Saturday, May 1, 2010

Unintended Consequences

(This is the story as best I recall; it is likely I have gotten some details wrong, but the gist jibes true enough, and all the names but mine have been changed.)

A friend of mine back in college, Bob Hanks, had an issue with with the occupant of the dorm room that adjoined his via the bathroom; what we called a 'canmate'. Now, this canmate, who I will call Fritz, was a bit of a pill: somewhat arrogant, rather outspoken and only too willing to highlight both his ignorance and his parochial mindset.

There were a few interesting characters like Fritz on campus: Hitcher, an offputting but harmless fellow, who, looking back, strikes me as maybe occupying a shade on the autism spectrum. Hugh, a more entertaining but less harmless gent of questionable sanity, whom the rumour mill had as eventually getting thrown out of school for unsupervised extra-curricular activities with explosives. A residential college is a great place to find out more about who you are, and some take the opportunity to find out who they might have the most fun being, at least temporarily. But Fritz, for better or worse spoke from the heart; his obtuse, insensitive, provincial heart, like when he tried to justify the use of a pre-emptive poison gas strike as a possible defense against the Warsaw Pact during history class.

Anyhow, Bob's problem was that Fritz would wander into his room while they were talking, and casually, possibly unconsciously, leaf through items on Bob's desk, like his mail.

"Hey," Bob would say, "There is nothing there of yours, you know that, right?"

"What do you mean?" Fritz would reply, dropping the envelopes like they were hot.

Bob would simply shake his head and let the matter drop. After a number of recurrences, it was clear that things were coming to a head, which was when we came up with our own idea for an aversive therapy program.

Using Bob's computer printer and a portion of the letterhead from a federal student loan confirmation, we made up something that, at a distance, might pass for correspondence from, say, the Ministry of Defense. The body of the letter contained something along these lines:

Dear Mr. Hanks,

Thank you for your recent correspondence. As per your request, we have conducted an initial survey of our files regarding FRITZ LANNING of CORSWELL, ALBERTA and have some concerns. We would appreciate it if you could fill out the attached questionnaire at your earliest convenience so we may conclude our investigation...

I know it sounds daft, but you need to picture the little flag in the letterhead. Now read it again. See?

Bob left this letter in his mail stack, and set up a small mirror by his computer desk so he could see if it was being touched without turning around. It hadn't been there for two days before Fritz came in and sure enough, began fiddling with Bob's mail.

It was a struggle for Bob to keep up his end of the conversation as he simultaneously pushed random keys on his Amiga and kept an eagle eye on his guest. Obviously, timing was a critical factor, what with the prankee holding evidence of the two of us masquerading as a government entity and all, but without letting Fritz get to the letter at all, the whole affair was for naught. How to tell when he had taken the bait?

We needn't have worried.

Fritz bit off one of his sentences right in the middle. His posture stiffened, evident even in the tiny reflection Bob was scrutinizing. His jaw dropped a little. "What in the f...?" he started to say.

Instantly, Bob whirled around in his task chair. "Hey! That's my mail!" He leapt out of his chair and snatched the letter from Fritz's fingers, bolting to the bathroom as Fritz's mouth continued to open and close, bereft of anything even remotely word-like.

Once in the bathroom, Bob frantically shredded the letter into quarters, and then into sixteenths, and promptly flushed it down the toilet like a proper spy, taking care of the evidence portion of our complicity while Fritz, having recovered his power of speech, bellowed "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!" repeatedly.

I don't recall what happened immediately following this. Either Bob went back into his room and ejected Fritz in a contrived scene of righteous indignation, or he simply exited the bathroom on Fritz's side, then proceeded out into the hall and to the nearest exit, presumably at top speed. Either way, he met up with me, related how it had gone down, high-fives were exchanged, and we headed off to the cafeteria for supper in high spirits.

In the cafeteria, another one of the Usual Suspects was making his own entertainment. Hugh had obtained a small water pistol, and was targeting random students after uttering the words, "Time to pay the power broker."

Now, a lot has been said about this individual, and for my part, I found him abrasive and coarse, but not stupid, and certainly not without humour. In class, with a professor to hold him in check, Hugh would advance an unpopular position just to see if anyone could knock it down, and when they did, nod like a sparring partner and withdraw to a neutral corner in an orderly fashion. I once heard him describe a poorly articulated position as "not just a straw-man argument, a straw-man soaked in high test gasoline and hit with an arc-welder", so he knew how to turn a phrase. On the other hand, he was also a big defenseman on the school hockey team who was rumored to have sent a dead animal to an ex-girlfriend, so I was not particularly interested in getting to know him better. Thus, when he told me about the power broker and exacted his watery weregild, I shrugged and said, "Okay Hugh." Seriously, it was not a big water pistol, and it was not as though I had gone to dinner in the school cafeteria wearing my dress shirt.

