along the shoreline.
A sparrow couldn't fall from a tree without eliciting wildly divergent commentary from Ma and Pop and Uncle Tom, who made up the adult members of my immediate household. Looming in the distance, constant and reminding, was my maternal grandfather, Peregrine Lowell, a man of expansive wingspread we called the Falcon, who roosted at great heights, poised to fly in and finish off lesser birds in midplummet.
My younger brother, Bing, and I were raised with the dissonant sound track of their collective insurgency playing continuously in the background—not exactly a tune anyone could whistle.
Those fantastic Flanagans, they exist just outside the door leading to me, Technicolor characters in what seems like a separate cartoon-strip version of my life. Plain as a line drawing by comparison, I was the domestic equivalent of a moderate voice in a divided Ireland. According to Pop, my Flanagan blood— Catholic as Communion wine— was corrupted at the cellular level by an infusion of Protestant DNA courtesy the Lowells, my mother's northern Anglo-Irish tribe.
Memories of home follow me wherever I go, chewing at my heels, panting for attention, as unyielding as all the dogs my mother accumulated over the years. Wet dog and the salty brio of surrounding sea air— my past hangs on in great olfactory waves, dragging its matted tail. That broke-down house and its thronging packs of dogs, it was like a reenactment of the fall of Saigon just trying to get from the entranceway to the living room.
English mastiffs, Neapolitan mastiffs, Tibetan mastiffs— those guys will bray at the moon until your soul shakes— and Jesus, that goddamn bull terrier, Sykes. My mother presided over all of it like some sort of mad, curly-haired, Celtic fairy queen. Her operatic wants and rants, feral hatreds and lavish affections, clanged like a lighthouse bell.
My name is Collie Flanagan. Ma chose the name Collie after rediscovering the books of Albert Payson Terhune, the guy who wrote Lad: A Dog.
Pop swore she read him throughout the pregnancy, hoping to give birth to a puppy. During my baptism, a fight broke out at the altar when the priest objected to me being named after a breed of dog, saying there was no St. Collie, and Ma told him there damn well should be and Pop announced that maybe I'd be the first.
At Andover they called me Lassie. That was fun.
My mother always wanted a daughter. The day I was born, November 22, 1963, was otherwise known as the worst day in Ma's life, the disappointing birth of a son coinciding with the death of her hero JFK. She commemorated her epic fury by building a bonfire on the beach and setting fire to Pop's beloved record collection, the smiling faces of Jo Stafford and Perry Como melting onto the driftwood. She even threw in a can of Raid just to hear the sound of her own anger exploding over the skyline.
Nine months later, on August 3, she had another boy, named for an Irish setter, my brother, Bing, who, lucky for him, shared a birthday with her other idol, the British war poet Rupert Brooke. Even so, before she carried Bing into the house for the first time, she paused to rip out all the pink geraniums from the front window box. Ma, it must be said, had a gift for making even flowers tremble.
She was the only female, the requisite bitch, according to Uncle Tom; otherwise it was an inelegant masculine settlement—even the dogs were male, the toys pissing on pillows, the giants drooling thick ropes of testosterone.
It's safe to say that my mother and my grandfather had a curious relationship. She loathed him, and he coolly financed her contempt. Sometimes I think he stuck around only in the hope of unlocking the secret of their estrangement. Hating her father was my mother's life's work and study, her daddy doctorate. She'd been accumulating data on him as far back as I could remember, research piled on chairs, in stacks of paper high as the dining room table.
There were charts and graphs pinned to the walls, filled with the grousing of ex-employees, former friends, and jealous business rivals. There were black-and-white photographs, secret testimonies, and endless lists of her personal grievances handwritten in red ink and block letters, a perverse tapestry smeared across the walls of her office, all in support of a roman à clef she claimed to be writing entitled The Bastard.
The protagonist, an enormously wealthy and powerful newspaper mogul, murders his wife and gets away with it. Then he devotes the rest of his life to destroying his daughter's happiness.
