"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


Meditations on 6th Street

Meditations on 6th Street

Five blocks from home:

During an early morning walk to campus I watched a Taco Time employee carrying a leaf blower kick a dead squirrel off the sidewalk into the bike lane. It took three attempts to separate the stiff carcass from the mulch at the base of its oak tree, the third of which added a slight flourish, a spin, that made the act all the more malicious as flesh met pavement. I was happy to be protected by the headphones in my ears, as I imagined the sound to be adequately horrifying. While I don’t necessarily think there is any ceremonious way to remove a carcass from the sidewalk, the employee’s vigor stunned me, staining the action the color of cruelty. But, upon second consideration, I attempted to give her the benefit of the doubt, justifying her aggression by postulating that she and that squirrel must have had a storied past, a past that consecrated this as the prime opportunity to get even. A holy directive? Some fate finally realized. Or perhaps, I reconsidered, she’d had a particularly rough morning, and this squirrel’s lifeless body was the perfect vessel on which to enact her rage. Surely, no harm can be done by assaulting an empty vessel such as this. That is, as long as nobody is watching. 

She was near her breaking point, I continued, and it was to be either the squirrel or her next customer on the receiving end of those three distinct blows. Better the dead than the hungry, I reasoned. What if the removal of this squirrel was the highlight of her day? A much earned privilege that broke up the monotony of burritos and tater-tots? Who's to say this isn’t one of many squirrels she has had to remove? Perhaps there is no longer a need for ceremony, for tenderness. Why sympathize with a dead thing when its pain lives only in the imagination? What good would that do her?

When I passed the squirrel I didn’t look at it, refused to eulogize it. Doing so would complicate the quickly approaching moment, when I’d have to pass the woman with the leaf blower. She didn’t hear me coming, so my sudden appearance in her periphery startled her. And, when she turned off the leaf blower — as a courtesy to my passing — I noticed a tension in her eyes. Her gaze bounced between me and the squirrel, perhaps to reassess her harm. There had been a witness.

Four blocks from home:

I almost exclusively look down at the ground while walking, but this section of my walk has often caused my gaze to drift. The windows of the strip mall shaded, perfectly reflecting the sunlit cars parked street side, as well as my own figure in the in-between. I catch glances of myself out of the corner of my eye, trying not to be seen engaging in vain self-appraisal. Car windows are also great vehicles for this, but one runs the risk of accidentally making eye contact with a stranger if they’ve yet to exit. Depending on the model of car, one’s reflection might also be distorted in a manner that is unhelpful, if not surreal. I wonder if my insecurity could more easily be attributed to this habit, of self-assessing, or if it was in fact the reverse: my self-maintenance a product of insecurity, of needing to know the way I appear to whomever is watching, and from which angle. I have, I’ll admit, so relished catching others behave just as I do. But is that satisfaction steeped in superiority or in solidarity? And how could it possibly be both? Which part of me, I wonder, is ready to be seen, and which to be overlooked?

Three blocks from home:

A church has bought the abandoned lot that parallels this portion of the sidewalk. I wondered if they will kick out the taco truck proprietors who have taken up shop at that location. I wondered if it would be for financial reasons. I assumed, if it were to happen, it might be in response to something else.  I kicked a pebble along the sidewalk. Three kicks before it veered into the gravel lot, and was not worth retrieving.

Two blocks from home:

The sidewalk outside a local bar was covered in a mixture of confetti and fallen leaves. Saturated cobalt blues and grapefruit reds mingled with the mustard foliage — a beautiful contrast,  yet unholy somehow. I wondered if the confetti was biodegradable. Paper based? Or plastic? How had it spread so evenly along the ground, as if it had fallen with the leaves? What was its origin, its reason for being here? What had been celebrated? A birthday? An accomplishment? In its present context, the early evening sunlight filtered through the oak limbs — still too early yet for bar-goers — it looked as if the trees were celebrating the change of the seasons. It was a moment of festivity, before the leaves turned sodden and brown, before that section of sidewalk is once again frozen over with the vomit. Before the bar-goers repented their dinner onto the ground where confetti had once been.

One and a half blocks from home:

Another corpse offends my periphery one day, its limbs splayed in four opposing directions, stomach to the ground like a skydiver’s, lips parted in what looks like a yawn, tail stiff. Its presence sends a thorn through my nervous system when, mid-stride, its carcass catches my gaze. It’s not so much the idea of a dead squirrel that has shaken me so deeply, it’s the abruptness of its arrival; not so much the idea of death, rather the possibility that it could go unnoticed, just behind that oak tree, half a step from the sidewalk at the intersection of 6th and Washington. The body looks like that of a kite caught in a tree, a sacrificed plaything.

