Allen Boyd studies the front yard of his childhood home, every overgrown white pine, every shrub. The dying fir tree.
He is an interloper now, a 44-year-old stranger climbing the porch steps of another family's home, peering into a window.
"Same wood floors," he says, his voice deep, almost monotone. "The porch is the same." He glances up at the peeling paint beneath the gutter, the color of weak lemonade. "See under there? It's the crazy blue color Mama had it painted."
The past is rolling out before him now, almost as clearly as it does in his dreams. It's in those dreams mostly that he can still smell his mother's hairspray, can still see himself standing in a chair by the stove and scrambling eggs with his father, see the faces of his three siblings, Michael, Mitchell and Ruth Ann. Here on the porch it seems as if he could open the door and find them all there, all the same.
Like in the before days.
They are gone now, his family, every last one. Each a victim of his or her own hand, five suicides over the course of 25 years. First, his movie-star-pretty mother, Sara, an elementary school teacher. Next, his twin brothers, followed by his sister and finally his father, Allen Boyd Sr.
It's a haunting, bizarre tale, the story of the Boyds of Chunns Cove. Suicide does run in families, psychologists say, but rarely has it wiped out almost an entire one. The odds of that are astronomical, they say.
But Allen Boyd Jr. doesn't talk odds and indicators. He knows.
He knows because he is the only one left to tell the tale.
There is a gentleness about Allen Boyd Jr. that belies his 6 feet 8 inches and the strain of a smoker's graveled voice. He is a Southern man, a mixture of melancholy and good manners, the kind of guy who still calls women "ladies," who insists on opening doors for them, pulling out their chairs.
In his crisply pressed jeans, he does not look like a man who struggles to keep his phone from being turned off and his landlord from kicking him out.
As he surveys the family's old property, he drinks from a quart jug of Pet chocolate milk and absorbs the sounds: barking dogs, cars passing in the distance.
Chunns Cove is a neighborhood with horse-crossing yield signs, a suburban world where a cow may graze in the back yard of one house while a black Lab suns itself in another. The streets have names like Mountain Brook and Utopia Road. Blinding white gazebos dot hills bisected with streams in this development built within a bowl of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Boyd comes here monthly, as if visiting a shrine, his dog, Samson, tagging along in the back seat of his sporty red Subaru. He is convinced that it is this dog, a 13-year-old pit bull/chow mix, that is the only reason he can get up in the morning. Because there have been times, Boyd will tell you, many times in fact, when he has thought that he should join the rest of his family, that maybe suicide was his destiny, coded into his DNA.
He has spent much of his life toggling between despair and hope.
Miles away from this old house, his one-bedroom apartment is crammed with mementos, bronzed baby shoes, a photo of himself at age 3 or 4. His own paintings -- Boyd is a former art student -- hang on the walls. A collection of toy action figures fills the apartment.
He was even married once, long ago. Now it's just Allen and Samson and an assortment of friends, some stable, others fleeting and fair-weather.
Mostly, he has spent his life in Asheville, often called the jewel of the Appalachians. It's a city famous for names like Thomas Wolfe, George Vanderbilt and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
It is here that Boyd has written his unpublished memoir, "Family Tradition: The Suicide of One American Family."
The Beginning of the End
In March 1976 Boyd was a tall, skinny kid, almost 18. He worked a plum job as an usher at a downtown theater, where he met plenty of girls and kept money in his pocket. One day while he was ushering at a matinee, an attractive middle-age blonde approached him.
"Are you Allen Boyd Junior?" asked the woman, her face stern.
"Allen, you need to come with me." He assumed she was a police officer in street clothes. She drove across town, past his house and onto Tunnel Road to a cluster of motels and restaurants.
Instinctively, Boyd asked about his mother. She hadn't been happy lately. She'd been sick, had hurt her knees in a car accident, was having trouble with breast implants that may have caused lupus-like symptoms.
She'd wanted to go back to school for a doctorate but her husband was against it. They fought, as they often did. She packed her suitcase and said she was going to stay with her mother in Greensboro.
The officer pulled into a motel parking lot where Boyd saw his mother's '74 Monte Carlo. Through the open door of one of the first-floor rooms, he saw his father, too. He was sitting on the edge of a bed, sobbing. Boyd knew then that his mother was dead.
Allen Boyd Sr., an insurance claims adjuster, had grown suspicious of his wife. The night she left home, he went searching the motels, fearing that she was having an affair. His discovery the next morning was grisly.
