I thought he was Santa Claus, my version of ‘Charming Billy,’ my raucously loveable Uncle Francis. He walked me and my cousin Bobby downtown when they came to visit–Uncle Francis was thinking of moving his family to our small town fifty miles away from his current city home,–and he took us out exploring. He bought us each an ice cream cone at Hunter’s; he bought us each a pinwheel at the GC Murphy store. He said I didn’t have to share either one.
Someone broke my pinwheel not long after we got home, but they couldn’t take away that powerful memory–my Uncle Francis, a child’s hand in each of his, smiling and chatting and roaring with laughter. He was the man of whom people say, “He never met a stranger.” And he paid attention to children, too. Asking us what we thought. Asking us what we’d like.
I loved my Uncle Francis, and I was glad when he and his family moved almost to our town, to the small city that butted up against us.
My father,–well, I’m not so sure what he felt about the move. Because with it came regular late night calls–wee early morning calls really: Come and get your brother.
Dad always went. The whole house heard the phone ring; six of us collectively held our breaths. We heard Dad’s gruff, awakened rumble; we heard the high pitch of my mother’s complaint. The receiver slapped down; we could hear Dad pulling his clothes on.
“Why you?” asked my mother. “Why is it always you that has to get him?”
We’d hear Dad storming down the stairs, his muttered curse in the darkest part of night. The storm door would slam, the car would start. I would fall asleep despite the fear and nervousness. When I awoke, Dad would be gone to work, as if it were a normal day. And life would settle into normal. Until the next time.
When I was very young, the calls came a lot. He didn’t drink every day, Uncle Francis didn’t; he was what my father called a binge drunk. Once he started, he couldn’t stop. But he didn’t always start.
We had family parties and game nights and often Uncle Francis would drive over and visit, just he himself. He would drink coffee and play pinochle; he’d laugh that booming laugh, cigarette dripping ashes as he threw up his smoking hand, threw his head back, and roared.
He was charming.
Until the next phone call.
I understand why Dennis always got out of bed and went to rescue Billy in Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy. They weren’t brothers, not like Dad and Uncle Francis, but they were just as close. And in tightly knit American-Irish Catholic society, you took care of your own. When Maeve, Billy’s long-suffering wife called in the wee hours, Dennis always responded.
There was more there too, to motivate Dennis–there was the lie he had told years ago. “She’s dead,” he told his dear Billy, breaking his heart, thinking he was saving it. For she wasn’t dead–she was just gone, back to Ireland, trailing a long string connecting Billy to her. She took the money Billy sent her: he’d borrowed it to bring her back to the States. She gave it to her Irish fiance’ to start his business. Dennis cannot bring himself to reveal the girl’s faithlessness; he chooses what he thinks is the kinder course, and tells Billy a devastating lie.
We all know it’s wrong to lie; Catholics know a lie’s a sin to be confessed to the priest. But there are kinds and levels of lies. There are lies told to hurt, lies told to protect, lies told in anger; there are lies told in fear. Dennis’s intention was to shore up Billy’s dignity, to give him closure without the extra pain of rejection.
Was it Dennis’s fault Billy drank? Or was Billy a sick man, a man with a disease, for whom the lie was just an excuse?
Charming Billy is not a cheery story, but it is a story of good people who stumble and fall and sometimes, get up, right themselves, and keep on. It’s the story of the sacrifice certain kinds of Catholics make, kind of a living martyrdom: This is my cross to bear, and I will bear it.
The rules say you’re supposed to bear it quietly, stoically; some people struggle to do that, but they just can’t. They just have to tell you. They have to know you know, that you see their sacrifice, that there is some reason for their pain.
Others–Dennis, Maeve, my Dad–bite their lips, smile bravely, stumble on.
Is there a value in the sacrifice? Should people stay with it, at all costs? Is there a point at which staying is enabling, at which the true act of courage would be to tear away? The Church teaches differently. The sadness of Billy and Maeve’s story is wrenching, but there’s a certain honor there.
By the time I was in college, Dad no longer got those calls. Whether Uncle Francis had stopped the binges altogether, or whether someone else was doing the picking up, I don’t know. I know the episodes had done serious damage to his relationships with some of his kids, who kept their lips tight and their homes at a tough-to-travel distance.
I was married and teaching when Dad called one morning, asking gruffly, “Are you alone? Is Mark there with you?” and then he told me Uncle Francis had died.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Oh, Dad.”
I had known only the charming side of my Charming Billy; others had shored him up when his drunkenness caused damage and destruction. His wife lived many years after Francis died. She learned, in her fifties, to drive; went happily out to work; made friends; had a rich and busy life. Her home became, again, the hub for her children. She was a shirt-off-her-back kind of giver. But she had no interest in being married again.
A friend of both families, when his wife died after a long illness, paid court to my aunt, but when it became clear he wanted marriage, she gently, kindly, firmly, closed the door.
“I’ve done marriage,” she told me. “Why on earth would I do it again?”
She had been true to her pledge; she honored her commitment; but when the sacrifice was over, she wasn’t going back in for another round,–not this time, eyes wide open.
He’s a charmer, that Billy–the charming, fatally flawed hero of a very personal tragedy. He’s surrounded by quiet, sometimes tragic, heroes.
One definition, a professor once told me, of great literature is that in it, you recognize people you know. Alice McDermott’s story tugged at my heart. I know her people. As she does, I suspect, I love them dearly, tragic flaws and all.