When my cousin, Zo, was born, his Italian mom wanted to name him Lorenzo, after Lorenzo de Medici. Grand as the connotation was, it clashed with the Celtic surname Zo’s father bore proudly. As will happen, Mom had her way, but a tension was created that defined Zo McEichern’s life. Eventually, he became one of those haunted people with whom one didn’t mess. Zo tracks mud on the rug, I overlook it. Picking up delinquent accounts for collection, he’s jabbering the minute he’s in the door. “Remember, Cliffy, half and half,” he says with his twisted Juvenile Farm grad grin.
“I already forgot, Zo.”
He fondles my tiger sculpture. Throws an evil wink. “I don’t do cash,” he says. “It ain’t robbery if I rattle some deadbeat’s cage for a quick pay.”
Two accounts are there when I open the next morning, cashing me out. I put Zo’s check in the mail, pay my rent to Whispering Alice Machesney, my landlady; get my shoes half-soled; buy bananas and Italian bread. As the deadbeats are peeling off my cash, I make a mental note of the fear in their eyes. Gradually, Zo’s losing his own eyesight, but it doesn’t seem to have slowed him down any, collection wise.
Zo crushed his first knuckle in late middle school, never looked back. Real talent for misbehavior. I started my first business, Cliff and Associates Lawn Care, around that same time. I was fifteen; CEO. My dog, Gus, was the associate. Cousin Zo said at the time that cutting lawns for peanuts was a sucker play. I cut two lawns, got stiffed twice by fast talking real estate agents, ended up wondering if he was right. Years later, out of school, I installed air-conditioners and fans. Zo said that was a sucker play, too. He showed me his flashy watch with nine face functions. Cost what I made in two months.
At the encouragement of my mentor, Mrs. Vespucci, I launched a career in furniture, art and antique brass. It was my first exposure to the world of misbehavior. Mrs. V. rented a warehouse downtown. She sold exotic accessories to decorators for the chic vestibules of jaded ladies on the Upper East Side. Widow of the late organized crime figure, Don Carmine Vespucci, Mrs. V., in her seventies and virtually broke after the Feds seized the family assets, prevailed all the same, eventually becoming a big player in the upscale decorator markets. In my youth, she’d often pitched in with overbearing aunt duty while my real overbearing aunt, Phyllis, her friend, dried out.
One Sunday morning, I got an urgent call from Mrs. V.
“People are coming for Elmo because he’s the Don’s grandson,” she said, “settling scores from before he was born.” Her plan was simple. Having nothing better to do, Cliffy would drive upstate to South Falls and bring Elmo home like a lost dog. No stranger to misbehavior herself, Mrs. V. was steadfastly intolerant of even the slightest hint of misbehavior in others. The muddle-heads at the upstate artist colony in South Falls, she said, were to blame for Elmo’s defection from family ranks.
“Elmo’s been sold a gold brick, Cliff,” she said, stuffing a wad of bills in my shirt pocket. “Tie him to the fender like a moose if you have to, Cliffy.” They were the kind of marching orders my own sadistic Aunt Phyllis might’ve come up with, just before she kicked the dog. Elmo had lost his way and needed to return to the real world of the family business. He also needed to be vigilant against the onset of conscience.
The bonfire on the village green was smoldering as I arrived late in South Falls. The crowd had mostly gone, all but a few who sat watching the dying embers. Elmo was sitting on a blanket with a skinny, dark-haired girl in knee-torn jeans, both staring into the fire with the dreamy looks of people watching dancing flames. Innocence glowed in their faces.
I got a room at the motel on the highway, a place with a big red sign that flashed all night right outside my window. In the morning, I learned my car battery had passed away during the night. The local garage guy found an electrical problem, which explained the fickleness of my ignition. With the news that it would be several days to get the parts, I eased down into a new frame of mind. Down time was fine.
A Sermon Stump Gathering was on for that evening.
Sounded intriguing. The idea would be to get into the flow, back off on the go, go, go. Sporting shoulder-length hair and a prickly beard, Elmo grinned at the sight of crusty old Uncle Cliff, unconcerned about why I’d come. I treated him and his friends to lunch, brought him up to date on Mrs. V. and events in the city, and left to pay my last respects to my dead battery. Elmo went back to his room to prepare for what he called his ‘stint on the stump’.
