“Did you know that your friend’s dad is an infidel?” Mrs. Francis Finnegan asked me, as I stood just outside the door of her home. Her greeting did not intimidate me, because it was not unprecedented. I received these greetings whenever I drove to the Finnegan home to pick up her son for the night, and she answered the door. I received this greeting when she had a topic that she wanted to discuss before we went out. I referred to it as her headline hello.
It’s possible that Mrs. Finnegan greeted me at the door in a more traditional way in the beginning, but I don’t remember it. She may have greeted other, less familiar people in that manner, but I never saw it. As far as I was concerned, she greeted everyone at the door with a provocative introduction to the family discussion of the day, in a manner similar to the headlines that newspaper editors use to draw attention to a story.
“Hey, it’s mister cigarette smoker!” she said to introduce me to the Finnegan family discussion of the day, regarding my smoking habits. “It’s the heavy metal dude!” she said on another day, to introduce me to the discussion we were about to have regarding my decision to wear a denim jacket, a t-shirt of whatever band I was listening to at the time, and jeans, or as she put it ‘my heavy metal dude gear’. I was fair game for these family discussions, Mrs. Finnegan said, because I had such a heavy influence on her beloved son. She also informed me that the state of my home suggested that I needed more guidance.
The “Your best friend’s dad is an infidel” greeting informed me that the Finnegan family discussion of the day would involve a detailed account of her husband’s recent business trip to Las Vegas in which “he happened to get himself some [girl]”. I write the word ‘girl’ here, in place of the more provocative P word that Mrs. Finnegan used to describe the other party in Greg Finnegan’s act of infidelity.
Mrs. Finnegan was a religious woman who rarely used profanity or vulgarity. She reserved such words for moments when she needed to wound the pride of the object of her scorn, and those times when she felt she needed to pique the ears of the listener. She used these words with a Look what you’ve made me do! plea in her voice to further subject the subject of her violation to greater shame.
Hearing her use such a vulgar word was not as shocking to me as hearing her use the word ‘infidel’ in an incorrect manner however. As a self-described word nerd, Mrs. Finnegan prided herself on proper word usage. She informed me on another occasion, half-joking, that I was her apprentice. She loved teaching me and I was her eager student, and I viewed that assessment in that light, in the beginning. As the years went by, however, I began to believe she said that to relieve her of whatever guilt she may have felt for correcting every other word that came out of my mouth. There were times when I was almost afraid to open my mouth around her, lest she correct me, but I did enjoy our respective roles in this relationship.
My initial thought was that the emotional turmoil of this moment caused the faux pas, but her diction was so proper and refined that I didn’t consider her capable of such a slip. Prior to that presumed faux pas, I thought I caught her violating the conventions of languages number of times, but she always assured me that she was correct. I would go home, look them up, and find out that by the strict rules of our language she was correct.
Even during the most tumultuous Finnegan family discussions, the woman managed to mind her rules of usage well. Thus, when she made the error of attributing the word infidel to her husband’s act of infidelity, I assumed she intended the slip to pique the interest of the listener in the manner her sparse use of profanity and vulgarity could. Either that, I thought, or she was attempting to creatively conflate the incorrect use of the word, and the correct one, with an implicit suggestion that not only had her husband violated his vows to her, but his vows to God. I knew I might be overthinking the issue, but her violation was that unprecedented.
My friend James was sitting on the couch, next to his father, when I entered the Finnegan home. The two of them were a portrait of shame. They sat in the manner a Puggle sits in the corner of the room after having made a mess on the carpet.
James mouthed a quick ‘Hi!’ to me, as I walked by him, and he pumped his head up to accentuate that greeting. He then resumed the shamed position of looking at one spot on the carpet.
“Mr. Finnegan decided to go out to Las Vegas and get him some [girl]!” Mrs. Finnegan said when I entered the living room. I did not have enough time to sit when she said that. When I did, I sat as slow as the tension in the room allowed, an air that did not permit quick motions.
“Tell him Greg,” she said.
“France, I don’t think we should be airing our dirty laundry in front of outsiders,” Greg Finnegan complained. The idea that he had been crying prior to my entrance was evident. His eyes were rimmed red, and they were moist. He did not look up at Francis, or me, when he complained. He, like James, remained fixated on a spot on the carpet.
