Vincent Mayhew was my brother. We called him Vinnie. You might have known him as Vin, Minnie or ‘Nutbag’; his nickname in high school…when kids morph into adults and develop that incisive wit. Whatever name you knew him by, there’s a fair chance you weren’t his friend. Vinnie had few of these. He was a troubled kid, a ‘real gift that keeps on giving’ my parents would say, with as much sarcasm as they could muster. But their opinion didn’t count. We never let it. Growing up, he was the best brother anyone could wish for. He was like an open wound: raw and exposed.
Was hanging out with him ever embarrassing? Sure, he was unpredictable, insular and crippled by all sorts of phobias. Was I protective of him? You bet; he was unpredictable, insular and crippled by all sorts of phobias. Declining them all would take too long, but, in a nutshell, he wasn’t big on crowds or heights, had a fairly run-of-the-mill fear of the dark, spiders and sharks. But the one that really stuck out was his terror of shoelaces, or pretty much all things string-looking. Linonophobia to be precise. I did my homework. I pretty much had to when our parents gave up on him.
‘Big woop’, they would tell him, when Vinnie panted and contorted his face and body in all sorts of balloon animal-looking shapes at the mere thought of walking past our grandmother’s sideboard, where a basket of yarn took pride of place.
‘I’ll just move the basket to the guest room’, grandma offered, ‘it’s no bother’.
But our father would just pummel the table with his fist and tell her to leave it there.
‘We all got stuff we don’t like! He just needs to toughen up and get the hell over it.’
Linonophobia was pretty unusual at such a young age. It developed when he was four or five; he didn’t like to be held back, or restrained, even playfully.
As the years went by, unbeknownst by my parents, I tried to string-proof our house and to a certain extent, his life. In school buses, Vinnie often placed both hands over his throat, in case someone tried to strangle him from behind. Strings seemed more threatening to him when they were free-flowing and looked like they had a life of their own as little Jimmy Fisher, our next-door neighbour, found that out the hard way. Dressed up in his shiny new cowboy outfit for Halloween, back in 1987, he tried to lasso my brother to the ground and brand him like cattle with a makeshift branding iron. I only had time to say ‘Jimmy be care…’ before Vinnie bucked in his shins, panting and whining, and head-butted him in the chin as he jumped back to his feet. Jimmy was dragged back to his house with a chipped tooth, blood trickling down the strings of his bolo tie and a look of stunned terror.
As his condition worsened with age, grandma bought him brand new Velcro trainers and held her hand out to silence my father’s likely disapproval, adding:
‘Your son fainted twice, just tying his own shoelaces, so don’t give me no bull about him getting a grip.’
Vinnie’s face beamed at the discovery that he didn’t always have to face his fears. He could also avoid them. He wore them for years, walking around like a geisha in the shoes he’d outgrown.
So many things could have been done to help Vinnie out, if only my parents hadn’t treated him like a tempestuous and erratic child.
When Vinnie decided to train as a clown and join the ‘Magic Lamp’, a charity that specialised in clowns and acrobats for prison and hospital entertainment, my mother just stared at me, as if Vinnie wasn’t even in the room, and cried out ‘but he’s gonna get raped!’
Although I never shared my mother’s random hysteria, I must admit I never understood Vinnie’s decision to become a clown either. I supported it as much as I could, but never understood it. What surprised me most was his desire to train as a ‘jailhouse clown’. I worried about him. Vinnie had become such a gentle and sensitive guy, with long black lashes framing his pensive blue eyes. I was afraid of what could happen to him if he stumbled into jail, all goofy acting and candid.
And why would inmates want to be entertained by a clown? I mean, everybody hates clowns. The only ones who don’t, or so I thought, are sheltered kids and questionable adults. He was basically training to become a human punching-ball.
I thought of talking him out of it, but my wife stopped me.
‘I think it’s a great idea.’
‘The hell it is. They’re gonna kill him!’
‘Okay, first of all, I’m sure that if Vinnie entertains inmates in a facility, there will be prison guards present. And second, have you not seen the change in your brother these past few months?’
‘What? What change?’
‘He’s tough, honey.’
‘Vinnie’s not tough.’
‘I know he’s a really sensitive guy, but he’s changed. It’s like he’s formed callouses, you know, mentally. Emancipated.’
I guess I’d been neglecting him a bit. I mean, I still saw him every weekend, but I didn’t make much of an effort. Work was intense and I liked to relax with a beer, and watch baseball and well…Vinnie…didn’t exactly know how to relax. He didn’t drink, didn’t like sports and couldn’t handle small talk. Everything with him was a question. I’m not proud of it, but I did let Jenny handle him; she loved hanging out with him. I’d stuck around through childhood, adolescence, his early twenties; made sure he fit in. I guess I just felt that I’d done my bit.
Jenny was right. The inmates loved him. It shattered my cynical view of society; these men and women, some of whom had committed unspeakable crimes, loved Vinnie. Not in a mocking, cruel way. They loved his candour, his sincerity, his spontaneity. It was like he gave them all permission, for a couple of hours a week, to be kids again; to laugh, to scream, to goof around.
But the ‘Magic lamp’ didn’t pay all that well, so Vinnie would sometimes take on kid’s birthday parties here and there, just for the money. Jenny found him those gigs; she would bake the cakes, and he would entertain the kids.
She was with him that day at the Winslows’, for their daughter Isabella’s sixth birthday. She was there when he died; his neck fractured, his head at a 90-degree angle against the edge of the Winslows’ flowerbed, 18 shards of glass lodged in his body. She was there to hear the shattering crash of the French windows on the first floor of the Winslows’ villa and Charlotte Winslow’s high-pitched shriek, as the clown, my brother, plummeted to his death and landed only a few feet from where she and a few other mothers were enjoying cocktails while their children played. She was there when eight children, high on candy and frosting, silly-string in hand, laughed and yelled as they chased the clown through the French window of the first-floor living-room. She was there to see the panic and terror in Vinnie’s eyes as strings of all colours flew at him, to see him trip over his clown shoes, on which Jenny had replaced shoelaces with Velcro, and dive head first through the pane.
She was there to tell me that my brother had passed and to watch me break down.
As the days went by, Vinnie’s death started affecting our relationship. I was still in shock, but Jenny…Jenny was mad. Furious. She was out for blood. She needed someone to pay, so she focussed all her rage on me. I guess people express their grief in different ways, but Jenny’s feelings confused me, trampled all over mine. I had lost my brother and all I wanted was to lay him to rest and cherish his memory. The shit storm of anger she unleashed on me left no space for my grief. She accused me of being too passive: didn’t I care about Vinnie? Didn’t I blame her for what happened, or the Winslows?
All I knew was that his phobia had killed him; not the kids, not her. It was an accident. A tragic one, but still an accident. Vinnie was a sweet and gentle guy; there no place for violence in his life, or in his death.
So, she left me. Right there and then.
Six months later, she gave birth to a boy. The child was mine, but she didn’t need me to raise him.
To me, betrayal had always tasted like metal. And there it was again, at the back of my throat, the familiar metallic taste I’d last swallowed two years ago, when I had a vasectomy without telling her.
She named him Vinnie.