"He found in a bed, soaked in dark blood, the body of my mother," Boyd wrote in his memoir. "She had taken my dad's snub-nose .38 handgun, put it to her temple and shot herself. At that moment, our family's and my own personal nightmare began."
No one would recover from her suicide. The pattern was set.
The twins were next. His mother, Boyd says, had tried to miscarry the boys by taking quinine. She'd been under a great deal of pressure, wasn't ready for more children, Boyd wrote. Allen had been colicky and difficult. A pharmacist gave his mother the quinine, but instead of expelling the twins, it may have left them damaged. Michael and Mitchell were born on Aug. 20, 1959.
They didn't speak until they were 5. They were learning-disabled and "not quite wired right." They were also extremely attached to a mother Boyd describes as emotionally distant.
They were 16 when she died. Ruth Ann was 13.
They all had a chance back then, Boyd believes.
"My dad did not believe in getting a counselor for our emotional trauma. The decision would lead to the greatest heartbreak of his life . . . the eventual end of our family."
The twins hatched a plan to blow up the house and kill themselves. A month after their mother's death, Mike downed his mother's wine and then wrecked the family home, room by room. He grabbed a hatchet and broke every window, several fish tanks. He chopped up the furniture and overturned a china cabinet, shattering heirlooms.
A neighbor called the police; as they arrived, Mike grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun and ran to the basement. He fired a shot into the furnace, hoping for an explosion. Nothing happened. He reloaded, and the police ran to the top of the stairs just in time to see Mike place the shotgun to his head and fire.
"When I came to the top of the basement steps, I saw a horrible sight that will always be with me," Boyd wrote. "I saw a huge, almost black pool of blood on the cream-colored shag carpet. The scope of the situation became real for me. Another member of my family was gone forever."
Mitch couldn't follow through with his part of the plan to kill himself. A family friend had confiscated all the guns (Boyd's father was a collector.) Later, he would be diagnosed with schizophrenia and shuffled from state institutions to halfway houses. And eventually he would find a way to die.
"One Sunday he went to the top of the BB&T Building, the tallest building in Asheville, and threw a chair through the plate glass window," Boyd says. "As he got ready to leap out, some hero of a guy grabbed him."
He was reinstitutionalized.
After his final release he moved into a run-down boardinghouse that "smelled of everything that could be drained, passed or heaved from the alcoholic human body," Boyd said.
Fresh out of the Navy, married and trying to get on with his life, Allen Boyd drove to the boardinghouse to visit his brother. The sight before him was shocking -- the acne-scarred face, the dead eyes that begged for love, for his father to take him home.
The elder Boyd, afraid of his son's mental state, refused. Five days later Mitch swallowed toxic chemicals. His fever soared to 107 degrees. Soon he was comatose.
Dutifully, Boyd Sr. visited his son every week.
Two years later, on April 29, 1985, during the same month of the year in which Boyd had lost his mother and twin brother, Mitchell died from respiratory problems.
He was 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 65 pounds. The family buried him next to his brother.
"At that time, even though Dad, Ruth Ann and I had many inner demons to wrestle every day, we really believed . . . the suicides were behind us. Dad and I would have bet everything that our 'golden child,' Ruth Ann, was going to beat the family curse."
He always thought she favored actresses Molly Ringwald and Christina Applegate. When he sees either actress now, he can almost see Ruth Ann.
No one doubted her position in the family. She was Daddy's girl. The golden girl.
Beautiful. Loved, it seemed, by everyone who met her. Her mother's death had left her heartbroken. Her father tried to fill the void with gifts: her mother's engagement ring, a mink coat and, later in life, heirloom furniture and a big down payment on a house. But not what she and Allen needed most: counseling. They were taught to handle their own problems, keep family matters private.
"Ruth Ann was Dad's peace, his center and his anchor. She was, in his mind, perfect, and was told by Dad on a regular basis how perfect she was."
She did the right things: Girl Scouts, ballet and college. She had friends and beauty and popularity. She was tall, just under 6 feet. She ran track and excelled in school.
Eventually she married and moved into a large upscale home about an hour away from Asheville. She trained like an athlete to prepare for her first pregnancy. She wanted a perfect pregnancy, Boyd says, and she wanted to be a perfect mother.
Drew was the name they gave the daughter who bypassed this world for the next. She arrived stillborn. Her heartbroken parents cremated her tiny body and scattered the ashes around a magnolia tree they bought and planted in their yard.
