Fifty years ago, I was sitting on the back stoop of our house on Park Road in Crozet when the sound of shattering glass pierced the stillness of a summer night. I looked across the side yard at my neighbor’s home. His storm door’s broken pane glinted in the moonlight. A volley of angry shouts came from inside.
Maynard’s drunk again, I thought.
I stared at the house uneasily. Maynard was a binge drinker, sober for long stretches, then blind drunk for days on end. Lately, his binges had become violent. He drove his fist through his bedroom wall a few months ago. Busted up a coffee table during the last one. Now the storm door. I worried that his whiskey-rage might escalate to attacks on his wife, Birdie, or their two little boys.
There was more shouting, much louder than the first round.
Cursing under my breath, I stepped down off the stoop and walked over to their carport. The house was quiet by the time I reached the storm door and looked inside.
The kitchen/family room was a small rectangular box, the sink and appliances to the right of the door, a sitting area and television to the left, the kitchen table across the room. Maynard and Birdie sat side by side at the table, facing me, their backs against the far wall. They were in their thirties. He was average height, built like a tree stump with a round bald head and thick red eyebrows that came together over his nose. Birdie was as stocky as Maynard with a peroxide blonde bee-hive and a double chin.
“You guys all right?” I said.
“Come on in and see for yourself,” Birdie said.
I opened the storm door carefully so as not to get cut and stepped inside.
Maynard was shirtless. His arm rested on the table in a pool of blood, a deep wound on the meaty inside of his forearm running from his wrist to his elbow, a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam beside it. In Maynard’s other hand he held a shotgun, its butt propped on his thigh, the barrel pointed toward the ceiling.
The two little boys, eight and ten, stubby little replicas of their parents, sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the television, staring wide-eyed at Maynard.
Smirking, Birdie took a deep drag on a Marlboro and casually blew smoke across the room. “Rammed his fist through the storm door,” she said. “Damned near cut his arm off so’s he could show me what a big man he is.”
“Shut the hell up,” Maynard said. He lifted the shotgun off his thigh with one hand and placed the mouth of the barrel under Birdie’s chin.
Her blue eyes widened. “What you doin, Maynard?” she said softly.
“Fixin to blow your head off.” Maynard shoved the barrel upward hard, banging the back of Birdie’s head against the wall, and cocked the hammer with his thumb.
Birdie winced. “Go ahead,” she said, through clenched teeth. “Pull the trigger you hate me so much.” A tear slid down her cheek.
The boys whimpered.
I swallowed hard and took a step toward them. “Maynard. Put the gun down.”
Maynard didn’t look at me. Holding the shotgun tight under Birdie’s chin, he glared at her, his hand steady, the muscles in his face tight as wire.
Scared breathless that a sudden movement might set him off, I crossed the room slowly and stopped on my side of the table. “Don’t do it, Maynard. Please. Think about the boys.”
His angry eyes fixed on Birdie, he didn’t even glance at me.
No one moved, the only sound the boys’ quiet mewling. Five seconds passed. Ten.
A crooked smile crept across Maynard’s face. He lowered the shotgun, propped it against the wall, and took a swig of Jim Beam.
I let out a long breath.
Birdie’s hand trembled as she brought her cigarette to her mouth. Blinking back tears, she French inhaled a cloud of smoke through her nose and blew it out again. “You a piece a work,” she said under her breath.
It took me a full minute to build up the courage to go around the table and get the shotgun. Maynard made no move to stop me, thank God.
Standing by the sink, I broke open the single-shot twelve gauge with numb hands and clumsily withdrew a shell from its chamber. Number 5 shot, designed for small game, squirrels and rabbits, but powerful enough at point blank range to blow Birdie’s face off. She’d have been brain-dead before her body hit the floor.
I put the shell in my pocket and called the rescue squad on the kitchen wall phone. Light-headed and nauseous, I hung the phone on its hook and sat down at the table to pull myself together before I called the police.
The three of us said nothing. Birdie smoked down her Marlboro and lit another. Maynard finished off the whiskey. The edges of the oval-shaped pool of blood under his forearm crept outward across the pine-wood table-top. The boys turned on the television and stared blankly at an episode of Petticoat Junction, its canned background laughter jangling my frayed nerves.
When my hands stopped shaking, I stood and picked up the phone.
“Don’t call the law,” Birdie said.
I looked at her.
“It’s a family matter,” she said. “It’s between me and Maynard. It’s no one else’s business.”
I disagreed. In a determined confident voice, she argued with me for the next five minutes while Maynard stared at the empty bottle and said nothing.
“It don’t involve you,” she said. “Stay out of it. Leave it be.”
The ambulance pulled up in the driveway.
“Don’t tell the rescue squad boys,” Birdie said. “Don’t tell the sheriff’s men. Don’t tell nobody.”
The EMTs bandaged Maynard’s wound, marched him out to their van, and drove him to the hospital.
Many of the posts on this blog recount experiences I’m proud of. This is not one of them. I didn’t tell the EMTs what Maynard had done. I didn’t call the police. I didn’t tell anyone except my wife, Cindy.
Most people liked Maynard when he was sober. We told ourselves forgiveness and friendship were the best medicine for his alcoholism, but I knew better. He needed to be hit between the eyes with a two-by-four, “tough love” they call it today, but I didn’t have the strength of character to do it. No one around him did. So he kept right on drinking.
The man put a gun to his wife’s head, and I did nothing. Somehow I rationalized my behavior back then, but as I sit here writing this, I can’t understand it and I’m ashamed.
Cindy and I didn’t mix with Maynard and Birdie after that. Friends back home told me they split up about ten years after we moved away to Charlottesville. If they’re still living today, they’re in their eighties and their sons are pushing sixty. The boys were nice kids. I hope they turned out okay, but it would be a miracle if they did.
In Chapter 18 of The Judas Murders, Deputy Toby Vess opens a broken storm door to find Grover Sipe at his kitchen table pressing a shotgun under his wife’s chin while their two little boys cower in the corner. Toby disarms Grover. Grover’s wife begs him to let Grover off. Toby arrests him, locks him up in the county jail, and calls Social Services to see after Grover’s wife and little boys.
It was a satisfying scene to spin out. I wish I’d written it that way fifty years ago.
Post Script: For obvious reasons, I changed the names of my neighbors in this post and in The Judas Murders.