Vin’s bogus suicide scrawl lay pinned beneath an ashtray filled with an alp of smashed Camels—we saw it on the folding table when we entered his garage. Vin is our cousin and he’d hired my brother Ralph and me to remodel the three-million-dollar beach monstrosity he’d bought in Jersey just north of Belmont.
I’d recently and just barely graduated from Rutgers with a psychology degree I couldn’t see the point of. I’d read the scribblings of Misters Winnicott and Fromm but couldn’t tell you how one differed from the other. I’d also been dished the yawning theory which declares that every problem in my orbit, from the struggling pistons of my heart to traffic clots in central Jersey, could be blamed on my mother. This was convenient: neither Ralph nor I had seen or spoken to our mother since we were freckled grade-schoolers trying to figure out long division and what it could possibly mean for us. She went poof on our father and us without any warning I could discern, after which Ralph and I saw her twice and never again, though my dreaming life was full of her. Ralph was bitter. I was not, though I was in the bad-taste habit of telling people that she was a virgin in a convent.
My brother is an artistic carpenter and doesn’t mind bragging about this, all those wood skills he learned from our dad. I had not learned them, but Ralph was giving me this charity-work for the summer, mocking me when I screwed up, which was often, and lauding me when I pounded in a ten-penny nail without bending it, which was not. We started at six each morning, and for someone who’d just spent four years in college cocooned in bed till ten, this was downright unholy. I had to learn what a soffit is, a gable, that hanging a door requires shims, that two-by-four studs are spaced every sixteen inches in a wall, that spackle takes a full day to dry. I loathed every day of it, but my prospects were pretty dismal. Anyone can tell you that an undergraduate degree in psychology is well-nigh worthless except to go to grad school, which interested me not at all.
It was still dark that August morning. We could hear the waves swishing onto the sand, and I clicked on the fluorescent lights in Vin’s garage. The hood of his new Cadillac—his second in as many months—was still warm, which told me he’d been wide-eyed all night and recently returned after some excursion to god-knows-where with god-knows-whom. Ralph went to the table, yanked the note from underneath the ashtray, read it, and said: “No way.” He then handed it to me, adding: “S.O.B. has really flipped his lid this time.”
Four years earlier, Vin had begun to slip, chemically. He was tagged with bipolar II and fed Lithium, and then Zoloft, and then new pills I’d never learned the names of, all of which refused to get along with his odd blood. He’d become the batty ill one in our family, so we were no longer jolted when he lay catatonic in bed for a week, or began dating the Mexican food-delivery woman, or came home in a new Corvette or Cadillac he couldn’t afford, or announced to everyone that he was becoming a priest, a copy of Aquinas under his arm. His many millions were hostage in numerous real-estate ventures, which had begun imploding and dissolving one by one, sometimes two by two, and this didn’t help. This absurd beach house he’d hired us to improve had been bought during another burst of mania.
Because I’d read all the relevant names in college, my family made the error of looking to me to help mend Vin’s blighted mind, to somehow rescue him. When I tried explaining that one majors in psychology mostly by default, only when one can’t get any traction in anything useful, employable, they wondered why I’d borrowed a fortune for a degree it would take half my life to pay back. It was, I saw, a good question.
Vin had addressed the note to Ralph. It began this way: “I’m bummed it has to be you who finds me, cousin, but you’ve always been the mighty one in our family.”
I said: “Holy moly.”
“Goddamn guy snapped his cap.”
We went to the back deck and patio we’d just built the week before and there we spotted Vin hanging from a second-story window. The dawn had yet to breathe out its brighter hues but I could see that Vin was wearing his flannel shirt, paint-stained jeans, and Yankees cap.
Ralph said: “Jesus in heaven.”
I couldn’t say a thing.
When we approached the side of the house we saw that Vin had concocted an impressive dummy and dressed it in his work clothes. He must have spent half the snoozeless night crafting this thing.
I said: “Son of a bitch.”
Ralph scratched at his stubbled scalp and looked only moderately relieved. The first hint of tardy sun glowed now at the ocean’s rim and I saw that the back gate had been swung open, the same gate and fence I’d spent three medieval days scouring with the electric sander, priming with clear coat, and painting white. Out there on the sand, walking down to the water, were footsteps, but no footsteps returned, and no sign of Vin.
Ralph said: “The psycho drowned himself?”
We rushed to where waves spread on the shore and Ralph hollered out for Vin. I trotted over to the wall of wet rocks to see if he was hiding on the other side, wading waist-high. Way out there were men on boats who knew nothing about us or how this day would unfurl.
A gray jogger came past and I said: “Sir, you see a guy in the water? About my height? Crazy-looking?”
He shook an indifferent head and kept jogging. I dashed over to Ralph and looked into eyes wider than I’d seen since our father had told us that our mother was gone. Although the morning was still a welcome sixty-five, dots of sweat had showed up on my lip. I began rehearsing ways to tell Vin’s mom, our too-rich aunty who’d always been sweet to me, that her son had gone to slumber in the Atlantic.
Ralph said: “Look,” and pointed up at Vin’s house. In an upper-floor window was the silhouette of someone in front of a shadeless lamp.
“Bastard’s up there laughing at us.” Ralph began striding and I followed.
I loved Vin for a lone reason that had zero to do with blood. When our father was killed falling from a roof, Vin didn’t leave my side for three days and three nights. Between his death and resurrection, Christ spent three days giving tips to the no-doubt grateful damned. Vin was like that: he slept nights on the floor beside my bed, and as I seized with grief he reached up his hand to squeeze mine. He fetched my flavorless food and took all my weeping phone calls. You cannot buy that breed of devotion. There’s a word we could use more of.
So I couldn’t guess what I’d do now when we found him. Ralph, though, was incensed, I could see. With such roving weathers inside him, he was likely to backhand Vin. Going through the patio door into the kitchen—it took me eight tries to get that door on right—I was surprised to see a tear plummet from Ralph’s mustache.
Working with him five, often six days a week was a mild perdition I probably deserved. He was forever promising to can me because I had no knack for carpentry or building of any sort. Indoor plumbing was a mystery up there with the grace of God. Ralph said I was not our father’s son, and very far from the carpenter Christ was, and how could I counter that? I was a clumsy one, yes, and couldn’t tell 1/16th from 1/8th on a tape measure.
Because he was two years older, and because our father was dead, Ralph considered it his familial duty to teach me sundry lessons about living and what it leads to. Lessons, he was adamant, that are impossible to pick up on a university campus. Never mind that I’d trekked to almost every state in our land, and to Iceland and Sweden, too, while he had never even left the New York/New Jersey tag-team. To him I was still an inept clod because I’d never been a member of the workforce. I didn’t care to see the workers of the world unite. So I suppose I was not a real American in that regard: I did not buy the dogma that declared hard work the avenue to happiness.