A Bullet in the Brain

With Apologies to Tobias Wolff

Dorothy Marcic

This is how I learned to love.

It was 5:20 AM Sunday and someone was banging on the door at my grandmother’s house in Beloit, Wisconsin, where I had come for a weekend respite from college. I stumbled out of bed with my slit eyes, grumbling to myself about inconsiderate people who don’t have the sense to let others get some much-needed sleep.  I got to the door. It was my mother and uncle pounding away. Why did they have to come calling so early and wake me up?  The nerve. I didn’t notice the wads of wet tissue tightly stuffed in my mother’s hand.  But I did see her looking down and biting her lip. Something had to be wrong.  I always remembered my mother being dressed in her church clothes that morning, but now I realize she had no time for such luxuries. They’d driven 90 minutes on the freezing March roads to get here and I was pretty certain they hadn’t come for an early service.  Uncle Don’s eyes were narrow.  My mother’s were puffy and red, with her hair not combed but rather sticking out in bunches in its short roller cut.  They quietly marched across the crooked floor into the kitchen and sat down at the round maple table that was covered with red gingham oilcloth. By this time my grandmother was up. She sat down on one of the four captain’s chairs and looked expectantly at her children. This wasn’t the first time she’d had bad news, so she was somehow prepared.

“Vernie’s gone,” Mama blurted out as she finally let go with a gush of tears. Donald was crying too, his hanky to his eyes. I don’t think I’d ever seen him cry before.  Not this retired Amy Sergeant.  Grandma just sat there in her pink robe and slippers, staring out through the kitchen door to the covered porch, her white hair matted down from sleep. My grandmother was 77 years old. She had left Norway at age 15 to make a new life in America and had never seen her mother again. Her father had died before she was born. Now there was more loss.  This was the third of five children dead, plus her husband and a grandson. Not to mention having to raise five children alone during the Depression while Grandpa took an alcoholic leave of absence from the family.  I’ve had many years to wonder how she held up through all of that grief and struggle.  She ultimately outlived the last of her children by 17 years. Even during that later period, she never forgot birthdays of her ten grandchildren and the various great-grandchildren. Donald took a break from his tears and continued.

“Vernie and Sue were out drinking.  Fighting in the bar. They got home and—the Sheriff said–Sue shot him at 2:15 this morning.” Uncle Vernie had been a police officer before the scandal and he still kept loaded guns around.  You know how they say people are more likely to get killed by their own weapons? My family is part of that statistic.

“His birthday was just last week.  Forty-four,” Grandma said, quietly.  She finally found her voice, as she continued, “Never shoulda married that tramp.” Grandma got up and automatically walked toward the counter to make coffee for everyone.  “I told Jenylle, don’t give him a divorce. You’ve got Shannon to think about.  He’ll get tired of Sue and come back around.  Instead he married her and drunk himself to death.” Such was the narrative I had heard many times during the prededing seven years. During which time Uncle Vernie had resigned as Captain of Detectives in disgrace following his scorching affair with Sue, who’d already had three husbands.

I remembered the many weekends Uncle Vernie insisted I visit them.  He’d pick me up in Madison and take me the 20 minutes to Oregon to spend with the family, which included Sue’s three children, the youngest of whom he had adopted. He and Sue drank like dehydrated desert inhabitants.  My family had a lot of alcoholics, people who needed piped in beer as accessible as city water, so I was accustomed to excessive alcohol consumption. But even I thought Vernie and Sue were extreme. Then they’d get like George and Martha in Virginia Wolf with the name-calling and arguments, but afterwards make up in the same intensity they had fought.  I remember riding in the car with them in the days before seat belts, and Sue would slide up so close to Vernie you’d think they were soldered together.  Her left hand would sit on his right leg, way too close to his crotch area for me to be able to even look at it. I was embarrassed more than once when Sue would announce she was withholding sex from Vernie until he did what she wanted.  It was such a contrast from the quiet and peaceful life he had shared in Beloit with Jenylle and their daughter, Shannon. Whereas Sue knew how to mix the perfect drink, Jenylle was known for her aromatic breads and tidy home.

My family lived in a former summer cottage on cinderblocks with a pump we had to plug in each time we wanted water. My father was a gambling addict who used my mother as his punching bag whenever he was so inclined.  The cops made regular visits to our house.  So Shannon’s home life in Beloit seemed closer to Leave it to Beaver than my own. Back then I didn’t understand why Vernie would throw that all away. After years of my own therapy, I can see Vernie must have needed more drama in his life, so he took up with a woman who kept his hormones raging, and who gave him a life not unlike ours.  Both my mom and her favorite brother got in to violent relationships, though my mother managed—barely–to get out alive. In effect, Vernie left June Cleaver for Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. As each year when by, though, his words became increasingly slurred, his wrinkles that much deeper, and his sadness more intense.

