All through my growing up, whenever the family got together, at some random point during the celebration only he could predict, my uncle Peter would sing "Danny Boy." Wedding, wake, or baptism he'd raise his wrecked chin and blast it out, always starting too high so his voice cracked on “’tis I’ll be here...” Great Aunt Grace once told me that he had a fine voice when he was young, but for as long as I can remember it was somewhere between a lost cat and a bent trumpet. Smoke and drink had done most of the damage, but a fight that broke two front teeth didn't help either. It made his singing into what my brother Jack and I call "bad weather."
My first real responsibility as a member of the MacDougal clan of County Clare and Boston, Massachusetts, was to help my brother Jack escort Uncle Peter outside to finish his tune out in the yard, or on the steps of the church, rather than during the wedding or communion ceremony. Jack initially got the job when he grew big enough to haul Peter out of the building even if he resisted, and I got to help because at some point—I think it was my cousin Shirley's wedding—Uncle Peter decided that I was good company. "Sean," he said, after wiping his mouth of the remains of his last verse, "you're going to grow up to be a right pain in the ass." My father agreed, though they had different reasons to think so. For Peter it meant that I didn't take church too seriously; for my father it meant that I didn't take my future seriously enough.
Peter always had cigarettes, and after he finished his rendition of the old anthem, he didn't mind about handing them out to us, even though I was 13 the first time, Jack just a few years older. We'd have a smoke under the awning of St. Matthew's, and it occurred to me once or twice that Peter might have started singing at these occasions so that he wouldn't have to sit through the homily. But that’s probably more credit than he deserved.
The MacDougals of County Clare and Boston, Massachusetts, have done about as well as most Irish families this side of the Atlantic. Which is to say we've got our share of upstanding citizens and our share of fuckups. We still have the right to call ourselves a clan because the upstanding citizens still invite the fuckups to family occasions. Which isn't true of most families, Irish, Jewish, Italian, or Chinese. Most families start to split at the cousin level once the citizens and the fuckups have shaken themselves loose of each other. The fancier cousins start having "intimate affairs." The poorer cousins only invite the fancy ones to make sure they get guilt gifts. But for the MacDougals it was a point of pride that Doctor Gerry MacDougal, our most esteemed member and a former town alderman of Swampscott, still invited the whole family tree to his daughter's wedding, despite the concerns that folks like Uncle Peter would make a bad impression on the DAR ladies that Meaghan MacDougal was marrying into. For the occasion, Jack and I and our first cousins the Callaghan boys were all assigned permanent escort duty on Uncle Peter to make sure he didn't ask any of the Walcotts to dance, but he was allowed to drink his fill of good whiskey and we made sure that he got a safe ride home. It's that kind of tolerance and consideration that keeps us together as a clan.
The way my grandmother put it to me was, "We MacDougals take care of our own, sometimes with a mop."
I confirmed Uncle Peter's suspicions that I was going to be a right pain in the ass by graduating from Boston College with a degree in Political Science. Soon after I confirmed my father's same suspicions by failing to find anything resembling a good job. "With a degree like that," my father said, "there's no counting all the doors flying open for you. And you're still tending bar for tips and sleeping till noon. If I'd known you were going to do that, I could have saved money and sent you to Quinnipiac State."
What my father didn't know was that before I even graduated I had applied to law school in Washington and had been accepted but couldn’t bring myself to go. As far as I knew they were saving a place for me in one of the lecture halls, but I never showed. It's the kind of reason that separates a citizen from a fuckup, I know, which is why I hadn't told my father. I was back in Somerville tending bar because after years of believing that I was going to be a success, that I was the “smart brother,” I was starting to believe my old man, that I was really just a fuckup with a pretty mouth. My brother Jack had his own contracting business by then, and I was thinking that joining up with him might be about as good as I was going to get. In the meantime, while I decided for sure, I was tending bar because once I asked my brother for a job, I knew I would never give it up.
I also had a girl who was still at B.C., and I was hoping she would help me make some decisions. We dated most of my senior year, and I guess I had it pretty bad for her. She was a Jewish girl, though, and had told me in no uncertain terms that I was just a fling for her, a "dalliance" she called me, because if she ever brought a boy named Sean MacDougal home to meet her family, her grandmother would burst a lung and hemorrhage all over the carpet. This despite the fact that I was the only boy who had ever made her come. We were still seeing each other over the summer while she had some internship at a publisher downtown, but Laurie told me that once the summer was over, so were we.