In a natural amphitheatre surrounded by woods, a young poet cupped his hand to his ear, pausing to consider the thumping of empty freight cars in a far away railroad yard. “Sacred noise,” he called it, “that carries on the wind, titans brawling in an alley every night about this time.” The poet was an anonymous figure in subdued light, looking more or less as a poet should, delivering from the shadow this simple ode to the immediacy of surroundings. Enter Rosalie with bongos. Rosalie is a dark-eyed beauty. She sits in the grass, begins a slow and easy beat. The poet appears from shadow, moving to the tree stump and the small ring of light reserved for the week’s artist. The poet is Elmo. His demeanor is casual, bordering on reluctant. Young girls crouch in front, laying down lines in their sketch books.
Once on the stump, Elmo first became a warbler.
A clear bird call pierced the air, followed by a male voice, low and resonant, washing over the festivities like an ocean wave. “Happening upon green frogs by a pond,” Elmo intoned to the gentle tapping of the bongos, “I received a gift, a glimpse of how life was supposed to be.” In deference, the train car rumbling had fallen silent. The only sound was a gentle breeze in the trees.
“Art’s imagination is a vehicle to glide us outside time that we might gather with frogs,” Elmo said. “Where these frogs congregate, the sky is blue as blue ever was. Blessed with social simplicity, blessed with no needy masks non-frogs sometimes wore, they bore their concealed fears and longings, for these were surely among the happiest creatures on the face of the earth.”
Aging Annie Gage was quite taken by Elmo in a kind of ethereal, spiritual way. Annie was Rosalie’s skinny friend. She’d been along when we had lunch. We all liked each other immediately. Annie was a little closer to my age, no child, for sure. Still, an enthrallment enveloped her, Elmo and his frog paradise burned in her eyes. Rosalie’s red hair, meanwhile, threw warm and happy images of its own on the light.
Elmo and I took a walk on a path with tags identifying each tree and shrub, a nice little touch Rosalie and Cheryl added.
“You need to go see Grandmother Ameriga,” I said. “She’s getting on, Elmo. She wants to hear about your life. Share yourself with her. She won’t be around forever. Make your peace. She is a foolish old woman. Tell her what she wants to hear. Let her go to her grave happy.”
Elmo nodded patiently.
“I told you that story, Elmo, about my Aunt Phyllis promising my mother she’d see that I went to, —“
“Art school,” Elmo said. “I remember, Uncle Cliff.”
“When I challenged Phyllis about all her misbehavior, breaking her promises, drinking up the money; —you know what she said?”
Elmo smiled sympathetically.
“‘Eunie won’t care; she’s dead.’ That’s what she said.”
Elmo’s smile never dimmed. “Grandma V. is a wonderful soul,” he said. “She’s tied to the old ways. Grandpa V. runs our lives from the grave.”
As will happen with these high-strung artistic types, the object of my one way attraction, Annie Gage, was herself madly in love (unrequited) with handsome Freddie, who was in love with Cheryl, who was in love with John, who was in love with Et Cetera, who was in love with Ad Nausea, his fellow Latin teacher. On moonlit nights, Annie sat in her slat-back rocker, pining for young Freddie. Across a dark gravel parking lot, over in the so-called ‘A hole’, the compound named for its dominance by `anarchists, atheists, agnostics and other assorted a-types’, Freddie planned a late night date with Cheryl, where a bitter, derisive discussion would unfold regarding the irrelevance of God and the benefits of physical proximity.
Elmo and Rosalie functioned outside this daisy chain of misdirected affection. Elmo, being the only true newt in the gang of summer salamander wannabees, inspired Rosalie’s song:
Elmo, dear Elmo, we try to hang on to him,
Sing out our song to him,
Pine all night long for him,
But the wind has blown him a-way, a-way,
The wind has blown him a-way.
(He’s) Like a blind man marching in a blind folks’ parade;
Something he’s done has upset the sun,
Darkness has seized him and left him undone,
He’s climbed up a tree and will never come down again,
Never be ‘round again,
The wind has blown him a-way, a-way,
The wind has blown him a-way.
Elmo tried to keep his spiritual searches within range of the attainable. His was the path of the newt artist, stranded among non-newts. On first hearing that term, I assumed it described a young artist in some preliminary stage. This was half right. According to Annie Gage, there was also the failure factor. The vast majority of newts didn’t make it to the artistic adulthood of summer salamanders. The path was arduous. Distractions and obstacles were many. They went into food service, insurance or retail. The sadness was there in her eyes when she spoke of it. My own mom, the elusive Eunie, came to mind, with her sweet little chalk and charcoal sketches, stashed away in a trunk in the attic like Annie’s own would be some day. Sketches nobody would ever see.
