Finnegan once wrote a play. Well, I can’t say that for sure because it could have been a character in Finnegan’s Play who wrote Finnegan’s Play. But the absence of any so-named cast member in Finnegan’s Play makes me suspect, and it is just that, a suspicion, that Finnegan authored Finnegan’s Play. . . . Not that it matters . . . or that it was a play or that I know Finnegan, though I’d like to, thoroughly, though I see little chance of that at present, given, I mean, the divorce between actor and setting.
More a zero draft of a play, it was. Not even that, for that matter. More like a subzero draft. Mere story dust, you could say, of a tale told by “a heavy-cheeked Irishman with a Bardolphian hue who speaks with a brogue as thick as the ones he has never kicked the habit of wearing.” Finnegan’s words, and to boot, absent, if you will permit, those irksome quotation marks within quotation marks within . . . ad infinitum. As if clarity were of itself meaning.
ANGUS LIR SCANLON. Barkeep and proprietor of Aces & Eights, a waterfront bar where the aforesaid happily reminds all who inquire of the establishment’s name of the dead man’s poker hand “Wild Bill” held, his back to the door, as a bullet passed in the back of his head from a Colt .45 fired by Jack McCall on 2 August 1876 at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.
Right, right, I agree, Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone. So it struck me. In any event:
AT RISE: SCANLON is singing softly over a newspaper spread on the bar, as if to himself alone, though loud enough for anyone listening to hear a voice that, though thinned with age, still carries the sad deep emotion of an unuttered sob that suits what he is singing: “The Connemara Cradle Song,” the Irish lullaby of the same tune as “Down in the Valley”:
On the wings of the wind o’er the dark rolling deep
Angels are coming to watch o’er thy sheep
Angels are coming to watch over thee
So list to the wind coming over the sea.
He concludes with, “Lean your head over and hear the wind blow,” which he renders with a ghost of a smile, “Lean yisser noggin over an’ ‘ear de wind blow,” then runs a dimpled podgy hand, its fingers knotted with rheumatism, through a headful of fierce, fuzzy red hair. Then, his quiet green eyes, set deeply beneath fat lids and a spurt of red brows, engage THE BOYS AT THE BAR having a few jars, as if cuing them to join in.
THE BOYS AT THE BAR— (singing):
The currachs tomorrow will stand on the shore
And Daddy goes sailing, a-sailing no more
The nets will be drying, the net’s heaven blessed
And safe in my arms contended he’ll rest.
That’s it—well, almost. Didn’t I tell you Finnegan’s Play was no more than a pre-beginning?
I came upon Finnegan’s Play at Eliot’s, where I go whenever my reflection in store windows or my shadow in puddles makes me shiver with a quiet melancholy. . . . Ishmael had the sea. I have Eliot’s Flea Market.
This time, however, I went to bring my kicking nerves to heel. The cops did that, made my nerves twitch and strain. Afterward I went to Aces & Eights, a few doors down, down by the slough, to steady the nausea in my hands. Finnegan’s Play did that, with its echoes of past mistakes and witnesses. Not just because of “Aces & Eights,” mind you, but other such—what? Well, the sceptic would call them mere coincidences. Maybe so. I prefer “meaningful” to “mere.” But then again, so does delusion, that “with kindly seeming leads men into her nets.” Not Serling this time, Aeschylus. . . .
My “nets,” truth to say, were properly besotted, when I recall shambling out about midnight to my vintage ’46 Plymouth P15 Special Deluxe, with column-shifted 3-speed transmission, AM radio, factory bumper guards, fog lamps, single spotlight, and, of course, wide whitewalls. I never parked but down by the canal, to hide it, you see, not from thieves, but from Baby’s prying eyes.
But about Finnegan’s Play.
He wrote it, Finnegan did, in one of those old-fashioned TOPS composition books with the black marble cover. You know, with “Composition Book” in black written on top? Only “Composition Book” was whited out, and in the lines under it, where the pupil’s name would go, was written,—no, calligraphed, delicately, Finnegan’s Play. That’s all, Finnegan’s Play—faded but still legible, inscribed with, I’d say, a plain blunt pencil. . . .
