Chapter 1 from A Stranger Among Us

Chapter 1

What we have before us ladies and gentlemen is a life gone far too soon. Charles lived a full life, it’s true. He got to experience many of God’s gifts. He experienced the love of his family, the love of his friends. Many of whom are here today. I’ve done many funerals, but very few have had this outpouring of love and support.

I’m in awe of the expressiveness of the man in the photos that we all walked past to get into this chapel. In those photos, I saw a man surrounded by people who wanted better for him. I saw glimpses into those precious memories that brought us all here today to celebrate his life.

But those happy memories cover a deep spiritual anguish. Charles suffered throughout his life, as we all do. A life must include suffering, and it is only through suffering that we learn to truly savor those moments where happiness is allowed to step forth, the moments that we see in those photos.

So often we keep our heads down and soldier through moments of discomfort. We work through loss and self-loathing to reach those precious and brief moments, where for a short time, we can shed our concerns and truly be present in shared joy. Those small moments, shared with others are when heaven bleeds into reality. We labor and sacrifice so that we can create those glimpses of heaven here on Earth.

Charles now lives for all eternity in the light of the Father. Charles has reached heaven, and his spirit will remain there, bathed in glory. Take comfort, he waits there for you. He has been made whole. What was taken, has been returned.

So, weep not for Charles, but weep for yourselves, for you have lost Charles, but Charles has gained heaven. Celebrate the life he lived here on Earth, but celebrate also the shedding of his Earthly suffering. Celebrate the absolution of sin. No one in this room is able to fathom the depth of the Father’s love. His forgiveness has no end. And the wealth that the Father would shower on the least of us is incomprehensible.

Charlie loved Jesus, and he loved you all. Know that he continues to watch over you in death, just as he did in life.

Let us pray.

Dear heavenly Father, we pray that your servant Charlie is dancing alongside you in heaven. We pray that you embrace Charlie for us, and that he is so filled with Godly love that he doesn’t miss us here on Earth. I pray that the people sitting before me in this audience can find peace in Charlie’s absence. Amen.


Daniel doesn’t cry. He sits a few feet from his father’s casket. I can see from the back of the room that he is still. We sat out back of the funeral home before coming inside, and Daniel didn’t even acknowledge that we were at his father’s funeral. We just exchanged small talk. He seemed well enough.

I didn’t know Charlie all that well. I stayed at his house a few times. I knew that he drank and smoked. He had one arm, one leg, an El Camino, and a classic Corvette. He wore tinted glasses, even when he was inside.

Charlie was a notorious wild man. Before Charlie lost a foot to diabetes and an arm in a motorcycle accident, he was the classic American bad boy, leather clad and scowling. Daniel’s mom fell hard for Charlie. They got married and started a life together, but Charlie never became a family man.

Sandy was a tough woman. She had a temper to match any man. If anyone could tame Charlie, it was her. She whipped him plenty, but Charlie never broke. Their marriage ended after Charlie wrecked his bike coming home from a weekend bender. He slid on some loose gravel by the sand mine just outside of town. The bike was totaled. A passerby phoned the fire department, and they called Sandy.

Charlie was terrified of his wife, so he crawled up under the nearest building and refused to come out until she went back home.

Charlie, hiding, bleeding, and wallowing in the dirt, was the punchline of that story. No one ever explained how he got home.

I met Daniel after his parents were divorced. Sandy, Jason (her boyfriend), and Daniel moved into the trailer next door. We were just shy of ten years old. My mom used her children as pretense for social interaction, and when she found out Sandy had a son my age, she carted me right over.

Sandy was hanging clothes out on the line when we crossed the yard. She noticed us, and my mom waved wildly.

“Sandy, this is my son, Mike.”

I felt my mom’s hand in the small of my back pressing me forward. Sandy stepped back from her laundry and looked down at me. “Dan is in the house playing video games. Your mom told me that you like games too!”

       She smiled and bent down to be eye level with me, “those are very colorful sunglasses.”

       I saved empty Kool-Aid packets for months to get the bright pink and purple promotional sunglasses. The lenses were mirrored and wrapped around my face. They were my newest prized possession.

“Thanks.” I smiled and turned to go.

“I’m sure the boys will hit it off right away.” I heard my mom say. Sandy agreed.

