It is perhaps best to begin with the joke and no other words of explanation, and then to explain how three people came upon the joke and what they chose to make of it.

The Joke is not funny.

The Joke itself:

There was an old man sitting on a bench in a park. A squirrel climbed up his leg and sat in his lap. A second squirrel climbed up the old man's leg and asked the first squirrel what he was doing. The first squirrel replied, "I'm eating one now and saving the other for winter."

The three people, Pete, Kelp and Gretel, were in a small tourist town on the shore of Lake Michigan, perhaps 150 miles southeast of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. They had come there to attend a small wedding. After the ceremony there was an equally small reception and, following that, a fine dinner at the only hotel in the area with any pretension of elegance.

After the dinner everyone in the wedding party left town, with the exception of Pete, Kelp and Gretel, who had driven up from Chicago. Two rooms had been reserved for them at the more modest Coho Motel on the edge of town. Pete, the best friend of the groom, had a room to himself. Kelp and Gretel, who were then engaged, shared another room a few doors away.

Later that night the three of them had walked the few blocks to the main street to check out the night life. On Kelp's reccomendation the first place they went to was The Double D tavern.


* * *



Three years before the wedding Kelp and the future groom, Mike -- whose family owned a summer cottage just outside of town -- had come up together and spent an evening exploring the taverns. After stopping at five different places they were about to write off the whole town as hopelessly dull. Then they went into The Double D. It proved to be a very odd place.

On one side of them were two couples; one pair middle-aged and the other much younger, perhaps in their early twenties. The male half of the older couple was trying to persuade the younger pair to join them at a motel for the night. The female half of the older couple did not say anything the entire time but, now and then, she would giggle. The younger couple repeatedly but politely declined the offer.

At one point the older man cupped the young woman's breasts from behind and very loudly compared them to his own wife's "melons". The young woman wiggled free and the young man meekly objected, not raising his voice. To Kelp and Mike this seemed incredible, but no one else in the crowded bar was paying the slightest attention to this behavior; perhaps this sort of thing happened all the time. The lewd suggestions continued but the younger pair did not waver.

Kelp and Mike had been watching this for about a half hour and Mike had just said, "I'll bet he's a farmer, he's been sitting around the house all winter reading the "letters" column in Penthouse...," when a voice said, "Excuse me."

They looked to the side in the direction of the voice, saw nothing, then looked down. Looking up at them was a very short, full-bearded man with a shriveled arm. He pulled himself up on a bar stool next to Mike. He introduced himself and asked if they wanted to go out and help him kill something.

"What do you mean?"

"I just feel like killing something."

"You mean you want to go hunting?"

"I'm beyond hunting. Now I kill."

Kelp and Mike quickly finished their beers and stood up to leave. Going out the door, Kelp noted that the younger couple appeared to be having second thoughts. The little man was busy introducing himself to someone else.

* * *

The Double D had since been remodeled and, on this night just a few years later, seemed as dull as those other places Kelp and Mike had visited. Next, the three went to a bowling alley and sat in the lounge. They had two beers apiece and left.

They went to a small restaurant that had a nautical theme. It seemed to be a favorite haunt of the local teenagers, and the three listened in and commented on the conversations around them as they lingered over coffee and hamburgers. A tremendous thunderstorm broke loose as they prepared to leave, keeping them there longer than they wanted. Finally, they dodged though the rain to a tavern across the street called The Oasis.

In The Oasis were Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline records in the jukebox and Elvis's velvet image on the wall. There were a handful of natives present, including the woman who would soon tell The Rhinelander Joke, and a man with the traditional collar -- they guessed he was the local priest --whom the others addressed as "Father".

The overall tone of The Oasis was White Trash. It was an unlikely place for tourists. You had to climb five steep concrete steps to get in and for most people it would not prove worthwhile. However, there were the odd touches: the unusual presence of the local Padre, the sweet-sour music, the sort of casual atmosphere that would have the bartendress ask a woman, "So, how was Rhinelander?"

"It was fun. Heard a good joke."

She apologized in advance to the priest, saying, "It's sorta blue."

Then she told the joke.

The locals laughed. Pete, Kelp and Gretel threw questioning looks at each other, looks that conveyed shared thoughts such as: That wasn't funny; What are these people laughing at; and Maybe it's time to move on.

The local priest had laughed along with the others.

* * *

Pete, Kelp and Gretel have major problems. Pete has a need to detach himself from the present. Hence he tends to view that present through a lens which not only provides the necessary distance but also allows for later viewing at a self-prescribed rate of speed.

Kelp can never forgive his hippie parents for naming him after seaweed. Neither, somehow, can he bring himelf to take the necessary actions to change his name.

Gretel is engaged to Kelp.

* * *

It had been a small wedding. The ceremony took place outside, on the lawn of Mike's family cottage, high on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. The setting itself was beautiful and the lake provided a dappled, shimmering backdrop.

The bride, Joan, and Mike the groom had desired a small civil ceremony with a minimum of fuss, and toward that end they had secured the services of a local judge. The judge, however, failed to uphold his end of the bargain.