When they moved to a bigger house in a better community, they took Drew's tree with them and planted it there.
After a while, Ruth Ann decided to try again. Ian Boyd Sheppard was born on Nov. 1, 1995. "This was, without a doubt, the single most wonderful day in our lives," Boyd recalls in his memoir. "The curse was lifted and life would be good. I personally felt happier than I had in I don't know how long. . . . Ian was the most beautiful boy I'd ever seen.
"My sister fell deeply in love. When she looked in that boy's angelic face, she knew that she had achieved her goal."
But the joy wouldn't last. When Ian was 2, he was diagnosed as autistic and "possibly borderline retarded." Ruth Ann and her husband sought another opinion. The news was better. Ian was fine, just a little behind developmentally. Give him time, they said.
But Ruth Ann was obsessed.
One afternoon, her son's preschool teacher reported he'd been hitting other children.
"My sister was not overly upset about it, only worried as any mother would be about that sort of thing. The rest of the day was pretty normal, and that evening they went to bed and all seemed normal."
But it wasn't.
Early the next morning, on Friday, March 3, 2000, Ruth Ann's husband drove to Charlotte, about an hour away, on business. Ruth Ann climbed out of bed and removed chicken from the freezer to thaw for dinner. She and Ian had plans to attend a birthday party in the afternoon.
For reasons the family can't explain, Ruth Ann returned to the master bedroom and her sleeping son, who was wearing his Batman pajamas. She held her husband's gun in her hands and placed the barrel against Ian's forehead, firing once. Then she turned the gun on herself.
The FBI ruled it a homicide-suicide. Boyd believes something traumatic was said or done that morning to change a mother's heart, from thoughts of what to cook for dinner and wrapping a birthday gift, to ending their lives. There had to be more to it, he believes. It bothers him still.
Ruth Ann was 37. Ian, 4. Their ashes are scattered under the magnolia tree, along with baby Drew's. The news devastated Boyd and his father. Now all they had was each other. Allen hoped it would draw them together, but it didn't.
"I believe my dad saw in me what he didn't like in himself," he says.
The elder Boyd was a shell, a man with dark circles under his eyes, trembling hands. He wasn't eating or sleeping. His son called often, asked him to dinner, invited him to talk. Boyd Sr. withdrew further.
Allen continued to call. "Please, Dad. Please, promise me you won't do it."
"He didn't want help . . . only to die. Without his sweet daughter, he just didn't want to go on. I begged him not to think like that, but he was a broken man. . . . Regardless of what I was feeling over my sister's or nephew's deaths, I needed my dad. I loved him and couldn't stand the thought of him dying and leaving me alone with no family at all."
Four months crept by. On a hot summer day, Boyd Sr. drove to his daughter's and grandson's house and walked toward the magnolia where the soil held their ashes.
It was 5:30 p.m., July 19, 2000. He fell to his knees at the base of the tree, placed a gun to his temple, then fired.
"I would have done it the day after my dad's if it hadn't been for Samson," Boyd says. He had rescued Samson as a puppy, and now the dog was clearly rescuing him.
Boyd's landlord, Carl Scibetta, has often given him work in exchange for the $400 rent.
"Al's a perfectionist," Scibetta says. "To a fault. He's so meticulous and he does excellent work -- especially his tile work."
Boyd studied art in college and was one semester shy of graduating when a broken marriage ended his academic career. Life since then has been a string of starts and stops, scattered jobs and careers, ranging from construction to being a nursing assistant.
"Allen would give a person the shirt off his back if he thought that would help," Scibetta says. "He has always been there for me."
The landlord's elderly mother lived in the same apartment building as Boyd, who would often drive her around, making sure she had everything she needed. And when Scibetta and his wife have had troubles, Boyd has put him up.
Through Ruth Ann, Ian and now Allen Sr.'s deaths, Scibetta has been right there, watching the big man slowly fall.
Scibetta knew he had to get Boyd out of that apartment, get him into worthwhile work and therapy. His friend, Scibetta says, needed help or he wasn't going to make it.
He'll never forget the day he saw Boyd running a machine built for ripping up linoleum. It was after Ruth Ann and Ian had died. Allen would scrape the flooring as tears ran down his face, equipment roaring beneath his huge hands.
Boyd sank deeper after losing his father. So deep that Scibetta figured he was going to kill himself, too.
Scibetta's wife worked at Mountain Area Hospice in Asheville and knew a grief counselor. Boyd had reached a point where he realized he had to go; it was the only way to stay alive.
