Roadkill: How to Make a Great First Impression

“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.”

Man alive.

“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.


  1. Wow! This is really terrific and I’m impressed (giggling) at the outcome with the cop. Professional bearing you know: no smiling.

    The print isn’t half bad, either. Wow, again.

    Just don’t get into photography. (My trigger for soapbox.) Why just last night at the central train station in Milan, where I’d arrived for my horrible 12.30 am train, I’d finished taking pictures of the posters for The Incredible Hulk and Sex and the City, and moved on to photograph the locked entrance to one of the cheesy coffee bars.

    Cop 1: ‘What’re you doing?’
    Me (interrupted) ‘Taking picturs.’
    Cop 2: ‘Why?’
    Me: ‘Hobby.’
    Cop 1: But the bar is CLOSED.’
    Me: ‘And?’
    Cop 2: You’re taking pictures of the bar when it’s closed? In the train station?’
    Me: In the station, in Milan, in Lombardy, in Italy, in Europe, in – let’s see, are we in the eastern or western hemisphere?’ (I’ve been told it’s good to answer a question with a question when possible.)
    Cop 1: ‘But what’s it for?’
    Me: ‘For art motives.’
    Cop 1: Ah, ok, buona serata.’

    Et cetera…

  2. Such tender respect! I wish you well.

    I notice and apologize for the carelessness of my species. Then I pray for the well-being of that species, those others of the one sacrificed to our unthinking human care-less-ness.

  3. Wow… this reminds me of tropical holiday cards I once made with a squirrel fish in the Bahamas. The fish once caught, had been discarded; but I found it immediately, inked it, and while remembering the sadness of it’s death, thinking yet how impressive were the prints, and the detail that that fish provided. Later, it was consumed by a gull, after I washed away the water soluble ink.

  4. Well, some years ago I had two girls win the science fair with their roadkill data, pictures were the grabber. The whole class was involved in bringing in data, kind of animal, location, date and a column for unrecognizable. They gathered info from town, from road trips as I did also. It became a type of mini-obsession for several years, a notebook in the glovebox, adding up the similar animals, watching the roadkill species change on drives from Texas to Canada. Some general conclusions, lots of skunks in the spring on country roads, more dogs on the interstates, more cats in neighborhoods, what’s the point? just lots of animals, evolution of avoiding predators did not allow for 70 MPH. A science teacher

  5. About thirty years ago, I was editing a book for a Unity Church minister on Visualizing Abundance. Because I was a freelance editor and small press publisher, I was not exactly rolling in “abundance” myself. The minister was really after me to try the visualization techniques for abundance so one day after a meeting with her I decided to give it a try.

    I lived in the country so as I was driving down the winding country road home that evening, I started silently repeating the abundance mantras – and then the strangest thing happened. Animals started jumping out in front of my car!

    I was used to watching out for the occasional deer or skunk but this was ridiculous. It was like rush hour. There was another critter every few yards. My partner, who was driving and who I had not told about the mantras, said, “What are you doing?!” He knew I was up to something so I had to tell him.

    As soon as I quit, the animals quit jumping out and we made it home without causing any deaths that night. I never did that again! I just kept on driving slow on back country roads and staying with my simple lifestyle.

  6. Fantastic!
    Comical and clever, I never would’ve thought to make a drawing of roadkill but now that I think of it, it’s shocking and somewhat moving staring into the glazed eyes of a dead deer.
    The public’s response reminds me of the Ray Bradbury story “The Pedestrian”.

  7. Wow, this is great! I love squirrels, and I love creative nonfiction, and whenever they meet I get really excited.

    Every week on my blog I feature some squirrel related art. This week I featured this essay and the imprint of the roadkill.

  8. This reminds me of tropical holiday cards I once made with a squirrel fish in the Bahamas. The fish once caught, had been discarded; but I found it immediately, inked it, and while remembering the sadness of it’s death, thinking yet how impressive were the prints, and the detail that that fish provided. Later, it was consumed by a gull, after I washed away the water soluble ink.

  9. It’s harder to start a career in freelance editing than it is to transition to one after working for an established editor first. You’ll probably have the most success if you first hire on at a publishing house, then after a year or two go freelance, taking as many clients as you can with you

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