A week later, another, but this one lay on its side. I must look like that while sleeping, I thought. Then, with new juxtaposition, I began to notice the slow decay of the first: its skin was growing thinner, its ribs visible under its stretched-canvass pelt, an ant or two on its patchy coat. I wondered if these two had been friends in life.

Another couple days: and a fourth. This one a step further from the tree, on the lawn of a local bank. Its stomach faced the sky, as if it died looking up at whatever had killed it. The power lines? A bad acorn? Three squirrels dead at one tree was significant. Perhaps an omen? Was this somehow connected to what I’d witnessed outside Taco Time? A message to pay attention to? A sign worth consideration?

But then they were gone, and the lawn more manicured.

One block from home:

There was a flattened Keystone Light box in the grass next to the wheelchair access ramp of the church that sits in direct line of sight from my apartment balcony. An eighteen pack, I estimated, brought here by one of the too-stylish-too-be-pious, church-going teens whose numbers I marveled at occasionally as they spilled forth onto the sidewalk. I imagined the wheelchair access ramp would be difficult to utilize if this section of the sidewalk was not repaired. Though, I’d never seen anyone attempt to use it. Even still, the juxtaposition felt meaningful: Disability and Self-destruction were having a conversation at the front door of Grace. I presumed it to be quite a poignant exchange. Self-destruction might swing their arm around Disability’s shoulders with a tad too much force. Disability would cough then express their frustration with the rough sidewalk. Grace would simply watch, perhaps with a smile, perhaps with a glance at their watch.

Half a block from home:

I stole a few sprigs from the lavender bushes in a neighbor’s front yard, just as I had done every day for the past several weeks. I’d been giving them to friends and coworkers as a kindness. This time, though, I focused on the two sprigs in my hand and silently asked them to brighten the day of whoever came into their possession next. I wonder if that is what spellcraft is like — to have faith in the incomprehensible power of an object, to ask a favor of that object and believe it realized. Vest a power, as they say.

A quarter of a block from home:

I was struck by a car while riding my bike. The damage was minimal. Other than a scrape or two, a bent tire, and an accelerated heart rate I was unaffected. I even believed myself lucky: how miraculous it was that I hadn’t been seriously injured, and had to carry my bike only a short distance to get home. And, of course, I at least had a good story to relay later. I acted kindly to the driver, told her I was fine, and hoisted my bike onto my shoulder. 

Then I remembered having circled the block before the accident. Having seen a friend walking on a cross street, I deviated from my route to say hello. But that person was not, in actuality, the friend I’d imagined them to be. So, with minor embarrassment in mind, I found my route again and approached the intersection for the second time. I remembered deciding to have faith in the driver to stop at the stop sign before pedaling on. Then, I remembered realizing how none of it would’ve occurred, had I not mis-imagined my friend, how I would have gotten home with a fully functional bike and without a fresh fear of crossing the road. But, then I considered whether those things were ever really possibilities, or whether the whole situation had been fated from the beginning. Was I meant to get hit by a car on that particular day, regardless of my arrival time? Was there, in fact, no chance in the matter at all? Or, perhaps, was I just imagining the chance occurrence that way in order to feel noticed? Noticed by the woman behind the wheel? Someone else?

Home:

I look out over the town I’ve passed through countless times: From my balcony, I can see the sun fading behind distant farm hills; the air is cool as moths begin to congregate beneath the porchlight; the steeple of the church is weathered, a single piece of siding near the top has come loose on one side. I tell myself to watch and remember as it all happens, and being both a part of and apart from this scene feels like ceremony. All is eulogized; all is celebrated; all is noticed. Then I walk through the door and it all continues without me.


Austin Maas is a queer man raised in northern Idaho. Currently a working writer and undergraduate English student the University of Idaho, his creative work has appeared in The Silver Needle Press, and has been highlighted at the 2017 Montana Book Festival and Moscow, Idaho's Pop-up Prose reading series. In 2016, his journalistic work was awarded 1st place in Periodical Feature Writing by the Idaho Press Club. Instagram: @austindmaas, Twitter: @austindmaas

Cover photo by matthew Feeney on Unsplash

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