Kevin Finnerty's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Manhattanville Review, Newfound, Portage Magazine, Red Earth Review, The Westchester Review, and other journals.
I met Ty about a half hour after my parents dropped me off at college. He came to my dorm room to introduce himself, though I didn’t know this for five minutes, because his roomie blocked him while he bragged about his sports prowess and uncle’s tech company.
Flipper failed to even mention Ty during his soliloquy. I only got to see the stick figure when the large, puffy dude retreated so he could repeat his story to the inhabitants of the next room.
“Van. Jackson.” My roommate first pointed at me, then himself.
Ty took a few steps towards us but his spindly legs soon buckled, and he tumbled into me. His head landed in my lap while I sat on my bed.
“Ta-da.” Ty jumped to his feet and offered us a magician’s bow before bouncing out of our room.
I vowed to stay away from that clowning kid. My goal that first day, and for most of the next four years, was to meet and be with as many women as I could. I didn’t see how spending time with Ty would assist me in my pursuit.
I soon realized I underestimated Ty’s ability to make me and most others laugh and the positive influence that has. People love a certain kind of madness. At least until the joker crosses the line. People can argue about where that line should be drawn, but there’s always a line.
Freshman year, Ty directed a lot of his pranks towards our fellow dorm residents who went to bed early, which, for us, was any time before midnight. Sometimes he’d start lightly tapping on their door. Just enough to wake the kid from his sleep, but not enough to cause him to answer. He’d increase the knocking as the minutes passed to let the person know he wasn’t going away. Then, after they announced they knew it was him and weren’t getting out of bed, he’d start pounding until they finally relented and opened the door.
“What?” The sleepy eyed guy would eventually meet Ty in boxers and a t-shirt.
“What are they serving for breakfast tomorrow?” Ty would ask his question as innocently as he could.
Some groggy students simply said, “Goodnight, Ty,” and gently closed the door. Others slammed it shut without a word.
Sometimes Ty played rough. He’d fill a large trash container with water and lean it against the door so that when the person opened it, the water and refuse spilled into the person’s room.
Ty combatted the angry stare or cursing of the guy with wet feet and soaked carpet with a lilting tone and minimalist message. “I meant no harm.”
Kyle, Jackson, and I always laughed at Ty’s late night shenanigans, but Ty preferred his pratfalls because of the spontaneous reactions they produced.
He loved tripping his way through a classroom, knocking into people and through desks, especially on the first day of a semester. Once a month, he’d fumble around the cafeteria and knock his tray or that of another and its contents to the floor and pretend it was an accident.
Most of all he loved running into a door, window, or other object at high speed. He’d sneakily brace himself with his arms just before he hit it flush, but those nearby wouldn’t see his defense. They only observed the crash and his collapsing to the ground. Then when they stood over him and asked if he were okay, Ty would jump to his feet, announce he was fine, and flee.
I understood Ty acted as he did to get approval in the form of laughter, but he also did it for us, his best friends. He knew after a while that a number of guys on our floor didn’t appreciate his late-night activities and occasionally reported his misbehavior, but Ty never refused to do our bidding.
If any of us had a beef with someone, we could always convince him to place a leaner against someone’s door, knock loudly, and flee with the rest of us. If any of us were ever down due to a bad grade, news from home, or whatever, there was Ty crashing into things, playing the fool for our benefit. And if ever we thought we’d seen it all, Ty would up his game by sliding on the ice around campus before crashing into a faculty member or a car filled with university security officers.
Ty never cared about the personal consequences to him. He always cared about the message above everything else. That never changed.
We attended a small, private university in the northeast. The sort of place that used to appear idyllic whenever captured on a glossy brochure.
I think the attraction was subconscious as much as anything. Adams University offered an escape from the rest of the world.
Located in a quiet, college town, Adams appeared removed from the problems of city life and the modern world as it were. For our parents, this may have created images of a safe place for study. High schoolers may have envisioned a teenage playground. A Shangri-la where college rules trumped those of the rest of society.
