Elmo On the Half Shell

Premiered at the Washington Theatre Festival. Produced with a companion piece, Jello Shot, from the girlfriend’s point of view, by Black Dog Theatre in Washington DC under the title Some Other Place.

“Full Of Love and Fury!” – Washington Post

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Below is the entire play. Please contact me for performance rights.

(Joey, in the middle of the apartment, talks to his girlfriend Sue.)

Talking is good. Sue. I love talking to you. But you know? Not talking can be good, too. Couples do it all the time. They decide that a few subjects are off limits. Then make a list. Stick it on the fridge. And presto! It’s good times all over again! I don’t know why this becomes necessary in a relationship. It may come with living. With surviving to a certain age. But that doesn’t have any bearing on our compatibility. I’m sure of that. All I’m saying — Sue, all I’m saying is that we shouldn’t talk about my brother Nate. We shouldn’t mention him. All right? And as far as last week goes — I thought it over. You’re right. I was over the line. Made an ass of myself. I love you. And I’m really really sorry. We understand each other now?


I’m glad that’s over! You had me concerned. When you opened the door with that look on your face, I didn’t know what to expect. Hey. Let’s go for a drink. I’ve been moping around all week with you gone.

(He puts on his jacket and offers Sue’s jacket to her.)

You want an explanation? You want me to account for my actions? You mean — logically? That was a sincere apology back there. Well, no. I just thought a blanket apology covered everything — by definition.

(He puts the jackets back.)

It’s complicated. You got to understand. Nathan. My brother. The guy who made it. The only person in this world who knows what I know. I hate that guy. It’s not a secret. I’m always dropping hints. “Nate, what an ass.” “Hey. That snot looks like my brother.” Stuff like that. But that doesn’t capture the intensity of the feeling. It’s like a principle. Part of my daily routine. I wake up. Shower? Check. Shave? Check. Hate Nathan? Yup. Good. Now get to work. Sad, when you think about it. He’s the only one left with my name.

Last time I saw him was a year and a half ago. Memorial Day. Behind his house. On the deck I helped build. With Laura. My old girl. Remember Laura? The cocktail waitress. The blond with the — Right. Of course you do. You remember her so well you don’t need me to mention Laura ever again. We’ll just add her to that list we’re making. Anyway. I’m at Nate’s barbecue last year. Paper plate in one hand. Spoonful of cole slaw in the other. Minding my own business. That’s the point, actually. I wasn’t doing anything. And Nate. He pounced, like always and — you’re not going to understand this. You don’t know what it was like. You don’t have the details. It was a small thing. Three words. Nate said three words and cut me open. For everyone to see.

Let me tell you about Nathan. When he was twelve he walked down to the woods with the October issue of Hustler, opened the centerfold, nailed it to a tree, unzipped his pants, and masturbated. And that’s the normal part. He also took the time — with his free hand, I can only imagine — to shoot off her crotch with a BB gun. Shoot off her left and right breast. Till they were flakes of paper and ink. Then jagged holes. Then — and I bet he never batted an eye — he folded up Miss October and stuffed her in a peanut butter jar. That’s how I found her. Half buried in our hideout. I recognized the picture. And the jar. Heck. We’d just bonded for three weeks over peanut butter sandwiches. The only meal ever served at our house.

No. I never talked to him about it. It’s a hard thing to bring up in daily conversation. Try it sometime. “Nate. How’s it going? I hear choosy pinups choose Jif.” See what I mean? It doesn’t work. What are you going to do, take it home and slip it under his pillow? I know. You could wait twenty years and bring it to his barbecue. Plop it down in front of him. Imagine that. He’d shit. He’d soil his pants. Cause he’d realize that I’d known the truth about him for years. That Nathan, the guy who made it. The man with a dress-up job, nice wife and two daughters, hates women.

You think maybe he changed? Or tried to? I’m a firm believer in change. When I got pissed at him and wanted to show the world what a creep he was, that’s what I thought about. He never returned the favor. Always looked for ways to cut me up. He was good at it too. Go ahead. Pick any season or year and there he was. Like when I was eleven and found this turtle in the backyard. About a foot long. I called him Elmo — right? — cause he was funny looking. I picked him up, spread a towel on the driveway, and grabbed my tool belt. The gang gathered round. Glen. Sammy. Everyone. Started egging me on. — Why do boys do that? When girls get bored they don’t egg each other on. — I gripped the bottom shell with one hand and the pliers in the other. It wouldn’t budge, so I put him down, wedged my sneaker through the opening to get leverage, then grabbed the top part of the shell with my pliers and RRRRIP! This horrible wet sound. RRRRIP! I remember that sound exactly. It took me a few tries to shell the guy. I don’t know. He was connected with tendons or something.

Sammy and Glen never told their parents. Not a word. It was like any other day in our neighborhood. You walk home from school and see Mr. Frame rolling around on his front lawn. Or passed out. Or Mr. Blake leading his kid by the hair. And no one mentions it. Nate didn’t say a word either. But somehow by the time me and the gang buried Elmo out back, that slimy towel I used ended up in my mother’s hamper. On the second floor of our house. Now. How do you think it got there? Who decided, the day Ma stopped on her way home from the clinic to pick up her wig and was trying to have a normal day and do normal stuff, like laundry, to put that god damned towel in her hamper!? With stuff oozing all over her clothes!? I — I could see what was going on. I’m not blind. When you’re struggling or sick you need someone to cling to. You need someone to be good. And strong. And perfect. You know? Well in our house, growing up, that person wasn’t me.