My grandfather always assumed a wry and world-weary tone when referring to his only child. Whenever Ma's name came up, I half expected him to ask for a last cigarette while waving off the blindfold. Ma raised us to believe that she was interesting, in the same way that Stalin's family was no doubt encouraged to think of him as an eccentric. It took me a long time to realize that my mother was crazy, her baseless vendetta against the Falcon one of the ways she told us the true tale of all that churned around inside her.
Pop was a stray, a drinker, and a womanizer, professionally Irish, a guy of mixed pedigree that Ma plucked off the streets because she was mad for his hair color, the same shade as a ruby red King Charles spaniel.
"There's not much that money can't buy," she used to tell us. "I knew the moment I laid eyes on him, his hair glowing like the sun and the moon and the stars, that I'd give over my whole fortune for the privilege of waking up next to that glorious head each morning."
Ma never sounded so in love as when she was waxing in the abstract.
The first time she saw him was late at night. Pop was drunk and dressed as Carmen Miranda, clinging to a streetlamp for support, having come from a costume party. She was leaving a meeting of Marxist sympathizers. Ma collected Commies the way other women accumulate Tupperware.
Uncle Tom insisted that Pop married Ma on a dare. Said Pop was out on the town with the infamous Dolan brothers, otherwise known as "the Corrupters," when he announced to everyone at the costume party that he'd marry the first woman to pass him on the street. Stumbling outside in his Carmen Miranda getup, barely able to stand, Pop looked up and there was Ma. Stretching out his hand, he offered her a banana from his headpiece and the spell was cast, according to Tom.
"Peachie 'Pittsburgh' McGrath almost beat her to the punch. What a wagon that one was— drawers the size of Cork. She'd just turned the corner and was lumbering up behind your mother. Charlie told me had it been Peach, he would have gone through with the ceremony to appease the Dolans and then killed himself right after. Married and buried on the same day."
"Pop, is it true you married Ma on a dare?" I asked him, nine years old and starting to wonder about such things, staring down at my new running shoes from my spot on the stairs of the veranda. It was twilight, a summer night, deep in August; the beach was empty except for the ever-present purple martens darting in search of insects as the lap of the waves made a buttery soft sound.
"I married your mother because I loved her," Pop said as if from a distance, not looking at me, but watching the water from where he sat still in a high-backed rocking chair, red hair shining like his personal sunset. For all of himself that he offered up— he was a torrent of words and emotions— I never felt as if I got to know Pop all that well.
I knew what he wanted to talk about, there was no shortage of topics, but I never really knew what to talk to him about.
Ma and Pop, despite their compulsive vividness, might as well have been partners in an accounting firm when it came to public demonstrations of affection. Bingo and I always knew, even when we were little, that a certain unresolved tension existed between them.
Pop would disappear for a few days, and Ma would grow quiet. She used to run the water in the upstairs bathroom so we wouldn't hear her cry. We'd stand outside the door, waiting, using our fingers to chip away brittle strips of cracked white paint, and we'd look at each other until she turned off the tap and then we'd scatter.
When Pop finally showed up, he'd bring Ma an amaryllis bulb. Terra-cotta pots filled with amaryllis lined the iron shelves in the greenhouse next to the stable. There were so many of them, Ma finally ran out of room and reluctantly started keeping them at my grandfather's conservatory.
One time Pop went away to New York for a weekend, claimed it was a business trip—"dirty business," Ma said, showing us his empty briefcase. Pop was always taking so-called business trips when we were little. As we got older, they relaxed into overdue vacations.
"So what? Pop's always carrying around an empty briefcase," I said, shrugging, earning a mild cuff on the back of the head. It wasn't until I was twelve that I finally realized what the amaryllis bulbs signified.
"Pop's trying to make up for going around with other women. He's got a guilty conscience," I said to Bing, who looked unconvinced.
"This is interesting," Ma said to Pop late Sunday night as Bingo and I eavesdropped in our pajamas from our hiding spot on the second-story landing. "Two amaryllis bulbs."
"Yeah, well." He kissed her—we recognized the significance of the little silence. "I know how much you love them."
