Dire Straits

By Ed Staskus

   Nobody knew why Orange Eyes wanted to go back to the Riverside Cemetery in Cleveland, but he did. Even Frogman, his neighbor, didn’t know. All he knew was one morning his good buddy was hitchhiking on Route 603. After two days of nobody picking him up and lots of fender benders caused by surprised drivers swerving at the sight of him, he started hoofing it. 

   He stood out like a sore thumb. He was 9 feet tall, tipped the scales at a quarter ton, and was green as celery. He could have been the Plantman of Ashland, since if he lost an arm or a leg it grew back like plants do it, but he wasn’t. He belonged to the Bigfoot clan. Everybody called him Orange Eyes.

   “It’s the first thing everybody notices,” Frogman said. “They glow like coals.”

   Charles Mill Lake south of Ashland had been his home for many years. He knew all the nooks and crannies on the shoreline. The first time anybody ever saw him there was when he bumped into the back of a 1947 Buick Super Sedan parked on Ruggles Rd. on a dark overcast night in March 1959. Ruggles Rd. was known as Lover’s Lane among teenagers in Ashland and Mansfield. Every spring night it was packed with parked cars all steamed up. When he looked through the rear window of the Buick, he scared the pants off a pair of teenagers trying to get to second base. They didn’t bother to button up racing away for home.

   Orange Eyes couldn’t remember where he had been born, but he remembered the night he walked into Riverside Cemetery on Pearl Rd. in 1881, five years after it opened. It was 100 acres of lakes and elm-lined shady paths. When he found a tunnel under the graveyard, he knew it was the place for him. He stayed for almost 70 years.

   His hideaway was home, but after World War Two was won and done Cleveland grew like nobody’s business. Urban expansion pushed into the west and south sides. He heard about “I Like Ike” plans for Interstate 71 and State Route 176, which would cut the cemetery off from the Cuyahoga River. It was where he went fishing every night. What was he going to eat? He didn’t want to try any cafeterias in the steel plants. The food was out-of-date by the time it got there.

   He walked the 70 miles south to Charles Mill Lake and had been there ever since. The living was easy most of the time, except for the picnic mash-up. It was a big mistake. It could have cost him an arm or a leg.

   He was stretching his legs and rambled into the middle of a middle of the night get together. It was a steamy summer night and there was a full moon. Nobody could sleep, including Orange Eyes. Three or four families were laying out on blankets eating cold chicken and potato salad. The men and women were drinking Schlitz beer. The kids were worn out and sprawled all over the place.

   He wasn’t watching his step and almost stepped on one of the kids. There was a pause and then pandemonium. The boy went one way, and he went the other way.

   Once the horrified picnickers got over their fright, the men armed themselves with baseball bats and tire irons. The women and children locked themselves in their cars. The posse beat the bushes for him. They met with failure, which was a blessing in disguise for everybody involved. Orange Eyes was hermit-like and laid-back most of the time, but if his dander was up, he could be more than a handful.

   The Boy Scouts were the last straw. He was dodging their tents one night when their middle of the night look-out, the only one of the band of brothers who took his duties seriously and never fell asleep, spotted him. He raised the alarm. Before Orange Eyes knew it, he was being chased by a pack of over-excited twelve-year-old boys armed with flashlights and rope.

   He could run twice as fast as them and easily gave the juvenile lynch mob the slip.

   After that he decided to go back to Riverside Cemetery, come hell or high water. When he got to Cleveland, he swam across the Cuyahoga River near the Denison Harvard Bridge. Getting to the other side was easy. Getting to the cemetery was going to be hard. The Jennings Highway was between him and home. He ran across Steelyard Drive when there was a gap in the traffic. Crouching in the weeds, he saw the highway was city-size wide and brisk with cars.

   In the meantime, Oliver and Emma were in the back seat of their mom’s Jeep Cherokee. She was in St. Louis for a legal conference. Their dad was driving. They were leaving Progressive Field and reliving the sights and sounds of the baseball game. The Indians were in 2nd place behind the Chicago White Sox, but it was July 31st and there was still a long way to go. They had pulled out that night’s game against the White Sox by a score of 12 – 11 in a game featuring 8 home runs.

   The 19 virus was fading fast in the face of vaccinations, and the stadium had been packed. Every time the Tribe cleared the fences fireworks lit up the sky. Everybody except the White Sox went home happy. They went back to their hotel to a down in the dumps late-night snack.

   They had just passed West 14th St., on their way home to Perry, when Oliver, who had a nose for monsters, being the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County, saw the burning eyes of the creature stuck in place by the unending traffic.

   “Dad, dad, stop, there’s a Bigfoot, the green thing!” he shouted, lowering his side window, and pointing. “I think it’s Orange Eyes.” Even though he was only six going on seven years old, Oliver knew his monsters inside and out.

   Their father in the space of a brief second hadn’t seen anything but agreed to go back.

   “Let’s go see if we can help or he’ll kill himself on that highway,” he said. “If he tries walking across it, he’ll also cause trouble. Folks will smash into each other trying to avoid him.”

   They circled back and pulled off on the shoulder of the highway. Oliver jumped out of the Jeep and disappeared into the weeds. He made the universal monster sign of peace and Orange Eyes let him get closer. Emma could see him looking down and nodding. Finally, Oliver and Orange Eyes walked back to the car.

   “He just needs to get across to the cemetery,” Oliver told his dad. “That’s where he lived for a long time. He wants to go back home.”

   Oliver’s father lowered all the seats except his and Orange Eyes was able to lay flat, his legs sticking out the open hatch. Oliver and Emma sat on his chest and hung on to his chest hair. He smelled like onions, asparagus, and especially cabbage.

   “Let’s make this fast before we get stopped by the police,” their father said, push-buttoning all the windows open. Fresh air rushed in. Stinky cabbage air rushed out. “The cops don’t need to see this. They would have to write a new law and we don’t need any more laws for every little thing.”

   They got off the highway, went down Denison, turned right at West 25th St. and another right into the cemetery. They drove past the Gatehouse Offices into the heart of the graveyard, coming to a stop in a spot dark as pitch. Orange Eyes wiggled his way out of the Jeep. He looked around and inhaled deeply. His eyes lit up and Oliver Emma and their dad stepped away. Orange Eyes coaxed them back and told them in monster talk that he liked the air. It wasn’t the same as when he lived there. It was cleaner than it had been mid-century. Even the river wasn’t catching fire anymore.

   They watched him lope away, waving goodbye over his shoulder, looking for the hidden entrance to the underground tunnel he had once called home.

    “I hope he finds his old place before he runs into anybody,” their dad said once they were back on the highway on their way home. “He’s not some small fry. If somebody bumps into that monster, they might turn into worm food just at the sight of him.”

   “I’ll tell you what’s a monster, dad,” Emma said.

   “What’s that bunny?”

   “My piano screaming the minute I sit down at the keyboard to practice.”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”