Things got worse. As you can imagine. Nate had trouble in school. Ma got sick on the chemo. And I listened to music. All the time. It took the edge off. Till I was walking home from school one day with Sammy and couldn’t find my Zeppelin tape. You got to understand, I couldn’t do anything at that point — couldn’t take a whiz without Black Dog somewhere in the background. The funny thing is, when I accused Sam of stealing it, I already convinced myself it was true.

I — ah — slapped him. Saw the spray come off his lips. Grabbed the back of his shirt. Pushed him over the guard rail. Kicked him in the head. Above his right temple. With those steal-toed boots I loved so much. I’d never done this before. I mean, not this. But it had its own momentum, you know? I reached down and grabbed something. His hair. And dragged him to the bridge.

Why? God. I’ve wondered for years. I wish I could come up with a reason. A big reason that makes sense of it all. But the honest truth? It’s cause he whimpered. Cause he was fat. And glanced at me the wrong way. Cause I was walking up a hill to meet our starving dog who was eating our starving plants cause no one had the time or the money or — or desire to look after him. I let Sam hang over the railing. Head first. Squealing. This horrible sound. Like an animal. Then, as he reached up, grabbed at my shirt, face beet red, mouth sputtering, saliva, tears, and sweat dripping off his face, I let go. It was a small movement — Like that. My fingers moved an inch. And I watched him fall. Watched his head bob up and down. Saw his blood stain the water. Hair, bone, dandruff, everything — everything just kind of falling out and drifting away and — and suddenly there was Elmo. And the crunch of that shell. And Nate shooting BBs in the woods. And Ma falling down the stairs the other day, trying to answer the door to get the flowers I’d sent her. Cause I was trying to make up for things. — Why? You’re asking me why!? I don’t know how any of it got that way! — I bent over the railing and heaved. That’s how the cops found me, leaning over the bridge, staring down, trying desperately to throw up.

(He starts to sway.)

Sergeant Harry said he had to tear my hands off the railing. Ha! Sergeant Harry. That’s what I called him. We were on a first name basis. I was 12 years-old.

(He sees Sammy and addresses him as if in a dream.)

Sammy? God. It’s good to see you. I’m close to buying you that new chair. Something with colors. Wheels bent in, like racing tires. You’ll be the most popular kid on the floor. What do you think about that? — You’re going home? Congratulations. You must be excited. — Oh. Ah. Thanks for the invite. But you know, I get out of school at 2:30. Here by quarter past. Not much time left for socializing. Don’t worry. Your parents will take care of you. And they really don’t need me around, cause I — I — Christ! Will you listen to me for once!? I’m the reason you’re here! I threw you off a fucking bridge! There are rainbow trout who can do geometry cause of you.

(He turns back to Sue.)

Nothing. That frown. I can tell when he concentrates on words, cause of the frown. Then a wave of the hand. A laugh. Then an invitation for checkers. It’s always the same. I cheated the first time we played. It was easy. Then I realized I didn’t want to win. I’d beaten too many people already.

After the, ah, bridge thing, I got one of those liberal judges. Who wanted to reform me. So I worked four days a week at the hospital. Same place I am now. Reformed man. Good citizen that I am. I got to love Sam, you know. After. I only loved him after.

(He tries to orient himself.)

So — Like I said, I’m at Nate’s barbecue last year. Paper plate in one hand. Spoonful of cole slaw in the other. Minding my own business. And he turns to me and says, “How’s the cripple?” Three words. “How’s the cripple?” And the guests who knew looked at me, and the rest who didn’t looked at me. I was trying to have dinner. Spend a holiday with what’s left of the family. But the questions were already forming in Laura’s mind. They started on the way home. She didn’t wait long for the answer. (Laughs.) What timing! Me, with a promotion. Apartment. Some good furniture. And what I thought was this beautiful, understanding woman. To rip off a man’s shell with a pair of pliers. Expose him in public. It’s cruel. It’s deadly, you know? My brother won’t let me forget. He keeps taking people away. Even when we’re not speaking. A year later. In my own pad. Like a fucking magician.

So. When you told me last week that my brother called. And told me a second time, and a third time, and started asking questions — I lost control. I admit that. And I hit you. Now you know why. I was saving us. I was preserving our future. You have to understand. I’ll do anything to keep us together. That’s not a bad thing. I don’t know how many chances you get to rebuild your life, but I feel like I’m running out, you know?

Funny. Sometimes I — ah — still feel like I’m standing on that bridge. As the nights come, leaning over the rail, holding on to Sam, and Mom, and Nate, and Elmo, and you — I didn’t know you yet, but you, yes, and everyone out there. God. No wonder it’s so heavy. I wake up. Knuckles white. Hands clenched. Marks on my palm from digging in my nails. I don’t know what I’m holding on to. But I won’t let go. No way. No one’s disappearing on me anymore.

(He puts on his jacket.)

You know, a lot of guys wouldn’t admit this. I’m sorry it had to happen. I’m sorry we weren’t clear on the rules. We really got to make that list. But I’m not sorry I hit you. That’s the truth. It was an act of self-preservation. For both of us.

(He offers Sue’s jacket to her.)

Come on. I’ll buy you a drink. We’ll bring a note pad and start our list. Nate. Laura. We got two names already. Oh. And the Cowboys. Let’s not talk about them either. Watching them this year was unbearable. Really. It destroyed me.


Thanks for asking. I’m glad I got that off my chest. Aren’t you?

(End of play.)

Please contact me for performance rights.