– “All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut
Midway through second grade, Liam Flanagan’s mother and father split up. It was bitter and ugly; the kind of divorce you sometimes hear or read about, but don’t often witness. Liam and his little sister Kelvee saw their parents carry this out moment by agonizing moment. Blow by bloody blow.
The Flanagan’s were our neighbours and Liam was my best friend, so I got to watch too. Upon reflection, I realize that Mr. and Mrs. Flanagan’s divorce was my first significant voyeuristic experience. I also believe it was the reason I never attempted marriage myself.
As an adult, I know that even at its best, divorce is a scary, unsettling thing. At worst, it brings out some sort of primal maliciousness in people who are normally…well…normal. Liam once told me, “You know, the only memory I have of my parents being, like, physically in the same room was that day in court.”
The day Liam remembered was the day Mr. Flanagan, after losing some ground on a legal technicality, stood up from his chair, walked calmly over to Mrs. Flanagan, and started to strangle her with his bare hands. Her instinctive reaction was to knee him in the groin, which resulted in him bringing up the New England clam chowder he had eaten for lunch all over the top of her head. Still, he wouldn’t let go.
My dad happened to be in the court room that day “As moral support for Linus and Mary equally”, he would say. He claimed to remember the events clearly; “Mary was turning blue and her tongue had actually started to swell up before the sheriff could pry Linus’ hands lose from her throat,” he says, “They broke three fingers on his right hand, and three fingers and the thumb on the other one before he finally let go. Crazy bastard”.
Whenever Dad told this story, he would get a look on his face that expressed every emotion simultaneously. Until the day he died he didn’t know quite what to make of what he saw that day.
As a consequence of his mangled fingers, Linus Flanagan suffered with chronic arthritis for the rest of his life. It twisted his hands so severely that they formed the “hang loose” sign with his right hand, and the one fingered “fuck off” sign with the left whenever it was going to rain. Since we lived in Vancouver, this was almost always.
Mr. F was not the only one to suffer permanent disability. So severe was the damage to Mary’s wind pipe that she needed an emergency tracheotomy right there in the court room. She lived, thanks to a quick thinking court reporter with a pocket knife and a Bic pen (a trick he had learned while watching M*A*S*H), but Mr. Flanagan had succeeded in permanently wrecking her throat. From that day forth, Mrs. F could muster up a really swell Wolfman Jack imitation. In fact, even her normal voice had a quality to it that most people can only manage immediately after they have had a good stiff shot of whiskey.
Liam remembers that day though, because it was the only time he ever saw his mother and father touch each other. One would think that watching your parents engage in mortal combat would be, at least, disquieting. However Liam insists that this memory is a fond one for Kelvee and him; they remember it as the day they saw mom and dad hugging. Liam clearly remembers his dad standing up, moving slowly towards his mother, embracing her, and the two of them crying. The miraculous adaptability of the child’s mind; it is a wonder to behold. Liam still believes that the sheriffs were in on a group hug. It was the early 70’s. Everybody was a hippie. It’s plausible, I guess.