At the table, Bob & I told our dining companions about the gag we had pulled on Fritz, and the consensus seemed to be that it was, if not altogether perfect, thoughtfully targeted and skillfully applied. Had Fritz given up his intrusive habit as he had been encouraged, there would have been no joke to pull, and was hoist by his own petard in classic fashion. As it was, Fritz's general behaviour and reputation meant that finding a sympathizer to his plight would have been difficult at any rate.

The tables around the edge of the cafeteria are elevated above those in the centre, so we had a clear view of Fritz as he walked with his dinner tray past where Hugh was sitting, and things began to unspool just a tad.

Certainly, I wasn't surprised when Hugh informed Fritz he had to pay the power broker. Likewise, I was anything but surprised when Hugh tagged him in the ten-ring a couple of times with his water pistol. Shaking his head, Fritz strode past Hugh in a response that was not only un-surprising, but typical.

No, my surprise came when Fritz reached the table behind Hugh's, dropped his tray and threw a headlock on Hugh, a man who outweighed him by at least 75 pounds and was easily 6 inches taller.

From the look on Hugh's face, I was not the only one surprised. Despite the amount of exertion showing on Fritz's reddened face, Hugh's own expression was not so much angry as it was bemused and shocked. Rather than grab Fritz's arm, or even stand up, Hugh's hands stayed directly in front of him, fingers splayed, the water pistol on the table.

Fritz's, I don't know what to call it, attack, maybe?, lasted only a moment, after which he threw up his arms and stomped out of the cafeteria, leaving his tray on the table behind Hugh. Hugh looked over this shoulder in disbelief, then back at his teammates at the table who were vacillating as a group between amusement and bewilderment, with an aggregate behaviour of head shaking and guffaws.

Bob and I looked at each other. "I guess we'd better come clean with Fritz before..." I said, letting my words trail off.

Bob nodded. "I'll take care of it."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

That evening, Bob came to my room in the Freshman residence, where I was a residence assistant. Bob was an RA in one of the halls across the ravine where more senior students lived. (That's right, we were both in positions of authority when we pulled our little prank, Don't judge us, man.) I don't remember who was there with me, but I remember it was a little late, because I mentioned this to Bob, who had a bit of a fatalistic air about him, and he explained why.

"I just got back from the hospital," Bob said.

"What?" I gaped.

"Hugh went over to Fritz's room to get an explanation about what happened at dinner. Fritz was a little jumpy and tried to shove Hugh out of his room. It escalated and Hugh popped him in the jaw."

"You have got to be freaking kid-" I started to say.

"Laid him out cold," Bob continued. "It doesn't look like there is a concussion, but they will keep him overnight to be sure."

The fracas in Fritz's room was enough of a schmozzle, what with there being no witnesses, Fritz probably throwing the first punch (and first headlock for that matter), and Hugh being in the room uninvited, that no real repercussions arose for either of them.

Bob and I took the earliest opportunity to set things straight with Fritz, and sat with him at breakfast the next day. We outlined the whole thing, explained (a couple of times) that the investigation was both unjustified and completely ersatz, and apologized for letting things get out of hand. Fritz nodded throughout.

"You understand that we were just trying to wind you up for going through Bob's mail, right? I mean, you get how that could get under a fellow's skin, yeah?" I asked him.

Fritz continued to nod, a small smile at the corners of his mouth. "S'aright," he said. "Prob'ly shouldn'a reacted like I did..."

"Well, I'm glad that's all straightened out and that it didn't turn out any worse than it did," Bob said hurriedly, cleaning up the last of his plate. "I'm off!"

"Me too," I added, tucking away the last strip of bacon. "Wait up, Bob."

I zipped up my jacket as we exited the cafeteria and started across the bridge. "I think that went pretty well, don't you?"

"Absolutely," asserted Bob. "But that's hardly surprising."

"What do you mean?"

"Did you see his pill bottle? Those muscle relaxants are the size of horse tranquilizers. Hell, they probably are horse tranquilizers. I wouldn't put it past Fritz to get his prescription filled at a vet's."

"Is that why you left so quick?" I asked.

"I had to!" Bob exclaimed. "I started wondering about how susceptible to suggestion he might be. I had to get out of there before something else happened."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

(Addendum: In the midst of writing this story, Audrey wandered by and asked what I was writing about. When I told her, she clucked her tongue a little bit, and shook her head in that way. "What's that about?" I demanded. "Eh? You think I'm a bad person, is that it? You maybe feel sorry for Fritz, eh?"

"No," she said, calmly hefting a laundry basket as she exited the room. "I don't feel sorry for Fritz.")

1 comment:

  1. That's great. A fine way to run someone's anti-social behaviour against them.