“Do you know that friend’s dad is an infidel?” Mrs. Francis Finnegan asked, as I stood just outside the door of her home. Her greeting did not intimidate me, because she greeted me in this manner whenever she had a topic that she wanted to discuss before she would allow me hang out with her son. I referred to it as a headline hello.
“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. She called my ensemble ‘the heavy metal dude gear’ in that discussion. I was fair game for these family discussions, Mrs. Finnegan said, because I had such a heavy influence on her beloved son, and she said the state of my home suggested that I needed more guidance.
The “Your good 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 substitute 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 those words for moments when she needed to wound the subject 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 Francis Finnegan use such a vulgar word was not as shocking to me as hearing her use the word ‘infidel’ in an incorrect manner. 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 enjoyed teaching me and I was her eager student. In the beginning, I viewed her assessment of our roles in that light. 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.
I figured 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. 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 to pique the interest of the listener in the manner her sparse use of profanity and vulgarity could. Either that 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.
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 Beagle sits in the corner of the room after making 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 down at 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. “Tell him Greg,” she added.
“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 obvious. 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 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 informal names, but I never heard it. Mrs. Finnegan was not one to permit informalities.
“NO!” Mrs. Finnegan yelled at her husband. That yell was so forceful that had the room contained an actual Beagle, it would have 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 Finnegan’s daughter. The daughter appeared as unemotional about this 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 out its legs, so it could stand. She then went about lighting the candles in the display, and then she sat next to her mother.
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 did not have the full dimensions of a pyramid. When the daughter pulled its legs out, however, the frame rested at an angle. At that angle, the frame appeared as one-fourths of a pyramid.
Before this discussion began, Mrs. Finnegan somehow managed to secure several photos of the “harlot, slut, home wrecker” to fill each of the open compartments in the pyramid, so that the bottom level had five unique 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? It 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 did not say sex. She uttered 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 her husband’s weekend was mercifully interrupted by a knock at the door. For obvious reasons, we did not 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 to beat everyone to the door. No one was racing her to the door. We were scared and shamed into staring at 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 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 inexplicably bold, but it was also unprecedented. I didn’t know we could do that.
“How could you do that?” I asked him later.
“I didn’t want to go through that all over again,” he said.
“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 about his plan, I would’ve countered that it would never work, ‘and, besides, you’ll never be able to do it.’ 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 to 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 provide explicit details of what he did– I wasn’t there to hear it. I blocked it out by looking out their front window imagining that Andy’s display so emboldened me that I just stood up and followed him to his car. Just like that. Just like he did. I imagined the two of us driving away, laughing at the lunatics we left behind. 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 explaining to encourage more laughter, but an animal that defies categorization. One study informs the world of science that they should fall into a specific category, until more exploration reveals duck-billed mammal does something to contradict previous assessments. Comprehensive study of the animal creates more questions than answers, 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 various 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 who received it believed 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 Andy.
It’s human nature to assign greater meaning to otherwise random events, I knew that then as I know it now, but I continued staring out that window, wondering if there might be a greater purpose behind me sitting there 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 a storyteller’s gift that I failed to 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 after I had all 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 facts with exaggerated details to try to weave them together for an exceptional 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 it live, I realized while Mr. Finnegan continued to offer me explicit details of his weekend. My audience might think they’re the subjects of an elaborate hoax.
“He 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 Mr. Finnegan’s uncomfortable confession failed to meet Mrs. Finnegan’s requirements, she asked a series of questions that further explored the humiliating details of Mr. Finnegan’s, details he would not reveal without prompting. When that finally concluded, 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, except 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 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 innate confrontational demeanor was building. I don’t think I ever saw the woman attempt to temper her hostility or bitterness before, but the building tension provided contrast to everything I witnessed prior to this point. She was all but spitting questions out between bared teeth, and her nostrils flared in a manner of disgust that suggested she was directing 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 question, and that smile might have been more alarming than the way she asked all those previous embarrassing questions. Seeing that smile within the building tension led me to wonder if she was in full control of her facilities.
“You think every couple has a story of dating, that hallowed first kiss, and love?” she continued. “Go watch 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 Mr. Finnegan, as he 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 in quick, cat-like motions, 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 must have been off balance when she did it, 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 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 by the hair and with one hand.
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 most of my view of her face. I bobbed and weaved to see more. 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 that those never employed in specific levels of civil service might 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. We can also guess he was putting his hand on the handrail in a manner that assisted her in pulling him up. Regardless the details of the moment, it was still an impressive display of strength fueled by a scary visage of rage.
She was in such a state that when she was finally atop the stairs, standing in the kitchen with her children trying to calm her, she couldn’t form intelligible speak. Her lips were moving but no sound was coming out, and when that initial brief spell ended, the self-described word nerd could only manage gibberish, the same gibberish that proceeded her pushing her husband down the stairs, and all moments between. She later suggested that that gibberish resulted from being overcome by spirits. Once she escaped that state, 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 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, as I never entered their home 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.