France was the name Mrs. Finnegan grew up with, and she hated it. Only her immediate family members addressed her with such familiarity. She had very few adult friends, but to those people she was Frances. To everyone else, she was Mrs. Finnegan. She may have allowed others to call her less formal names, but I never heard it. Mrs. Finnegan was not one to permit informalities.
“NO!” Mrs. Finnegan yelled. That yell was so forceful that had the room contained an actual Puggle, it would’ve scampered from it, regardless if it were the subject of her scorn. “No, he has to learn,” she said pointing at me, while looking at her husband. “Just like your son needs to learn, just like every man needs to learn their evil ways.”
A visual display followed that verbal one. It was carried into the living room by the daughter. The daughter appeared as unemotional about this particular family discussion as she had the prior ones. In my experience, she was more of an observer to the goings on in the Finnegan home than a participant. She rarely offered an opinion, unless it backed up her mother’s assessments and characterizations, and she was never the subject of her mother’s scorn. She was the dutiful daughter, and she walked into the room, carrying the display, in that vein. She carefully positioned it on living room table and pulled supports out so that it could stand without manual aid. She then went about lighting all of the candles in the display. When she was done she sat as silently as she completed all those actions.
Mrs. Finnegan allowed the display of Greg Finnegan’s shame to rest on the living room table for a moment without comment. The display was a multi-tiered, wood framed, structure with open compartments that allowed for wallet-sized photos. The structure of the frame was a triangle, but anyone who looked around the Finnegan family home knew of Mrs. Finnegan’s fondness for pyramids. Greg Finnegan purchased the triangle to feed into Mrs. Finnegan’s fascination with pyramids, but it didn’t have the full dimensions of a pyramid. When the daughter pulled the supports out, however, the frame rested at an angle. At that angle, the frame appeared to be one-fourths of a pyramid.
Before this discussion began, Mrs. Finnegan somehow managed to secure enough unique photos of the “harlot, slut, home wrecker” to fill each of the open compartments in the pyramid, so that the bottom level had five photos, the next level up had four, and so on, until one arrived at a single photo at the top. Each photo had a small votive candle before it to give the shrine of Greg Finnegan’s shame an almost holy vibe.
“It’s the pyramid of shame,” Mrs. Finnegan informed me with a confrontational smile. “What do you think of it? The frame was Greg’s gift to me on my birthday. Isn’t it lovely? I’m thinking of placing it in our bedroom. I’m thinking of placing it in a just such a position that if Greg is ever forced to [have sex with me] again-” (Except she didn’t say sex. She said the word, the big one, the queen mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word.) “-he can look at those pictures while he’s [sexing] me. Do you think that will help your performance honey?” she asked her husband.
As we sat in the wake of that uncomfortable comment, the question of how far Mrs. Finnegan might go with her characterizations of their lives was mercifully interrupted by a knock at the door. For obvious reasons, we didn’t see the individual approach the door, so his knock startled us. The construction of the Finnegan duplex was such that when the drapes were open the inhabitants could see the knocker if they were facing in that direction. The knocker was Andy, the third participant in the adventure James and I planned for the evening.
“Welcome to the home of Greg Finnegan, adulterer and infidel,” Mrs. Finnegan said after leaping to her feet, as if to beat everyone racing to the door. No one was racing her to the door. We were scared and shamed into staring at our own spots on the carpet. “Come on in,” she said stepping back to allow Andy’s entrance.
Andy turned around, walked back down the steps, got in his car, and drove away. Just like that, Andy escaped what I felt compelled to endure. From what I could see Andy didn’t respond to Mrs. Finnegan’s greeting in anyway. He didn’t go out of his way to show any signs of respect, or disrespect. He just turned and left.
I watched him leave with my mouth hanging open. I didn’t know we could do that.
Andy left, because he knew what Mrs. Finnegan’s headline hellos entailed. He knew what he was in for, and I did too. To my mind, his departure was not only unprecedented it was inexplicably bold. I didn’t know we could do that.
“How could you do that?” I asked him later.
“I just didn’t want to go through that all over again,” he answered.
“Well, of course,” I said. “Who would?”
