Tassels and Plywood

by Tom Swift

He stood tall in full cap and gown.

He smiled. A camera would, no doubt, soon be aimed in his direction. Maybe more than one.

Family had gathered.

Hands were around his shoulders.

They were on the front step of a house on 42nd Avenue.

I saw his carefully combed hair and intuited from the wideness of his smile that this was a grad who was more proud than most of what he had achieved on this Saturday night.

I snapped this impression in a flash, driving at twenty-eight-odd miles per hour on his side of the road.

I had just turned onto 42nd a half block before. This after filling my gas tank. This is detail — the attainment of gasoline for my fourteen-year-old Civic — is noteworthy in that the first gas station I had gone to was newly burned down. The second gas station I went to was barricaded, the lone car present marked all over with the words “Hennepin County Sheriff.” The third gas station I went to — by now I was down to two bars and the orange light was on — was shut down. I could not pay at the pump.

As I was breathing a little easier while pumping at the fourth gas station I went to, a thankfully still-in-service BP suddenly doing brisk business — the front of which had been plastered with plywood, just like the jewelry store nearby and, well, most other joints on this strip — I heard and oversized man walking out of the gas station store say loudly to someone still back inside, “that is why I always pack heat.”

The grad smiled as a grad deserves to smile.

Back home — I do not live far from the grad I passed — having removed everything from my backyard that isn’t permanently attached to the ground — the neighborhood alerts said the riots will look for trash cans and anything they can easily set aflame — I packed a bag in case the little buddy and I would soon need to immediately make use of the gas we had just acquired.

It is one thing to stash the dog’s meds and a fresh pair of underwear in a bag so you can be away from home for a night. It is another when the same bag will only be used during a scenario in which a mob of protesters torch your neighborhood.

What goes in the duffle takes a different tenor when the only reason you would leave is because you might not be able to come back.

The neighborhood was organized. This fact was comforting. Another fact was less so: someone on the group text mentioned that 15 gallons of kerosene had been found a block away from my house. As I read the message images that streamed live on my computer screen, scenes from New York, Nashville, and my own city flickered against the dark night in the form of flames and teargas and stormtroopers donned in black masks.

I write these words the next morning, after an abbreviated but surprisingly restful bit of sleep, after the little buddy and I got back from a walk that began minutes after the curfew ended. We did not, mercifully, ever need to flee our home. During the walk, I checked the time several times as he peed on poles and sniffed bushes; it was so quiet — we had the neighborhood to ourselves — minutes went by before so much as a single moving car could be seen — I worried we had re-entered the world too soon.

The coffeeshop on the corner was perhaps the last building in Minneapolis to be boarded up before the curfew. It looked like it would never again be open.

The theater on our block, too, looked like a Menard’s turned inside-out. The red-block-letters that are supposed to tell me what is playing today said only “Justice for George.”

Only the first name.

I have been struck over the last week by how detached from the world I have felt since Mr. Floyd’s international news-making death. Some blocks into our walk tears finally appeared.

Only the first name was needed.

I am now sitting on my porch. My belly rises and falls as I search for words.

I am not going to even try to find the ones that would make sense of it all. I don’t have access to those. If anyone does.

I am aiming much lower, much closer to home.

Justice for George.

I am grateful that at least I am finally feeling something.

Only the first name.

It helps when I think of that grad smiling.