Ma loved to proclaim her need for beautiful things, as if it put her in a special class of elite human beings, the rest of us content to be surrounded by irregular profiles and sidewalks. She had three ideals of male beauty: Pop, Bingo, and Rupert Brooke. She even became president of the Rupert Brooke Society and made occasional pilgrimages to his grave in Greece. She'd come home dressed in black, swaying back and forth and clutching her heart.
"Jesus," I once heard Pop mutter, "I swear there's more than a little Italian in that woman."
Bing and I grew up in the only house in the modern world where a long-dead poet was a daily source of tension.
"Why can't she just have a crush on Tom Jones like all the other mothers?" I asked Bingo, the two of us peeking around the door as she sat by the hour at the pine desk in the library— Ma had a thing about pine, called it the people's wood— staring at his photo, when Pop spotted her and hit the roof, shouting:
"How'd you like it if I took up with Virginia Woolf?"
What did my parents see in each other? In Ma's case, I think it was a simple matter of aesthetics and disorder. Pop was a good-looking anarchist who appeared to believe in everything and nothing at the same time all the time.
Of course, I might be overthinking the matter.
"It's good to have a man around," she said. "In case the sewage pipe ruptures."
They used to get into fistfights, Ma and Pop, for Christ's sake, Uncle Tom taking bets from Bing and me on the outcome— collecting on them, too, once threatening to kneecap me if I didn't pay up. But I spent a lot of time studying them, watching them, searching for clues, and they had a way of looking at each other.
In addition to his improbable Irish beauty, talent for canine coloring and marrying well, Pop had one other minor gift: He knew a lot about magic. Before he met Ma, he used to perform as Fantastic Flanagan at fairs, second-rate nightclubs, and nursing homes. Afterward, he pretty much confined his act to our living room— it took me until puberty to figure out that these were tricks he did. His greatest illusion was convincing Bingo and me that he was some sort of special being endowed with extraordinary powers. We made an exception for him. To us, the drunkenness was a form of penicillin, his way of coping with the burden of an ordinary existence.
"Ah, boys, I wasn't meant for this world," he used to tell us as we helped him up the stairs and into bed, me under one shoulder, Bingo holding up his half. "Charlie Flanagan sentenced to life on earth without parole. It's a cruel fate for a man such as I."
Then I'd catch him pissing in the driveway after a night on the town, and I'd wonder.
Uncle Tom used to tell me, "The thing of it is, Noodle, they're all dense as bottled shite, even Charlie. Thank God every day that you and Bingo have got me, or Lord knows what would become of you."
Tom lived with us, took care of us, cooked and cleaned and fought with Pop on a daily basis— Pop referring to him as our "maiden uncle." To witness one of their foaming encounters was to contemplate a small boat on a collision course with Niagara Falls— every brawl a kind of helpless plunge.
So many fights, and Bingo and I were like turkeys in the rain, standing around helpless, tail feathers drooping, watching in wonder as they crashed through the railing of the upper-story balcony, Pop's hands around Tom's neck, Tom's arms flailing, fury seeming to suspend them in midair. The whole murderous time they'd keep arguing, talking, always talking, a wall of sound and temper, how many times I just wanted to scream at them, "Shut up! For Christ's sake! Shut the hell up!"
The end would arrive with a big thump, them landing in a mangled heap at our feet, Bingo grabbing my arm in excitement, thrilled by all that mayhem, while my circulation was grinding to a shuddering standstill.
Brawling came naturally to the Flanagan brothers.
"Your grandfather never backed away from a disagreement," Pop told us. His father's penchant for fighting was one of Pop's favorite topics when we were growing up. Pop had a fairly narrow measure of manhood and used broken noses to chart masculinity the way scientists recruit tree rings to chronicle age.
"He got into a terrible flap with the parish priest back home one Sunday after Mass."
"What were they fighting about, Pop?" I asked him, already familiar with the answer by the time I could tie my shoes.