Annie Gage was fetching.
Her skinny arms were ringed with silver bracelets that shimmered against her bronze skin. Her eyes sparkled like ice in the moonlight. She was far too good for the likes of brooding Freddie, the crepe hanging atheist. Conscious of the time slipping away, Annie knew she was too old for Freddie, just as I was too old for her, not necessarily in years, but in something else, compromises with misbehavior, perhaps. Things go that way sometimes.
We gazed at the moon in silence. I thought of Mrs. V., back in the city, too old herself, locked in a stuffy apartment, looking out the window at that same forlorn moon. Was it too pale there, too shrouded in city smog to influence any serious lunacy?
At Annie’s inspiration, I set about making a pair of sandals from leather scraps. Cutting and measuring for the first time in a long time, I began to appreciate Mrs. V.’s dilemma. Had her rival for Elmo been a conniving woman, or even the promise of far away places, she might’ve coped, but Art had stolen her grandson from her. Art was hard to fight. When I first told her, she said, “Who the fuck is Art?”
She was right to fret.
Working my leather, trying to force new shapes on this stubborn stuff, I was soon redefined by puerile exuberance and naiveté. They laughed at my sandals, and rightfully so. They were ugly and clumsy, unwearable. Annie said they were a perfect first effort, and should be put immediately into the Sandal Hall of Fame, which she created for just that purpose.
They were all creative people.
In one day, they built a twenty two foot flume to divert fresh water to a duck pond near the atheist compound. The flume worked for a short time, but eventually collapsed under the weight of the water. Annie Gage painted a picture of the flume from memory using natural colors made from various powders and stream bed clays. It was quite good. We stretched the canvas on a frame, mounted the frame on a tree trunk in the woods. Annie urged everyone to see it before the next rain washed it away.
My car issues were resolved around this time.
I seriously considered disappearing at first light with my sandals and my sanity. I could mail Mrs. V. her money back, turn my part of the business back over to her; try my luck in Southern California, where Art is truly appreciated.
Elmo was the man in Rosalie’s song, parading down Main Street just around midnight, smack in the middle of the annual midnight parade of the blind folks and their friends in dark glasses, envisioned in one of Elmo poems. Elmo wasn’t blind. He was the only one who could see, some believed. In good conscience, he could no longer pretend to be blind to spare their feelings. Elmo needed to be moving on. He’d been a newt long enough. Rosalie smiled bravely, devastated at having to say goodbye with a smile. In the face of such devotion, my bond to drag Elmo back to the city seemed more than misbehavior. It seemed evil and destructive.
Annie’s alarm buzzed at five.
The trail above the lake began with flat easy going and great expectations. As we moved along in the pre-dawn darkness, the trail narrowed and grew steep. Joined by half a dozen others, we climbed through the pine forest toward the distant ridge. Word was being whispered all around as we went. This was for Elmo. It was his time to be moving on. Not clear where he was going, or precisely why, only that he was going because it was time to say goodbye.
People were on the ridge, huddled together on blankets. Some were sleeping in bags scattered around the smoldering remnants of a fire. As the first faint rays of light caressed the trees, soft and muffled voices began whispering. Rising above the mist on the ridge was a tall oak. At the base of the tree was a sign, like the ones you saw in the village, identifying trees and plants.
The sign read, ‘Hanging Elmo’.
A bunch of people were gathered. Rosalie was strumming a guitar while Cheryl looked on, clutching a notebook. Cheryl’s hair was down over her eyes, giving her a look of dishevelment that was pure deception. In truth, Cheryl’s mind was an endless landscape of offbeat scenarios. Whatever was about to unfold was surely incubated there, sketched off in Cheryl’s notebook and described to the last detail in her cryptic prose. Cheryl had contacts in the city. Cheryl could trust Rosalie and several others when it came to protecting their friend, Elmo.
As the sky brightened, people began pointing toward the top of one of the large trees. Something was flapping up there in the wind, barely visible among the branches, slapping like a shirt tail. Expecting who knew what, the townie ghouls, the freaks and the preppie rebs had all made their silent pilgrimage to the ridge. They stood there staring with the rest, mostly country kids transplanted to the city.
“There were people around the tree all night,” Freddie said.
“What’s with the sign?” A preppie reb wondered, getting that quizzical ‘preppie reb’ frown going.
