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A Man Called Squirrel / JD Clapp

The man they called Squirrel crawled from the leaky tent he’d pitched under the tree he planned to build a new house in. He side-stepped the scrap lumber he’d been collecting for the build and stepped out into the pouring rain. He took all his clothes from his backpack and spread them on the bushes near his tent, letting the water soak them. He stripped the clothes he was wearing and did the same. Shivering, he slathered himself and all his clothes with soap from the dispenser he had boosted from the church basement bathroom. The rain washed away the grime and stench. He zipped himself into his tent, put on a shirt, pants, and socks that he’d gotten from the church donation when he pinched the soap, and crawled back into his sleeping bag, wrapping himself in his surplus wool blanket.

He spent the next day or so reading the worn copy of Brown Dog by Jim Harrison he’d found in a church donation box. While it rained, he finished the last of his meager supply of peanut butter, jelly, and crackers, and drank water.

When the rain finally stopped, he dressed and walked to the liquor store and picked up a quart of beer and loaf of bread. He spent the next couple days letting his clothes dry, reading, and laying out the wood pieces for the floor of his new treehouse. Still need about three good planks…and longer nails. Shit.

On the third afternoon, after the rain, he changed into his best clothes and stowed the other clean clothes in his pack. He sniffed himself; he smelled reasonably clean. Jack will let me into the bar again, he thought.

On his way to The Elbow Club, he passed through the vacant lot where his old oak treehouse—the one that had given him his moniker—had stood until some local punks burned it. He stopped and shook his head. Then he took his battered wallet from his front pocket and counted his money. He had $17.38. Two more days until my disability comes…and I need to buy nails and another saw…

As he walked the last block to The Elbow Room, the local sheriff, J.J. Cranston, pulled up in front of Squirrel and put on his flashers. Squirrel’s heart jumped—he’d known J.J. since high school. Not tonight. Fucking bully…

“Come on over here, Squirrel. You know I do believe it’s squirrel season right now. I don’t eat rats, but maybe I should shoot you for the good of the town.”

Squirrel forced a smile and looked at his feet.The cruiser’s radio crackled: “Sheriff Cranston, non-injury hit and run in front of the high school. It was the Milner boy in that lifted truck.”

“Your lucky day; I’ll catch up with you later, buddy,” Cranston said, before speeding off.


Jack glared at Squirrel when he walked in. “You look clean, Squirrel, but if I smell you, I’m 86’ing your broke ass,” Jack snarled. Squirrel took the barstool furthest from everyone. Jack nodded to Roland, his bartender.

“What will it be, Squirrel?” Roland asked.

“Pitcher of Natty and a shot,” Squirrel replied.

He plunked down a rumpled ten and two ones. Roland took the cash and returned with the pitcher and shot. Squirrel savored the shot, sipping it slowly. Then he started in on the pitcher. He liked to drink the first glass fast, then nurse each glass after that. He got the best buzz that way, plus it allowed him more time inside, out of the elements.

With little in his stomach, he felt drunk after the shot and first glass of beer. Despite being in the warm bar, he shivered. He buttoned his surplus field coat. Please God, don’t let me be sick again. He refilled his glass.

The regulars sat in their usual places, ignoring him. They knew Squirrel well enough; half had gone to high school with him, and he’d been booted out of the bar dozens of times. When Squirrel finished his pitcher, Jack came over and sat next to him.

“You gonna buy another round, Sport?” Jack asked.

Squirrel didn’t want trouble, so he stood up to leave. Jack grabbed his arm.

“Hold on now. It’s cold out there tonight. How ‘bout you do me a little favor and I’ll buy you another round and get you some food from across the street,” Jack said.

Squirrel remembered the last “favor” involved sparring with Jack’s girlfriend, a mixed martial arts fighter, in the back parking lot for the entertainment of the regulars. She was about 30 pounds smaller than Squirrel but kicked the shit out of him. As he got his ass beat by the young woman, the regulars cheered. She quickly realized Squirrel couldn’t defend himself and stopped the fight. So, with the encouragement of the small crowd, Jack put on 8oz boxing gloves and spent the next 10 minutes giving Squirrel the beating of his life.

“Sorry Jack, I’m not feeling so good. I can’t take a beatin’ tonight.”

Jack laughed and patted him on the back.

“No. No. All I need you to do is to bring an envelope to a guy who will be here around closing. He’ll give you a bag to bring back to me. Trust me, nothing will happen to you. If you do good, you can do this for me once every couple weeks.”

As much as he wanted to say no, it was cold out, beer was beer, and he needed food.


Squirrel enjoyed another pitcher of beer as he wolfed down a burger and fries from the diner down the street. Maybe things are looking up for me.



“Ok buddy. He’s parked around the corner street. He’ll flash his lights when he sees you. Here’s the envelope. Bring the bag right back and I’ll give you one last shot for the road.”

Squirrel took it from him. He shuffled to the door and looked back, half expecting a bottle to bounce off his head.

