squirrels at chess, part 3

Pardon my prolonged absence, carrots readers. A five-year anniversary trip to Lake Lure, North Carolina demanded my full attention. Or inattention, as it were. Sweet, sweet inattention. There was swinging (and napping) in hammocks. There was reading by the fire while eating oh so many doughnuts. There was zip-lining. And now I have returned to the Real World, which, alas, is not as pleasant as sipping coffee lakeside. This Real World? It demands that I grade papers.

On the way to Lake Lure, I begrudgingly downloaded Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. You see, I don’t think I like Jonathan Franzen as a human. But I do like his books. I’m 350 pages into Freedom, and I am spitefully liking it very much. Very much! Gah! And reading authors I like very much makes me want to write. So one day last week, while sitting in my pajamas at three o’clock in the afternoon and watching the mountains grow misty and clear and misty again, I decided to return to my amateur short story effort, Squirrels at Chess. (You can read the first installment here, the second here.)

Because I am drafting this story in a spirit of pure fun and whimsy, without any aspirations toward True Writerdom or Discipline, I have decided to skip ahead in our story. Someday I will return to and write the intervening scenes, in which our beleaguered hero decides to become a taxidermist himself. (Writing this section will require some research, and those pesky papers insist on being graded. I don’t think my students would appreciate a delay due to taxidermy research.)



Cal was not really surprised to find that the Yellow Pages included the category “Taxidermy and Animal Preservation.” These establishments were businesses, right? And surely an index of taxidermists was no weirder than a listing of funeral directors or windshield repairmen or delis that deliver. But the tenor of the advertisements listed beneath was unexpected. One quarter-page ad for The Huntsman’s Friend Trophy and Taxidermy featured a forest in silhouette, framing the outline of a twelve-point stag, comically out of scale with the surrounding pines and peaks. You shoot it, we’ll show it off, the copy read. We’ll put the fear back in those eyes. Our veteran hunters and taxidermists excel at big game, but we’ll pretty up all beasts, from beavers to bears. Not a trace of buckshot. In the next column, in a horror-show, dripping font: The Re-Animator. Are you a collector? I’ll be your Dr. Frankenstein. No questions asked. Call for more information. It wasn’t until Cal had searched through three pages of taxidermists, each ad making him more queasy and anxious, that he found an establishment that seemed a possibility. A simple border, a line drawing of a cat batting at a ball of yarn.

Your trusty dog was a faithful friend to the end. Your tabby was a one-of-a-kind companion. That partnership need not end with death. The skilled technicians at Lifelong Friends Preservation Company will capture the spirit of your pet with dignity. We happily accommodate props and costumes. Don’t wait until the passing of your pet. Schedule an appointment today to discuss preservation options.

As Cal circled the ad with his felt-tip pen, he wondered what Lifelong Friends could have done for his childhood pet, a bad-tempered, overweight black cat named Señor. Cal hadn’t cried when, on a drizzly September Saturday, the great Señor roused himself from an afternoon siesta only to be sent to his long nap in the sky by the wheels of a passing sedan. After all, the cat had been nothing like the vibrant, yarn-loving kitten in the advertisement. He had shown no interest in Cal’s offerings of catnip mice and small, plastic balls hiding jingling bells, returning any show of affection with an irritated hiss and swipe to the face. But taxidermy could rewrite the Señor’s history. Cal imagined one of the “skilled technicians” at Lifelong Friends—a folksy gentleman, perhaps, speaking in an endearing twang and wearing a canvas apron—revivifying Señor as a solicitous, spry kitten, gently arching its back and tilting its head, waiting to rub against one of Cal’s trouser legs. Or perhaps a cozy housecat, curled on an artfully worn pillow, sleeping away eternity and requiring only an occasional dust-busting.

This was the great lie. While the establishments Cal had read about in the Yellow Pages—The Stuffing Company, Bayou City Professional Taxidermists, The Formaldehyde Brothers—promised reality and rehearsed their commitment to life continued as it was, taxidermy was an infinitely malleable art form. Reality had absolutely nothing to do with it. Why shouldn’t Señor be the amigo he never was? Why shouldn’t a quail, stumbling awkwardly skyward after being flushed by hounds from the security of a field, be preserved noble, mid-flight? Why shouldn’t squirrels play chess?

Two weeks later, Cal found himself outside a dirt-colored pre-fab building in the suburbs. Nailed to the tilted mailbox out front was a sign: Lifelong Friends, written in black permanent marker, on the reverse of a neon orange-and-black Beware of Dog sign. Cal stepped onto the porch and tried to peer in through the windows in the door but found them blocked with old cardboard boxes from taxidermy supply companies. A rusted metal planter sitting on the stoop was surprisingly filled with neatly-planted rows of pansies, purple and gold. Faint rustlings, pings, and thunks leaked from behind the doorway. Cal raised a timid fist to knock.

“Ho there!” came a voice from inside. Cal abruptly withdrew his fist. “I see ya there! Just hold your horses. Or your puppies or mice or what have you.”


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