“Tickets for the gunfight?” That’s the question I heard over and over during the past few days. Spring break is the busiest two weeks in the Tombstone, Arizona, tourist season. I was signing copies of Doc while hundreds of people shuffled past the cash register, buying tickets to see the reenactment of the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. There are over 30 feature films about those 30 godforsaken seconds when “three men were hurled untimely into eternity.” Three others were wounded, and the fourth — Wyatt Earp — was fated to live so long, he would see that lethal half-minute turned into entertainment for millions around the world.
When I got home to Ohio last night, I dropped most of the accumulated newspapers directly into the recycling bin, but decided to take a look at our little local paper. There — on page 3, mind you — I saw the headline “South Euclid man arrested for murdering his father.” The address of the murder was 4086 Princeton Boulevard. Until two years ago, we lived at 4083, directly across the street. That was our home for 26 years. That’s where we raised our son.
The face staring out from the article’s photo was that of Quentin Diggs. I’ve known Quentin since he was about 11. We met when he showed up in our backyard, shortly after the Diggs family moved in. Quentin was calling frantically for his dog, who’d gotten loose. You might not think it to look at the dazed 30-year-old in the newspaper photo, but Quentin was a beautiful child. His eyes were gorgeous: enormous, rimmed with dark curling lashes. And he was so worried about his dog! That was a bond between us, though a tenuous one: we both had dogs. Mine was a pampered pet who’d never so much as growled at anyone; Quentin’s had already attacked a couple of people, and he was almost crying with fear that they’d have to put his dog down if the animal bit someone else.
Over the next 15 years or so, we’d see Quentin’s father, Oliver Diggs — the murdered man — nearly every day. He spent most of his time sitting on the front stoop whenever the weather was okay. Sometimes Ollie would get on a bike and head off to the local convenience store to buy cigarettes, but somehow we didn’t think he was just being green. Perhaps we were unfair, but our guess was that Ollie had a DUI because he knew how to drive but didn’t. In suburban America, that’s an anomaly.
Often, Ollie would send Quentin across the street with a rake or a snow shovel, to ask for work. Quentin was a sweet kid, and I encouraged him at first. He did a thorough job of raking oak leaves out of the beds in the autumn — too thorough. He’d rip out azaleas, hostas and chrysanthemums, and clear the mulch down to the bare soil. I tried to explain the differences between nice plants and weeds, and why he needed to be gentle with the mulch. After a couple of years, I began to realize that South Euclid wasn’t Lake Woebegone: not all of our children are above average. Quentin meant well, but it was costing me too much to replace the bedding and plants every spring. After a few seasons, I stopped answering the door when he showed up with his rake.
Maybe ten years ago, Ollie developed an informal car wash business in his front yard. He’d flag me down as I was headed into our driveway to razz me about how dirty my car was and offer to detail it for $100. I’d laugh and tell him I just don’t care that much about my car, which is true. Another form of entrepreneurship appeared to be operating out of 4086 Princeton, however. Sitting in our living room, we’d see cars slow down in front of the house across the street, then circle the block, and pause again at the curb. Hands emerged from car windows. Items were exchanged. Even if the cops got there within minutes, whatever was happening was done by the time the squad cars arrived.
Which they did. Frequently. In 2004, the South Euclid police department began assembling a list of nuisance calls about trouble at a given address. The log shows that they were called to 4086 Princeton Boulevard 111 times before the murder last week.
We noticed that Ollie and Quentin both disappeared for a while now and then. Course, the weather sucks in northern Ohio for five months out of the year, so we weren’t sure about that — maybe they were just staying indoors. We know now they both had convictions for domestic violence, and according to the newspaper article, Quentin “had a history of mental illness and substance abuse.”
Looking at the photo in the newspaper last night, I remembered how Ollie would often send Quentin over to ask me for $20 to rake the leaves or shovel the snow. I would have to tell Quentin, “Honey, there aren’t any leaves on the grass,” or “Quentin, there’s only a dusting of snow. There’s nothing to shovel, sweetheart.” The young man would look down at his feet and mumble, “My daddy needs cigarette money.” I’d tell him that I was sorry, but I couldn’t help this time.
According to the local paper, on March 11, “Officers learned Quentin Diggs woke his parents for cigarette money. His mother, Brenda Diggs, got up to give him the money, but Quentin Diggs allegedly responded by assaulting his mother. Oliver Diggs told his son to stop and then followed Quentin downstairs, where a physical altercation ensued. Oliver Diggs, according to the police statement, died after being hit several times with a brick. He was pronounced dead at the scene.”
Quentin is the second man I’ve known who has been accused of murder. The first was Eric Aleman. Eric and I were in the same fencing club back in the 1980s. He was a quick, powerful fencer but, as in so many of these cases, “he seemed like a nice guy.”
Eric and I talked for a while after fencing practice one evening and he told me about troubles in his marriage. Don and I had already been married 18 years at the time, which was about twice the national average. Younger people sometimes came to me for marital advice. Eric said he wanted to get a divorce, but I knew he had a two-year-old daughter, and advised him to think hard about that. I counseled patience and working things out, and admitted Don and I have not always had an idyllic marriage. (God help me, I think I even made the old joke: “Divorce? Never! Murder, maybe…”) But I stressed the great satisfaction and pride that can come when you get beyond the conflicts of the early years and find a more mature and happier life beyond them. Give your marriage a chance, I told him. It’s too soon to throw in the towel.
A week later, Eric’s wife was found under a bridge, beaten so savagely that her head was dislocated from its spinal column. She was three months pregnant with their second child when she died. Eric pleaded guilty. He is serving a life sentence. I learned to keep my big mouth shut.
I meant well. Helpful people always do. Now when I am tempted to bestow wisdom upon the currently innocent, I warn the recipient, “Last time I tried to help with marital problems, the guy ended up murdering his wife. So my advice is, get counseling, but not from me.” Even so, I find myself wondering if there was something I should have said or done to help Quentin. Maybe things could have turned out differently at 4086 Princeton Boulevard.