BY IAN MCDOWELL
Stevie remembers the birds singing and sunlight filtering through the trees that day in Eden when Marcellus Murphy choked him and beat him and set him on fire. It was May 18, 1970 and he was a bright, tow-headed, trusting 13-year-old kid who looked like he might grow up to be Patrick Swayze. Murphy, a lanky, lisping 20-year-old from Logtown whom he’d just met shooting hoops at Morehead High (and whom neither he nor anyone else yet knew had also assaulted a child in Virginia), had convinced him that the woods behind the school were full of squirrels and that that they should go look at them.
The birds are long gone, the trees cut down for a soccer field, and the squirrels were never there. What was really waiting for him has been with him ever since.
“When he clamped his clammy hands over my nose and mouth,” Stevie wrote in a recent e-mail, “I knew that the odds of ever making it out of those woods were slim to none. I thought of my mother and how far away she was from me. And the rest of humanity, too. I thought of God and His omnipresence. I told myself He was bringing me home. I passed out and woke up, tasting twigs and bitter leaves through my panting shock as I was stomped and beaten. The birds sang as though they were wound up with a key; no sense of occasion whatsoever. I felt my warm blood moving down my face, not as a trickle, but as the last blanket of comfort before I died.”
Stevie didn’t die, although his old life did.
There are some things he can’t remember. He recalls branches and birdsong and the smothering pressure, punches, kicks, the words that wouldn’t come, the other mumbled words that weren’t his and he couldn’t understand, the pain and the expanding blackness. He remembers waking and finding himself embracing a sapling, its bark rough on his face and chest, his wrists tied together on the other side by his own shoelaces (“He knew I’d burn more thoroughly if he stood me up”). He remembers offering his assailant a hundred dollars to let him go and Murphy’s mocking “Where you gonna get it?” He remembers the fire burning through the shoelaces, Murphy gone, himself slipping off the scorched trunk, then somehow rising and stumbling blind, burned and bloody to the road where a couple named Wayne Jones and Jana Scharf found him wearing only the elastic band from his underwear and a tattered shirt and took him to the ER at Morehead Memorial Hospital.
But he doesn’t remember how the fire was actually started (court testimony mentions a Bunsen burner stolen from the high school). He remembers Murphy taunting him while holding a lighter to his eye after he was already on fire, but not what those taunts were. Most of all, he doesn’t remember something that’s shaped his whole life since.
He doesn’t remember what it felt like to burn. He saw the man who did this to him for the second and last time in Rockingham Superior Court in 1971, during a fourday trial in which the defendant kept falling asleep.
“I had to take my shirt off and pull down my pajama bottoms to show how deep and low the damage went. One member of the jury cried and one looked away.”
Marcellus Murphy was sentenced to 38-and-a-half years in prison for felonious assault and kidnapping. Stevie’s own sentence was longer and still ongoing, a lifetime of knowing what happened on that day when the squirrels weren’t there and a man’s hands and fire were. He calls that “grave knowledge,” and smiles at his own wordplay.
Stevie likes words. For years I simply knew him as That Guy in the Coffeeshop with the Crossword Puzzles. Dr. Louis Patseavouras did an excellent job on his reconstructive surgery, charging him only a silver dollar so he wouldn’t feel like he was getting charity (“He wanted to practice an incisory flap; not all doctors are just out for money”), and it’s not obvious he spent several of his high school years looking like Batman’s foe Two-Face. If you see him with his shirt on, and almost nobody ever sees him with it off, you might think, as I did for so long, that he had acne as a kid and it left him with a few mild scars, and if you don’t sit down and talk to him, as I did not do for many years, you may miss, as I did, the braided patterns where his shoelaces were burned into his forearms.
Stevie likes words, but there’s one that he doesn’t want us to use and that’s his last name. He’s a smart guy. He knows that many in Greensboro, Kernersville and Eden will recognize him from this article. We’ve printed the name of his assailant and when and where it happened. Court records are easily found online (as I found them when I fact-checked his account). The trial was big news back in 1971. Dean Smith and his team visited Stevie in the burn unit at Chapel Hill, and the comedian Flip Wilson called and spoke to him for 20 minutes after Stevie wrote him a fan letter from his hospital bed.