Andy further explained his reaction, but the gist of it was that he didn’t want to have to endure another Finnegan family discussion. His impulsive reaction was so simple that if he planned it beforehand, and he told me that plan, I would’ve countered that it would never work, ‘and, besides, you won’t be able to do it,’ I would’ve added. I’m sure he would’ve asked why, and I don’t know what I would’ve said, but it would’ve involved the inherent respect and fear we have of other people’s parents. Andy and I were good kids, and good kids consider it a testament to our character that we maintain model status around other people’s parents. When Andy did what he did, and Mrs. Finnegan did nothing more than close the door, I realized that I would have to do a much better job of evaluating my options in life.
When the confessional phase of the Finnegan family discussion began –a phase that required Mr. Finnegan to confess to me what he did– I wasn’t there to hear it. I was looking out their front window imagining that Andy’s display so emboldened me that I just stood up and followed Andy to his car. Just like that. Just like he did. I imagined the two of us driving away, laughing at the lunacy of these people. I imagined calling the Finnegans platypus people at one point in our round of jokes, and how that might end Andy’s laughter, until I explained.
What is a platypus, I imagined myself telling Andy to encourage more laughter from him, but an animal that defies categorization. One study of them, informs the world of science that they should fall into one category, until they do what they do to further mystify the scientific community. Further study only yields more surprises with the classification-defying animal, until even the most seasoned naturalist throws their hands up in the air in futility. Experts in psychology might think they have a decent hold on human classifications, but imagine what one day in the Finnegan family home could do to them.
At its introduction, naturalists considered the platypus another well-played hoax on the naturalist community, I would add. I say another well-played hoax, because it happened before. Some enterprising naturalists stitched together body parts of different parts of dead animals to lead the scientific community to believe that the hoaxer discovered an entirely new species. Thus, when someone introduced the platypus, the scientists believed that it was but another elaborate hoax of taxidermy.
‘Those who guarded themselves against falling for future hoaxes, even had a tough time believing the platypus was an actual species when they saw one live,’ I would tell him.
Even though it violated my beliefs in random occurrences versus the orchestrated, I stared out that window Andy once darkened, wondering if there might be a greater purpose behind the situation I was in, listening to a grown man confess his transgression with far too much detail. Was I a small-scale example of natural selection, because I didn’t have the guts to pivot on a heel and run the way Andy did, or was this event a storyteller’s gift that I didn’t appreciate in the moment? Were the Finnegans such an aberration that they might confound those in the scientific community who think they have a firm hand on human psychology in a manner equivalent to the platypus confounded other fields of science?
Even when I had all of the sordid details of this Finnegan Family as Platypus People story to tell, I didn’t think anyone would believe me. My penchant for stitching together facts and fabricated details into a great story might come back to haunt me. They might not even believe the story if Andy stuck around to corroborate the details of it, and they might not even believe it if they saw all of this live, I realized while Mr. Finnegan continued to offer me explicit details of his sordid weekend. My audience might think they’re the subjects of an elaborate hoax.
“He has already confessed those details of his weekend to his children,” Mrs. Finnegan interrupted Mr. Finnegan’s confession to inform me, “and he will be offering his detailed confession to the mailman, a traveling salesman, or any others who happened to darken our door today.” She instructed us to look at her when she said this, and we did.
After the uncomfortable confession met Mrs. Finnegan’s requirements, following a Q&A that further explored the humiliating details that Mr. Finnegan would not reveal without prompting, she forced us to acknowledge the primary reason the Finnegans married in the first place.
“No one would play with Mr. Finnegan’s [reproductive organ],” she said, except she didn’t say reproductive organ.
“He was lonely,” she said with tones of derision. “Mr. eighty dollars an hour consultant fee, and Mr. professional student with eight degrees would be nothing without me, because he was nothing when he met me. He was a lonely, little man with nothing to do but play with his little computer products, designs, and his little [reproductive organ] when no one else would.”
“That’s enough France,” Greg said standing.
“Do you play with your [reproductive organ]?” Mrs. Finnegan asked me, undeterred by Greg’s pleas. “Do you masturbate? Because that’s where it all starts. It all starts with you men, and all of your pornographic material, imagining that someday someone will want to come along and want to play with it.”
Of course, I had no idea how this family discussion would play out, but Mrs. Finnegan’s normal confrontational demeanor was building. I don’t think I ever saw the woman attempt to conceal her hostility or bitterness before, but the building tension provided contrast to anything I witnessed prior to this point. She was all but spitting her questions out between bared teeth, and her nostrils flared in a manner of disgust that suggested she was directing all of her hostility at me.
