I guess our parents were courting disaster by giving us those names: my brother Gallant, named after our great-great-great uncle, civil war hero Gallantry Baumont Hemstead III; and me, Goofus, named after the reviled Roman emperor Goofus Ignatious.
So looking back it makes sense that I’d become the bad seed, known for my reckless, selfish behavior, my trademark disheveled hair and angrily slanted eyebrows. It makes sense that I’d wind up here – on the wrong side of every moral choice. Always the bad example, the embodiment of pre-teen iniquity.
But I want to take you back, before my drift to the dark side. Back to the days when the only rifts between Gallant and me were over who had first crack at helping the elderly across the street.
It started with Diana. The door of those salad days was slammed shut the day she eased into my life. She made sure of that the second I peered past those soot-black bangs and into her eyes, those dancing pools of amber. She could have reached right in and grabbed my soul if she’d wanted it. And I would only have asked if there was anything else she needed.
But before I could find the right words, she scampered away and disappeared into a thicket of pre-pubescence gathered at the punch bowl. I needed some air, needed to recover from the jaw-crushing jab of this goddess’s grand entrance. So I did what I always did in those days: I went to the kitchen to offer my assistance.
The kitchen was empty. Nothing around but a lone peanut butter cookie resting atop a pan. A voice from behind sent me to the floor:
“Nice cookie, isn’t it?”
I turned. It was Diana.
“My favorite. Peanut butter,” I said.
“Why don’t you take it?”
“But… it’s the last cookie. That would be wrong,” I whimpered.
“Take the cookie, Goofus. Come on. Be a man. Be a man who takes what he wants, plays by his own rules. Take the cookie.”
I took the cookie. And savored every morsel, every tummy-tickling bite. When I turned, she was gone. But she was far from done with me.
She darted back into my life later that week when I found a dollar under the monkey bars. I was all set to turn it in, when that voice once again floated just above a whisper and told me not to bother.
“But it’s not mine,” I protested.
“It is if you want it.”
She was good at this. The games had just begun and I was ready to surrender.
For days at a time you couldn’t have pried us apart with a pair of tow trucks. We were always joined in some manner of mayhem: happily eating the last of something; not returning lost wallets; refusing to notify the police of suspicious behavior. It was a rollicking weekend away from my normal life, a respite from a colorless road to nowhere. But there was always the danger that it could more.
And when she showed up at the ice cream stand with a pistol and a mischievous gleam flickering in her eyes, I knew that this party had become something else. Something I could never turn back from.
“Where did you get this?” I gasped.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
It was beautiful, alright. A shiny black 9mm, loaded with the promise of a powerful kickback and an impact that wouldn’t soon be forgotten. It fit my hand like a second layer of skin, light enough to be tilted, tossed, arched and aimed at any unsettled face that asked for it. Heavy enough to feel like a thousand ball-peen hammers, resting in my palm and ready to strike all at once.
“Remember that motorcycle jacket we saw at Sears?”
“What about it?” I asked.
“You shove this in your boss’s face and you’ve got enough for the jacket and then some.”
“I don’t know Diana…”
“Goofus, be a man. Take what’s yours.”
Those eyes shone into mine like the headlights of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler. Too late to get out of the way. Nothing to do but give in to the light, hope for the best.
I tucked the gun away as she scurried to the alley. Seconds later, she came back with a facemask found in a dumpster. We shared grim smiles as the sun curled away and surrendered to evening. With the change of scenery in place, I ambled toward the stage, face concealed and weapon extended, ready to roar.
“Give me the money – all of it!” I demanded.
“Goofus?” my boss, Mr. Haines, quivered.
Shit! I thought. Maybe I should have changed my clothes first, or my voice or something.
“No, it’s not me! I mean, it’s not Goofus – Just give me the Goddamned money!”
“Okay, but no need for that language, young man.”
From behind: a tortured squeal that seemed to last forever. This was Marie. Sweet, guileless, exploding with child-like glee when she didn’t have a pistol in her face. But she had backed into something she wasn’t ready for. Something I can never forgive myself for if I live to be a thousand.
But I panicked. She started to scramble away and with Mr. Haines easing up to me on one side and her racing into the street, I didn’t know what this runaway train could crash into. So I plugged her twice in the back of the head, sent her plopping to the ground like ninety-five pounds of sausage wrapped in a polka-dotted sundress.
I swung to find a frozen Mr. Haines, his mouth stretched open and his eyes seemingly searching for a way out. He had seen too much. It was clear that I had to do something about that.
There’s something about the meeting of bullet and brain. It pulls you into a spectacle that is repulsive, nasty, brutal. But you never quite want the tour to end. You cannot look, and you cannot look away.
The money was an afterthought, really. The exclamation point concluding a breathtaking sentence. I tucked it away and surveyed the damage, then slipped home for a tool to finish the job.
“Mom, could I please borrow a shovel?” I asked.
It was my last act of politeness. Ever.
I didn’t know right away how Gallant put things together, but when the police dragged me off to the station, his face was split by a telltale grin. He knew something. But how?
Once we got to the station, the police had mercy on me. They could see that whatever demons drove me to this act of horror were beyond my control.
On my first break home from the asylum it occurred to me how Gallant added things up: Diana – she had talked too much. And here I was thinking she spoke only to me.
She might have wanted to keep her mouth shut for her own good: eight days later she was sent to the pound and put to sleep, supposedly for taking a nip at a mailman’s ankle – but we both knew the score.
I miss Diana, and sometimes I can hear her howls in the night, urging me into ever-dangerous territory, into deeper plunges of inappropriate revelry.
So while Gallant washes the dishes, offers to help, cleans up after himself and shares with others, I crouch in the corners of my new dwelling on the dark side, seething in the shadows and dishing out my vengeance – one glorious, self-serving bad example at a time.
Bio: Copper Smith is the chief hooligan responsible for UppercutAvenue.com. He invites you to dial up something the kids call ‘The Twitter’ so you can follow him home, or something like that. @UppercutAvenue