Tough Love

The Back Stoop

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. 

Storm Door

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 Judas Murders

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.