Casey’s is smack in the middle of the student neighborhood near Tufts University and aims at the professors and grad students more than the frat boys and locals. Booths, dark wood, decent menu, imported beer. The tips at the bar worked out to be the same, because they didn’t drink as much but what they drank was more expensive, and if it got busy I helped the waitstaff serve dinners. So far the neighborhood and the décor had kept me hidden from the wandering exploits of Uncle Peter—the bars he frequented were usually paved with linoleum. He had his usual spots, especially a joint in Davis Square called the Lincoln Lounge, where he hung out with some of his old friends from—hell, I don’t actually know how he knew them. Some of them worked construction. Near the end of June I stopped in around 3 o’clock, before my shift, to say hello and buy a round.
“Here’s my nephew, the wonderboy!” Uncle Peter announced. He was at the bar, watching the Sox lose. It looked like he had gone up to buy a round and gotten distracted by something in the game. He was well into his own beer, but there were two fresh ones in front of him and his pals were sitting at their table, ten feet away and thirsty. I grabbed the beers, and one for myself, and brought them over. Peter stayed at the stool, but turned around and re-introduced me to the two guys he was drinking with, Moose and Perry.
I had missed a few minor family occasions recently while finishing exams, so I hadn't seen my Uncle Peter for a few months. The major change I noticed in him now, up close, was the smell. He used to smell like smoke and bars and beer and bad breath. But now he smelled like something sick underneath all that. I know from my work behind a bar that long-time drunks can maintain a certain twisted kind of equilibrium health-wise for a while, but when they start to deteriorate, it happens fast. Uncle Peter was younger than my mother but had been drinking hard for as long as I had known him.
“Boys, listen,” he said, leaning into the two others at the table but addressing the four or five other guys at the other tables. “This boy, my nephew, Sean. This boy, I’m telling you, he—. He! He is going places. You mark my words. He’s got the magic! Ten years, you’ll consider it an honor to buy this boy a drink.”
Moose chuckled, “Well today I’m honored for him to buy one for us!”
“Here’s to ya,” I said, and winked at my uncle.
Peter lurched off the stool and pulled up a chair so he could get right in my face. “So,” he said, and his breath was something like a rancid stew. “Now you’re finished school, what are you working on?”
“I’m working security at a warehouse over in Medford. Near the mall.”
“Bah,” he said. “That’s yer job. What are you working on?” he asked.
I heard a bit of my father’s voice in the question, but I had a better answer for Peter than I did for my father. “Well, at the moment I’m working on a nice Jewish girl from Chicago…”
“That’s my boy!” he said, clapping my shoulder and leaning backwards so violently that he almost tipped over. “See?! That’s what I mean. Magic!”
I stayed to watch the end of the inning and told Uncle Peter I’d see him at the Callaghan wedding.
July Fourth weekend the MacDougals were getting together because the oldest of the three Callaghan boys was getting married to a girl he'd met in the Navy. Billy was in town for just a few weeks to get hitched, kiss all the grannies, collect the loot and ship off again.
One night after closing up at Casey’s, I drove downtown to Laurie's apartment in Brighton and let myself in. I did this about once a week, surprising her in bed and having sleepy sex while telling her how beautiful I thought she was and how I needed her to help me get my act together. She joked that it was my way of making sure she wasn't messing with any other guys, but that wasn't it. Those 3 am trysts were the tenderest we got with each other. My ears would still be ringing from the Led Zeppelin blaring at Casey’s, and I was happy to be next to someone who didn't smell like smoke and beer, even if her breath was a little stale from sleep. Laurie would be hazy enough to let her guard down and tell me that I was the one who knew her best and that I made her feel things she never expected in her whole life to feel. She got chatty when she was half-asleep the way some people get chatty when they're drunk. That night, still stroking her bare shoulder shining in the streetlight, I invited Laurie to come with me to Billy's wedding and tried to convince her by saying it would be a fascinating cultural experience. A real Boston Irish wedding. How could she say no? She could see the infamous Uncle Peter in action, and maybe she could even use the material for her overdue Sociology paper. I tried to make light of it to take the pressure off, but Laurie surprised me by saying yes. She said she wanted to meet my family.
Billy's wedding was like most MacDougal weddings. The ceremony was at St. Matthew's, back in South Boston where the first MacDougals got their first jobs and their first houses, and where their boys got their fists bloodied against gangs of Germans and Scots. The whole clan would be in attendance, and after the required solemnity of the ceremony itself the Callaghans could be counted on to provide ample nourishment and entertainment for everyone to last long into the night. There'd be two bands: a traditional Irish trio who'd play reels and jigs, and a "modern" band who'd play Motown hits and the cheesy wedding slow numbers so that Billy and his wife could be introduced by the emcee as "the new Mr. and Mrs. Callaghan!" I tried to explain the contrast of the seriousness of the church with the frivolity of the hall to Laurie in the car on our way over.