Everyone in the family felt—I mean they just knew–he would come back crawling on his knees to his rejected wife. This possibility, or should I say “fact,” was evidently shared by Jenylle herself. Otherwise why would an attractive and sociable woman never even date for seven years and then marry her high school sweetheart months after the murder? Even at the funeral, everyone treated Jenylle as Vernie’s widow.

“Ma,” said Uncle Don. His voice was halting. “They’re gonna have a closed casket.

“What?” Shrieked Grandma, twisting around like Linda Blair.  Good Norwegians always had a “showing” before the funeral.  When my brother had died eight years earlier, I remember my grandmother stroking his cold, hard hands as he lay in the casket. She told me how comforting that was. Helped her accept the loss a little easier, she said.

“It was a shotgun, Ma, and he’s, he’s—“

Grandma dropped the green Folger’s coffee can and spilled grounds all over the counter as she bolted towards the tiny bathroom and locked the door with the tiny s-shaped hook.  We heard her screaming and wailing and thrashing about, as much as you could in four by seven feet.  This was not my grandmother, the stoic family leader. Now I look back and think her behavior was for a few minutes more like Sue, who would always—and I do mean always—cause an emotional earthquake at every family gathering. The first I remember was Uncle Amos’s funeral, not long after they got married.  We were all at the farmhouse afterwards, sharing in our collective mourning.  Vernie was trying to console his siblings and spent some time in the kitchen with them, while Sue was in the living room, sitting like a Queen holding court.  After 30 minutes of waiting for her subjects to appear, she started fidgeting and cursing under her breath. Then Sue jumped off the couch and burst into the kitchen like Jennifer Garner going after one of her enemy operatives in Alias. No one was spared. Her verbal torture wounded everyone.

“Oh, LaVerne! You can’t leave me alone like this. Your family is just scheming with you so you’ll go back to your precious Jenylle.  None of you fool me. This morning it was your mother and now the rest of you are plotting to get rid of me.  Vernie!” she screamed at the top of her lungs with a shrillness that could have shattered a crystal goblet.  “We are leaving right now.  I mean, this minute.” And out the door she marched, her breathing heavy, her face tight and drawn. Clang! Quiet. Clang! The sound of her opening and slamming the car door.  Vernie looked at all of us with that sheepish grin he had when he was trying to use his personality to cover up some uncomfortable truth. Grandma just looked at him and said,

“Vernie, This isn’t right.  Don’t let her do this again.” My grandmother had the kind of moral authority where everyone listened, but Vernie was never able to control Sue’s behavior.

All of this churned in my mind as we sat there staring at Grandma’s bathroom door. The wailing and thrashing had not stopped. No one would say out loud what we were all thinking.  Is she going to hurt herself? Is this death one too many for her? Can she not take it that her youngest child has been brutally murdered, his body shot into pieces? Uncle Don pushed hard against the door and broke the fragile lock.  There was Grandma, throwing Charmin against the wall.

What about the wall Vernie was pinned to with the gun pointed at his head?  What was he thinking?  Did he hear the blast of the bullet? Did he feel the singe on his temple as it cracked through the bone and grey matter?  Was he thinking that Jenylle had been his one true love and now he was paying the ultimate for leaving her?  Was he sorry his only daughter, Shannon, wouldn’t talk to him anymore?  Did he think the intensity of the affair was worth the toxic waste? Was he wishing he could spare his mother another loss? Did he think he could will himself back to his first marriage, in the quiet Beloit home?  Did he wonder what in the hell he was doing in Oregon, Wisconsin? Could he have known Sue would be arrested for first-degree murder? Did he realize she would spend only ten months in a mental institution, then be released and collect his insurance money? Did he imagine the son he had adopted would be left in such chaos that he died of a drug overdose some years later?  Did he know his brains were about to be splattered all over the wallpaper with its big red flowers? Did he look straight into the eyes of his killer and give instant forgiveness, knowing the agony of his descent was finally over?

Grandma came out of the bathroom and sat down at the table, her face as still as the woodcarvings Uncle Amos had loved to make.

“We’ll have the funeral in Beloit,” she said.

I learned about the ravages of hot, dangerous love and the codependence of love and violence. And, I learned about resilience from my grandmother. She showed me how to love your family and keep it together even when Katrina comes raging through your door and you have nothing to hold on to except Charmin toilet paper.

This became the basis for the book, With One Shot: Family Murder and a Search for Justice, Kensington Press.