Or maybe I was alone in my delusions. I imagined a place where people lived and let live and experimentation was part of the expectation. An arena where you could do as you wanted as long as you didn’t really hurt anyone.
I now understand places like that don’t really exist. Maybe it’s why I ultimately became a lawyer. So as to have a better understanding of the rules I’d previously wanted to wish away.
As a freshman at Adams, I had no thoughts of law school. I wanted to indulge without consequences, without regulations, and befriended those with a similar attitude.
I remember the evenign that we played $10/game, $5/euchre in the hallway until a resident assistant named Sara told us to break it up.
“Why?” Jackson threw his cards onto the table as if a blackjack dealer had accused him of counting cards.
“For one, your neighbors are complaining of the noise.”
“I got to sleep. Finals start Monday.” Ty did a pretty good impression of our neighbors whining.
“And, second, you can’t drink out here.” The mousy sophomore pointed to Kyle, who rocked in his chair. “And he’s really gone.”
“He’s doing fine.” Jackson reached out and tapped his playing partner’s shoulder. “We’re only out here because we couldn’t play anywhere else.”
“You’re not allowed to drink in your rooms either.”
“Ah, but you wouldn’t know if we were doing it there, would you?”
Sara smirked. I still had a way to go to perfect the art of persuasion. “Why aren’t you playing in your room anyway?”
“Flipper’s with someone next door.” I could tell Sara wasn’t tracking. “You can go inside and listen if you want. Thin walls.”
“Just stop doing it in the hallway so I don’t have to write you up.”
We all sat there for a moment after Sara left until Jackson picked up the card table mid-hand.
“Hey, watch the beer.” Kyle missed grabbing his or anyone else’s before my roommate carried the table and everything on top of it down the hall.
“What you up to?” I was the only one still sitting.
“Same as always. It’s up to the black guy to find the solution.”
We found Jackson at the elevator bank. I presumed he had a room on another floor in mind, but he placed the table down inside the otherwise empty elevator and held it open. “Get the chairs.”
“Why?” Kyle took the opportunity to grab his mostly empty can from the table.
“In case you want to sit, Dumbshit. I don’t care, I’ll play standing.”
The elevator began buzzing. Apparently, someone on another floor wanted it.
Jackson waved goodbye to us as the doors slowly closed. “Press the button when you’re ready. I’ll be here.”
He was. We found him, the cards, and our drinks, along with two freshman girls, when it re-opened.
“You ladies up for a Vegas night?” I gently guided Kyle and Ty towards Jackson’s side of the elevator so I could stand closer to the co-eds while we all traveled to the lobby. “We’ve got a moving card game tonight.”
Those girls giggled but shook their heads and soon left us. I continued to toss out lines to all the ladies who entered and even offered to escort a few of them to wherever they were headed. Nobody except Jackson cared, and he didn’t really as long as I found someone to take my seat at the table so the game could continue. That wasn’t a problem because throughout the night we encountered more than a few willing to play a game or two.
Kyle ran back to our rooms whenever we needed more alcohol either for ourselves or our guests, though more than a few of our visitors willingly shared whatever they had as well. He always returned with more than we needed and an update of the scores of the games on which Jackson had placed bets.
Ty performed pratfalls by sliding under the table or throwing himself against the walls whenever we came to a stop. He picked himself up off the floor when two young women with heavy makeup who clearly thought they were out of our league entered on the first floor without smiling.
The prettier one raised her eyebrow and pulled out a cigarette. “Do you mind?”
“It’s not allowed.” Jackson didn’t take his eyes off the board while he shuffled.
“You guys going to complain?”
“Aw, don’t tell me you guys never smoke.” The friend offered us a pucker as she hit the button for the top floor.
“Just after sex.” I said this even though it wasn’t true because I thought it might provide a subliminal hint.
“How about you, Quiet Boy?” The smoker bent close to Ty’s ear and spoke in a sultry voice that belied her age.
Ty looked down upon himself, then shrugged his shoulders before delivering his variation of the old joke. “I never thought of checking.”
