Charlie "Hollywood" Hackney and I met 15 years ago. He was 50 and I was 22. Sometimes, in life, you're lucky enough to meet someone and in those first few moments, you know that this person is going to have a gigantic impact on you. That was what meeting Charlie was like for me. I was a lowly kennel tech at the county animal shelter back then and he had just "retired" from law enforcement after receiving nearly fatal wounds during a drug raid, only to take a job as an animal control officer two months after making a full recovery. There were a lot of things that Charlie was tolerant of; but doing nothing wasn't one of them as I later learned. The very idea of being retired was deplorable to him.
If you know me personally, you know I had a rough adolescence. Not only was I a punk in the true sense of the word, but around the time I was 17 and already had my feet firmly on a clear path to a life of crime, my brother, who was also my best friend, died from a terminal illness. This loss left me broken, full of anger and with a total lack of regard for my own life that I still maintained full possession of on the day that Charlie walked through the back door of the shelter and into my world.
I was standing at the front desk on the phone with the mayor of our little town, whom I'd have several confrontations with in the past, yelling through the handset about bullshit city ordinances when I looked up and there he was.
To some of you, this may sound like the start of a love story and maybe in some ways it was, because Charlie and I did come to love each other very much, just not in that "hey, I want your body" manner that most people associate with that emotion.
He was about 6'1, his grey hair was cut in the military high and tight way and he had a thin strip of a beard that ran up both sides of his jaw. He was in great shape for his age, which seemed really old from my perspective back then, though as I continue to stare down the barrel of 40, I realize how young he was in reality. For his age, he was nice looking man in a rugged kind of way. They called him "Hollywood" because Charlie was the kind of man movies were made about. He had charisma.
This man, dressed in an animal control officer's uniform, leaned against the wall between the door to the kennels and the front office where I stood, with his arms and legs crossed, a sort of half-smile on his face, while he waited for me to slam down the phone.
When I finally finished my berating of our city leader, I took a deep breath, smiled at him and sighed, trying to shake off my bad mood. I walked forward, held out my hand and introduced myself. He knocked my hand away and hugged me.
"You looked like you needed a hug instead," he told me.
A little shocked and more than a little weirded out, I mumbled something and went back around the counter trying to put space between us, while he continued to watch me with that half-smile. We spent a few minutes in awkward, mostly one sided conversation before his training officer came up from the back and the two left on another assignment.
After a while, as I got to know Charlie, I learned that he had a unique way of dealing with people. He could be a total hard ass when it was called for, but for the most part, he had a gentleness about him that not only worked to endear him to many, but was accompanied with a special kind of intuition that allowed him to recognize the lost and broken; it was also in his nature to try and fix those people. He fixed me.
I resisted Charlie's charm for a while, but it seemed like every time I turned around, he was in my face. If I went outside to take a break, magically, there he'd be, asking me how my day was, if there was anything he could do to make me smile. He poked and he prodded until he could get the smiles he asked for, and I didn't smile a lot back in those days. Somewhere in the next few months that followed, Charlie Hackney became the one person I could confide in. The one person I could really talk to. He became my best friend.
He was a hard guy not to love. He spent the majority of his youth in the Vietnam war, where he was a sniper and after that, he went straight into law enforcement. He worked his way up from road patrol to later doing undercover work with the DEA. His face and neck were crisscrossed with deep lines where he'd gotten on the wrong side of a knife a time or two; a wicked looking scar ran from collar bone to jugular vein while another ran the length of his forehead from a night when the king pin of a local drug dealing operation resisted arrest. He had scars from bullet holes and also from four operations that resulted from four different types of cancers associated with agent orange exposure. He'd beaten every odd he came up against. He'd been married to the love of his life since he was 18, had raised two boys, was a farmer as well as a business man in his spare time.
People looked at Charlie and I's relationship with suspicious eyes quite frequently because we were always around each other. Most of them believed that there was only one reason a man and a woman would be that closely knitted together. But they were wrong.
Charlie saw how shut-off and shut down I was. He saw that I lived every day on auto-pilot and where most everyone in my life at the time was content to let me drift away, Charlie dug in and forced me to hang on and open up. He made me talk until I was hoarse at times, knowing in the way he always seemed to, that there was this dam of anger and pain that I needed to let go of. He always listened. He never judged.
When my anger got the better of me, as it sometimes did, and I ended up in a dangerous confrontation with a large group of angry Hispanics over a goat, Charlie charged in, literally threw me over his shoulder and physically carried me out of a situation that was way over my head, all the while giving me the longest, and probably the most hard nosed lecture of my life about controlling my temper. It was the most angry I'd ever seen him.
Over time, he told me stories of the lives he'd taken in Vietnam and how the guilt of that had stayed with him over the years and what he'd done to make peace with it. He told me about the fears he'd had when he was diagnosed with cancer and how each time he worried that he would have to leave his wife and his sons on their own if he lost those battles.
Charlie gave me his friendship unconditionally but the most important thing he gave me was courage.
