Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath


An old friend of mine died on Thursday. Chuck Stringer was one of my coworkers when I was at the support center back at IU, and was part of the whole crew that included Simms, A, Liggett, and others. The short story is that he drank away his liver, and I got a call from A on Wednesday saying he was in the hospital, unconscious, hooked up to machines, and fighting a massive infection. A day later, I heard from her again, and they had disconnected everything and he died.

I can’t say I was the closest of friends to Chuck – he seemed to me to be a guy that was always friendly, but also to some extent kept to himself. After I left town, it was almost impossible to get some kind of conversation going with him on email, but when I was there and he decided to fire up the grill on a Sunday, at least a dozen of us would show up. I guess I mostly knew him from the workplace, because the support center was such a pressure cooker environment. He worked on the team that supported the IBM mainframes (which supported the bursar, parking ops, the registrar, and every other thing on campus that involved money changing hands.) That group worked in their own enclosed and locked war room, covered with plasma monitors on all sides. If you spent the day locked in there, you frequently popped out and paced up and down the hall and the line of other phones, and that’s where I first met Chuck. When I was sitting on the Mac line on the first day, not knowing a soul in the place, he was prowling the back nine, and came up to me and started in with some hurried, deprecating comment about one of the managers or something, then vanished again.

That pretty much set the tone for Chuck’s behavior over the years I was at the SC. There were always pot-shots at the upper management, and there was this division between some of the workers, best described as “us scumbags” versus “people who think veganism and saving whales make us better than you”. I guess that seems a little harsh now, but when you’re locked up in the basement of a building with a bunch of people all day, every day, there’s a lot of trash being talked. And Chuck was the master at barging into and derailing conversations to draw laughs to our side of the aisle.

One of the things I totally forgot about until Simms reminded me the other night was that something that me and Chuck did almost got us fired, and it was slightly morbid, given current events. But back in 1994, after Kurt Cobain died, there were some massive flamewars and trolling between alt.tasteless and alt.whatever.cobain. I was a faithful AT reader back then, and I don’t remember if Chuck was reading it, or I told him or what, but both of us started in on a lot of anti-Cobain stuff, black humor at the expense of unwashed, flannel-wearing idiots. Both of us were posting some sick, sadistic shit in the nirvana group, including a ton of Cobain haiku, and eventually, some weepy, Cobain-loving granola chick wrote a shitty letter to our boss saying we should immediately be fired because we didn’t like Nirvana or whatever. This got me called in to a manager’s office to get bitched out for wasting company time for posting something…. on December 26, when I was hundreds of miles away on vacation. I don’t know how Chuck got out of it – he probably just said “look, go fuck yourself” and got back to work. What’s odd is not the sick humor, because me and Chuck and Simms and others were rolling on the floor about this shit. It’s just strange to think about it in light of the fact that Chuck’s dead now.

And that also reminded me of the time he visited me in Seattle. Nothing was weird about that trip – he and Suzi, his girlfriend, were on this massive expedition to Alaska from Indiana, and were getting bored of camping, so they stopped in Jet City for a long weekend. I was dating Karena then, and I stayed over at her house most weekends anyway, so I gave them the keys to my place, and the four of us hung out for a few days. There’s nothing weird about that, although he stole his neighbor’s pink flamingo and was taking pictures of it across the country, so we had to go to the Microsoft campus, the space needle, and the Fremont troll. But my one weird memory was that Princess Di got killed that weekend, and everyone was PrincessDiPrinceesDiPrincessDi everywhere you went, and we were in a Safeway or something, and Chuck just yells “I CANT BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED TO PRINCESS DI!”, and finishes with some sick joke like “what was the last thing that went through her head / the windshield.” That was not unlike Chuck at all, and to a sick fuck like me, it was funny as hell. But after he died and I thought back to that, it was a little abnormal.

I don’t mean to lay out all of these negative things about death and sick humor. Chuck was also a writer, and we spent a lot of time at work talking about fiction and stories and Hemingway and Orwell and craft and workshops. He read the old Air in the Paragraph Line issues and had kind words and good suggestions. We were both registered for Murray Sperber’s 50s/60s Lit class (which turned out to be the best class I ever took at IU) but he had to drop out because of a work conflict. The strange thing about Chuck’s writing is that I never saw any of it. He was very secretive about his work, and although I gave him a draft of every story I wrote back then (and he was very encouraging about my early work on Summer Rain), I never read anything of his, outside of the nirvana newsgroups. He said he had a story almost ready for AITPL #9, but he never pulled it together. It makes me wonder if he has a giant box of stuff under his bed; I really wish I could get my hands on it and pull together a posthumous book of his stuff.

One of the things that has me so conflicted about this is that my most positive memories of Chuck are also ones that are closely tied to alcohol. He was a belligerent guy to start with, but get a six pack into him and wind him up, and he was god damned hilarious. He was at our 94/95 New Year’s party, and was one of the main instigators of the drunken bottle rocket fight at midnight. I have pictures of that night, and everyone there, and of course there was enough alcohol to supply a small town for a year. And every time we went to his place, we’d pick up a six on the way. And every time we went out after work, it was to the Irish Lion or something. And Chuck brewed beer, and made his own mead, and we lived on a college campus where you could pay your tuition bill in kegs if you needed to. I’m not saying Chuck was a heavy drinker, or was when he was around me, but there are touches of alcohol in all of those memories. And I’m not super anti-alcohol, even though I don’t drink now. It’s just that I had this problem where when I drank a lot, I was really god damned funny, and everybody else thought I was funny. I wasn’t happy, but I was funny. And the next day, I would not be happy or funny, but at that moment in time, I was the life of the party. And my sick psychological framework needed that, although my liver didn’t. And I wonder if Chuck had the same issues. And the guy was 44 fucking years old, and is in a wood box now. That is really fucking sad, and makes me angry, but it’s hard to process, and who should I be mad at?

Truth of the matter is, I haven’t talked to Chuck in almost ten years. The probability that I’d never see him again was high anyway, although if he called me up and said he was driving to Alaska again, the sofa bed would be his. But I haven’t talked to him or emailed in forever, and to some degree, that makes me feel like I am less deserving of having grief over this. Like I said, it’s hard to process. I don’t want to be one of those people who jumps out of the wings to start crying over this, when the people in his inner circle are the ones who need support the most. I also feel bad about not keeping in touch, but I have a lot of “keeping in touch” issues right now. Sometimes I work hard to keep in touch to a person and I just can’t; other times, I don’t even try, and it clicks. I could beat myself up over that, or I couldn’t. I don’t know.

Add to this the whole thing about me being out of shape and in poor health and worrying about my weight and my bp and my brain, and someone I know and remember as being in the best of health drops dead, and all of a sudden, that celery and berries diet sounds like a pretty damn good idea. The fact that I’m rounding third and heading for 40 really scares me. Having six digits in a retirement fund helps, but I still worry.

Funeral’s on Monday, but I can’t get out there for it. The one last strange coincidence of this whole thing is that his showing is at a funeral home right next door to my old apartment at Colonial Crest. I lived there when I first knew Chuck, and I walked past there every time I went to the grocery store. It’s always weird how this shit works out.