Halfway through the vows he said, "Now, I know this is supposed to be a civil ceremony, but I just can't help to feel that only the one true Christian God could give us as beautiful an afternoon as this bright, sunny afternoon for the wedding of...of..." and he checked his notes, "Michael and Joan. Yes only a Christian God..."

The majority of those present were, in fact, atheists or at best agnostics, none of them known church-goers, and it so happened that the bride's father was Jewish. The judge's sudden, unexpected burst of cheery, fundamentalist Christianity was not welcomed. After the ceremony he was shunned. A piece of cake, a glass of champagne and out the door.

* * *

The wedding itself and most of those who were present are peripheral to The Rhinelander Joke, but this does not mean that it or they should be left out. Why, for instance, ignore the fact that for a good portion of the reception inside the cottage the bride's sister, Ellen, harbored a small white spider in her carefully coifed hair. Although Ellen never realized this, almost everyone else did. The few who did not may have wondered why Pete took several close-up photos of the back of Ellen's head.

Pete was Mike's oldest friend and had foreseen the possibility of being called upon to serve as Best Man. To this end he had loaded himself up with cameras -- still, video and 16mm film -- so as to assure that he would be too busy documenting the event should the need arise. The need arose, somehow unforeseen by bride and groom but legally required.

"Now, who are your witnesses?" The judge asked as the ceremony was about to begin.

"Uhm," Mike hesitated, a bit unnerved by this development, "It looks like Pete's busy, uh,...Kelp?"

Joan selected one of her four close friends present as Maid of Honor.

* * *

Pete, Kelp and Gretel left The Oasis immediately after hearing The Rhinelander Joke. The joke took all of their attention as they drifted up the still-damp street, at a loss as to where to go next. Pete was the first to speak of it. "Did you hear that joke?"

"Hell, yes," said Kelp, "Dumb joke."

"I didn't get it," said Gretel.

"Maybe she just couldn't tell it right."

"Two problems, it isn't funny and it doesn't make much sense."

"Should we go back to the bowling alley?"

After ordering beers and sitting in the lounge of the bowling alley for about ten minutes in silence, Kelp cleared his throat and spoke.

"You're right about that joke, Pete. It isn't funny and it doesn;t make much sense. It's stupid. Still you know what she was talking about."

"Yeah, well..."

"I still don't get it."

"Okay, look. It's squirrels talking about nuts. Nuts are...are testicles in schoolboy slang, okay? So here's this squirrel and the old man must be asleep or something, but this one squirrel is sitting on his lap and he's eating one testicle now and saving the other for winter, or so he tells this other squirrel, and both squirrels can talk. It's a really stupid joke." Kelp patted her on the knee and rose to use the restroom.

When he came back Gretel said, "Pete just made sense of your joke."


"Okay," Pete began, "It's like this, see. There's these two old guys who fall alseep at the beginning of autumn and these two squirrels have been watching them since, like. September 21st, but it's real obvious that they're dead by now and it's, let's say, November, so anyway one of these squirrels go up -- goes up -- and starts to eat one of the old men, but this other squirrel comes up and says..."

"Wait a minute."

"...'What are you doing?' and the other squirrel, the first squirrel says..."

"Wait a minute."


"You have to explain why no one noticed these two dead guys in the park."

"Well,...It's one of these modern plazas and there aren't any trees so there isn't any fall color to see so no one goes in the park."

"So then what are these two old men in the park for to begin with?"

"Uhm, get the last of the summer sun."

"Alright, that's good, but how about this. These two inmates escape from the insane asylum, and after a long day they fall asleep in the park. A squirrel comes along and starts chewing on the arm of one of them..."

"One of the nuts."

"Right. So while this squirrel is chewing on the arm, this other squirrel comes along and asks the first squirrel what he's doing..."

"Thats alright but wait, okay, there's these two bums sitting on a park bench and one of them says to the other, "Boy, am I hungry. What do you do when you're hungry?" And the other guy says, "Oh, food is no problem for me. I just watch the squirrels and do what they do. Like, do you see those two squirrels up in that tree? See, they gather nuts. Myself, I just live on nuts and berries."

So the hungry bum thinks, hey, that's the key. I'll just watch the squirrels and get some ideas.

Anyway, there are two trees and one of the trees has two squirrels in it. The expert bum climbs one tree and the hungry bum climbs the other, the one with squirrels in it. The expert bum is thinking, well, I sure set that guy right, he'll do okay by himself from now on. After awhile he looks over at the other tree to see how the hungry bum is doing and he sees that the hungry bum has caught and strangled both squirrels. He's got one sticking out of his coat pocket and is holding the other one by the neck. He takes a jack-knife out of his pocket and starts cutting the squirrel up into bite-sized chunks..." Gretel is turning green. "...The expert bum is watching this wide-eyed and finally yells out, 'Hey, what are you doing?' and the hungry bum says..."


Every conversation in the lounge fell silent at Gretel's exasperated command. Kelp began to say, "wha..." before she stopped him with a warning punch to the arm.