“You should.” The pretty one glided into Ty’s personal space and planted a kiss on his lips before escaping along with the smoke through the first crack in the door when it reached her floor. Her friend lingered and shook her head at us.
“It’s just a kiss, boys. Don’t go about getting hard. It’s such a small space.”
As soon as the door closed, Ty tumbled into the back of the elevator, crashed against it, and fell to the floor. We all laughed, but when he staggered to get back to his feet, he hit the emergency call button and brought the party to a halt.
“Hey, Sara.” The most sober, Jackson spoke when the R.A. returned to investigate.
Sara held the door open with her arm and scanned the room. Ty held his arms apart as if we were still moving and he was trying to keep his balance. Kyle still slid sips of beer past his lips even though he had his face planted on the table.
“I’m not sure I could count all the violations going on here right now.”
“Good thing Kyle is tutoring you in calc,” Jackson said.
Sara looked at Kyle, who lifted his hand as if he would shake Sara’s, but in doing so, knocked his beer to the floor. Fortunately, it was almost empty so little spilled out.
“Good thing he’s not doing so tonight.”
The elevator began to buzz having been called on another floor.
“Maybe you could let this go.” I offered Sara my pickup smile.
“Looks like I have to right now, but I swear I’m going to get a pen and the write-up forms and you guys better not be here when I get back with them.” She paused and looked at me. “Or anywhere else I can see you.”
Jackson dealt the cards quickly as soon as the door closed. “All right, we can get in one last quick game before she gets back. Don’t anyone be afraid to go alone.”
It might be tempting to blame our excesses on college life and say once we left our behavior changed. If anything, we were all probably worse those first few years after graduation. We all had a little bit of money then, so Kyle could afford to buy more drinks, Jackson could make bigger bets, and I could use my coin to try to impress the ladies.
Ty gave acting a go and left us in favor of California. I’m surprised he didn’t have more success, or any success as far as I know, but I don’t think his John Ritter-type schtick was in vogue at that time.
He returned after a year and a half but didn’t want to tell us much about his experiences. He appeared to have developed a sense of justice. One afternoon as we rode the subway, we stood near the exit beside this guy in a thousand dollar suit using his cell phone to communicate with his partner. “I was just there. I’m walking home now. Where are you?”
Ty and I shared a glance.
“Yeah, traffic’s loud. I’m just passing the Met.”
Ty grabbed the dude’s phone. “Don’t believe him. We’re in the subway. Listen!”
He held the phone to the subway door as our car rattled across the tracks and pulled into the next station. He tossed the device back to the guy who appeared too surprised to react and walked out of the car as soon as the door opened, even though we were still two stops from our destination.
I figured Ty was trying to find his way in the world like the rest of us. Trying to navigate through life from the point in time when others might be tempted to forgive our idiocy as the acts of young men to that undefined moment when we really needed to make better choices because we’d be viewed as not quite so young and not as worthy of leniency.
I helped Ty get an office job at a law firm where I’d just completed a stint as a summer associate but learned he was fired after only a couple of months on the job. Apparently, he’d sexually harassed a few women. I worried it reflected poorly on my judgment, but Ty’d never behaved like that in the past.
I called the gang together because I thought we all needed to talk to and about Ty. Kyle requested we meet in a bar. Jackson showed up with a pair of dice and had everyone place bets during the makeshift craps game/social gathering/intervention. He arrived first and grabbed the seat with the best view of the television so he could monitor the scores.
Jackson moved Kyle’s beer aside to clear space for me to roll the bones against the wall of our booth. They rattled about against plates and glasses but stayed on the table.
“Eight. Any more bets?” Jackson handed the dice back to me.
I shook them. “So what happened?”
“I need another drink.”
“You asking me?” Ty craned his neck about as if he were looking for a way to escape, but I had him boxed into the booth.
I rolled. “Who else?”
“Same?” Our waitress stood nearby.
I looked her up and down and agreed. She was about a seven. I’d take a shot later but returned my immediate attention to Ty. “Of course, you. Anyone else here have a problem?”