Ah, Finnegan! Forever and forever farewell! If we do ever meet, we’ll smile indeed. If not, then ’tis true this crossing was well made. . . .
Pardon the Elizabethan digression. I couldn’t resist, any more than I can flea markets or could stay opening Finnegan’s Play.
Their lure, their seductive intrigue, I am speaking now of the discarded jottings of others—their letters, their post cards, their diaries, even the perduring prints and scents on their castaway writing tools— such as that, the dimming piles of others’ words have always drawn me, I don’t know why,—no, stronger than “drawn”— pulled me in with the strength of a rare earth magnet, as if I were a twenty-five cent trick coin. Which, by the way, was a quarter of what I paid for Finnegan’s Play.
“Not a trifling sum, my good fellow,” I remarked with received pronunciation, as I fished out a pocketful of coins and, for the sorting, provided Tommy, a lobster-faced little man with a wide bony hand that shaded the circle of dirty yellow light the counter lamp made. . . .
Oh, certainly, he had to have seen it, certainly, the bloody handkerchief I mean, that came out with the change, but he kept clammed up like an oyster. Tommy’s like that— minds his own beeswax. A man could do worse, though cheap as talk he is. Not that I had anything to hide, mind you, though, as I said, I thought a buck a bit high, and said as much to him, to which Tommy, as always, y’know, squeezing the nickel till the buffalo chokes, went off squeakily in the friar’s dim light and a witch’s disagreeable draft—
“That didn’t strike you as odd?”
The question came from a police officer, whom I shall designate for the present as P.O. 1, since his proper name escapes me and there was another, and appellations. But, frankly, I am tempted to call him THE HUSBAND because he looked, uncannily, like one of THE PLAYERS Finnegan lists in Finnegan’s Play, though he never appears in the aforesaid fragment. But if he did, he would look as follows:
THE HUSBAND: A kvetching man of forty or so with a husky voice and short thick ears and spatulate fingers and a bill that stretches as if to kiss a Hapsburg jaw, undergirding fat white lips that wabble nervously, the effect, perhaps, of over indulgence in alcohol or suppressing a deep truth about himself.
No, now that I think about it, P.O. 1 didn’t just look like, he was the spitting image of, THE HUSBAND.
Of course, I didn’t recognize the eerie likeness at the time, when in answer to P.O. 1’s query, I said briskly, “Odd? How so?”
“Well,” P.O.1 said simply, with a wave of his Thin Blue Line 6 X 9 College Ruled Dot Sheet PNB, —which, frankly, had me lusting, “Wouldn’t I like to get my hands on that?”— “‘sweating walls’? Doesn’t that strike you as—?”
I shrugged him off with, “I figured Baby had fallen asleep.” Then, in the same unfazed posh accent and cadence, “Hot baths do that to her—did, I mean,” then appending after a pause, “when she is—was,” then admittedly over the top and to their befuddlement, “Oh tenses, tenses, will no one rid me of these meddlesome tenses?”
I took a deep calming breath and, recomposed after an easy silence, I allowed as softly as an enameled sky, “Half gone.”
“Say what?” came back.
“‘Say what?’” gyrated through my mind before I stated, in a voice that to me sounded like a melancholy moan, “Baby lets the water run, you see, and that makes the walls sweat.” There then followed an uncomfortable pause, after which, with a pathetic attenuated circular gesture, I indicted our apartment. “The flat,” I pointed out, “is rather small.”
“Right,” P.O. 1 murmured, his rugged heavy duty tactical pen sputtering away, while I mused, “No doubt, a self-defense weapon that can crack, smash, or break a window.” Then further, with a furtive smile, “It’ll find its way into a flea market.” They all do, you know, eventually.
Then some pauses before, from P.O. 1 with pen poised, “‘Half gone’?”
“You know,” I said a tad flippantly, “trolleyed . . . taxied . . . under full sail?”