"You two are driving me nuts...ahhh!' she slapped her face with both hands and, amid the laughter of Pete and Kelp, began anew. "Ugh! Crazy with this stupid joke! It isn't funny. It's never going to be funny. It's a hopelessly stupid joke. Even if we went to Rhinelander, wherever the hell that is, and asked everyone we met we'd never find a funny version of that joke."

She paused and there was silence, then, "You know what I think? I think you guys got shook up by Mike's wedding. You're both of you scared of commitment and everything else and you're clinging to that stupid, infantile, sophomoric joke like some kind of...some kind of castration fear life-raft..."

"That's it! We could go to Rhinelander and track down the source of the joke, don't you see? It's a great American odyssey, a search...the real source of a joke! No one knows where a joke really comes from."

I am not going to Rhinelander to track down some stupid..."

"Besides, Kelp, we don't have to go to Rhinelander. We could go to a library and check a phone book, get the number of every bar in Rhinelander and start calling. See if whoever answers has ever heard the joke about the two squirrels in the park..."

"No...No...No..." Gretel was almost yelling and was pounding her fists on the table. The bartender came over.

"Listen. You folks are getting a little too loud. I think you've had enough for tonight. Maybe you should all go back to the park or wherever you're from."

Pete sobered up momentarily and said, "Okay. You're right. We're going."

As they stumbled out the door one of the regulars said to the bartender, "I bet they got Illinois plates."

Back at the Coho Motel, Pete retired to his room and Kelp and Gretel retreated to their own. In their room, as they readied for bed, Gretel noticed three black spiders in a corner of the ceiling. As they laid back on the bed the spiders began to move in a line, seemingly toward the bed. Kelp climbed on a wobbly chair and managed to kill two of them with a shoe. The third disappeared.

The next morning, Pete and Kelp were both seriously hungover, Gretel somewhat less so. After checking out, they threw their bags in the trunk of Gretel's car and drove off with hardly a word between them.

After filling the tank and getting cups of coffee at a service station, they began to feel a little more alive. Despite the shape they were in, they decided to try to follow local roads as long as they could, trying to stay as close to the shore of the lake as possible. At one point Kelp mentioned the joke and both Pete and Gretel threatened to beat him up and leave him at the side of the road to bleed.

Finally Pete fell asleep in the back seat and Kelp and Gretel began to argue up in front. After an hour of following tractors and making numerous left turns into meandering dead-end roads, they abandoned the plan and hit the interstate for the rest of the way.

It was a silent and uncomfortable drive the rest of the way back to Chicago.

Kelp and Gretel dropped Pete off at his apartment after a last-minute argument about the gas money. Finally Pete, still groggy from his nap, promised to give them some prints of photos he took at the wedding, which was regarded as insufficient compensation. Kelp and Gretel continued on to the apartment they shared, giving each other no more than nasty looks.

Once there, with Gretel out of earshot in another room, Kelp dialed the number for information in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. He asked the operator for the number of the Sportman's Bar. There is, after all, a Sportsman's Bar in every Midwestern town.

"Do you mean the Sport Bar?" inquired the operator.

"There's no Sportman's Bar?'

"We have no number by that name, sir."

He took down the number of the Sport Bar and thanked the operator, who had already hung up. Dialing, he tried to think of what to say.

"Sports." The voice was gruff, no nonsense.

"Hi. Uhm, this is going to sound odd, but I'm trying to track down this joke, ah, that I overheard somebody telling and, uh, they said that they first heard it in Rhinelander and..."

"What the hell is this? Is this some kind of a joke? Is this Al?"

"Al? No, no, this isn't Al. I'm calling from Chicago..."

"What the hell are you doing in Chicago? The pool team plays for the championship in two hours..."

"No, I said this isn't Al. I'm trying to track down a joke that's supposed to come from Rhinelander, a joke about two squirrels and an old man in a park."

"Who the hell is this?"

"Look, never mind who I am. Just please tell me have you ever heard of the joke?"

He could hear the bartender addressing his patrons, "Got some guy on the phone here who sounds like Al. Says he's calling from Chicago and wants me to tell him a joke..."

He could hear the voices of the patrons:

"What the hell is Al doing in Chicago?"

"Tell him to get his sorry ass back here, we've got a big game tonight."

"I see that ain't stopping you from gettin' loaded."

"What!? Three..."

"What joke is there that Al don't know?"

Then it seemed as though everyone in the bar began to speak at once, telling jokes to each other and talking about that crazy Al, taking off for Chicago on the night of a big game. He heard the clink of Bakelite on stainless steel. It seemed as though the bartender had set the phone down and forgotten about it. Kelp could hear the sound of running water, glass clinking, motorized brushes whirring, closer to the phone than the now animated but distant conversations blurring into each other.

Kelp hung up. Maybe he would try again on another night. Call up the Sport Bar in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Ask for Al. It sounded as though Al might know the right way to tell the joke.


copyright 1991, 2004 by Kent Mueller.

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