Ty opened his eyes wide and threw his head back with an exaggerated motion. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Everybody else here’s got a job or is in school.”
“What you doing these days, J?”
Jackson handed Ty the dice. “Ticket broker.”
“Legal or illegal?”
“Some of both. You’re up.”
Ty fired the dice against the wall so hard the pair went flying out of the booth.
“Not cool, Funny Guy.” Jackson pushed his way past Kyle to retrieve the dice.
“You can’t harass women. Especially after I stuck my reputation on the line to get you the job.”
“I didn’t do anything other than the same shit I always do. They couldn’t take a joke.”
“You can’t do that stuff in the workplace.”
“Why not? Don’t I have a First Amendment right to say whatever I please?”
“Not at a private business.”
Kyle belched. “He’s right. First Amendment only protects you from government restrictions on speech, not a private party’s.”
I was the one in law school, but we all knew Kyle was the smartest member of the group. He’d enrolled in a Ph.D. program in physics in the city right after undergrad.
Jackson returned with the dice, placed them in Ty’s hand and squeezed. “Keep ‘em on the table this time, shithead.”
Ty shook them for a minute without rolling. “Really?”
Kyle and I nodded. Ty rolled.
“Seven. A winner.”
We all changed, eventually. Some would say we matured. I couldn’t say whether those of us who found partners in the years that followed evolved beforehand or first found the person who helped us later develop.
Jackson started us off. He met Ellie at the place where he was engaged in legal ticket brokering. After he’d gained 50 pounds, lost most of the hair on his head, and added a proportionate amount to his face.
He and Ellie first decided to put their own money at risk and established a competing business. When that proved successful, they expanded operations. They decided to gamble their entire lives together but restricted their social wagers to amounts they could afford to lose.
Kyle met a colleague after he completed his Ph. D. and accepted a job out of state. I can’t say what happened exactly because I didn’t see him for a long time and when I did, he looked and acted differently. He just showed up at some point with Ofelia, a fellow faculty member in the physics department who focused on cryogenics.
Kyle had always been nerdy in appearance. He wore glasses and cheap, ill-fitting clothes. But, away from our influence, he’d shed them for contacts and more fashionable threads. He returned calmer, more poised, and much more frequently sober.
I guess I shouldn’t expect to understand what changed my friends when I can’t even explain how it happened with me. It’s not like I reached a certain age and thought I should alter my behavior. Or did so consciously after seeing Kyle and Jackson happy. I’d been happy with my life and my relationships with women. I think.
Then I met Angie. I tried to play her but she just humored me.
We first met at a party shortly after I’d joined my firm as an associate. She wasn’t a law student or a lawyer. She was and is an artist, and her work was on display at the gallery where the party was held. In fact, she stood near some of her work when we first spoke, but I didn’t put two and two together. Especially because she was dressed more like an attorney than an artist in her little black dress.
“So whose work do you like best?” I asked.
“I think that’s the question I should be asking you.”
I looked about. I hadn’t thought there’d be a quiz. I turned my back to Angie’s work and casually took in the room. Too much color for my taste. I pointed to a collection of metallic creations across the way. They looked like 3-D paintings of buildings and bridges the way they leapt off the canvas.
“Abbott, I like your eye.”
When I looked back towards Angie, I saw a series of black and white photographs over her shoulders. Portraits and landscapes that initially appeared dreary but which upon closer examination expressed humanity and earthiness. I met Angie’s eye and was about to modify my earlier response when Ty slid into my leg from behind and took me out.
“Safe!” He jumped to his feet and spread his ams like a umpire making his call known to 50,000 spectators.
I knew it had been a mistake to invite my friend, who ran from the gallery’s security as if he were a streaker on a ball field. He zigzagged his way across the room, seeking attention more than an escape route.
Angie took one large step towards me. “That your wingman?”
“You know, from here, your work takes on a new perspective.”
