“What do you figure is the worst thing you could do to someone?” he asked, heaving another cord of wood into the back of the pickup. It was cold, but we were both sweating. We’d been loading the truck for the better part of an hour, and I took his question as a signal to take a break. I peeled off the heavy orange gloves I was wearing and lit a smoke, then dropped my ample backside down on the truck’s open tailgate. There was a brief creak of complaint from the vehicle’s shock absorbers.
“What, aside from killing them? ‘Cause I don’t think killing someone’s all that bad.” He raised an eyebrow at me. I put my hands up, palms out and defensive. “Don’t misunderstand me, murder is horrible. It’s just hard to say it’s so bad for the murdered. They’re dead, so they don’t really have any worldly concerns left—”
“If you discount them coming back as ghosts,” he said.
“—if you discount them coming back as ghosts. Even then, it’s hard to say how bad life as a ghost really is. And can we say that? ‘Life’ as a ghost? Don’t really make sense, does it? No, murder is worse for the murderer and the victim’s relations and anyone else involved who has to go on living with the experience. So, it’d be fair to say that killing someone’s the worst thing a person could do to themselves.”
He nodded. “Fair enough.”
“I think, after hanging around on this planet for coming on four decades—which I ain’t trying to say is any big stretch—that the worst thing you could do to another human being is ignore them.”
A look of genuine surprise unrolled on his tanned face, and then his mouth drooped into a hard frown of agreement.
“That might be it in one,” he said.
“Oh, I know it is. I’ve done it, taken it to its logical conclusion with people before.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve ignored people I’ve had to interact with daily so hard it was like they didn’t exist. Turned them into living ghosts. Murdered their presence, so to speak.”
“How? And why?”
I thought about it for a minute. A clump of snow fell from the branches of a nearby fir tree and thumped into the drifts below. The frozen whisper of the icy wood was the only other sound.
“There was this one guy I used to work with, a real jackass. I used to like hanging around with him, and there was even a time I might have called him a best friend. Then I started to notice that he was real toxic, and it wasn’t even one of those self-reflective things. I’d observe him in his dealings with others and notice just how condescending and aloof he was. In passing it was cool, I guess, and it was fashionable at the time to be something of an asshole. It was one of the elements of being a man in that place, and he was living up to the standard. I was too and had been for years, but I was starting to reconsider. I think we all go through stages of maturity in life, and I was passing through another one of mine. At any rate, I realized I couldn’t associate with this guy anymore. The thing was, I had to work real close to him, every day. I couldn’t quit the job, and there was no possibility of a transfer to another workplace, so I dealt with it in a singularly dark fashion.”
“You just ignored him?” he asked.
“You make it sound so simple,” I said, pitching my smoldering butt into the snow. “It became a full-time project turning this guy into a non-entity. To pointedly remove him from my frame of reference.”
“Did he notice?”
“Of course he noticed. He figured it out right away, the first time he tried to talk to me and I didn’t respond. Didn’t even look his way as he was asking me for the time of day. The psychological impact was profound and far-reaching.”
“So, you didn’t look at him, or talk to him? For how long?”
“Yeah. It got easier, and that’s to say it wasn’t at the beginning. In fact, it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Looking back at it, with that big gulf of time and experience between then and now, I might say that a better thing to do would’ve been to sit down with the fellow and lay it out for him, try to have a reasonable discussion about it, talk about the changes I felt I was going through. Hell, he might even have changed along with me. But I didn’t do that. I entered this weird contract with myself where I simply shut him out while continuing to co-exist with him.”
“And you figure that was the worst thing you could’ve done to a person?”
“I know it was. He fell into a deep and obvious depression after that. He even talked to me about it years later.”
“You ended up bringing him back into your life?”
“No, not exactly. He reached out to me on the social networks, and I took some time to look back through his profile over those lost years. He’d been through some real black times. I considered lifting my silence on him but then I saw him do some other heinous shit and felt that I might have made the right decision in cutting him out.
“I tell you, it’s a hard line to walk once you’ve done that to a person, ’cause like I said it only gets easier. I’ve done it a few more times since to other people who I’ve deemed toxic, for better or worse. I’m still ready to do it today, too, but I find that doing my due diligence when it comes to who I let get close to me is a simpler way to live. You don’t have to be everyone’s friend, and sometimes even evil folks can be useful.”
He nodded as though he understood, but there was a troubled look on his face. “I don’t know how I feel about all that.”
“That I did. Now I can’t help but wonder how you’d treat me, given certain circumstances or behavior.”
I laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ve matured a lot since then, or at least I hope I have. I prefer to at least talk things through before committing anyone to the silence.” I hopped off the tailgate and pushed my cold hands back into the gloves. “Let’s get back to work.”
2015.01.08 – 2023.08.09