It was a cold and steel-gray November afternoon in 2000. Martina Glasscock-Barnes was finishing an internship and not even sure she'd be hired by the organization when Allen Boyd came into her life.
She was the only therapist with an opening in her schedule. She was well known for taking hard-luck cases, for counseling families whose loved ones had been murdered.
She heard Boyd's entire story when he arrived for his first appointment.
"Here comes this giant of a man" with his head down low, she recalls. "I started taking his family history, and it was loss after loss after loss. I was absolutely dumbfounded. I'd never heard anything like this and it was frightening to me.
"I had never known anyone who had every member of their family kill themselves," she says, "and no one in my field had heard of such a case."
She assessed his grief and discovered he was thinking of committing suicide at a rate of "about every five minutes."
"I knew he was extremely high risk," she says. "I asked him, 'Do you have a gun?' and he said, 'Yes, I do.' "
She told him to get rid of the bullets and sign a "No Suicide Contract." He did as instructed, but she had her doubts. She told him to go to the Veterans Administration hospital immediately and get an evaluation for depression. Medication, she said, was imperative, not optional.
That night, when she got home, she turned to her husband in doubt.
"I'm really scared to work with him," she told him. "I'm scared to get emotionally invested in this man I could lose to suicide at any moment."
"Take it day to day," was her husband's advice.
And she did. She invited Boyd to bring Samson to the sessions, knowing the dog was the only family he had left. Within 10 days, the Prozac began taking effect, and Boyd and Glasscock-Barnes established a routine of trust and twice-weekly sessions.
Mostly, she just listened and let him tell his story. Over and over and over. The more he told it, the more he seemed to heal. On Boyd's first birthday after his father's suicide, Glasscock-Barnes, realizing it was not typical of counselors, attended a party in her client's honor at one of his favorite restaurants, the Olive Garden. She gave him a compass -- it was meant to help him find his way.
She could see the progress he'd made, the foundation of self-love and willingness to live.
Fourteen months after they began working together, Boyd told Glasscock-Barnes he was ready to face the world on his own.
"It was a horrible feeling," she says. "Like letting a child go. But I handed the candle over to him and said a prayer to myself. 'Please, God. Let Samson live.' "
Joy Kern, one of Boyd's best friends, expresses the same concern.
"It worries me when Samson dies," says the former bank teller who met Boyd at her drive-through window 10 years ago and who has helped him through the darkest days after the deaths.
"He loves that dog like a brother."
Kern says Boyd is on her mind every day. Does he have enough to eat? Can he make his rent this month? Is somebody taking advantage of his kindness, his open heart?
"He is a very, very sweet, caring man and anybody who he sees in need, he wants to help."
Kern is hoping he'll focus on helping himself for a while.
A Spark of Hope
Today, he is a man with dreams and goals, some whimsical, like meeting TV's Crocodile Hunter in Australia, and some quite serious, such as publishing his memoir. He has had several offers that he's considering.
On a recent afternoon, during lunch at one of his favorite Chinese buffets, he pulls out a briefcase and four photo albums. The albums, put together by his parents, chronicle the growth and milestones of their family, the holidays and vacations at the beach. The joyful days of the Boyds of Chunns Cove.
A waiter standing nearby asks to see the photos.
He studies each picture.
"Nice family," he says, nodding.
Yes, Boyd nods in return.
"Boy," he says, closing one of the albums, "it'd be nice to go back in time and try to change all of this."
That, of course, is impossible. So once a month Boyd goes back to the old family home. It's a house filled with pain and loss, but also the one place on Earth where every now and again, everybody got it just right. Where life was good sometimes.
He'd like to meet a nice woman someday, get married, maybe even have his own family, though he worries about his genetics.
"I'd like to find true love before I die," he says. "Someone who would love me regardless of what weaknesses she may find. . . . I've got a lot of growing to do before I can be with the kind of woman I want to be with."
As soon as the words are out, the Boyd sense of humor follows.
"I always thought I'd be a really good husband," he says, "because I don't like watching sports on TV. I like watching the romantic comedies. 'Forrest Gump' had me tore up."
If all goes according to his dreams, he'll also have a place in Chunns Cove, maybe even the house where he grew up.
Mostly, though, he wants "a modest home. A patch of yard that gets hit by the sun during the day, where I can grow some tomatoes and have enough room for my dog to sniff around."
It's those kinds of thoughts, he says, that give a man a goal, a reason to plant his feet once more on morning soil.