I meant her photographs but as she stood almost above me, her dress having inched its way up her long, sleek legs, I could almost see underneath. Maybe I could have had I tried, but I rolled my head to the side to resist the temptation and avoid detection. Angie placed her foot back in its original position.
A week later, I was walking past a coffee shop on my way to work when I saw her sipping java in a booth. She wore a plaid shirt and jeans. She sat with someone, but I stopped and went inside and intruded upon their conversation.
“I just wanted to say I was referring to your art work when I was on the ground the other night.”
“I know. I’m glad it floored you.”
“I’d say you did.”
“You would if we both didn’t know better, right?”
Our circles began intersecting so frequently I wondered if they’d previously done so and I’d simply failed to notice. After our fourth encounter, I asked her out. She immediately rejected me with a laugh, the pathetic shaking of her head, and an unwavering “no.” I tried two more times with the same result with perhaps the slightest hesitation the last time.
I thought I was out, having gone down swinging three times. So I stopped playing and I guess I changed. Angie probably realized this, as she’s more observant of my own behavior than I am, before I did.
Eventually, she took a chance when if I were her I wouldn’t have. She asked me out by referencing the times I’d asked her out like the offer was still outstanding. I didn’t say what I was thinking, which probably demonstrated that Angie was right. I was different.
Ty changed without the influence of a woman. He got an idea stuck in his head and wouldn’t let it go.
After being fired by the firm for sexual harassment, he obtained a position working on behalf of the State and immediately and purposefully began to harass female co-workers there. He no longer did so to make anyone laugh. He did it to make a point.
Ty claimed the First Amendment gave him an absolute right to express himself without “abridgment.” He’d found the term in the Bill of Rights and began inserting it frequently in conversations. That didn’t stop the State from terminating his employment.
“It’s not like I touched anyone.”
We sat at the same table at Jackson’s wedding reception. This was before Angie and I had ever gone on a date, and I thought I never would, so I was scoping possible prospects.
“I didn’t even proposition anyone, though I’d argue I couldn’t be punished for that either because those are just words too.”
“Courts don’t share that view.”
“You can’t be serious, can you?” Ofelia sat with us. She wore a checkered dress and spoke without the underlying levity I was accustomed to hearing among our core, and also with Ellie. “Kyle said you’re always joking.”
“I used to. But now that I’m older I think I have an important point to make. The First Amendment has to be absolute. Look at the text. It talks about Congress making no law abridging freedom of speech. So I can say whatever I please, wherever I please, to whomever I please, and the government has no business telling me I can’t.”
“Why don’t you verbally share state secrets with our foreign enemies and see where that gets you?”
I got to my feet. “Hey, who needs a drink?”
Kyle and Ofelia signaled they’d had enough with their hands.
“Ty, let’s go see if we can find some ladies to dance with us.”
Ty followed me and stopped making speeches that night, but I could tell Ofelia had not only failed to convince him of the error of his ways but had spawned in him new ideas.
Ty missed Kyle’s wedding. Not because he was he was angry with Ofelia but because by then his legal problems had grown. He was arrested after standing halfway through a movie in a crowded theatre and shouting, “Run, everybody, that guy’s got a gun!”
I told Ty in that instance his words were both false and unprotected and that he was putting people’s lives at risk with his behavior. He disavowed any responsibility and claimed if anyone was trampled it was the fault of the trampler, or even the tramplee for not being better prepared for the occasional sudden trampling one had to expect from time to time in our society.
“Wouldn’t you have felt bad if someone had been injured as a result of your stunt?”
“Not at all, but I’d offer them my thoughts and prayers nonetheless.”
He made it to my wedding. Barely. He was arrested two days earlier. He’d been selling sugar pills with various color coatings for months. He claimed they’d been shown to improve one’s memory, increase muscle mass, fight cancer, give you a hard-on, or do whatever else potential buyers wanted.
After bailing him out of jail, I threw Ty into a chair near my kitchen table. I thought I had to make a show of it before Angie, given the timing. After all, Ty was to serve as my the best man.
“That’s bullshit pulling that crap right now.”