Now here’s where it gets strange, weird really, so spooky in fact.
Before continuing, let me ask you this. Has something ever made the hair on the back of your neck tingle? I mean really. Not a movie, not a book, not a grisly tabloid. I mean something that you experienced, not secondhand, but first—like-like, say the love of your life? Yes, like a firsthand love. Has something, anything, ever chased the pink from your cheeks and left your face the color of cigar smoke? In your own whole life? Left you with a stony, unwinking stare? your heart thumping against your ribs with alien emotions or ghosts of old passions, ancestral images perhaps, but certainly haunting and troubling? I mean, anything, anything at all in your own whole life, that mysteriously made your jaws work but no word come out? As if your firsthand love turned out to be a secondhand castoff? . . . Anything like that? Ring a bell? Sound familiar? . . . No? Well, then you’ll not understand how I felt—the shiver and quake of words unspoken, but were they, would they be in a frightened diminuendo, the portrait, I mean, of still another player named but not cast in Finnegan’s Play.
THE WIFE: Born the moment her child was, plainly juggling work, hours and dates, and, most certainly, used to balancing twice of everything, all the while wondering glumly, her self-confidence ebbing: “Is a mother’s love enough?,” as she pulls an order pad and ball pen from the pocket of her jet black Berkeley waist apron and sets her plump unringed hands to jot, and says with a topknot and a tight unused smile of sullen coquetry, “What’ll it be, sailor?”
I figure Finnegan imagined THE WIFE a waitress at Aces & Eights. Does she not seem so? Finnegan never says, nor whose mother or spouse or partner THE WIFE is. He wouldn’t, Finnegan, since, as I said, he never casted her in Finnegan’s Play. But that doesn’t mean she is not present, if you see what I mean. . . any more than THE HUSBAND is past for not being cast. . . . . Are we all right?. . .
I speak now of grave matters, of matters that though dead endure, matters that require—what? truth and courage to face. Like-like, well, “the divorce between man and his life.” . . . Ah! you recognize Camus—what he called, properly, “the feeling of absurdity,” and then asked, darkly, “Does that dictate death?” . . . But—and here’s the thing—unlike Camus, Finnegan never says, and that makes all the difference…. Which, I think, speaks volumes of him, Finnegan, whose silently bleeding internal wound reminds us to never trust the teller, trust the tale.
But let’s put off peripheries. What counts is the essence of THE WIFE, which is the core, the heart, the pith of P.O. 2 . . . .
I know, I know, can you imagine the odds?. . . . But now you see where I was coming from earlier. . . . Mere coincidence? “Not bloody likely,” as the British might say. . . .
In any event, you can understand my dismay. No-no more than an insipid “dismay.” . . . More like the tight strain of foreboding in the throat. Or the fearful sinking of the heart . . . Or, perhaps, the body’s panic fear of being caught up and carried out in a rip. Well, I can tell you, such as that was my consternation, which, by the way, neither did anything to allay, either of the P.O.s.
“You said that she was taking a bath,” Topknot went. Oh, “Topknot”—that’s how P.O. 1 addressed P.O. 2 for, I presume, the knot of blonde hair piled high on her head. She, for her part, addressed P.O. 1 as “Dick.” Why? I don’t know. Both addressed me as “sir,” occasionally.
“Yes,” I said, “but at the time I was deep into ‘There She Is—She Is Taking Her Bath.’”
“You mean you were there in the bathroom with her?” Topknot wanted to know.
“No, no,” I clarified, “I was in the living room,” adding, with unavailing embarrassment, “well, it’s hardly a ‘living room.’ . . . More— an ‘existing room’ with a Murphy bed. Or as I prefer—” pausing suspensefully here because, y’know, in life, timing is everything, before continuing, “a Poe bed.”
Their glassy stare I met with, “You know, because of its wall nature?” and grudgingly, to their vacant eyes, “the bed, I mean.” Then, through closed lips, “Talk about having to spell things out.”. . .
