“How you doing, officer?”
I’m kneeling on a sidewalk in Riverside, Rhode Island, and a squad car has just pulled into the nearest driveway. My fingers are incriminatingly spattered. All the evidence — brush, paper, and body — is laid out before me.
“Fine,” says the officer. “But the question is: What are you doing?”
“Well, as you can see, sir, I’m painting this squirrel.”
The officer leans out his window.
“I pulled him off the center stripe a few minutes ago because of the rushing cars. I’m going to make a print. This is art.”
A scurry of squirrels is chattering and flagging tail in the big-tree backyard behind us. I imagine that this one — warm and pliable, perfect for printing — was formerly of its cheery, quick-limbed company.
“You’re serious?” asks the cop, matter-of-factly, as he steps from his car.
“Yes, sir. Roadkill prints. I’ve done a number: fox, raccoon, bird . . . I’m hoping for a deer, eventually. You haven’t seen one lying around, have you?”
Another cop pulls to the curb and parks. I’m surrounded now.
“What’s this?” asks the second officer, closing his door. He quickly surveys the scene and sees the tiny, untimely victim.
“Oh, good God, son. You’re touching that? And you’re not using gloves?”
“Well, circumstances suggest he didn’t die of disease,” I offer. “He must have felt rubber only a minute or two before I came across him.”
The first officer: “Do you have some ID?”
I fumble for my undergraduate credential, hoping it will license my creativity.
“I don’t know what . . . well, frankly . . . I mean, I’ve never dealt with anything like this before,” says the officer, sizing up my prom picture. “I’m not sure about legality here, but this just looks wrong.”
“Regardless, someone called you in,” he continues. “People are disturbed. You’ll have to move this off the sidewalk.”
Only a few minutes before, several SUV drivers had slowed and looked down at me askance, cell phones in hand.
“You can’t do this here,” says the cop. “Take it somewhere else . . . put it behind your car . . . some place less out in the open.”
“What if I move the squirrel to that side street?” I inquire. “Or I could just take him to go, if you prefer, and wrap this up at home.”
“Either way,” says the cop, “but you do something with that, while I call in and make sure there aren’t any warrants out for you.”
It’s November and cold, and the squirrel warms my hand when I lift it onto my printing board. The second officer chaperones as I round the street corner, carrying the squirrel as if on a tray. Resuming my work, I smear a hairy tail with a thin layer of ink. The cheap sponge brush is sticky and picks up coat: long, coarse bristles, like pine needles; downy underhairs, thin and light as lint; short, tapered threads, all shades of brown, red, black, and gray.
Meanwhile, the flatfoot supervises.
“I feel bad for it,” he murmurs. “Don’t you feel bad about what you’re doing?”
I look down at my furry quarry.
“Well, I do, of course. But hopefully this will make a good print, and it’ll say something about roadkill. About squirrels. About how sometimes we overlook the small things.”
When the ink is adequately applied, I lift my panel with paper and center it squarely over the squirrel curled serenely on its side. My palms warm as I press and rub circles, bending the board’s flexible surface ever so slightly around the animal’s small body, making sure to find and feel each leg and padded, arboreal foot.
When I lift, the wet impression looks alive, like a figure dancing, or kicking the curve of the mammalian womb, or free-falling through air.
“That’s not bad, huh?” I say to the cop, surprised by the effect.
“Not bad,” he says. Cops are classic non-smilers, but I sense he is also impressed.