“Cut it out.” Angie placed her comforting hand on Ty’s shoulder, and I knew I didn’t have any reason to worry. Angie liked Ty best among all my friends for some reason and had encouraged me to choose him for the special role. Maybe she saw in him the struggling artist she might have been hadn’t her talent been recognized. Or maybe she recognized the role he played in bringing us together. “How was it this time?”
“Same as always. For some reason, guys in the clink just aren’t into pratfalls.”
“One of these days you’re going to do something serious enough that someone’s going to look to put you away for a while.” Lawyers always feel the need to warn everyone of the potential legal consequences of their actions.
“One of these days somebody’s going to agree with me and acknowledge I have a right to say all the things I’m saying.”
I left Angie and Ty in the kitchen to talk. The problem with being a lawyer is after some time it’s hard to view the world, and especially our society, in any way other than through legal lenses. Ty could argue every day for forever about his interpretation of the First Amendment and his right to freedom of expression, but it was more than well established that people couldn’t use words to harass others or defraud them or cause a panic in a crowded theatre. No matter what the Bill of Rights said. Common sense had trumped madness in both the legal and political arenas.
Why couldn’t he understand this?
“He does.” Angie sat on the edge of our bed after Ty had left. “He just believes the law should be different and is willing to stand up for what he believes. It’s admirable.”
I scooted closer to her. “You don’t think he’s right, do you?”
“Of course not. It’s an absurd view.”
“So what do we do with him?”
“You guys were all extreme once too, right? Drinking, gambling, chasing women.”
Yeah, I knew we’d also been mad not so long ago.
“Ty’s never found the person to help him focus.”
“He’s never chased anyone or anything other than for laughs. And now the point he’s trying to make.”
“I can’t ever recall him really going after any woman.”
I stared at Angie and thought about this for some time. Maybe she knew my long-time friend better than I.
Angie exorcised my madness. For the longest time I’d believed the only perfect woman was the amalgamation of all of them.
Once I realized the error of my ways, I did everything I could to ensure Angie would have the wedding day she always wanted and deserved. Basically by staying out of the way and agreeing to whatever she wanted.
That turned out to be the right move. The service, reception, and honeymoon exceeded our expectations, but a day after our return Ty made his most elaborate plea. At 2:00 in the morning, he visited the home of an individual known to provide ardent, vocal support for certain constitutional rights.
From the public sidewalk outside the home, Ty used a bullhorn to express his absolute and uncompromising position in favor of First Amendment rights. He was arrested twenty minutes later.
Ty appeared defeated when I bailed him out of jail this time. He no longer displayed the slightest desire to make anyone laugh or to make a point while I drove him home.
“I thought at least he’d support me.”
“While you shouted at him through a bullhorn at two a.m.?”
“I thought the principle would be important to him. But you know what? I heard a gunshot. Yeah, and then the cops came a few minutes later. I was actually glad to see them for a change.”
I took my eyes off the road and looked over a couple of times to be certain Ty wasn’t kidding.
“So what was the problem this time?” he asked.
“Reasonable time, place, and manner restriction.”
“Nobody interprets the First Amendment as an absolute, do they?”
“Just you, buddy.”
“How much trouble am I in?”
“I wouldn’t worry about this one. He won’t press charges. He’d show himself to be a hypocrite if he did. Probably why the shot was fired first. Scared you more that way.”
“It did.” Ty tugged on my sleeve. “Sorry if I’ve acted crazy. I’ll repay those I defrauded. It wasn’t about the money.”
“And I didn’t mean to bother those women.”
I guided the car to the curb in front of the house where Ty rented a second story apartment. He asked that I wait for him because he needed to run inside to retrieve something for me. I watched as he raced up the stairs and missed the second to last one. He slid, bounced, and tumbled his way to the ground. It hurt just to watch my friend fall.
I quickly unbuckled my seat belt and bolted from the car. Only when I was halfway there and saw Ty sprawled on the ground did I remember. How I hoped he’d spring to his feet and yell, “I’m okay,” once I stood above him.
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