My best friend buried Barney Fife all wrong. Karen Dandelet was my best friend. She lived right around the corner from me in the 70’s. At night, we could see each other when we looked out our bedroom windows.
Barney was her hamster. Next to each other, Barney was our best friend. We played with him every single day. We always got him out whenever we watched our favorite tv program--The Andy Griffith Show.
“Man, Don Knott’s Adam’s apple sure is big,” I’d say.
“Andy Griffith is pretty good looking for an old guy,” Karen’d say.
Karen named her hamster, Barney, after Deputy Fife. ‘Cause they both had bug eyes.
Karen was crying Sunday night when she called to tell me Barney had gone to hamster heaven while I was at church camp down in the southern part of the state. She gave me a quick rundown of his funeral, in between sniffs.
I didn’t take her fresh grief into account when I said, “I can’t believe you buried him in cardboard. Now we’re gonna have to do a grave digging do-over.”
You see, by that point in my life, I was pretty much a pet burying expert. Karen hung up on me. She’d never done that before.
The next morning, I told my mom there’d been a death in Karen’s family. She let me walk over to the Dandelets’ even though it wasn’t yet nine o’clock.
I knocked on the screen door so the doorbell wouldn’t wake her four brothers. Karen’s eyes looked red when I stepped into the living room.
I put my arm around her and squeezed. “Sorry I was mean last night.”
She pulled away and headed for the back door. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s get this over with.”
“He was only two,” I said as we walked down the back porch steps. “How’d he die?”
“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.
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 like that.
Karen shook her head. “Nah, he was just flopped over on one side.”
We went into the garage, and Karen grabbed a shovel and handed me a spade.
“Should be fairly easy to dig him up since it rained all night,” I said.
Karen closed the garage door behind us. We stepped into the wet grass, and I took a deep sniff of summer—Karen’s mom’s roses, the honeysuckle climbing the fence, the mock orange bush on the other side.
We walked out to the apple tree. Karen pointed to a round spot of fresh dirt clods by the trunk. 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, and grabbed a handful of dirt. It stuck together like pie crust dough.
“We could make some cool pinch pots outta this stuff.”
Karen turned 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 against the tree. She crouched 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 here. 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. Peanut butter still came in glass jars back then, and those are the best thing for burying dead critters. 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 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. I was a bit freaked out about seeing him. What if he was crawling with worms?
Not to worry. There were no worms. He didn’t even smell like death. 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.
“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 at me. Finally. “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.
After awhile, I glanced at my watch. “I have to go home for lunch 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 nose. “I like that idea.”
She wrote her note, and I added my part under hers. She stood and screwed the top on the Jif jar.
“Don’t put him in the hole yet,” I said, as I stood. “I wanna say a few words first.”
We bowed our heads. Neither of us had ever been to a real funeral, but we’d seen ‘em on tv.
“Dear Lord,” I said. “We’re gathered here to bury our beloved pet, Deputy Barney Fife. He was a good friend and a great pet. We ask Sir, that you and he forgive us for the time we blew his cheeks up like a balloon. And we pray he forgives us for the many baths we gave him in my bathroom sink, but wasn’t he cute when he did the dog paddle?”
Karen tapped my shoulder and whispered. “Tell him we’re 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 will take her to Petland to 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 sun through the apple tree leaves. Without thinking, I started whistling the Andy Griffith theme song.
Karen looked at me and smiled. And started whistling along.
(FYI, this is a new and improved version of a prior post--Oct. 12, 2009.)