Artistic License

Copyright 2016 Charles McKelvy




 a novella

by Charles McKelvy

All right; all right—Michigan Central Station in Detroit made me do it.  Do what?  Check out our new page:  Artistic License.

All right; all right—Michigan Central Station in Detroit made me do it. Do what? Check out our new page: Artistic License.



“Sir, please take your finger off the Van Gogh. Now! Please!”

Uncle Danny didn’t even turn around. He didn’t even look at the fuming guard, and he didn’t even take his finger off the Van Gogh.

He was in town to visit his big sister—my mother—and to take one of my famous Motown tours, complete, of course, with a day at the DIA, or the Detroit Institute of Arts.

And so there we were admiring a jewel in the DIA’s crown, a self-portrait by the aforementioned Vincent Van Gogh.


“Uncle Danny, uh—“

“Look,” Uncle Danny said, tapping the Van Gogh with his long-nailed index finger, “that crazy Dutchman really knew how to slap on the paint, even though he couldn’t afford to buy any himself. Good thing he had his brother Theo to keep him in paint and—”

Unable to contain herself any longer, the guard lunged at Uncle Danny to get him away from the masterpiece.

Big mistake.

Not because Uncle Danny was given to violent over-reaction.

On the contrary, my Uncle Danny O’Malley was the prince of peaceful protest. He wouldn’t have hurt a fly. But he sure would have cursed any offending insect into kingdom come with his profoundly profane basso profundo voice.

And that is precisely what he did to that poor guard that day in Detroit so long ago when she sought to lay hands on him and get him off the DIA’s Van Gogh.

I’ll spare you all of Uncle Danny’s expletives deleted, but I will tell you that that woman’s hand met a greater opposing force in the sonic boom of brain dead hillbillies that came blasting out of Uncle Danny’s mouth.

Oh, he let her have it, and then some.

I knew he was venting the rage of a lifetime, and then, when five more guards appeared on the fly, I said as calmly as I could, “Come on, Uncle Danny, we’ve got a lot more of Motown to see.”

But Uncle Danny wasn’t done enlarging that guard’s anal perforation, and, in no time flat, Detroit’s finest were on the scene cuffing Uncle Danny and reading him his rights and demanding an explanation.

I’ll leave that to Uncle Danny, thank you very much.




Feeling they had no choice but to protect Detroit’s world-class art museum from Vandals and Visigoths like Uncle Danny, Detroit’s finest arrested him on the spot, cuffed him behind the back, read him his rights and hauled him in for booking.

Uncle Danny didn’t take too kindly to any of that, and he met each insult to his dignity with a string of epithets that had the coppers covering their blistered ears.

My Uncle Danny sure liked to swear like the sailor he had always hoped to be but never was, and he blasted the po-po with a barrage of profanity that literally blistered their ears. And they had heard it all, or so they thought.

Until they met my Uncle Danny.

What a guy.

Anyway, let me get back on track here by noting that Uncle Danny was absolutely incensed when they wouldn’t let me ride along with him in the back of the cruiser to the architecturally insignificant Detroit Public Safety Headquarters at 1301 Third Street.

“I’ll meet you there, Uncle Danny, and I’ll call your sister—Mom—and let her—“
“You leave Noreen out of this. I’ll handle this. I’m a big boy now, and I don’t need my big sister handling this, and I don’t need no stinkin’ lawyer to speak for me unless you can summon Clarence Darrow from the grave.”

The arresting officers had had enough of Uncle Danny’s guff by that point, so they hauled him off without further ado.

When I got to the station house, they already had him in an interview room for questioning.

“You his lawyer?” the desk sergeant asked.

“No, I’m his nephew, and—“

“Wait out here. Like everybody else.”

I looked for an empty chair in the row along the wall and found one next to a prim and proper woman of a certain age who wore a photo ID that identified her as Legal and Community Affairs Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

I sat down with a sigh and said without looking at her: “So, you going to press charges against my uncle?”

I thought the woman’s hearing aid was on the fritz, because she didn’t respond.

So I repeated: “Are you going to—“

“I heard you the first time. And, yes, we are going to press charges against your uncle. He was defacing an irreplaceable masterpiece, and he verbally assaulted our security personnel when they asked him to stop. So, yes, we are going to press charges, and we are insisting that the judicial system prosecutes him to the full extent of the law. You have no idea the battles we have fought to keep our precious collection from being sold off piecemeal to balance the books of this badly broken city.”

“You’re preaching to the choir here. I grew up in Detroit, and—“

“Now you live in some distant suburb and—“

“No, I live right downtown.”



DIA’s defender fixed her keen green eyes on me and extended her hand. “I am sorry to be so brusque. Claire Stevens.”

I took her hand and said: “Tommy McFadden. A pleasure to meet you, Claire.”

We dropped our hands and smiled politely.

I spoke first, saying: “I know how this must look to you, but let me explain my Uncle Danny by first telling you that he is an artist in his own right. No, he’s an artist, plain and simple. An amazing artist. Self-taught like our friend Vincent Van Gogh and every bit as talented.”

