Sunday, February 10th, 2019
I first heard Chuck before I saw him. It was Sunday morning my freshman year of college and I was walking to my mail box hoping for a check from home that would fund more trips into Manhattan to escape the weekend parties full of warm beer in red plastic cups I hated. There was thumping gospel music in the atrium above me and a distinctive male voice was singing alongside a soaring chorus of female voices. At one point his tenor broke free and pulled me upstairs. There he was: this white kid from Minnesota with big ears. His skinny frame was draped in red robes swaying and clapping as one with a dozen African American females. There was joy in his open face- it was perhaps the happiest I ever saw him again and I was about to see him a lot. No one danced like Chuck. In our college bar The Mug, funk was often the late hour choice and Chuck would be the last one out on the floor- unabashedly soaked with sweat, swiveling his hips until his whole body looked liquid. I went up to him and told him how much I enjoyed the gospel concert. In appreciation he simply took my hand and twirled me to Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out” until Poughkeepsie, New York felt like downtown Manhattan. Once The Mug closed and most of us went on to finally start homework, Chuck often went to obscure gay bars several towns over on his own. He’d knock on my door at sunrise and sit on my bed because he didn’t want to be alone. One time he played me Chaka Kahn’s “Roll Me Through The Rushes” and sang along. It was so beautiful I opened my window wide so that the whole quad could fill with his voice. When the song was over he looked out at my view- across to the gothic library bathed in eerie moon light and said: “Sometimes I think I could just jump.” I didn’t know how to answer that so I simply closed the window.
I eventually ended up finding my tribe of people and became enveloped in the daily distractions that college brings. Chuck had always been one to skip classes but then weeks went by and I realized I hadn’t seen him at The Mug, in fact I hadn’t seen him anywhere anymore.
By spring an English teacher named Mr Sneden – whom Chuck and I both admired for his wit and pressed bow ties- wrote me a letter cnviting me to dinner at his house with some other students. “Chuck will be there” he said in a pointed way. I RSVPd yes but as the date approached I canceled as I had been invited to a party by someone I had a tremendous crush on. As I was walking Into town the next day I saw Mr. Sneden drive by: in the passenger seat was Chuck. His face, pressed against the window, looked right past me, as if into another world. I knew it was futile even to wave.
I later learned that Mr. Sneden had taken care of Chuck for six months after he had all but dropped out of school. He had tried to help him try to stay sober but it wasn’t enough to help him stay alive several years after graduation. I could never find out the exact details of Chuck’s death and Mr Sneden could never tell me even after I wrote him an imploring letter.
The last time I saw Chuck was at a Spring Parents weekend- it was before he officially dropped out of school and he was walking across the quad with his family. We had drifted enough apart by then that I didn’t feel right running over to introduce myself. There was his younger brother – a mini ten year old Chuck. His innocent face was tilted up to Chuck’s so worshipfully I had the urge to run over and hug them both. Instead I watched as Chuck suddenly took the hand of the younger version of himself and began to twirl him around and around until the whole quad felt the joy.