We were a little late on purpose, so we would miss the worst of the look-overs before the ceremony. Laurie and I got our share of curious looks from the aunts and grannies when we took our seats near the back, but that was better than all the introductions that would have to come all at once later. What Laurie didn't know was that most folks would be more surprised to see me with someone—anyone—than to see me with someone who so obviously didn't fit our demographic profile. I hadn’t had many serious girlfriends, and had never brought any girl to a family occasion before. Maybe they thought I’d grow up to be a priest. Everyone was in their favorite outfits: the Callaghans are kind of middle-of-the-road when it comes to status in the MacDougal clan, which meant that the ladies could wear their Sunday bests without having to be embarrassed or going out to buy brand new stiff dresses that they'd be pulling at through the whole ceremony. All the aspiring matriarchs had their hands folded over their lace hankies and were pursing their lips over the hats of their neighbors.
Laurie was pretty well prepared for the staring contest, but she still leaned over to me and asked, only half-kidding, "Can they tell I'm not Catholic?"
I whispered back: "They will when they see you're circumcised."
That earned me a pinch on the thigh and a sexy grin. "How do you know I'm circumcised?" she whispered, arching a brow. I pointed out to Laurie where Uncle Peter was sitting, so she could get a good view when he was taken over by the spirit and watched her as she took it all in. What looked different to her, and what looked the same as any big family? She had told me that the Bernsteins of Chicago were a pretty sizable clan themselves, but I hadn't met any of them.
The MacDougals have participated in multi-cultural America as much as most families have, I guess— a good handful of cousins have married Italians or Poles, and my second cousin Frank married a girl from Venezuela—but we're still pretty close-knit, ethnically speaking. And with all the Christ imagery on the walls and windows, Laurie had to feel like she was in the belly of the beast. My real question, though, was what she was doing here: was she getting a taste of the real Boston Irish before she retreated back to her own kind, or was she trying us on for size? I was hoping to get a sense at the party—if she tried to dance with the Irish band, I figured she was rethinking the end of the summer.
My parents were up at the front of the church, being Billy's godparents—Billy's mother is my father's sister—so Laurie would have to wait to meet them. But my brother Jack left his seat with his wife and two-year old daughter to slide over a bench and say a silent hello. This was also good preparation for our upcoming role as escorts to Uncle Peter.
Sure enough, around halfway through Father O'Keefe's rendition of the Gospel, but thankfully before any of the vows were taken, there was a little ripple a few rows up as Uncle Peter started humming. Once the front rows had turned around, Peter was standing up and swaying, and Jack and I were on our way over to lead him out the side door. We're pretty well practiced at the maneuver after all these years, us and Peter too. Peter always manages to get himself a seat in the middle of a pew, so that it takes us the better part of a verse to get to him. One of us hooks an elbow and starts walking while the other, sliding in from the other end of the pew, blocks any escape and claps Peter's back as he exits. Everyone holds his breath until we're in the outside aisle, for fear that Peter will stumble and "accidentally" grope some unsuspecting visitor's chest to stop himself from falling down. Once we're out, everyone relaxes and Father O'Keefe says something charming like, "Let us praise God for all of His creatures, no matter how tone-deaf," and it's back to business.
I still don't know why Peter picked "Danny Boy" as his particular tune, but I know it galled some of the relatives. Singing “Danny Boy” the wrong way can still get you into a fistfight in a South Boston schoolyard or land you a grievance hearing before the Tolerance Committee on campus. Uncle Peter certainly knows other songs—I've heard him sing them at looser parties. And to tell the truth he sang some of them half-decently when he was in that happy fifteen-minute state between warm and stinking. But for church, it was always "Danny Boy," and the best reason I ever got from him was at my Great Uncle Harlan's wake: "You've gotta do it the way it’s done."
It had only been about six months since I had done my churchly duty with Peter, and I’d just seen him a few weeks ago at the Lincoln, but he interrupted his performance to greet me as if I'd been off to the wars. "Ah, Sean, so you're back to take care of me, are ya?"
"Guess so, Uncle Peter."
Jack and I settled Peter down on the steps out front and closed the door behind us so that Peter's last bars wouldn't disturb the ceremony. After that, he started meandering around the front lawn of the church picking at the hedgerows. Jack and I had learned years ago that we could have conversations underneath Uncle Peter's singing, the way parents tend to do while their children are playing. "She seems nice, Sean."