I’d been through this before. I was a bookish introvert. I wasn’t outgoing. My mom was always fretting that I spent too much time with my imagination, my nose shoved in a book. She was right that I was obsessed with video games. I enjoyed playing them because I could have an interactive experience by myself. Playing video games socially seemed to defeat the purpose.

The trailer was frigid and dark. The windows were covered with heavy shades. I would later find out that Sandy and Jason both worked nights at a paint factory in a neighboring town.

The only light was at the back of the hallway, a blue glow from a bedroom television. I tiptoed down the carpeted hallway and opened the door. Dan was sitting on the end of his bed, staring at the TV. He had a bag of chips and a can of cheese dip in his lap.

I followed the cable from the controller in his hand to the console under the TV. It wasn’t the same as mine at home. The image on screen spun around the characters in three dimensions. They kicked and punched at each other and flew around the stage. My games were all flat and cartoonish, but these characters looked real. Neither of us looked away from the television until the match was over.

“What game is this?” I asked.

“It’s Virtua Fighter for the Sega Saturn.”

I just stared at the black box on the floor, puzzled.

“It’s like the Sega Genesis, but newer. You want to try it out?”

“I’ll just watch you play for a little bit.”

“I have two controllers.” There was superiority in his voice.

 I didn’t have the newest game systems; I didn’t even have two controllers. All of my games came from the bargain bin at Wal-Mart, and Daniel seemed to know that instinctively.

I sat down on the floor between the TV and the bed. Daniel set the game up for two players, and we played match after match. I didn’t win a single round.

Daniel had everything I wanted. His mom left us alone to play video games for most of the day. Mine was always hovering and talking about the merits of playing outside. We ate an entire bag of chips with cheese dip. I didn’t even know cheese dip existed. We were both misfits. We had that in common. I was from a poor family who couldn’t afford a Sega Saturn. Daniel’s parents were divorced, and he was largely left to raise himself. We were both overweight and unremarkable boys on the brink of puberty trying to feel good about ourselves by struggling for superiority over others.

After a while, Sandy came and told me it was time to go. I said goodbye to my new friend and went home just before dark.

The next day, my mom wanted to walk down the old train tracks on the north side of town, and she said I had to go. It was a bright summer day, and I wanted to wear my sunglasses. But they weren’t in any of the usual places. I turned my room upside down and couldn’t find them. They were always on top of my head or on the end table by the front door, but they were missing from both places.

When Mom got tired of waiting for me, she came inside to hurry me along. “What’s taking so long in here?”

“I can’t find my sunglasses.”

“Oh, those things. Your new friend Daniel called. You left them at his house. There’s a message on the answering machine.”

I ran into the kitchen and pressed play.

“Hey Mike. I got your cool shades here. I like them a lot. I think I’ll keep them.” I had saved for months to get those sunglasses, and now Daniel wanted to take them.

I ran to my mom. “I’m running up to Daniel’s house to get my glasses.” I sprinted as fast as I could. No cars were in the driveway. I tried the door, and it was unlocked. I let myself in and shouted “hello.” No one answered. I tiptoed down the hallway to the bedroom. I felt like a cat burglar.

I found the glasses in Daniel’s bedroom on the nightstand. I snatched them and ran out of the house, almost forgetting to close the front door.  

No one ever asked how I got the glasses back. Daniel never mentioned it. I like to think I stood up to him, but I wonder if the glasses, something so important to me, were forgettable to him.  

That experience colored our relationship the entire time that we were friends. At first the source of our friendship was proximity, convenience, and envy. Daniel was close, and every time he came over, he seemed to have something for me to be jealous of. I never resented Daniel and the way he lorded his material superiority over me, but I did begin to feel resentful of my own parents. When you’re a kid, you don’t understand that money is finite. Adults seem to be the masters of the universe. I didn’t know we were poor. I thought my parents were making an active choice to deprive me. Sandy bought Daniel new things all year. I only got new clothes, shoes, and toys at Christmas.

Mom reminded me that I needed to appreciate what I had, and I paid lip service to the idea, but inwardly, I hated that I didn’t have more, and what little I could accumulate, Daniel often tried to steal.

A Stranger Among Us is available now on Amazon.

A Stranger Among Us: A Novel of the West Virginia Opioid Crisis by Robert Dugan III
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