Gene Hively's wife, Vicky, died of bone cancer a year and a half ago, and he says he's "been drunk ever since." He was, in fact, very drunk one night last summer when he accidentally shot part of his right leg off with a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun.
Now he uses a wheelchair and straps a pair of crutches underneath it so that they jut out like ramrods.
"The worst part is," he says of the shooting, "now they want to give me time for it."
Hively has a criminal record adorned with a pair of misdemeanor assaults, two marijuana possessions, a hit-and-run and a larceny. Then there's the felony possession of explosives charge for a small quantity of C-4 the police found in his closet after an argument with a former girlfriend. He served five years for that, but has stayed out of trouble since 1998.
Given his priors, the leg incident translates into charges for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, use of a sawed-off shotgun and shooting a gun inside a building. He could be facing 20 years in jail, Henrico County Commonwealth's Attorney Heidi Barshinger says.
"It's definitely a sad situation because he suffered a significant injury," she says, "but we have to look at the law and the facts of the cases and prosecute accordingly."
The injury left him unable to work his construction jobs -- which ran the gamut, from bricklaying to carpentry to chimney repair or pay rent. He was evicted Nov. 1 and is homeless, but the whole legal drama has become a race against the clock. Hively desperately wants to get fitted for a prosthetic leg before he lands in jail, but his next leg appointment is scheduled for two days after his sentencing hearing.
Robert Geary, his court-appointed attorney, sounds optimistic that prosecutor Barshinger "sees the irony" in sending a man to jail for shooting off his leg and will cut down the time or push back the sentencing, but Hively isn't taking any chances.
At 47, he looks good for what he's been through. His skin is weathered, but his eyes are bright underneath the Tony Stewart Home Depot racing cap he wears. He says the leg incident sobered him up.
He's in a rush now, but after his wife died, time stood still. He'd wake up early each morning and fix eggs and bacon on an English muffin, complete with coffee and Black Velvet whiskey mixed with Sprite.
Gene and Vicky hadn't been married two years when she discovered her legs were riddled with tumors. She wanted to be at home during her illness and died three months later on the couch. Hively got her name tattooed in an arc over his belly button.
A year went by and all her clothes were still in the dresser while the house became a neighborhood party spot. People drifted in and out, past her ashes in the golden box, drinking and smoking weed, but the day in August when Hively lost his leg, things were quiet. His stepson, Sean, and a female neighbor were visiting that day.
"Around 2 o'clock, she said, 'Don't you think you've had enough to drink today?' 'cause I'd already had a half gallon," Hively says. He, of course, wasn't finished and proceeded to swim through the rest of the hot afternoon in the cool stream coming out of the window air-conditioning unit.
Around 10 p.m., the neighbor made a batch of popcorn and lay down on the couch, right on top of a 12-gauge shotgun.
An acquaintance had been partying at the house a few weeks earlier and brought over the shotgun. Hively had helped him saw off the barrel. When it was time to go, the acquaintance was too drunk to drive with the gun in his car. He left, but tucked the gun between the couch cushions, Hively says.
On the night of the accident, Hively recalls, the female neighbor asked, "Will you move it?" and Hively moved the gun across his lap.
"BWHOW! Blew my leg off, put a big hole in my floor, too," Hively says. He felt a sensation like a bee sting, put the gun down, stood up to get another drink and fell into a glass coffee table. On the way down he looked behind him and saw his foot pointing backward toward the couch, still in a blue-and-white Nike sneaker.
"Damn, I better get a hold of that thing," he recalls saying.
At first the doctors thought they could save the leg. Two days later they amputated it.
Unable to work, Hively was evicted Nov. 1. He's been staying in church shelters ever since. They feed him breakfast and dinner and pack him a sack lunch. On weekends a half-dozen groups come through Monroe Park, where Hively hangs out, with hot meals. He panhandles and sees his stepsons on Mondays. He's hoping one of them will get an apartment soon so he can move in.
Only a week before his sentencing, his case manager takes him to his prosthesis appointment. A series of sample legs line the back wall of the examining room, lacquered in festive patterns. One has dragon scales, another sports a floral design. Turns out patients can bring in any T-shirt they like and the lab techs can seal it on as a topcoat. Hively jokes that he has a Tony Stewart shirt in mind, but that's only if he can be fitted in time.
Hively hopes that he'll be walking out of his next appointment, but his doctor warns the process takes time. "It's not like a pair of shoes," the doctor told him.
Even if everything fits correctly, he'll have to get used to the prosthetic his muscles and his balance need to adjust, and his skin needs to toughen up over time but Hively is in a hurry.
"This is what I tell people: I'm not sure that alcohol had a factor in it, but I will let you know I was drinking when I shot my leg off," Hively says. "To me, myself, I don't think it did have a factor in it. I think it was just a unique accident, you know what I mean?" S