Fiction by Tom Mahony
The incident started one evening while me, Smitty, and Joey sat around our dorm room pretending to study. We did this a lot. As I stared blankly at a chemistry textbook, weird Mick burst into the room wheeling a keg on a skateboard.
“Can I store this thing here?” Mick said. “The cops and dorm boss are gonna search my room any minute.” He tossed me the tap and turned to go. “And keep your greasy fingers off it. I need it for a party later.” He left without further explanation.
As we pondered Mick’s predicament, the obvious question came to mind.
“What kind of beer do you think it is?” Joey said.
“Pale ale,” Smitty said. “Mick only drinks the good stuff.”
I shook my head. “It’s cheap crap. Mick likes the good stuff but won’t pay for it.”
“We seem to have a disagreement,” Joey said. “And there’s only one way to resolve it.” He nodded at the keg.
We stared at the shiny cylinder. We stared at each other. Of course, it wasn’t our product, and we were instructed not to tap it. Now, sometimes in life a man is confronted with temptation. Sometimes the correct course of action is to resist that temptation. Sometimes a man has to abstain to see the light.
This wasn’t one of those times.
Joey tapped the keg, disbursed plastic cups, and we sampled the merchandise. Upon the first sip I realized that I had been wrong in my earlier assessment: the keg was full of the good stuff. My generally low respect for Mick went up a couple of notches.
We quickly filled our cups again. Joey turned on some music. As the evening progressed, we got pretty familiar with that tap. It became an old friend. We named it Mick. It’s easy to lose track of time and consumption when you’re sitting around with two friends and a keg of pale ale. At some point in this netherworld, a tennis ball appeared.
Years later, we still argue over the exact sequence of events. These facts are not in dispute: (1) Joey found the tennis ball under the bed and started throwing it against the wall, and (2) Smitty had a bottle of lighter fluid from a recent barbeque. The rest is hazy. There’s no clear consensus on who linked the tennis ball with the lighter fluid and suggested making a sport of it. As the best athlete of the group I came under suspicion, but I’ll admit to nothing.
Anyway, within an hour we were kicking a flaming tennis ball down the hallway. We set up goals, rules, teams. The game got pretty competitive, but after a while we became distracted. We kept taking “timeouts” to return to the keg, and one timeout never really ended. We passed out in the room and left the tennis ball flaming on the carpet.
We woke to ringing fire alarms, pounding on the door and a smoke-filled room. As I coughed down the hallway amidst the acrid smoke and scrambling firefighters, it dawned on me that things were perhaps amiss from our newfound sport. Me, Joey, Smitty, and hundreds of other residents stumbled from the building and stood on the lawn watching the dorm burn.
Joey turned to me, bleary eyed, and mouthed the words: “Oh shit.”
I nodded. Enough said.
Luckily, the firefighters doused the flames before the whole place burned. In the end, only the hallway and landing were destroyed. Nobody’s room went up in flames, and thank God nobody was injured. After sobering up, we huddled to see who would take the blame.
Smitty pointed an accusing finger at Joey. “You found the tennis ball.”
Joey grunted. “But you had the lighter fluid.” He turned to me. “It was your idea to put them together.”
“There’s no evidence of that,” I countered. “That’s a logical fallacy. A red herring. A straw man.” I’d heard the words in logic class and had no idea what they meant but they sounded good.
We argued for a while. It got pretty heated. At one point we came close to blows. Now, this is what you might call a moral dilemma. We were decent people at heart. We knew our actions were irresponsible and wrong. Sometimes in life a man has to accept responsibility and take his lumps. Sometimes the correct course of action is rather clear. This was one of those times.
But, in the end, we chickened out. We never copped to anything. We slunk away and continued our half-assed studies and hoped we wouldn’t get caught. And we never did. The suspicion fell on Mick. People whispered that he torched the building to protest the search of his room by meddling authorities. We nodded darkly and agreed that scenario made perfect sense.
To this day the incident haunts me a bit. I wonder how my life might have changed had I owned up to everything. I would’ve been punished, perhaps even expelled, but maybe I would’ve used that lesson to accomplish great things. I teach my son to take responsibility for his actions, yet I never did when it counted. I’m a hypocrite.
So now, two decades later, I’m going down to that school to admit fault, pay the bill, and take my lumps. I’ve evaded responsibility for too long, procrastinated and dawdled like always, pushed action off into the future when the future is now. Because sometimes the correct course of action is clear. This is one of those times. I’m finally gonna do it.
Just not today, I’m too busy.