Here’s a story I never told anyone, partly because I could never figure out if I did a good thing or not, or maybe a good thing and then a selfish thing.
Still don’t know. You tell me.
I was in college. I was visiting another residence hall. I only knew a few guys in this other hall, and I was on my way to their wing to laze around and watch basketball and laugh and eventually start a project in anthropology that we were all dreading and avoiding. It was winter. There was a foot of gray snow on the ground. It was a frigid Saturday afternoon. The sky was annoyed. There was a big basketball game at the other end of campus, so the sidewalks were mostly empty, and the halls were mostly empty except for students who didn’t care for hoopla or were reluctantly finally getting to projects they had avoided for weeks.
As I ran up the stairs, I heard a guy gagging somewhere. Gagging is a terrible ugly dangerous sound. Even the word gagging is ugly. It sounds as bad as it is. You cannot ignore a guy gagging because we all have gagged too and gagging is dangerous and you have to at least pretend to care about a gagger. I was powerfully tempted to ignore him, though, on the theory that it wasn’t me gagging, and almost certainly it was not someone I knew or cared about, but I can always feel my mom and dad standing quietly behind me at moments like this, and no human being in the history of the world would have the temerity to disappoint my mom and dad, so I went looking for the gagger.
You would think a guy gagging might be in a bathroom, where gagging is not unknown and there are facilities for dealing with gagging, but this was not the case, and I finally found him at the very bottom of the staircase. He was curled up in a corner of what seemed like the hall’s space for stashing bicycles and skis and tools like rakes and shovels. It was not what you would call a well-lit space, but even so, I could tell that the guy was not the right color. People are all sorts of colors, but when they are off-color, you can tell fairly easily; no matter what color they are supposed to be, they are now the color of chalk. This guy was the color of chalk. He seemed to be unconscious, but then he would gag, although nothing came of his gagging. I was tempted to get a rake and poke him awake from a safe distance, but my mom and dad were standing behind me, so finally I got down on my knees and made him sit up. He gagged some more sitting up, but the gagging sounded better, as gagging goes. I remembered that Jimi Hendrix died while gagging because he was supine, so I told the guy to stay sitting up. I will be right back, I said. Do you hear me? Can you hear me? If you slump over, I will hit you with a shovel. All you have to do is sit up, that’s all. Can you do that for two minutes? Yes? Tell me you heard me or I will hit you with a shovel.
Yes, he mumbled, and I whipped back up the stairs and found a guy who lived in the hall and he ran to get someone who would know what to do. At that point, I figured I was done, and I started to head up to where my friends lived but my mom and dad were standing behind me again and I waited on the stairs where I could see the guy who gagged. He was still sitting up, and he wasn’t gagging. A minute later, people came to deal with him and I left.
You might think that someone in my position would later spend at least a few seconds wondering if the guy was okay, but you would be wrong about that. I don’t know if he lived or died, if he was drunk or on heroin, if he’d had a stroke or an epileptic fit, if he’d tried to poison himself or what, and I never even thought to find out, not that day or that year or ever after, until now. So you see what I mean—I did a good thing, even though I did so by threatening violence. But then I never gave the guy another thought. Not one. That seems shabby somehow. I don’t know. What do you think?
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