Claire Stevens was about to respond when a detective sergeant appeared and said: “Miz Stevens, would you step into the interview room? The defendant would like a word with you.”

“What about me?” I said.

“Who’re you?”

“The defendant’s nephew.”

The great hulking detective with coffee stains on his silk tie rubbed his forehead and shook a cramp out of his left leg. “All right, fine. But you’re a fly on the wall—you hear? You don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. Capice?”


“All right, let’s roll.”

And so we rolled on into the interview room where that desperate criminal, my Uncle Daniel P. O’Malley, was manacled to a gunmetal gray table.

I gave him an O’Malley nod as I entered and took a post along the far wall—the proverbial fly on the wall. Uncle Danny responded with an exaggerated wink, and I shook my head as if to say: Not the time. Not the time.

So Uncle Danny put on his game face and watched with polite interest as the detective sergeant pulled up a chair for Claire Stevens and bid her be seated.

When she was properly settled opposite Uncle Danny, the detective sergeant leaned down, put his meaty paws on the table and said: “Tell her what you just told me.”

Uncle Danny looked to me for direction, and I nodded.

“All right,” Uncle Danny said. “Very well. Absolutely. Let’s just do that. Shall we?”

“Any time you’re ready, Mr. O’Malley,” the detective sergeant said.

“Yes,” Claire Stevens said, “I would be most interested in hearing what you have to say for yourself, Mr. O’Malley.”

Uncle Danny gave Claire Stevens his winningest Irish smile, and did he ever have a winning smile. I think her cold, analytical heart melted at that precise moment.

And she was putty in his hands when Uncle Danny responded in his velvety voice: “All right, but we’ll have to start from the top.”

Who knew?

Who knew such a polished professional as Claire Stevens would be swayed by the unlikely likes of my rogue uncle from Philadelphia?

But she was, and she practically cooed when my movie-star handsome uncle flashed his big, blue eyes and said: “It all starts with Mother.”




 Uncle Danny looked significantly at the stalwart detective sergeant and asked: “That thing on?”

“The tape recorder?”

“Yes. Is it on? I want this recorded for posterity.”

“It’s on. I already to you it’s on when we started. We record all interviews.”

“Have you checked the batteries?”

“Put some fresh ones in this morning.”

“Good. I don’t want it to miss a single word of what I am about to say. Not one precious syllable. Am I making myself clear here?” Now Uncle Danny was doing his Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in 1976’s classic Taxi Driver impersonation, and he was doing it—as he always did—to a T.

The distracted detective sergeant smiled in spite of himself. “Point taken. Proceed when ready, Mr. O’Malley.”

And so my Uncle Danny proceeded to share the following:


My mother—Mother to me—died when I was 12—no, I had just turned 13. That’s right. I had just turned 13. I remember because Mother didn’t bake a birthday cake for me. Mother couldn’t because she was sick, sick with cancer, and—


Claire Stevens gasped.

Uncle Danny looked at her. Really, really looked at her, and he liked what he saw, because he saw a heart opening to him, and he hadn’t had a heart open to him—really open to him—since the day his mother’s heart closed up shop. Long before I was born, by the way.

“Pray continue,” Claire Stevens said, patting Uncle Danny’s manacled hand. “I’m all ears.”

All right. Very well. So there I was with no cake for my 13th birthday because my mother—Mother to me—was dying of cancer. I didn’t even know what cancer was or that Mother had it. No one told me a thing. All I know was that my big sister Noreen—the one I’m visiting here in Detroit—Noreen had her driving license, and she would take Mother in the afternoon to this place in Philadelphia called the Oncological Institute. Noreen told me she had no idea what the word oncological meant, so she asked a nurse, and the nurse told Noreen that the word referred to cancer. Meaning that Mother was being treated for cancer. And back then—in the dark days before the even darker days of the Cold War—being treated for cancer meant being burned and burned and burned with radiation and chemicals and God knows what. Well, even God doesn’t know what. And I can’t for the life of me imagine why God invented cancer.

Anyway, they were trying to burn the cancer out of Mother’s female parts. Burn, burn, burn.

But that hasn’t changed, has it?

I mean they still try to burn the cancer out, don’t they?

Well, what I’m saying here is that Mother was being treated for cancer. And I do use the word treated loosely. More like being tortured, if you ask me.

But nobody was asking me then.

And not now.

And not ever.

Who was I but a pimple-faced kid who was afraid of his own shadow and who liked to do nothing more than copy pictures out of magazines?

So nobody was asking me what I thought of Mother’s treatment or of her cancer or of her dying away on me just as I was turning 13 with no birthday cake baked just for me by Mother.

But what’s changed, right?

We still try to burn the cancer out of people with God doesn’t know what, and that’s what they were doing to my precious, beautiful, descended-from-heaven Mother.

Right there at the Oncological Institute in Philadelphia where my big sister Noreen took her in the afternoon for her treatment. God I hate that word.


They should ban it from the English language.

I sure as hell wouldn’t miss it.