Both—and I hope I’m not being overly familiar here—Topknot and Dick took my measure with a totally unironic gaze, clouded and heavy, before from them together, flatly, “When she was taking her bath.”
“Well,” I went politely, “it’s actually is taking her bath.”
With puzzled wonder, “Pshew,” escaped Topknot, and Dick’s eyes agreed, “Quite a tale.”
“It is, isn’t it?” I said, searching both faces expectantly before adding, “You know Anderson?” but only got a brush off, “So, sir,” from one or the other, “when did you suspect something amiss?”
“God!” I thought. “How far back—?” but proudly, simply, calmly, I said instead, “When I was pondering”—but now I see, looking back, how reckless a lawyer might call my subsequent admission—“‘If I could only decide whether or not I am a fool, a man turned suddenly a little mad or a man whose honor has really been tampered with—’”
“‘Reckless’?” Dick broke in, as if reading my mind, “Why ‘reckless’?”
“Well, I mean—,” but before I could explain, another interruption, this one accusative, from Topknot, spoken with a look of tried patience, “So you think your wife tampered with your honor? Is that what you think?” “No, no” I protested, “John did.” “John?” “Mabel’s husband. He thought that, not I.”
I should have known that neither Dick nor Topknot was well read, because Finnegan would have said as much. Very specific character depictions, y’know, Finnegan’s. Oh, of course, I agree, he’s no O’Neill, but, on the other hand, directors today prefer minimal—okay, okay, you’re right, I’m digressing again. . . . “Vivid,” let’s just leave it at that, though, frankly, “lurid” comes to—okay, okay. . . . I give you:
THE PLUMBER—A man with a large carnivorous head and face, with stony eyes and a dark mustache under a bulky nose, and an air of iron strength. . . . The sort who, fixing a leak, with his thick jaw and overhanging brow would be fixing THE WIFE with a hard meaning stare that makes THE WIFE’s color rise and her face turn pale and extinguished, as if she’ll fall into a swoon, and THE HUSBAND—.
Well, you get the idea. Very specific, very detailed, Finnegan is, graphic even, can we agree? . . . . Which makes me think, yes, now that I think of it, I mean the more I think about it, that something—something untoward—no-no, hardly a tepid “untoward,” more like-like frightful . . . .Yes, something horrifying—something so beastly as to strike Finnegan dumb— I mean, something that stopped his plain blunt pencil mid-stroke. What? Well, who’s to say? Perhaps—and I am, mind you, only speculating here—
(THE HUSBAND opens THE PLUMBER’s skull with a single blow of his heavy steel pipe wrench.)
Now certainly that could shock still a plain blunt pencil? Don’t you think?
“But when you suspected that—that something was—?”
“Amiss?” I provided Topknot helpfully.
“Uh-huh. What did you—?”
“You mean,” I continued in the same vein, “when I saw a roaring river of red running out from under the bathroom door? Like that ‘amiss,’ you mean?”
Getting no reply, I naturally continued, and who wouldn’t? “Well, I naturally thought, ‘Baby has gone and opened her left wrist in the hot bath.’” Then—and here’s the thing—I know, I know, again against the advice of counsel, the word naturally.
“Why ‘naturally’?” Dick wanted to know, naturally.
“Well,” recovering nimbly, I countered, “because as you have no doubt observed— the crisscross of scars on Baby’s left wrist?” I deliberately paused here before delivering, downtempo naturally, “She was right-handed,” then added the coup de grâce, “and more than once had, Baby had—.”
They then left, P.O. 1 and 2, Dick and Topknot, but not before cautioning, “The detectives will want to speak to you, sir.” That from Topknot. I remember distinctly because her thoughtful heads-up didn’t seem to sit well with Dick. . . .
Then it hit me—Dick had been passed over for “Detective,” not once, but repeatedly. How else to explain his accoutrements? His look of perpetual grievance? They could deny him the badge, but by God, not the cutting-edge pen and the smart PNB . . . I know, I know, the irony of it— so exactly unlike some seasoned Leo would carry—a shabby, scuffed, stained, wiped away and worn out, broken up, chewed and eaten pad; and a déclassé BIC velocity black ball point pen with rubber grip on a lightweight barrel…. I know, I know, life’s like that, though, so unlike life…. You know what I mean?
