The Man With No Friends
It started off like all the Archibald County summers that had come before it. Leonard, Runs with Two Horses, and I would wake up, meet over on Simon Street by the maroon fence advertising ladies’ undergarments, and head over to the baseball diamond for a little stickball. At lunch, we’d return to our homes for sweet tea, honey dew, carrot sticks, and whatever sandwiches our mothers were making on that particular day. Eating quickly so as not to waste a second of our glorious summer, we’d usually meet back up before an hour had passed. But our post-lunch excursions always included an additional pal—our good friend Thelonius Monk. In the mornings, he’d help his uncle, Sour Mash, the town silversmith, in his shop. But his afternoons were reserved for whatever adventure we could find in this sleepy little town. Our imaginations carried us away in those days. Big Knot Hill became Mount Kilimanjaro. Widow’s Creek became the Nile. And the squirrels in the park became a band of gypsies trying to paralyze the local economy with a combination of trapeze acts and black magic.
About a month into this particularly humid summer, though, we started to pal around with a couple of dames. Ismerelda the Poop Queen moved into the house that sits atop Big Knot Hill. One day when we were climbing Kilimanjaro’s summit and hoping to do so without triggering a deadly landslide, Ismerelda’s dad walked out onto his front porch and called us over. He told us his daughter had just moved to Archibald County and that he would be much obliged if we would let her into our circle of friends. Runs, Leonard, Thelonius, and I, frightened at the thought of a summer without our weekly expeditions to Big Knot Hill, eagerly introduced ourselves to Ismerelda. The Poop Queen’s best friend, Lizzie Quisenberry, also tagged along, as both of her parents had died of measles the previous winter and she was living with Ismerelda for the summer. While we were happy to have Ismerelda’s company, Lizzie was a real creep. When she had a moment alone with one of us, she would say, “Last night I watched you while you were sleeping.” On several occasions that summer, I actually woke up and saw her through my bedroom window staring at me. Thelonius told us that, on one rainy night, Lizzie threw a soaked squirrel that was still alive through his bedroom window.
Anyway, as the summer entered its last month, all of us tried to find new games to take our minds off of our dwindling summer. Much to our delight, Thelonius talked his uncle into letting us stop by his shop on Mondays and Thursdays to watch him work for about an hour at a time. We couldn’t believe our luck. Sour Mash allowed us to keep bits of silver shavings and encouraged us to put those shavings into our eyes to preserve our youth. Sour Mash also told us that humans were born to eat meat and that eating anything else led to weakness and eventually death.
One day on the way to Sour Mash’s shop, we came across a stray dog. The frail little thing looked like it hadn’t been fed for weeks. None of had any food to give it, so we asked Sour Mash for a handful of the beef jerky bites he kept in the large silver canister on his workbench. The little dog loved the chewy, meaty goodness, and we named her Lovely Ms. Pettigrew. Over the course of the following two weeks, Lovely Ms. Pettigrew became a part of the gang, and we loved her like a sister.
On August 15, we took our normal route to Big Knot Hill for a climbing expedition. On Jericho Street, we passed Old Man Mecklenburg’s house, just like we did everyday. All of a sudden, Lovely Ms. Pettigrew took off, as if stung by a hornet. About half way up the hill, Lovely Ms. Pettigrew collapsed. We shrieked in horror, as our beloved companion had seemingly died right before our eyes. We ran for Sour Mash’s shop, certain that he would know what to do. After listening to our story, Sour Mash calmly told us that the dog had probably just eaten something that wasn’t meat. All we had to do was give Lovely Ms. Pettigrew some beef and she would be fine. He gave us a handful of jerky and sent us on our way, exclaiming, “That’s what happens when you don’t eat meat!” As we turned up Jericho Street, we could see Lovely Ms. Pettigrew’s lifeless body right where we had last seen it—halfway up Big Knot Hill. As we drew within about 75 yards, a lanky figure emerged from Old Man Mecklenburg’s house, went halfway up the hill, retrieved Lovely Ms. Pettigrew, cradled her in his arms, and returned to his house. The door closed behind him. We ran to his property, stopping at the fence separating his lot from the sidewalk. We’d all been told to never go into Old Man Mecklenburg’s yard. Everyone said that he didn’t have any friends and that he hated children.
We didn’t know what to do, so we went back to Sour Mash for help. Upon hearing what had happened, Sour Mash became very stern. He told us that Old Man Mecklenburg was made of dirt and that, under no circumstances, were we to go near his house. He said that we should all eat more meat but that there was nothing we could do for Lovely Ms. Pettigrew.
We left the shop in utter despair. But Runs wouldn’t have it. He told us we were all a bunch of “yellow scoundrels” and that, if Lovely Ms. Pettigrew was a human, she would help us out. Sufficiently embarrassed by Runs’ accusations and determined not to let our friend down, we all gathered our courage and headed back up toward Big Knot Hill.
We quietly approached Old Man Mecklenburg’s property. Almost without thinking, we followed Runs’ lead, stepping over the fence, climbing onto the porch, and hiding under the window sill just outside the old man’s house. Runs told us that he was going in and coming out with Lovely Ms. Pettigrew. He told us to count to 50 and then stand up and look into the window. He said that if he died, he wanted us to witness his murder so that Old Man Mecklenburg would be punished. Before we could protest, Runs had disappeared behind the house. We counted to 50, just as we had been instructed to do. Slowly, one by one, we stood up, putting our faces to the window to see in. About 4 feet from the window stood Old Man Mecklenburg. He was standing over what looked to be a makeshift cradle. Positioned inside the cradle was Lovely Ms. Pettigrew's tiny dog body. Runs stood next to Old Man Mecklenburg, petting the dog’s head. Runs said something to Old Man Mecklenburg, and the old man looked up at us with a surprisingly kind face. He smiled and then went back to caring for Lovely Ms. Pettigrew.
At that moment, a door in the back of the room opened. Sour Mash, wielding an enormous battleaxe, entered the room, and killed Old Man Mecklenburg. We were horrified. We rushed into the house. All of us were sobbing. Leonard yelled, “Why? Why would you do that? He was a nice old man. He was nursing Lovely Ms. Pettigrew back to health!” We looked up at Sour Mash, waiting for an answer. He smiled his toothless grin and said, “Old Man Mecklenburg was made of dirt. This had to be done. Also, you all should eat more meat. Let's get out of here. It smells like celery stalks in here.”
That was probably both the worst and the weirdest day ever in the history of the world.