Charlie and John Green were brothers. They were raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Jackson County, North Carolina. They had a good family and did fairly well in school. The boys were close and only separated by three years. Charlie was the older.
Charlie left one July morning with a hundred dollars in his pocket and a million dreams in his head. He figured to go places he'd only read about, like New Orleans, Dallas, Tucson, and LA. Thumbing and doing odd jobs seemed to him to be as good a plan as he would need. After Charlie left, he called home a few times. But after a while, he stopped calling. His mother worried about him nearly every day. His dad worried too, but he never let on. One evening, several months after Charlie had gone, his mother looked into her husband's eyes before they went to sleep.
"How is Charlie making it? What kind of work is he doing? He's going to be OK and come home, isn't he?" she asked.
Her husband looked at her and quietly responded, "There's no sense making worry out of stuff we can't know. Nothing good comes of wondering, and it's something we just need to let be."
John wondered too. Many nights as he tried to get to sleep, he'd look at the empty bed in his and Charlie's room. He'd wonder where his brother was. He'd try to see what Charlie was doing and how he was doing. The visuals wouldn't come. The attempts left him sad and unable to sleep.
Charlie was gone for a couple of years then called to say he was enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He told his father he was through wandering and decided to get a start on settling down somewhere. He said he wanted a normal life. His father listened and quietly told Charlie he was still welcome at home. Charlie didn't appear for another year. He skipped coming home for the holidays, the spring and fall breaks. He rarely called. He never asked for money or help of any kind.
One morning Charlie just showed up and announced he would be home for the summer. His father asked what he intended to do while home.
"Just this and that. I won't be a bother and can even pay a little toward room and board."
His father looked at him for a bit, then turned and walked to the back of the yard. Charlie's mother asked how he could afford to do such. Charlie put his arm around her shoulders and said,
"The Lord will provide."
She looked hard into his eyes and saw only her little boy. She stopped asking and shoved any concern out of her mind. Charlie was home. Her family was whole again. Everything was going to be good.
John was the one who suggested the camping trip. The boys were having breakfast the second morning after Charlie's return. Charlie was looking out the kitchen window into the backyard with its birdfeeders, azaleas, rhododendron, and flowers providing a framework for the exceptionally green grass. John cleared his throat to get Charlie's attention.
"Charlie, let's go up to the lake like we used to and camp for a day or two."
Charlie looked at his brother and declared that a fantastic idea. They planned to leave that afternoon. When their mother heard of the idea, she offered to provide blankets, a lantern, and some food. Charlie declined, saying he would take care of the provisions and they could use their old sleeping bags and tent.
She stared at her oldest, and the wondering started gnawing at her once again. But Charlie just hugged her and smiled down into her face. All trepidation evaporated.
That afternoon the brothers loaded Charlie's FJ Cruiser with camping stuff and started out for the grocery to load the cooler. Within a couple of hours, they were on their way.
While they rode to the lake, there was little talk at first. Then, as they worked their way through the winding mountain roads, Charlie began to talk to John as if they were still young brothers.
John was trying to figure out what to ask first. There were so many things he wanted to know. He turned to his brother and blurted, "Charlie, how did you make money while you were off travelling and then at UNCA? That kind of money isn't easy to get."
Charlie didn't say anything at first, then simply said, "If a man is careful, there are ways to get money. You just have to be smart how you do it."
John replied, "And a bit shifty too."
Charlie didn't say anything for a couple of minutes, then half-turned to his brother and said, "What did you say?"
"That's what I heard Dad tell Mom after you'd been gone for a few months. She had asked what he thought about you getting along wherever you were. He said he didn't want to talk about it again, but you had to be into some shifty stuff. I don't exactly know what he meant."
Charlie turned back to the road and seemed to relax just a bit. He hummed a bit of some song John had never heard before and then said, "Well, shifty is a pretty good description, John."
He then turned the conversation back to John and John's plans. They talked about Haywood Tech some. John had become interested in the school's forestry program and what that could mean for a career. He said he'd have to get a loan or grant, though. Then they talked about old times and old friends. When they got to the beach at the edge of the TVA lake, the brothers set up camp and started a campfire. After hotdogs and beans, they laid back against their rolled-up sleeping bags and quietly watched the sun set. Well after dark, as they rested on their sleeping bags, they watched the Milky Way for a while. It was so thick with stars it looked like fog in the black sky. After a bit, they retreated to the tent and unrolled their sleeping bags. Both boys were tired and went to sleep as soon as their heads hit the bags.