“You think it’s about love?” she asked me, aghast at an assessment I never made. She had a huge smile on her face when she asked that that might have been more alarming than the manner in which she asked all of those previous embarrassing questions. The smile seemed so out of place with the building tension that I began to wonder if she was in full control of her facilities.
“You think every couple has a story of love, and dating, and that hallowed first kiss?” she continued. “Go rent a gawdamned love conquers all movie if you want all that and once it’s over, you come to Mrs. Finnegan with your questions, and I’ll introduce you to some reality. I’ll tell you tales of men, grown men who marry because they’re desperate to find someone to play with their [reproductive organ]. Isn’t that right Mr. Finnegan?” She called after him, as Mr. Finnegan finally mustered up the courage to begin walking away from her. When he wouldn’t answer, or even turn to acknowledge her question, Mrs. Finnegan took off after him.
Mrs. Finnegan moved across the room quick, which for anyone who spent any time around this otherwise sedate woman knew was a little startling, troubling, and in retrospect foreboding.
Pushing her husband down a flight of stairs was not the feat of strength that some might consider it. We didn’t see it, but we figured that he had to have been off balance, resulting from his refusal to turn and face her in his flight to the basement. She was screaming things at him from behind, and her intensity grew with each scream until we couldn’t understand what she was saying. Mr. Finnegan continued to refuse to turn around and face her, but he should’ve suspected that his wife’s intensity would lead to a conclusion against which he should guard himself. Thus, when she pushed him, he was in no position to defend himself or lessen the impact of falling down a flight of perhaps twenty steps.
When we ran to the top of the stairs –after the sounds of him hitting the stairs shook the house in such a manner that we all instinctually put a hand on the armrests of the furniture we sat in to brace ourselves– we witnessed Mrs. Finnegan pulling her husband up the stairs with one hand in his hair.
Mrs. Finnegan’s final scream, that which proceeded her pushing her husband down the stairs, led us to believe that whatever frayed vestige of sanity she clung to for much of her life just snapped. I could not hear what she said as she pulled him up the stairs by his hair. The screams of her children, and her husband, drowned out those grumblings.
“France!” Greg screamed in pain. “France, for God’s sakes!” he screamed repeatedly.
When I saw Mrs. Finnegan’s contorted facial expression, it transfixed me. In their attempts to either help her, or break her hold on Mr. Finnegan’s hair, her children blocked my view of her face. I bobbed and weaved to get a better look at it. I didn’t know why my need to see her face drove me to such embarrassing lengths, but I all but shouted at those obstructing my view of it to move out of the way.
I’ve witnessed rage a couple of times, prior to Mrs. Finnegan’s, but I couldn’t remember seeing it so vacant before. This almost unconscious display of rage was one those not employed in specific levels of civil service probably see once in a lifetime. She was lifting a six-five, two-hundred pound man up the stairs, by his hair and with one hand. Her body blocked any view we might have had of Mr. Finnegan, but I assumed that he was back stepping the stairs to relieve some of the pain of having his hair pulled in such a manner. I also think he was putting his hand on the handrail in a manner that assisted her in pulling him up. Regardless the details of this moment, it was still an impressive display of strength fueled by a scary visage of rage.
She was in such a state, once she was atop the stairs and standing in the kitchen with her children trying to calm her that she couldn’t speak. Her lips were moving but no sound was coming out, and when that initial brief spell ended, the master of language could only manage gibberish, the same gibberish I realized that proceeded her pushing her husband down the stairs, and all moments between. She later suggested that that gibberish resulted from her being overcome by spirits. Once she escaped the state she was in, she stated that the gibberish we all heard was her speaking in tongues. She believed that divine intervention prevented her from further harming her husband, in the manner divine intervention prevented Abraham from harming his son Isaac in the biblical narrative. I believed it too, at first, and in the heat of the moment, but I would later learn that I just witnessed my first psychotic episode.
I don’t know what happened in the aftermath of this incident, in the Finnegan home, as I never entered it again. I do know that the Finnegan marriage survived it, and I’m sure that Mrs. Finnegan thought that had something to do with that divine intervention too. I’m also sure that if anyone doubted Mrs. Finnegan’s account, they would be greeted at the door with a “Welcome to the home of the divine intervention!” headline hello to introduce them to that Finnegan family discussion of the day. If those future visitors were to ask me for advice on this matter, I would advise them to weigh their options before entering.