"You didn't even talk to her, Jack."
"I said seems."
"Yeah. You should see her with her clothes off."
"Don't think Trish would approve of that."
"You never know."
"She going to stay for the party, or was she just coming for the Uncle Peter show?"
"Got yourself a girl, have ya?" Peter said, swaying and holding a plucked sprig like a cigarette in front of his mouth.
Just as Peter asked, Laurie came outside looking for me. It was a glorious day, and she looked just great coming out of the church like that: light summer dress waving around, black hair not shining but seeming to drink in the light. She put up her hand to shade her eyes and squinted us into focus.
"Greetings, fair lassie!" said Peter, rolling his r's and putting on a thick brogue that had nothing to do with the way he talked. He half-bounded, half-stumbled up the stairs to meet her on her way down.
"You must be Uncle Peter." Laurie put her hand out with her arm fully outstretched and her body leaning backwards away from him. Peter took hold of her hand, kneeled ludicrously on the step, and made a grand gesture of kissing her knuckles, one by one. When he got to her thumb, he turned her hand so that she half-cupped his chin, and he looked up with a leer. Laurie's other hand was across her chest, but she smiled while extricating her hand and turning to Jack. "You’re Sean's brother?"
"Yes, I'm Jack." He took her hand.
"You're not going to kiss all my knuckles, are you?"
"No, but I'll clean them off if you want." Jack made a move toward the handkerchief in his pocket, but Laurie laughed him off and made a big show of wiping her hand on my shoulder.
"Wait just a minute there, lady." Peter had forgotten the fake brogue he'd put on before, but he still held that leering, gap-toothed grin a few stairs up from us. "None of my nephews goes with a girl without my official stamp of approval."
Jack and I gave each other looks of danger, but Laurie was feeling more confident now. She's deflected her share of drunken come-ons. "And how do I go about getting your stamp of approval, Uncle Peter?"
"There's only one way."
"Yes?" Laurie sensed what was coming and was preparing her comeback.
Peter straightened up and lifted his chin. "You shall have to kiss my Irish ass."
Laurie didn't flinch. "There's only one Irish ass I'm kissing around here, mister." Jack looked at me as if to say, "Yeah, she's a keeper," and I let Laurie hold her own. If Peter's sisters talked to him like this—my mother, Aunt Francis, Aunt Judy—would he have straightened himself out by now?
Peter took a step up toward Laurie. "Well then you'll have to show me your tits," he hissed, and he grabbed at the shoulder of her dress and pulled.
Laurie held onto her dress and lifted her arm to push him away. "Get off me," she said, but Peter kept on coming. He leaned in and whispered, so that I'm sure his breath was all over her.
"Come on, you kike bitch, ain't you got a kiss for Uncle Peter?"
I don't know why I was surprised, or that it took me and Jack so long to move, but by the time we did, Peter had half jumped from the steps and was clinging to Laurie's neck with both hands and nuzzling her chest like some kind of over-excited Labrador. Laurie was landing solid blows to his head while holding up her dress with one hand, but was stumbling under Peter's weight. I came up behind her, thinking to catch her if she fell, but Laurie took a step back, and found her footing on the top stair. She let go of her dress and grabbed Uncle Peter by the throat with both hands. As he lifted his head, still half-leering and with foam on his lips, she pushed him backwards and sent him sprawling down the stairs.
It was right out of the Pedro Martinez fight with Don Zimmer. And I remember thinking then that, even though Pedro was our hero, and Zimmer was coming at him, something about tossing an old guy like that to the ground was a little, I don’t know, unseemly. He was just an old man. And halfway down the church steps, bleeding from the eyebrow, so was Uncle Peter. He pulled out a filthy handkerchief and used it first to wipe his nose, then dab at the cut.
Jack tried to help him up, but he swatted the hand away. “That’s no way to treat family!” he blurted out. He wasn’t talking to her. He was talking to me. Scrambling the rest of the way down the steps, he limped off, putting pressure on the wound. He wouldn’t come back for the reception, and I didn’t see him again for a few weeks.
Laurie straightened out her dress, put her hands on her hips and smirked. “Well, I guess I can say I’ve been officially introduced to the MacDougal clan!”
I couldn’t say anything. I know I should have been proud of her. Her eyes were shining and she looked from me to Jack, waiting for some congratulatory joke. Jack looked down at his feet. And what was I? I confess it. I was disappointed.