Sometime in the dead of night, John rolled over and heard Charlie laughing and saying something he couldn't understand. He leaned up to get a look at Charlie and saw he was still sleeping. Then Charlie started jerking and moaning. John reached over and shook Charlie. He awoke with a start and looked like he didn't know where he was for just a thought. He looked over at John and smiled.
"Hey, brother. I'm good." He yawned and stretched.
"Ever think that it'd be a real trick if you could dog-ear a dream so's you could get back to some of them later instead of losing the dang things forever when you wake up?"
Charlie then got up and went outside the tent. John could see him standing, looking out at the lake. In a bit, Charlie came back in and, without another word, climbed into his sleeping bag and went back to sleep.
The following day John woke to the smell of bacon cooking. When he stepped outside the tent, he stood up rail straight and gave out a loud yawn.
"Brother, you sound like a sick bear," Charlie said with a laugh.
John smiled and sat down on a large rock near the fire. Charlie was taking the bacon out of an old black skillet and asked John how he wanted his eggs. Scrambled was decided on, and Charlie proceeded to get them in the frying pan. After breakfast, they cleaned the pan and took some camp chairs out of Charlie's FJ. They sat with their backs to the woods and looked across the campfire to the clear blue lake lined with balsam, white pine, and laurel.
"Want to do a little fishing?" Charlie asked.
"Nah, let's just sit here and talk and catch up some more." John was happy his big brother was home, but he was curious about the adventures he knew Charlie had encountered.
They sat in silence for a while enjoying the cool air, campfire, and the lake.
Charlie was the first to speak. "Shifty, huh? Well, Dad was always a man to say what he thought, I guess. But, to be honest, that's a dang good description of some of the things I've done. But you'd need to add two more items to the recipe: crafty and careful."
"I thumbed out west and took a few odd jobs here and there. Made a bit of money, but I was always running out or worried that I might get stranded somewhere I didn't want to be. When I got to LA, I stayed in a really cheap motel near Venice Beach and could smell pot so strong I'd nearly get high just from what was floating in the air. I traced the smell to a van in the parking lot. I watched it for a bit and saw this Rastafarian-looking dude smoking a huge joint. He was selling something to people who just walked up and gave him money. I watched this guy on and off for about a week. It was like this was his job. He came early morning and left late afternoon. He did this every day. One afternoon he motioned for me to come over. He said his name was Hippy Mike and asked me mine. When I told him, Charlie, he asked where I was from. I told him the mountains of North Carolina. He whistled and said I was a long way from there. We talked about life, stuff that made us angry, nothing serious. All the while, he was trading baggies for money. I never asked what was going on. But John, it'd take a blind man not to see what he was doing. He finally asked if I wanted to buy some smoke. I told him I didn't have any extra money. Then he looked at me real serious like."
'You want to make some bucks and enjoy yourself too?' Hippy Mike was offering to set me up in the pot business. I didn't know what to say or think right then, so I just stared at him. He handed me a joint, a really big, fat joint."
'Light 'er up, brother, and let's you and me talk money, peace, and a little bit more about money.'
"So, I took the doobie and lit that bad boy up. I'd smoked pot before, but not like this. It had me swimmy headed in just a few puffs. He asked me how I liked it, and I told him it was damn nice.
'Hawaiian, best in the world.' He smiled at me and laid his head back against the door jamb of his van, and shut his eyes.
'Yeah,' he said in a whisper.
"That was all he said for about fifteen minutes. Then he told me how he liked my looks and thought I could do some selling for him. I thought about it for a bit. Then I thought about the times I'd run out of money, and the times I was scared I would. We agreed to go into business together. At first, I'd get a grocery bag with about twenty lids in it. I'd sell those damn baggies within a couple of hours. I'd come back and reup. This went on for weeks. He eventually let me go with him to meet his supplier and that guy, and I hit it off pretty well."
John was looking at his brother with his mouth hung open. Charlie looked at his brother and laughed; then continued.