“Anybody can easily find out who I am with a few mouse clicks,” he says. “I’m fine with that. I just don’t want my family’s name in the paper.” That’s partially because he has some unflattering things to say about his family. “Why did you let that ni**er burn you?” is something he heard many times, from both kin and neighbors, displaying both racism and a blame-the-victim mentality. He says even a female cousin whom he describes as looking like Tweetie Bird, barely out of’ diapers, pointed at him and lisped that accusation.
He’s been asked a lot of whys over a lot of years, and not just by racists. Why did he go in the woods with a stranger? Why didn’t he fight back? Why, in the judge’s words in the privacy of chambers, didn’t he just pick up a rock? All he can say is that he was a trusting kid and those were trusting times, in which people didn’t lock their doors and kids wandered as they pleased, and that it happened fast and hard and he was overwhelmed and helpless. Being blamed for what happened to him isn’t as bad as the fact it happened, but it’s his second worst thing.
Or maybe his third worst. “My particular skin type forms hypertrophic tissue, so the more the burned areas healed, the worse they looked,” he says. “The doctors told my mom they’d have to graft my eye shut. Many people prayed and each time I came back in from the operating room, the surgeons had waited one more time, choosing not to do it yet. After witnessing many confusing choked-back sobs from my mother, my eye finally healed. During the stay, I was lowered into a whirlpool daily as an orderly roughly wiped the day’s pus and crud off my body. One time, a hunk of salt landed on the back of my donor site [the part of his leg where they’d removed skin to graft elsewhere], causing me to scream so loudly that a doctor rushed in wagging a morphine needle in my face as he told me in a very non-paternal manner that I was upsetting the chronics in intensive care.”
Six months later, his mother moved him from Eden to Greensboro. “I had to start ninth grade in the middle of the year and in the middle of a class. As horrific as the incident had been, at least I wasn’t expecting it.” Not so his first day back in school. “My sweet loving mother, who looked like Doris Day and spoke like Nanny Greenway, thought it would be best from me to go straight back, before I had any plastic surgery. The left side of my face was all red and melted looking, my mouth twisted on that side. Even now, I sometimes stand at 90 degrees to people I don’t know, trying to hide that side of my face even though it’s been repaired.
“So I walked into that English class and found myself forced to sit on the far right of everybody, and 29 kids turned to look at me. Enduring all that surgery, all that pain, I’d felt like a man. Until people who didn’t know me said I wasn’t. I went from being a junior high Adonis, baby Patrick Swayze, to the Phantom of the Grand Ol’ Opry, in this high school where the kids were all strangers, prep country kids who’d never been through sh*t in their lives, all those pointing whispering pricks at Western Guilford. That was the most soul-altering moment. I went inside myself, where I’ve remained and will remain until I go to that big Burn Unit in the sky. With my family, with the folks who’d known me in Eden, it was, ‘How could let him do that to you?’ But with these new kids, it was just, ‘Hey, look at that freak!’” Stevie doesn’t know what was worse, or maybe thinks both were, as “worst” ceases being such an absolute once you’ve experienced so much badness.
Not that his earlier life was always happy or pretty. “I was molested by a babysitter named Smitty (he’s dead now) when I was six, while my sisters were watching Ed Sullivan in another room. That turned me on to masturbation at an early age.” He describes his father as “a narcissistic vampire” who would take his family to the carnival, buy tickets only for himself, “leaving us on the ground while he smugly rode the rides.” His father was a chiropractor who, Stevie claims, “had affairs with so many women that he had to keep a gun in his office. One of his conquests weighed nearly 400 pounds and jumped off the fourth floor of the Jefferson Standard Building after he spurned her love. It was in the Greensboro paper. His horndog ways caused us to leave him when I was four, and that’s why we ended up moving from Greensboro to a trailer park in shithole Eden. He was also jealous of me and hated it when I was funny or got attention. He did later visit me in the hospital, except for the time he vanished for a week after I told him he was going to Hell. Whenever I tried to talk to him about what happened to me, he changed the subject.”
Without his father, the family was poor.
Very poor. Stevie remembers them “running out of heating oil, neighbors taking up collections for our groceries. Before the assault, our shame was our poverty. There was this new pal of mine whose father insisted on driving me home so he could see how and where we lived. A couple of days later on the bus, his kid alluded to the fact that we were poor. Going from one unfair stigma to another increased my understandable contempt for humanity. It was a lot for a young kid to bear.”