Not one bit.

But I digress, and I know you people all have places to go and people to see, and my good nephew Tommy here has places he yet wants to show me as part of his amazing Motown Tour, and so I will tell you all I knew from the time was that Mother was weak and pale when Noreen drove her off in the family Ford Motor Car, and she looked like the living dead when she returned hours later—from her so-called treatment.

She might as well have gone off to a torture session with the Spanish Inquisition for all I’m concerned.

Oncological Institute.


What a fucking joke.


Gotta tell ya: I peeked over at Claire Stevens at that point in Uncle Danny’s sad tale, and she had tears rolling down her cheeks. Oh yes, oh yes. So, back to Uncle Danny:


I wasn’t allowed to see Mother when Noreen brought her home, so I would stand in my window on the second floor of our three-story house and watch as my big sister helped Mother out of the Ford Motor Car and up the walk and up the porch and through the front door and up the stairs to Mother’s room. I couldn’t see after Noreen took Mother up the porch steps, but I could hear every other inch of the way, and I could especially hear the great, gasping sigh that came out of Mother when Noreen helped her into her bed.

That went on and on and on, and then, in time for my 13th birthday, Mother died.

At home.

In her bed.

Noreen and our bigger sister Margaret were about to graduate from high school, and Margaret was going to graduate with Noreen even though she was two years older, because she had lost two years of school due to this eating disorder that we now call anorexia nervosa.

Anyway, I remember my two big sisters in their graduation gowns and those silly mortarboard hats you wear at graduation going in to Mother’s room so she could see them in their gowns and silly hats.

I wanted to go in with them and say good-bye to Mother or tell her to get good and better right then and there, but then this big hand came down and stopped me.

Tommy knows whom I’m talking about, but you probably don’t, so I tell you:

It was Poppa.




 Uncle Danny took a deep breath and continued:

It was Poppa.

My father.

Michael J. O’Malley.


In the flesh.

All 6 feet 3 inches and 216 pounds of him.

And he was pressing his meaty flesh against my scrawny, chicken neck flesh and telling me without a word that I was not to go into Mother’s room and say good-bye to her before the angels took her off to paradise, without—I am sure to this very day—a detour through purgatory.

And as long as we’re on purgatory: if such a place does indeed exist, and I see no evidence from having read the Bible cover-to-cover, then it is surely reserved for those who made it up in the first place and for those evil priests and nuns who frightened the bejeezus out of innocent little Catholic boys like yours truly by assuring us that the best we could hope for was 10,000 years in the hottest corner of purgatory before even setting foot on the doorstep to the Pearly Gates.

All right: enough theology out of me and back to that most seminal of moments in my young life—in my entire life to date—the very eve of Mother’s death at 48 from cancer, and me wanting to go into her room and hold her and hug her and stand guard against those angels of death who were coming on flapping wings to swoop her off to paradise, and there was Poppa.

That’s right—Poppa.

Not Father.

Not Daddy, or Da, or anything but Poppa.

That’s what he called his father before him, and that’s what he insisted we call him when he was the father before us.

So I called him Poppa, and I said: “Please, Poppa, let me go and say good-bye to Mother before the angels come and carry her off to heaven.”

And he said to me, and it might as well have been five minutes ago that he said these words to me because they are still loud and clear in my mind and these are the words he said to his only begotten son, one Daniel Patrick O’Malley: “It’s grown-up time, boy-o. Go to your room and say your prayers, and I’ll let you know when you can come out.”

And, to be sure I went to my room and said my prayers, he force-marched me to my room, pushed me in and then closed and locked the door behind me.

That’s right, Poppa locked me in my room so I couldn’t possibly escape and run to Mother.

I was a boy.

A boy-o.

And no boy-o of Michael Joseph O’Malley was going to get in the way of death.

No, sir.


Uncle Danny sighed and fixed his gaze on a place on the opposite wall where the painter had gotten sloppy. He shook his head and smiled. “I could have done a better painting job, but then I wasn’t here when you were hiring painters. Anyway, I’m dying for a cigarette, and I know it’s a capital offense to—“

“Don’t worry, Uncle Danny,” I said, “we don’t have the death penalty in Michigan. Never have and never will.”

Uncle Danny smiled that big Irish smile of his and quipped: “Well, that’s a relief. I won’t get hanged or shot or drawn and quartered or burned at the stake if I fire up a smoke. Detective, I don’t suppose you got one I could borrow?”

The detective sergeant had had quite enough of one Daniel Patrick O’Malley by that point, so he looked at Claire Stevens and said: “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Claire Stevens had to come back from some place quite far away, so we waited on her.

Then, when she was ready, she said: “We are prepared to drop all charges, under one condition.”

Just then a harried assistant state’s attorney burst into the room and asked: “What condition? What’s going on here? Sorry I’m late. It’s been one crazy cluster after another, so what’s going on here? What condition are you talking about?”

Claire Stevens eyed the dust storm of an assistant state’s attorney and repeated: “As I said, we are prepared to drop all charges under one condition.”