"John, you haven't heard the best part yet. I made enough money to buy myself a little convertible. Nothing fancy, but it was bright yellow. I had a blast riding around in that thing for several weeks. I came to where Hippy Mike was always parked one morning, and he wasn't there. I waited all day, and he never showed up. I was just getting ready to get back to my car when this pretty blonde-haired chick walked up and asked if I was Charlie. When I told her I was, she said that Hippy Mike had been busted. He told her to tell me two things. First, get rid of that yellow convertible and move out of the motel. She was sure Mike wouldn't give me up. He had told her to tell me to take over but be more careful than he'd been. She turned and left. I never saw her again, but I did what she suggested."
John was still staring at Charlie, but he was blinking like he was in a room full of smoke.
John said, "You were a dope dealer?"
"Yeah, and if that ain't shifty, I don't know the meaning of the word."
John blinked and said, "What did you do then?"
"I bought another ride. A van this time; a white van. I moved to a little apartment and set up shop. I made a trip to Mike's pot dealer and started buying from him. After a couple of months, I went to the guy and asked him if he was going to leave LA and set up somewhere where would he go. He told me either San Francisco or Las Vegas. Both places were good for a man of my experience. If I decided on Vegas, he had a guy who could supply me with the same quality pot at close to the same price. So, Vegas it was. I went straight there and got another small apartment. Sold my van and got another newer one with a good air conditioner. After a couple of months, I decided coke was a better moneymaker than pot. I'd made a name for myself with the people on that side of the tracks, so the switch wasn't all that hard. I had to get a bit of a loan, but that was easy. Made a ton of money really fast. That's where I've been until I came home."
"Why did you come home? Were the cops after you?"
"Maybe, but they don't know my real name. When I heard a rumor they were sniffing around, I got my money stash and headed out. I wasn't going to come back here right away, but as I was driving on I-40, it hit me that I needed to stop being what I'd become and go to school. You know, to be a regular guy again. I stopped in Knoxville and sold the van to some guy. I went down the block and bought this FJ. I called a guy I'd met in LA. He was a real estate agent who had told me he was from Asheville. I asked if he had any hooks at UNCA. He told me to call him the next day. When I called, he told me to go to the school, look up a guy there, and he'd get me in. That's what I did before I came home. But the thing about becoming shifty is it's like a disease. Once it's in you, it's like concrete. It's damn hard to remove that feeling and the rush that comes with being not exactly on the good side of life. So, I started dealing again. This time Mad Dog at first."
He looked at John, who cocked his head to the side and shrugged, clearly not getting it.
"Uh, Mad Dog is MDA." Charlie looked at John and motioned with his hand.
Charlie shrugged, "It's a kind of speed. Anyway, I added some acid and a little pot to the menu. Those college kids were crazy for the stuff. I dealt for a few months and made a ton of money. Then I got word that some narcs were asking questions. So, I took what stuff I had left and threw it in a dumpster. I moved to another part of Asheville and stopped dealing."
"I think I'm safe here. I stopped all that shifty stuff weeks ago, and nobody out west knows who I am. So, I'm trying to get back to being good ol' Charlie."
John looked out at the lake and then back to Charlie. He couldn't make himself speak. Charlie stood and patted John on the shoulder.
"That's OK, buddy. That's OK. Let's have a beer and just enjoy being here. Nothing shifty about this. Say, do you remember a few years back when we planned to walk all around the lake and came up on that big creek that was feeding it?"
Charlie pointed across the lake to the left-hand corner.
John said, "Yeah, that creek we found was so deep that we couldn't wade it. We had to go up about a hundred yards to cross. But we caught some dang nice trout in that water."
For about an hour or so, they were talking like the brothers they'd been before all that Charlie had experienced. Everything was just about right. Then, as John was making a couple of sandwiches, they heard a truck coming toward their camp. They looked as their father's F-150 pulled up, and he got out.
"Well, you two look pretty happy up here."
He stood out from them and looked out at the lake. He didn't turn to look at them and didn't speak for some time. The brothers waited to see what brought him to the camp. When he didn't say a word, Charlie asked, "How did you know where we were?"
Without turning around, he said, "I've always known where you two were when you'd say you were going camping. Didn't think I'd just let you go off without knowing a little more than what you told me, did you?"
John smiled, "Guess not."
"Did you come up here to sit and enjoy life with us, Dad?" Charlie asked.
His father turned and had a really sad look on his face. He reached down and picked up a rock and threw it in the lake. He picked up another and started to throw it but stopped.