“You trust that loser with this job?” Roland asked.

“Shit, I can make that little shit do anything. He’s terrified of me. Besides, where the hell is he going to go? He’s got no money, no car. He’s perfect for this,” Jack replied.


Squirrel stepped outside into the drizzle and pulled his wool skullcap on. He shuffled in a slight stagger down the vacant street. Has to be drugs or gambling…Not like I can say no, though.

As Squirrel turned the corner onto the next block, a car approached from down the street. Squirrel stopped ready for whatever was next when J.J. hit the flashers on the cruiser. Squirrel slid the envelope down his waistband. As he did, a car further down the road made a U-turn with its headlights off.


“Squirrel, get your dirty ass over here and kneel on the sidewalk,” J.J. said.


Squirrel said nothing and knelt on the sidewalk facing away from the sheriff. Hoping to avoid a beating, he put his hands behind his head, doing his best not to fall on his face.


“Now that is a well-trained rat. Good boy,” J.J. said as he cuffed him.


Squirrel sat in the backseat of the cruiser and fought panic as his tormentor drove past the town’s last neighborhood.


“J.J., I’ll die if you leave me out in the woods like last time.”


“Come on now Squirrel, that was summer, and I thought you would enjoy a camping trip. No, tonight we are going to Cleveland. The mayor is on my ass to get you out and crack down on them street racing kids. So, you got to go.”


“Can I please get my pack and tent?”


“You can beg for new rags at one of the shelters there. Now shut up and enjoy the ride.”



J.J. took the first northbound exit for Cleveland in the old industrial district. He pulled over after driving through a couple streets lined with dilapidated and vacant warehouses. J.J. got out and pulled Squirrel from the backseat and laid him face down on the wet pavement. He pressed his knee into Squirrel’s back as he uncuffed him.

“If I catch you back in Millersburg, I will take you into the woods and tie your ass to a tree so you can die with your own kind. Understand?”


Squirrel stayed silent.


 “Understand? Say it,” J.J. snarled.


 “Ok…I live in Cleveland now.”


  “Good little rat.”


Squirrel walked the empty streets. He was thankful the rain had become dry snow, but he was growing colder now. He pulled up his coat collar, stuffed his hands in his pockets, then headed toward the lake and the large lit buildings dotting the skyline. As he walked, a wave of emotion hit him—a mixture of relief, fear, and rage; he sat down on the curb. He took a few deep breaths and considered his odds. Not good. Not good…but they never are. A tear ran down his cheek and froze where his salt and pepper beard began. He got up and walked again.



Around five a.m., completely spent, Squirrel saw the neon glow of the sign on an old-school diner. He was shivering, but relief swept over him. Thank God. He felt streaks of wet warmth running from his eyes and pulled his sleeve across his face to wipe them.

As he was calculating what he could buy besides coffee with the few bucks he had left, Squirrel remembered the envelop. Shit!  He fished it from his pants, pulled out a bill without looking at it and stuffed it in his pocket. He returned the envelope to his waistband and went in.

Squirrel sat at the counter and slyly slipped the bill from his pocket. He glanced down—a Benjamin. Thank Christ. His stomach flipped. How much is in that envelope? It’s near a half-inch thick!

The third-shift waitress came over. She was beautiful, a decade younger than Squirrel. Her pale skin and raven black hair shined in fluorescents. She looked ready to go home.

“Honey, if you can’t pay you can’t stay.”

She’s the prettiest thing I’ve seen in a long, long while. It hit him that he hadn't had a woman in years. Squirrel smiled at her and flipped the $100 bill on the counter.

“Hot coffee and the big breakfast please.” He grinned at her, “I’m a big tipper too.”

She smiled.

“Well now… Ok then, big breakfast and coffee coming up.”

She returned and poured him hot coffee. He poured in some cream from the stainless pitcher. It felt normal, good, a simple pleasure long out of his reach.

He looked around the empty diner. As he sipped his coffee, he warmed up, relaxed. It was the best he’d felt in a long time. Maybe I have enough cash to buy some supplies and build a real treehouse before winter sets in. Just need an out-of-the-way place, and to have the wood and tools dropped nearby…I can even put in a little fireplace and lay in supplies for winter…He smiled. Then, as if God’s hand yanked him from his daydream, he wondered how long it would be before Jack talked to J.J. and figured out where to look for him.

When he’d finished his meal, the waitress came to refill his cup and drop off the check. He smiled at her.

“Is there a hardware store around here? Do any of your regulars have a truck? I need to pick up some building supplies today and have them delivered just outside of town.”


JD CLAPP lives in San Diego, CA. His work has appeared in Cowboy Jamboree, Bristol Noir, Roi Fainéant Press, trampset, Punk Noir and numerous others. In 2023, he was a Pushcart nominee in nonfiction, and had a fictional story selected as a finalist in the Hemingway Shorts, Short Story competition.


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