“The New Friend”

“What’s that hole in his back for?” he asked.

“That’s where his insides go,” explained Murph.

        –Henry and the Paper Route by Beverly Cleary

 

            Over the summer, Murph and Henry, two members of The Secret Three, saw their friend, Chuck grow three inches, dominate Little League, kiss seven different girls, and just generally surpass them in all the ways they had never considered when they were hiding in their tree house and reading Power Man & Iron Fist comics and making out with rolled up socks. Chuck left them for a new and more popular group of friends, kids who wore overalls with one strap undone, kids who had put their hands in all manner of secret places and knew exactly how to describe the smell of it.

            The Secret Three were adrift, a duo, and it seemed to both Murph and Henry that, if the balance were not restored to their group, they would lose any hope of a normal life. In the tree house, wearing the paper grocery bags that they had decorated with fierce animal faces, their sweat and hot breath dampening the brown paper until it sogged and disintegrated, they opened the floor to any and all suggestions.

            “We need a new friend,” Murph said, which was like, duh.

            “Who can we ask?” Henry wondered, and the question stumped them into a stupor. Finally, an hour and a half later, an entire sleeve of cookies devoured, Murph produced a carpenter’s pencil and started sketching on the walls of the tree house.

            “We make a new friend,” he said, tracing the dimensions of something wonderful for Henry to admire.

 

            They gathered tin cans from their houses and used the can opener on both ends, letting the beans and peas and cranberry sauce just fall at their feet, turning to mush as the boys kept working. With the additions of hinges and the forceful insertion of screws, the cans became arms and legs that could move. With paper mache, they had skin. They stole a metal trashcan from a neighbor’s garage and bashed it with hammers until it took on a pleasing shape. They cursed their lack of welding tools.

            The head would be a ghetto blaster. They made a cassette tape of their own voices, masked by a mouthful of pantyhose, saying various phrases that would be of use to the Secret Three. “Cool,” said Henry into the recorder. “Way cool,” Murph said next. “Fucking cool,” Henry said, but immediately felt embarrassed and he was pleased that his only friend, Murph, placed his finger on the rewind button and then recorded over it with, “Really cool.” Henry nodded his approval.

            After they had assembled their new friend, there was the inescapable feeling that it was incomplete, lifeless. They did not pretend that they could Frankenstein this form into something alive. But they could create the illusion, at least in their own minds. Using a spiked meat tenderizer that he ruined into flatness, Murph pounded a fist-sized hole in the back of the robot’s body. It was jagged and suggested tetanus, but it provided the entry point that Murph needed. Henry inspected the hole, nothing but blackness inside.

            “What’s that hole in his back for?” he asked.

“That’s where his insides go,” explained Murph.

            They raided the refrigerator and freezer for what they needed, sausages and spaghetti and two cartons of sour cream. They mixed it together in a washtub until it had the appearance of guts, the things inside of us that Murph and Henry believed more important than an actual spirit. With an awkward tenderness, the two boys filled the robot with living matter, the smell like vegetable soup on a very cold day. They covered over the hole with duct tape.

            They named him Draugs, a Latvian word Murph’s grandmother, who lived with his family, would say when referring to The Secret Three. They carefully arranged Draugs in the tree house, leaning against one of the walls, and they spread out a number of comic books in front of him. They turned on the boom box and spent the rest of the day playing and rewinding their own disguised voices reassuring them that their decisions, the secrets inside of them, were “cool”, “way cool”, and “very cool”. Just before their parents called them to their own dinners, Murph and Henry snuggled against the rough scales of the paper mache and draped an arm over their shoulders. “Best friends,” said Murph, reaching across the robot to secure Henry’s own hand. “Best friends,” Henry agreed.

Let Chuck grow into his new form and forget them forever. Let all other people, even their parents, lose hope for their maturation. Let the world outside this tree house fall into disrepair and chaos. The Secret Three, a secret that was incapable of being uncovered, would hold onto each other until they rusted over and split at the seams. They placed an animal mask onto Draugs, fitted their own faces with paper bags, and let a nap of dreamless and deep proportions take over their bodies. The sound of their parents, exasperated, calling their own names would wake them and pull them into what would come next, but, the sun fading in the sky, mosquitoes feasting on their prone forms, this moment was enough for all the indignities that would follow.

Kevin Wilson

About Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson is the author of the collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009), which received an Alex Award from the American Library Association and the Shirley Jackson Award, and a novel, The Family Fang (Ecco, 2011). His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, One Story, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere, and has appeared in four volumes of the New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best anthology as well as The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012. He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the KHN Center for the Arts. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, and his sons, Griff and Patch, where he is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of the South.



  • Michael Caleb Tasker

    Terrific story. Not the first time I’ve come across Wilson’s work and always a pleasure.