"Charlie, we got us a bit of an issue." Their father dropped the rock and walked up to Charlie. When he was within arm's reach, he poked Charlie in the chest with his index finger.
"You wanna tell me why two big ugly goons came to my house demanding you come out to see them? Scared your mother to death. What do those guys want with you, Charlie?"
Charlie turned and stared out at the lake.
"Did they say who they were?"
"Said they were private investigators, but they looked like thugs to me."
"Say where they were from?"
"I asked. They said it didn't concern me."
John was standing looking first at his dad then at Charlie. After a couple of minutes of silence, John said, "Charlie told me what he's been doing, Dad."
"Well, what did he tell you?"
John then told his father what Charlie had said and turned to his brother.
"That's pretty close, isn't it?"
Charlie got a beer from the cooler and sat down.
"Yeah, that's close enough, I guess."
Their dad got himself a beer and sat down next to Charlie. He took a couple of swigs and turned to Charlie.
"There's something not right here. I don't mean all the dope dealing. That's bad enough, but that bit about a loan and going to college is off. First, you were flying under the radar. Second, there's absolutely no way you could get a loan. No bank would loan you a cent."
Charlie's dad looked at him and drank some more beer. Then, when he'd swallowed, he stood and pointed the beer bottle at Charlie.
"You haven't been going to college, have you?"
Charlie looked at John, took another swallow, and said," I got a loan, but it wasn't from a bank. I needed some seed money, so I heard of this guy working out of a backroom in a bar downtown, on Freemont Street. He loaned me twenty thousand and told me I'd better not be late in any repayments. He knew the guy who'd sent me to Vegas, so the vig wasn't too bad, and I could make a few payments to get right. Said he was only doing that because of the guy in California. I made several payments when I heard about the narcs sniffing around. That's when I left. Still owe a bunch to that guy. I guess they found me somehow."
Charlie looked at John. He shook his head and told John he was sorry.
"When you become what I am, the truth is nearly as hard to come by as is getting away from the pull of good money and the excitement of being an outlaw. I did make the call to the guy who could've got me into school, but I just saw so much money to be made. After I got set up in an apartment, it all fell into place, and I was in business again. When I heard the narcs were closing in, I was nearly out of anything to sell, so I threw away what was left and came home."
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Charlie. Selling dope and loan sharks, what a mess. Those types mean business. None of this is smart. Matter of fact, it's downright dumb, but the loan is the worse. It don't take a rocket scientist to see that, Charlie. So what are you going to do about those guys and that loan?"
"Disappear, I guess. If I go away, they won't bother you, and I'm going to make damn sure they don't find me again." He finished his beer.
"You guys are gonna have to take this camp down. I've gotta get home and get a couple of things; then I'm out of here. You take my FJ, and I'll take your truck home. I'll get a ride and be on my way."
"Where will you go, Charlie?" John asked.
"Away is all I know right now. But cagey and smart don't always work. Maybe shifty will be the ticket this time." He looked at his dad and laughed.
When Charlie drove up to their house, his mother came out. She looked worried and had been crying. She walked to the truck as Charlie got out.
"Charlie, what in the world did those awful men want with you?"
"It's a long tale, Mom. John and Dad can fill you in, but I gotta get a couple of things, and I've got to go."
His mother grabbed Charlie in a bear hug and squeezed so tight Charlie almost couldn't breathe. She finally released him, looked up at his face, and started crying again.
"I'm never going to see you again, am I?"
"Mom, I just got to go away for a little bit, then this will be OK. I'll be back. I promise."
He ran into the house and came out in a few minutes with a backpack and a satchel.
"Tell John and Dad I couldn't wait." With that, he left on foot toward the main highway.
Months passed with no word from Charlie. No phone calls, no letters, no word at all. Both parents had decided if they ever saw Charlie again, it wouldn't be for a long time. So they pushed him out of their everyday lives.
John entered Haywood Community College as he planned and was doing well. He thought about his brother frequently and worried about him, but he knew it would be some time before Charlie turned up.
One day when he checked the mailbox as he returned from class, he found a letter from Charlie. It wasn't long, about a page. It said that he was doing good and was not dealing anymore. He had a tough job that kept him away from prying eyes and curious people. The letter didn't say where he was or what he was doing.
At the bottom was a PS with an arrow telling John to turn the letter over. On the back, Charlie had written,
Remember that last night at the lake? A dog-ear shouldn't just be for dreams, John.