I was sitting in a local bar, which shall remain nameless, and the guy on the stool next to me was a squirrel. Not an ordinary squirrel, it seemed to me. More like a hard-bitten squirrel, world-weary, hunched over his tiny whisky, staring into the alcohol in an unfocused way, tapping the end of his tiny cigarette on the bar.
“You know you can’t smoke in here,” the bartender said.
The squirrel didn’t look up.
“What do I look like, an immigrant? I live here, I know the law.”
He sighed heavily, or at least as heavily as a squirrel can sigh, with its tiny squirrel lungs.
“I blame Clinton. Bill, not Hillary. You could smoke just about anywhere before him. The ultimate hypocrisy, if you ask me. The faker who claims he ‘didn’t inhale’ goes on this huge self-righteous no-smoking campaign.”
The squirrel glanced at me, but I didn’t say anything. He looked back into his tiny squirrel whisky.
“It’s like Jimmy Carter,” he finally continued, “forcing us all to turn down our thermostats during that oil crisis. Carter! A Southerner! Of course his people wouldn’t mind turning down their thermostats. It’s warm all year round in Georgia! Sheesh. Here in New England, we were freezing our asses off.”
This, I realized, was a very knowledgeable squirrel.
He fell silent, except for the tiny thumping sounds of his tiny squirrel cigarette on the bar. He didn’t seem self-conscious at all, even sitting on a tower of folded cloth napkins stacked up on the stool to get him to bar height. I guess if a place is classy enough for cloth napkins, you don’t make judgments about a customer being short, or a rodent.
It began to feel uncomfortably quiet at the bar, like it was my turn to speak, but I didn’t have anything to say. Finally I cleared my throat and asked, “What do you do for a living?”
He shrugged a tiny squirrel shrug.
“I’m an undertaker.”
My face must have given me away.
“Ah, I know,” he said. “‘You don’t seem like the undertaker type.’ I get that all the time.”
He took a swig of whisky from his tiny squirrel glass.
“The way undertakers are at funerals, you think they’re always that way? No, we’re normal guys. We stop off at the bar, we snicker at Trump, we fight with our wives, we hide acorns. That sad, official face on funeral day, that’s acting. It’s just the job.”
I found myself being sort of astonished by all this.
“How did you get started, uh, undertaking?” I asked.
The squirrel shrugged again. “I needed money, I looked around for opportunities. What do you see all over the roads in Ipswich? Dead squirrels. Sure, sometimes a possum, or a cat. Maybe a raccoon, or even a deer. But nothing close to the numbers we get in squirrels.”
He shrugged his signature shrug.
“It’s a volume business.”
I thought about it. “Yes, I guess I do see a lot of dead squirrels on the roads.”
“You don’t see the half of them,” he sneered. “I got my teams out there scraping them off the pavement as fast as we can. We contact the family, offer a beautiful memorial service, proper burial, the works. I’m known as the ‘Undertaker to the Squirrels.’ Get it? ‘Undertaker to the Stars’ — “Undertaker to the Squirrels’?”
I had nothing to say to that. He snorted a tiny squirrel-snort.
“Anyway,” he went on, “if you see a dead squirrel on an Ipswich road, it’s only because my teams haven’t gotten there yet. If you see the same dead squirrel two days in a row, it’s only because their family was too cheap. Sleazy, if you ask me.”
“What decent family wouldn’t fork over a few bucks for even a basic funeral and burial?” he growled. “We get to the deceased, we’re ready for action, let the family start healing — that’s my line, ‘start the healing process’— but then the family says no!”
“Well, if they can’t afford it,” I began.
“It’s not the money,” he shot back. “I’ll tell you what happens. The mom says to the teenager, again and again: ‘Don’t run across the road. Use the power lines. Avoid the street.’But the kid, he thinks he knows everything. He thinks he’s invincible. He runs across the road. Kaboom.”
The squirrel shook his head and glared into his glass.
“And that’s my business,” he sighed.
We sat in silence for a few moments. Then he swiveled his little squirrel face toward me and sort of squinted.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it? A squirrel spends his life burying nuts in the ground; then in the end, he’s the nut who gets buried in the ground.”
“Wow,” I said, “that’s pretty cold.”
“Aw, I never say this kind of stuff in front of the family,” he replied, lifting his tiny squirrel chin and waving a tiny squirrel claw at the bartender. “It’s all ‘Your loved one’and ‘the dearly departed’and blah blah blah. But still—”
He tapped his empty little squirrel glass; the bartender nodded.
“Ya gotta admit,” the squirrel continued, “it ispretty ironic, right?”
Doug Brendel honors the dead of all species at his home on outer Linebrook Road. Follow him by clicking “Follow” on this screen.