For two years, we were inseparable. We worked together, we fished together, we refinished furniture together, we talked about everything. I listened to his stories and he listened to mine. There was a wealth of wisdom passed down in those days; from him to me. He taught me not only how to handle life, but how to be present in it and to appreciate it.
Once, I'd stepped on some broken glass that I'd thrown when I was pissed about something and had let it go so long that wounds on the bottom of my feet had gotten infected. When he could take no more of my hobbling around, he demanded that I sit on the counter in the treatment room of the shelter where he systematically stripped off my dirty work boot and sock. For about an hour, he picked out pieces of embedded glass, reminding me every time I hollered not to be a baby and that someday I'd learn that losing my temper didn't hurt anyone except for myself. He also reminded me that while I believed I had nothing to live for, I had a daughter that needed me. He pushed me to take better care of myself.
Not long after that, I found out I had inverted cyst on my spine. It had wrapped around my spinal column and was penetrating the nerve sac. It was a complicated surgery that I almost didn't survive. For a month, I was bed bound and kept pretty drugged up to restrict my movement while the incisions healed. Charlie came to see me. Sometimes, while in that drug induced haze, I would hear his voice and even though I couldn't wake up enough to talk to him, I knew he was there and that was enough.
When I decided that I was going to leave North Carolina and move to Georgia to pursue a career in Journalism, everyone thought I was crazy and no one thought I'd be able to do it. There were bets on how long it would take before I'd be back begging for my job.
"Go," he said, when I'd explained that I'd been offered a position at a small weekly newspaper. "You'll regret it for the rest of your life if you don't. You were meant to write, not to chase dogs and get mauled by cats."
Leaving Charlie was the hardest thing about leaving North Carolina. Every day for five years after I left, we talked. When I became so homesick and wanted to quit and move back, he'd remind me why I needed to keep going. He'd remind me that giving in and quitting was giving in to every person who said I'd fail. So I stayed and when I won the state award for Best Investigative Reporting, I thanked him for never letting me give up.
I'd come up for visits when my scheduled allowed and spend them chasing dogs on his beat with him. Eventually, he left animal control and went into his wife's family business in the funeral industry and still, whenever I could, I'd go visit him there too.
But, as it happens sometimes, even with the closest of friends, we fell out of touch. The last time I talked to Charlie was about five years ago when I told him I was starting on Bimini.
"If you can't get there, at least you can write about it," he laughed. He knew about my obsession with the small island.
I told him I was using him as the inspiration for one of the characters and as part of the inspiration behind the lead male character.
I apologized that I was going to have to make him old and ugly, but he just laughed at that too.
"I am old." he said.
"You'll never be old," I said, "But I can't have a supporting character as handsome as the love interest and while you'd make an excellent leading man, I can't write about you in that way. It'd be weird. So I'm going to make you really old and sorta craggy."
"Not only do I understand, but I agree." he responded. "Do me a favor and leave out the war stuff. No one needs a rehashing of history."
He'd been undergoing his fifth battle with cancer, which had spread into his lymph nodes, when that conversation took place. Because of his request, I focused Rick's character around Charlie's love of fishing and the sea.
Charlie died in April of this year but I just found out about his passing on Friday. He'd been on my mind the last few weeks almost constantly so I decided to look him up. His obituary was the top search result on Google. I'd lost his number when I'd switched phones a while back and life got in the way so that I never seemed to find the time to track him down. I could have called his work. I could have showed up at this house; but I didn't. I knew Charlie well enough to know that he'd be pissed at me for giving into guilt so I'm trying hard not to.
I talked to a family member of his this morning when I could finally get the breath back that I'd lost when I saw that obit.
"He was proud of you. Proud of everything you'd done. Your friendship always meant a lot to him and he never forgot you."
I never forgot him either. Charlie believed in me in a way that no one ever has. I haven't felt such a profound sense of loss since my brother died. Though I'd lost touch with him, I liked knowing that he was out there doing his thing and just being Charlie. The world feels a little emptier with the knowledge that he's not in it, anymore; but there's also a sense of relief too.
Charlie, for all his toughness, had suffered a multitude of sickness these last ten years. He'd been sick more than he'd been well. He was a strong, capable man who didn't take being an invalid gracefully. He was a doer. Always into something, always on the go. I'm grateful that his struggle is over and unlike when my brother died, I can accept Charlie's passing with an understanding of death. I understand that not only is it necessary but sometimes, it is merciful as well.
No matter how bad it hurts to know he's gone, I'm forever grateful that the Universe saw fit to put us together during a time in my life when I needed someone to believe in me and I'll always be grateful for the man that he was; for all the experiences he'd had that enabled him to shake me from my place of apathy and make me live again. For the never ending patience he had in befriending a militant, mad-at-the-world female bent on self-destruction and for the fact that his friendship never wavered once in all the years we knew each other. He was always my strongest supporter.
Our relationship was unique. Not one of lovers or family, but deeper than friendship. We understood each other in a rare and mysterious way.
Finishing this second Bimini book is going to be a little bitter sweet now, as Rick, the character most inspired by Charlie, still plays a role but I think it's the best way to honor a man who gave me so much and who believed in me unfailingly.
Rest well, my friend.