“A tree can be a work of art,” Cheryl said, “especially if someone artful is artfully displayed through it.”
“Doing something artful,” Rosalie added, sending a titter through the crowd.
“Trunks made into totems,” Lenny, one of the crazy freaks said, standing stiff with his arms at his side, “and not just utility poles.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Cheryl said, laughing.
“Sticking a sign on something doesn’t make it art unless somebody’s actually in the tree. Is that how it works?” It was a voice dripping with evil and contempt. One I recognized immediately. Zo McEichern. Just what we needed.
Zo was smiling that crooked, nasty smile of his, taking casual measure of the crowd. He’s been losing his sight gradually for years. Now, he was hanging at the edge, a blind crocodile on the river bank, under Elmo’s tree, listening for something to go after. The black jacket and the sunglasses were cool Zo all the way. The cold, empty smile was reptilian as it gets. Mr. Misbehavior himself. Not buying into whatever dodge these kids were selling.
Cheryl had turned to face him. “That’s how it works,” she said.
The fact that Whispering Alice, my landlady, was with Zo unnerved me, seeing that I wasn’t aware they even knew each other. Alice looked over and waved. She said something to Zo, causing him to smile. “How’s it going?”
“Going okay, Zo.”
“Enjoying hanging with the young girls, Cliffy?”
“Mrs. V. needs to see Elmo right away, Cliffy,” Zo said.
“Haven’t seen him around today. You try his room?”
“There was talk about Elmo hanging in a tree out here, but Mrs. Mac says there’s nothing up there but some loose cloth.” He scowled. Guided at the elbow by Whispering Alice, he moved closer. Near the base of the tree, he called out, “Elmo, this is Zo McEichern. Grandma Vespucci sent me. She wants to see you.”
The crowd, Rosalie and Cheryl, Annie Gage and Freddie, the townies, the bib overall freaks and preppy rebs, remained silent, watching blind Zo as he stared up into the tree with creaky old Alice on his arm, at once menacing and pathetic.
“What’s with the sign, —Hanging Elmo?”
From among the preppy rebs, Cheryl’s friend, Kiah, spoke up with her Boston accent, and her sweet smile. “Remembrance of our friend,” she said.
“Is he still up there?” Zo said, turning in Kiah’s direction.
“Some think so, but I personally don’t,” a townie named Ruth said. She was one who pitched in on the flume, saying all the while it would fall. “Some were here all night. Elmo climbed up, but never came down.”
“Not that anybody saw.”
“He’s not in his room,” a preppy reb named Roy said.
“He’s not in the cafeteria or the library,” Freddie said.
“He’s not anywhere, we looked,” Kiah said.
“I think he climbed down in the night,” Doug said. Doug was a preppie reb, a lanky, handsome kid in faded jeans and a Yellow Dog Blues Band t-shirt.
A magnificently tattooed, spike-haired townie ghoul named Ted, with leather wrist bands spoke up, saying, “Elmo’s gone. They climbed the tree, shined flashlights. He wasn’t there. Just a scrap of cloth.”
“You think he’s up there, Cliffy?” Zo said.
“He’s not up there, Zo.”
“Right.” Zo made a contemptuous sneer. Whispering Alice was frowning. Elmo was a possum. They had him treed, and couldn’t wait to hand him up for money.
Annie began singing Rosalie’s song about Elmo. Rosalie joined in on the guitar, followed by townies and preppy rebs until almost everybody was singing. If anybody knew what happened to Elmo, they weren’t saying. Rosalie and Cheryl knew, you can bet. Not my place to ask. Besides, I didn’t want to know. Rosalie, Cheryl and the others had formed a loose procession and were filing out behind Annie, still singing, ‘and the wind has blown him away, away, —’.
Zo and Alice waited below the tree. Zo was telling Alice about a time when Elmo was little, how they had a birthday party, and Grandpa V. gave him a pony, but he was afraid of the pony and cried the whole time. Zo laughed about what suckers they were, letting the little kid buffalo them over a damn pony. “Elmo was too little for a pony,” he kept saying.
Dark clouds had gathered overhead. The sun had all but disappeared. Whispering Alice smiled as I approached. The singers were on their way back down the ridge, their voices replaced by distant claps of thunder. It was drizzling. Not far from Elmo’s tree, little green frogs were hopping around in a muddy patch of creek bed, which gave me cause to laugh. Zo and Alice were still hanging around at the base of the tree when I started back down the hill.
Photo By: John Tornow