"The fighting skills of the American army, of course— how he loved to hold forth on that subject. I well recall your grandfather talking to me about the glories of the American fighting man in my high chair. 'The Americans couldn't lick their own lips,' says Father Duffy to your grandfather the moment he sees him— this is before the Yanks entered the war. Well, you might just as well pour gasoline into hell the eruption could be heard from miles around. Let me tell you a little something about your grandfather, God bless him, you wouldn't want to stand next to him and light a match."
Whenever Pop talked about his old man, I could smell something burning. Hugh Flanagan was a firestorm, according to Pop. "He left grass fires where he walked. He burned down barns with the ferocity of his judgment."
He sure as hell knew how to piss off a priest.
"May your sons never have any luck," Father Duffy shouted, slamming the door behind him. Soon after, Hugh and Loretta Flanagan left Ireland with their family, three boys, Tom, William, and Charlie, and two girls, Brigid and Rosalie, and immigrated to Boston. It was 1940. When it came time for the United States to enter the war, Hugh wanted his two older sons, Tom and William, in American uniform. Pop was too young to enlist.
"Your grandfather never recovered from the disgrace of your uncle Tom trying to join up wearing ladies' underclothes," Pop told me. I was eight, standing across from him in the living room, where he sat parked in his favorite morris chair, voice booming as I flinched.
"That's a goddamn lie, Charlie Flanagan, and you know it. I wanted to serve. My flat feet kept me out of the action. Name one veteran, dead or alive, that's suffered as much as I have," Tom hollered from the kitchen, where he was chopping onions for stew.
"Oh, so that's what they're calling cowardice these days, a matter for the podiatrist, is it? Next you'll be telling me had you only been born with balls, you'd be the boys' uncle instead of their aunt." Pop, never happier than when he was producing friction, approached me playfully, shoulders hunched, assuming a classic boxer's stance, punching the air, one-two-three, narrowly missing my chin.
"Your uncle Tom single-handedly put the personality in disorder," he said.
Uncle Tom was my mother's sworn enemy. He referred to her as the Female B— his obtuse way of calling her a bitch. He was always doing funny things with language, mangling words, making up crazy expressions, being deliberately provocative, saying schedule as if it were pronounced "shek-a-dool" and then daring you to correct him. Tom never outgrew the desire for negative attention, a trait he shared in common with Ma.
Ironically, considering their mutual hatred, there wasn't much to give or take between their views. Tom and Ma were against just about everything everyone else was for, yet year in and year out, they circled each other, glaring like rival warlords.
"And thank God for it," Pop proclaimed. "Jesus, Collie, can you imagine what might happen if they joined forces?"
"Move over, Abbott and Costello," I said.
I suspect that my mother underwrote every postwar revolution undertaken by Marxist insurrectionists from one end of the globe to the other. Anais Lowell Flanagan was writing checks for her pet causes all through the 1970s when we were growing up. Nothing Ma enjoyed more than the incendiary overthrow of established order.
Uncle Tom lived for the pleasure of infiltrating and disrupting her political gatherings. He used to call everyone on the guest list and tell each one there had been an outbreak of impetigo at the house, leaving my mother to fume when no one showed up.
"Some revolutionary he turned out to be, scared of a little fungus," he'd report to Bingo and me, receiver to ear, as he knocked them off the list one by one.
He raced for the phone whenever it rang, and if he didn't approve of the caller— he never acceded to anyone— he'd shout into the receiver, "Gotta go. There's a squirrel in the house!"
Once in a while, someone would call back.
"Hello, this is Denny the Red. May I speak with Anais?"
"I'm sorry, there's no Denny the Red here. You've got the wrong number."
"No, you don't understand. I'm Denny the Red—"
"Are you deaf as well as dumb? I told you there's no Denny the Red at this number."
He used to put Bingo and me through the same crazy routine. Dialing home was like trying to get God's private line. When I was in grade six I broke my arm at school, and the hospital called, trying to get permission to operate. I was going nuts from the pain— it was a compound fracture— everyone, including the surgeon, was standing around waiting to go, and a nurse walked in with a bewildered look on her face and announced there appeared to be some emergency at my house.
"Something about a squirrel?" she said.