Of course, just between you and me, I actually thought at the time, “Baby’s gone and used my single edge Personna,” which I never said, of course, because they’d have asked, “Why?,” cops being what they are, inquisitive by nature. And I’d have stalled, “What ‘why’?” and from them, “Why did you think that?” And then from me, because that’s how I am, cooperative by nature—right up front, even to playing, I know, I know, right into the hands of cops, I am—I would have said, which, again, a lawyer would have advised against, “I suggested she do so.” Then there would have been another—what? “Why?,” then from me, “Because it had an extra sharp blade,” and then there wouldn’t have been any going back, but only waiting for—no, stewing, brooding over the unreasoning shame. . . of having an oddly satisfactory feeling . . . that one both wants to hide and confess. A prey, in brief, to cramp and fright. . . .
—“uncreased, untorn, unyellowed,” then, “no random scribblings, no marks,” and for good measure, waving the composition book in front of my face —no, more like through my face—, “unused, untouched, unopened,” and like that Tommy goes on, like the implacable droning of a tethered horse fly.
Imagine treating a regular like a niggler, for a buck no less, as if-as if I were a stranger, an interloper, an illiterate occupant of an old mouldering house full of gloom instead of a sodden apparition who forced his way up to the surface to hear for rest easy what choked off Finnegan’s Play.
SCANLON—(after a pause that stills THE BOYS, reading somberly from the newspaper, as if delivering obsequies for a fallen comrade) “For an unknown reason, accordin’ ter de offishal peelers report, the subject bolted loike a shot through a narrow gap between a block wall an’ de solid concrete lip av a canal culvert, crashed through a chain-link fence an’ flew into de canal. De report tuk care ter note dat a ’eavy flow av water rushed de two-door sedan down de waterway an’ roi through de dead-man cable, whaich wus designed ter preclude jist such a fatal misfortune.” (He spreads the paper atop the bar, then bends over it at the waist like a priest at an altar. In a husky voice, as he knuckles the paper) Oi nu waaat dat’s loike. (straightening up and casting his eyes at THE BOYS, who are tense to a man) ‘Av oi ever towl yer byes ‘oy oi meself nearly met me maker? (not waiting for a reply) One gauzy night, ‘twus, Oi wandered into de parkin lot hout bak (gesturing over his shoulder with a thumb) an’ failin’ to stop at me wagan oi shtumbled, wouldn’t yous nah, roit into the bloody shloo hout dere—(closing the paper)—all da while singin’ “Da Connemara Cradle Song.” (with a self-effacing laugh) Oi’d av drowned, too, full as a bingo bus on a Friday noight as Oi wus.
(Boisterous laughter cracks the tension like ice on a sunny day.)
ONE OF THE BOYS—(shouting to be heard) Tell us what saved ya, Scanny.
SCANLON—(in a low key) I’ll tell ya, what saved me. A last minute lurch at de dead-man cable. (He stretches out his arms and casts his eyes upward. His lips move inaudibly, then softly, prayerfully) Tank God. . . .
ONE OF THE BOYS—Ah!
SCANLON—Aye, ‘twus dat, byes. Yet every ward av it true so ’tis. T-G.
THE BOYS AT THE BAR (crossing themselves, gratefully)—T-G. T-G.
SCANLON (toweling the bar, somberly)—Dare is naw outcum—
THE BOYS AT THE BAR (soberly)—Aye, aye.
SCANLON (breviloquently)—if yer don’t catch dat line.
After retiring from a career teaching philosophy, Vincent Barry returned to his first love, fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad, including: The Saint Ann’s Review, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, The Broken City, Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Kairos, Terror House, Caveat Lector,The Fem, BlogNostics, The Writing Disorder, whimperbang, and The Disappointed Housewife. Barry lives in Santa Barbara, California.