If you can remember the movie A Christmas Story -- which plays in concert with every holiday season -- starring a towheaded four-eyed boy named Peter Billingsley, his character, "Ralphie," bears an uncanny resemblance to my brother at that age. I love this movie, but that's not important right now.
As a kid, hanging out with my brother, I often felt accomplice to a very lowbrow style of Vaudevillian crime. My friends and I were eternally caught in the crossfire of his evermore, spectacular stupidity. As if by magic, he could transform a simple trip to grandma's house into a felony, while simultaneously he could have you rolling on the ground with his unique brand of electric hilarity. He once set fire to a tree at the side of our elementary school and in an aborted attempt to extinguish the rapidly spreading structure fire, fled to retrieve water IN THE BURNING SCHOOL. Needless to say, he was apprehended almost immediately -- invariably punctuating each stunt by flashing me a look of heartbreaking bewilderment. "Ryan, I'm such an idiot," he'd say in his imploring tone. "Ryan, I'm so dead" or "Ryan, I'm-in-so-much-trouble." As though these declarations would somehow turn back time or rescue him from whatever punishment lay in waiting. With that pair of crooked coke-bottle glasses perched on his nose, his face begat a sympathetic quality impossible to ignore. He was almost adorable in his mismanaged existence.
Before becoming the successful, strong willed rock he is today, Gordie was a socially awkward kid. He didn't have many friends back in the day, and found himself relating more to my gang, two years his junior. His character was divided between a wellspring of innocence and an Evil Knievel-like fearlessness that seemingly had no limits. Around my friends, the desire to impress brought these two opposing traits into a kind of crude harmony, the results of which were often memorable for me, and deeply embarrassing for my father -- who had the temperament and patience of a landmine. Yet, no matter what consequences followed our misadventures, my brother was forever willing to laugh at himself, provided no one else laughed first -- as though he wanted stock options in his own humiliation. On the surface he seemed a black cat outlaw. If he crossed your path, there's a good chance you're fucked. But to me, he was also a hero. A Clown God.
As was tradition each Halloween, we would accumulate an arsenal of illegally purchased firecrackers and smoke bombs from the local Indian reservation and wander the neighborhoods in search of trouble. A particular Halloween that remains fond in memory was 1988. I was eleven years old and Gordie was at his havoc-wreaking peak. Shortly after depleting our stash of Cherry Bombs and Mighty-Mights in surrounding mail boxes, homes and slow-running civil servants -- he came upon what appeared to be the mother of all dog turds, left by what seemed to be some sort of supernatural Great Dane. Or perhaps something even bigger did this... It was huge. And not at all congealed. My friends and I sidestepped the rancid pool of festering horror and kept walking. Why wouldn't we? It was something to be avoided, something to childishly crack wise about and forget. But not for Gordie. No. To him, it was the mother load -- a munificent holy grail of prepubescent anarchy. As far as he was concerned, we may have been staring at an alarmingly large pile of excrement. But what he was staring at, was greatness.
Unfortunately, we were fresh out of firecrackers, save for one precious Mighty-Might residing in my brother's right breast pocket. He removed it with a care and delicacy reserved for such an auspicious discovery, placing it with pride in the center of the specimen. My friends and I giddily watched from a safe distance as Gordie pushed the glasses up the bridge of his sweaty nose, carefully lit the fuse and awkwardly fled for cover. But sadly, no explosion followed. No horrible shit-storm. Nothing. Moments later, Gordie returned to the extinguished fuse, which despite repeated attempts, wouldn't stay lit in the damp Vancouver air. Our time was running out. Dinner was surely on the table by now -- and experience had taught us not to be late. Surrendering to the reality we may not bear witness to his final act of small-minded lawlessness, Gordie soldiered on. Without even a flicker of reason, he continued, obsessively so, lighting the moist fuse until it looked like a tiny pimple atop a giant volcano of ass -- the obvious dangers of igniting a fuse so short, miraculously lost on him. And it was that day, that precise moment, I remember for the first time, grappling with dueling factions of my nature. The side of me that wanted to be a decent brother and tell him to forget about it -- live to fight another day, and this other darker, more devilish side that just wanted to see something awful. And it was also that day, the dark side won.
My brother had been dealt a lot of tough cards in life, yet it was as though in this moment, he just kept telling the dealer, "hit me." As I remember it, I just sorta sat there watching stupidity in perfect harmony with conviction, while the following unfolded in slow motion...
Pressing the lighter to the fuse, his mouth left dangerously agape in its usual slack jawed indignity, the scene scored perfectly with the nauseating music of anticipation; he gave it one more try. An agonizing second later, the firecracker, along with Gordie saw its destiny in one swift, undeniable explosion delivered straight from hell itself. This thing didn't simply explode. No. As if guided by the Rectum of God, every last fleck of feces coated my brother from head to toe -- including the back of his throat, left brilliantly exposed to the hurtling ocean of diarrhea. He stood there motionless, still hunched over with the lighter in his hand, looking like a duped-again Wile E. Coyote. He removed his glasses and what remained were two perfect circles of white skin, broken only by a single shocked tear, rolling down a freshly painted cheek. We both knew there was no way to hide this -- No way to explain to our old man why his son had become a shit-covered effigy to Planned Parenthood. We both knew he was screwed. And with that face, that perennial target of bittersweet happenstance, he just looked at me for a long while, keeping his mouth open to avoid savoring any of the excrement that now wholly encrusted his palette. And without even the slightest trace of irony, the Clown God unconsciously said something I'll never forget... "Ryan, I'm such a shit-head."