Watching the Andy Griffith Show was my best friend, Karen Lambertson’s, and my favorite way to pass the time besides creek walking and riding bikes in the graveyard.
Every week we’d sit in her living room or in my basement and whistle the theme song, marvel at the size of Don Knotts’ Adam’s apple and comment that Andy Griffith was pretty good looking for an old guy. When Karen got a hamster, it was only right that we would name him (Deputy) Barney Fife. His eyes after all, were rather buggy, just like Barney Fife’s.
“You did his burial all wrong,” I told Karen when I got home from church camp. You see, by that point in my life I was pretty much a pet burying expert and Barney had gone to hamster heaven while I was at camp down in the southern part of the state.
“How’d he die?” I asked as we walked out the back door of her house.
“Last week he was running so much on his exercise wheel, I had to put him in the basement so I could sleep.”
“Could’ve tried some WD-40 on his wheel,” I said, as we went down the back porch steps.
Karen snapped her fingers. “Ah man. I didn’t think of that.”
“Maybe he had a hamster heart attack,” I said. “When did you figure out he was dead?”
We stood in the back yard. “Mom noticed it when she was switching a load of whites from the washer to the dryer.”
“Did he have rigor mortis?”
“Who’s Vigor Morris?” Karen said.
“Rigor mortis,” I said. “It’s when their legs stick up in the air.” My oldest brother was going to be a doctor when he grew up. He taught me all kinds of cool stuff.
Karen shook her head. “Nah, he was flopped over on one side.”
We went into the garage and Karen got a shovel and handed me a spade.
“Should be fairly easy to dig him up since it rained all morning,” I said.
Karen closed the garage door behind us. We stepped into the grass and I sniffed. “Fresh cut grass and rain on blacktop. I love the way summer smells.”
We walked out to the apple tree. Karen pointed to a round spot of fresh dirt clods at the base of the tree. She put her foot on the right side of the shovel back and pushed down hard. The soil was West Virginia clay--rusty in some spots, the color of Velveeta cheese in others.
I dropped my spade, bent down and grabbed a handful of dirt. It stuck together like pie crust dough. “We could make some cool pinch pots outta this stuff.”
Karen nodded, turning more soil over.
“You know why we gotta do this, right?” I said, throwing the clay ball up in the air and catching it.
“’Cause we don’t want to eat Barney in our applesauce next summer,” Karen said.
“Yep. Too bad you buried him in cardboard.”
Karen leaned the shovel up against the tree. She bent down and put her hands into the small grave. She pulled out Barney’s coffin. It was floppy with ground moisture but still recognizable as a Hartz hamster food box.
I held my hands out. “Give it to me. You go in the house and get something else to bury him in.”
She turned to go.
“Get a Cool Whip container or an old Skippy jar,” I said. Back in those days, peanut butter came in glass jars. Glass jars are the best thing to bury dead critters in, the small ones any way. Glass lasts forever in the ground.
Karen held up a Jif jar and a paper Big Bear bag as she came out of the house.
“That’ll do just fine,” I said.
We sat criss-cross, applesauce on the ground beneath the tree. Karen laid the grocery bag on my lap and I placed Barney’s burial box on top of it. I was a bit freaked out about seeing him. What if there were worms coming out of him?
Not to worry. There were no worms and he didn’t smell like death yet. He smelled like wet hamster food. His nose was pointier than usual, having been smooshed into the corner of the box for a week. The white places on his body were multi-colored because Karen had wrapped him in the Sunday comics.
“I thought it would keep him warm underground.”
I leaned forward and wiped a tear from her freckly cheek. “Ah, Karen. That was sweet of you.”
She looked down at him. “He kinda looks like he was just born, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah, the way he’s slimy from the underground moisture, that’s like placenta.” I said. We both sighed.
“Poor little guy,” Karen said.
I tried to think of a way to cheer her up. "Remember how he used to flick his poop?"
Karen smiled. “It always stuck on my wall and looked like polka dots.”
I found my clay ball in the grass and squeezed it.
Karen started to giggle. “Remember the time we were mad at Chucky and we put Barney poop in his Coke bottle when he wasn’t looking?”
I laughed. We sat in silence for a little while.
I glanced at my watch. “I have to go home for supper soon. Did you get a rag to wrap him in?”
Karen pulled a cloth diaper out of her back pocket. She leaned over and rubbed it against my cheek. “Is this soft enough?”
“Yep. That’ll do.”
I picked up Barney’s cold, stiff form and placed it in the middle of the diaper. I folded the left side in, then the right. I brought the bottom half up, then the top half down. I put my hands on top to keep it from springing open.
Karen unscrewed the lid from the Jif jar. I pressed the Barney bundle to make it even smaller and slid it inside.
I took a miniature golf pencil and a piece of crumpled notepaper out of the back pocket of my jean shorts.
“Let’s both write a note so if anybody ever digs him up, they’ll know what kind of animal he was and that we loved him a whole lot.”
Karen nodded and wiped her snot on her wrist. “I like that idea.”
She wrote her note and I added my part under hers. She stood up and screwed the top on the Jif jar.
“Don’t put him in the hole yet,” I said, standing up. “I wanna say a few words first.”
We bowed our heads. Neither of us had ever been to a funeral but we’d seen them on tv.
“Dear Lord,” I said. “We’re gathered here to bury our beloved pet and friend, Deputy Barney Fife. He was a good friend and a great pet. We ask sir, that you and he would forgive us for the time we blew his cheeks up like a balloon. And we pray he'll forgive us for the many baths we gave him in my bathroom sink but he was so cute when he did the dog paddle.”
Karen tapped my shoulder and whispered. “Say sorry for the time we gave him a teaspoon of your dad’s beer.”
I nodded. “Yeah, Barney. We’re sorry about the beer incident even though you seemed to like it. It probably wasn’t the best idea.”
I ran out of things to say and we were quiet for a minute. “Oh, and please comfort Karen in her sorrow, Lord. We pray that her parents would let her go to Petland and get another hamster this weekend. We pray this in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
Karen crossed herself ‘cause she’s a Catholic.
“Amen,” we said.
Karen put the box in the hole and grabbed the shovel. As she covered the box with dirt I looked at the setting sun through the apple tree leaves. Without thinking I started whistling the Andy Griffith theme song.