How do you say goodbye to a drunk who didn’t get it? How do you pay proper respect to a man whose life seems to have been devoted to telling lies and manufacturing more lies to provide evidence for the first round? How do you miss a man whose corpse you discovered 10 months ago, a half-full vodka bottle near one outstretched hand and an empty just out of reach of the other?
When I first met Chuck, I was director of Liberty House, a transitional-living facility for formerly homeless veterans. Chuck had been in the Army twice, first in the early 1960s, when he was stationed in Germany and again at the end of the decade when he served in Vietnam. I say these things, because I’ve seen the proper paperwork, DD-214s that verify this. At that first meeting, Chuck had been living for two or three weeks at a homeless shelter. When he found out I was in recovery, he told me he’d been sober for 16 years, and had sponsored a number of men in AA. The first part was a lie; the second may have been true. But I doubt it. Chuck also told me he’d been an infantry scout in Vietnam, spending most of his time behind enemy lines, gathering information to make life safer for the rest of his unit. His service record indicates he was a jeep mechanic, but that doesn’t necessarily make his stories of combat bravery bunk. Not necessarily. Chuck also told me he’d been a high-end antiques dealer, having made hundreds of thousands of dollars buying and selling furniture from the late 18th century. That may have been true, but when Chuck and I later visited various antique galleries, he seemed to know little more than I about the differences between Chippendale and Queen Anne. Still, you don’t have to know a market to make a killing in it. I guess.
During Chuck’s two or three months at Liberty House, we got to know each other fairly well. Or, honestly, Chuck got to know me—I didn’t really know much that was true about Chuck, other than that he was a good story-teller, that he could be cranky about how coffee was made and that, if we sat outside smoking after the sun went down, he was given to weeping about how alone he was in the world. Also, how he had betrayed anyone who’d ever loved him, but that was really a setup for more weeping about how badly life had treated him.
When he left Liberty House, he sat me down and made an unusual request.
“Keith, you’re my only true friend, the only man I trust in the whole world. I’d like for you to be my next-of-kin, the person who makes decisions about me if I can’t. Would you do that for me?”
Just as when someone says, “I love you” to me, I don’t know what to say except, “I love you, too,” when Chuck asked this, I felt a gun held to my head. I said, “Sure.”
And thus I was for the next three years, getting phone calls every few months from landlords, cops, nursing homes and others. Chuck had done this or not done that—what was I going to do about it? Usually, this involved taking Chuck out for coffee, helping him come up with a plan and sending him on his way. Even when Chuck started pretending he was completely blind, often so he could grab a woman’s breast or butt, then point to his very, very dark glasses. I have no doubt Chuck’s vision was getting worse, but he’d always walk around dog crap on the street, and never stumbled at a curb when we’d go for a walk.
This “blindness” wasn’t Chuck’s first horse at the fraudulent rodeo. Chuck loved to tell stories, typically starring him as the guy who got the girl, made the money, saved the day. One story Chuck didn’t tell was the reason he’d spent years in a federal penitentiary. Oh, he’d brag about how wonderful life was in the country-club prison he’d done his time in—and about all the important and famous people he’d met there. His crime, according to Chuck, was internet-related and involved making lots and lots of money. This is not true. Chuck’s crime was convincing everyone in his small town that he was dying of cancer, and sitting back to let them hold fundraisers for him, his wife and their children. Convincing everyone means everyone. Even as his charade was falling apart, he never fessed up to his wife or kids. It was a long con, and he wouldn’t climb off as long as there was any movement left. Federal prison? He’d been found guilty of wire fraud—using the telephone and internet, I believe, to defraud his employer of workers’ compensation payments—which carried a maximum 30-year sentence. He served, I think, five years, but that information came from Chuck, and he wasn’t very reliable regarding things like times and dates and facts and truth in general.
Last January, I got a call from the Veterans Administration Homeless Team, asking if I could check up on Chuck, and try to talk him into going to the medical center for a checkup. He’d been sick and drinking lately–especially drinking. Every time I saw Chuck, though, he’d let me know he’d stayed sober the previous couple weeks—even with a tumbler of vodka in front of him on his coffee table. When I got to Chuck’s place that last time, the door was locked, so I got the landlord to let me in. That’s when I found the tableau described above. I sat with Chuck’s corpse for 10 or 15 minutes, waiting for an EMT to declare Chuck dead.
Chuck’s ashes sat in my office at Liberty House until mid-August, when some of them were scattered around the property—the last place I know he was safe, sober and surrounded by people who cared about him. As I write this, a hundred miles away a group from the Patriot Guard, spearheaded by a genuine saint, Dee Moore, is paying proper respect to Chuck’s military service and interring his remains into a veterans’ cemetery.
“And of the dead, speak only good,” is a Latin motto, but I’m afraid I haven’t captured that here at all. Instead, “De mortuis nil nisi verum” is what I’m aiming for. A few truths about Chuck:
He was an alcoholic.
He was a veteran.
I will miss him.
Oh, yes, why didn’t I give Chuck’s last name? When Chuck first died, I tracked down his former wife, the woman whose reputation Chuck had helped destroy—for who in their small town really believed she hadn’t been in on his scam? We had a pleasant 10-minute conversation, and I left it with good feeling for her, their children and all the other people whose trust Chuck had chewed up. She has long since moved on, is active in Al-Anon and deserves to let the dead bury the dead.