His mother didn’t help matters, during his recovery and afterwards. “I broke out in tears once, telling her that some kids at school were calling me ‘Round Mouth.’ She kept looking at my mouth the whole time. When I sat in the plastic surgeon’s office, being stared at by Irving Park kids who were there with nothing more than a mild sniffle, she would talk to me in the patronizing tone of someone addressing a 4-year-old they don’t even like very much, pointing out insipid pictures in magazines ‘to take my mind off it.’ Twenty-five years later, she said I owed her an apology for not being where I was supposed to be that fateful day.”
Because other people seemed to blame him, Stevie found himself doing it, too. “It didn’t help that I’d felt up my first pretty girl in junior high the day of the burning. I even wondered if God had allowed this in order to teach me to keep it in my pants.”
He saw a psychiatrist for five years to little effect. “All we did was play chess and cards. He warned me that my stress was going to kill me, but didn’t even give me valium, I got that from my regular doctor.” He describes his job history as “intermittent Hell,” saying, “I can’t get along with others, and only get the work that nobody else wants to do.” He’s lived in Myrtle Beach and as far away as Houston and San Antonio, but keeps returning to the Triad. “I’d still be burned and mentally damaged if I was on the moon.”
This man, who sometimes describes himself as “a horrible person” and “a borderline reprobate,” who claims to have “lived like scum for almost 30 years, rooming with freaks, drug addicts and psychos,” can certainly be caustic. He admits to a constant habit of “uninviting myself to gatherings and parties” and says, “I’ve never been able to pour my heart out to anyone without them immediately making me regret it.” He’s fond of saying things like, “All the so-called normalcy of life is four walls of bullsh*t hidden in entitlement and denial,” and fears that “the black cloud of rejection awaits me with every social transaction.” But when I ask him if he’s capable of contentment, his answer is a distinctly and mordantly Stevie kind of affirmative.
“As far as I can remember, the only time I was ever truly happy was seeing snow fall at the crack of dawn as I sat on a warm toilet with a Sunday paper, smoking a perfectly rolled joint.”
But there’s more to it than that. He also finds comfort in God, whom he no longer believes was out to punish him that day, and tells me that he believes I will eventually find my way past my own atheism. And there’s the solace and support and genuine love he finds in his three teacup Chihuahuas named Jane, Ricky and Bebo, whom he loves with all his heart and who mean everything to him.
Love brings up the subject of its opposite, and I ask him whatever happened to the one person nobody would blame him for hating. This threatens to turn into a digression about another member of his “colorful” (for wont of a better word) family.
“A few years ago my Uncle Skinny, who murdered my Aunt Gayle so he could marry her lesbian daughter, told me that he’d bought drugs from the man who’d burned me, saying he’s now a cocaine dealer in Axton, Virginia.” Stevie’s tone is wry, but he seems reconciled to the fact that his former assailant has done his time (which he says he’s heard was pretty dreadful, with lots of beatings and other abuse in prison), and says he has no interest in tracking him down, no desire for confrontation or vengeance, as he knows another being’s pain would not bring him an iota of peace or cleanse him of what happened that fateful day in the woods when the birds sang and the squirrels weren’t there.
And with that, his mind goes back, not to the fist and foot and fire and pain, but to its aftermath, when his initial physical healing was over and the new school and the plastic surgery were still in his future. “When I was released from the hospital after 65 days, the world outside was magical and wondrous. Even the ironic sight of a tree was sublime; maybe as Noah must have felt when the first lungful of air wafted into the Ark. The fish in my aquarium had enlarged to an unrecognizable degree. My mom reached into the freezer and we ate the two sundaes she had gotten for me the day I was hurt. I had learned during the four-day trial that my assailant had, during his own boyhood, been beaten to the point of broken bones by the many drunken customers of his prostitute mother. After his sentencing, I cried for him all the way home from the Wentworth courthouse. And for every snide remark and all the cruelties I’ve shown towards others in my life since, I still have that drop of divinity placed into me at birth. That part of me no one can touch or ruin. And for whoever saw me cry that day, maybe they’re a step closer to Heaven.
“I hope so,” Steve says.
The author has verified the facts of “Stevie’s” assault and the sentence imposed on the man convicted of assaulting him. At “Stevie’s” request, no attempt has been made to contact his surviving family members. His characterization of them is a matter of his opinion only, not of the author, editor or publisher.