It’s always unsettling to discover things that are unnatural or out of place. Like finding your parents porn stash or nude photos of Trump, there are things you know to be truths, but your mind simply does not want to acknowledge or linger on them. This type of willful ignorance is a coping mechanism to stay sane. Why would you want to ponder these questions, or have these thoughts burning a hole in your mind on a daily basis? Ten years ago I found myself in the middle of the night on a dark road, staring at the unbelievable. The dull beam of our flashlights illuminated my disbelief, left me doubting what I saw even while it stared at me in the face.
It had been light a few hours before. When we arrived in the fire engine, the Q-siren winding down like a dying cat, a car was wrapped around a tree far into the woods. Tire marks stretched across the road in a wide arc of black rubber. Smoke wafted from beneath the smashed hood.
It was a snarling wreck; a contortion of metal: unnatural, bent, and manipulated.
One of the EMTs from the ambulance crew reported to me: one dead, two alive. After the victims were whisked away and we removed the floppy, mangled body from the car, we waited for the undertaker.
Night crept in and daytime turned grey in the waning twilight. I don’t remember the sun setting or the stars shining in the sky. In my recollection, a sudden blanket of darkness descended upon us.
Our light-tower atop the fire engine flooded the scene and illuminated it all in artificial brightness. Hours ticked by in a slow and methodical manner as the recreation of the accident was conducted. Death is permanent, and because of this fact fatal motor vehicle accident investigations are thorough and meticulous.
The little plastic sandwich boards that marked evidence were scooped up when the investigation was complete. Fluorescent spray paint indicated the significant evidence of tire marks left behind. The rubber would fade before the paint, becoming a semi-permanent fixture on the road. These Xs and Os which identify importance are vague reminders of mortality and the impermanence of human life.
The tow truck arrived, it’s orange swirling lights winked in the night, casting an eerie glow into the forest and over the wreckage.
The car was still stuck against the tree. Through finesse and the brute strength of steel cable, winch, and pulleys, the auto was wrenched free with a shrill sound. Its deformed frame dug through the dirt and plowed up roots, scraping against tree trunks leaving deep gouges in bark. When the vehicle was on the flatbed, the tow truck driver came over to us, and spoke with a nonchalance that stands out in my mind even today.
I was standing with two police officers and my captain. It had been hours since we were first dispatched. I was mentally exhausted and wanted the shift to end, but had another ten hours until shift change at 7 am. The driver had a stoic look on his face, and maybe that is why we didn’t believe what he said at first.
“Guys. I think his brain is in the ditch.”
There was a look of disbelief on all our faces. I didn’t know what to think. I said the first thing that came to mind.
“Fuck off. Come on.”
He explained what he saw. We exchanged glances with each other. I knew it was true, but didn’t want it to be.
The four of us shined flashlights as the driver guided us to the location. A brain, I thought. A brain. I’d never seen a brain outside a body.
We searched the drainage ditch on the side of the road, until one of the officers yelled, “found it.”
Beams of light all trained on it. Sticking halfway out of the stagnant water lined with leaves was a brain, all plump and rippled and jaundiced in the dull light. It sat there out of place in that natural environment. It wouldn’t have been odd sitting on a table in a white, sterile laboratory, or on a stainless steel tray in a dingy, subterranean, subway-tiled morgue. But there it was, sitting in a puddle of filthy water, on the side of a wooded, hilly road.
The body was gone long ago, whisked away to the funeral home. None of our vehicles had gloves or a bag to take this body part. And who would pick it up? I didn’t want to hold that brain in my hands, the only buffer a thin piece of plastic between brain and skin. In the end, a decision was made.
“Leave it. The coyotes will eat it.”
It wasn’t callous as it sounds. We were burnt out. Fried. Frazzled. You can only take so much. There are tipping points. Brain in ditch is one of them.
Memories fade, and time begins to put a fog over our minds. Its like looking at images through Instagram filters. You make some brighter, or some fade to an opaque blur. I begin to question what I’ve seen, because in my mind it all seems so ridiculous, so surreal; your memory begins to fracture and compartmentalize. You begin to doubt what you’ve seen.
The mind plays tricks to protect itself, redacts lines in a script played out in memory, coats itself in a fog and what you’ve witnessed becomes obscured in that grey blanket of mist. The moments become shredded, little lines of paper with all the ink still on them. Separate they mean nothing, random letters spelling gibberish on a thin white strip. The problem is, your mind doesn’t discard those paper ribbons. Instead they are scattered into the wind of your thoughts, and sometimes a gust blows in the wrong direction and brings those pieces all back together. In those moments you are left with flash of memory you wished remained scattered.
Recently, a friend of mine in public safety recalled this story from a another perspective. They participated on this call in a differing capacity and were able to fill in a blank. Ten years later, I learned the ending to this story, although I thought I knew it already.
After we left, another officer learned about the circumstances of the call, and decided not to leave the brain there. He went out in his cruiser and with a plastic bag and gloves retrieved it. The funeral home came by their station later and picked it up to put with the body.
Until I found this out only less than a month ago, that brain was still in that ditch deep in the recesses of my mind. I thought about looking for it the next morning after that shift, but I couldn’t bring myself to drive past the scene. And in my curiosity of seeing it again, what would have I thought if it had disappeared? What would I have done if it had been there? Questions no one should never need ponder.
It is hard to erase images and memory. In my mind, that brain is still in that ditch, the image of coyotes gnawing on upon it, supping on that grey matter ankle deep in stagnant water.