Men who cling to the backs of garbage trucks, utility workers repairing roadside lines, official pavers, pounders of guardrail posts, surveyors eyeing transits positioned like mad painters’ easels in the middle of the road, all are required to wear yellow reflective vests because of what happened to Hank Bratton. “What Happened to Hank Bratton” is the cautionary tale ritually repeated to all new employees at Stevens Services, the largest (because the only) waste disposal company in our middling-size town. Mr. Bratton, a happy-go-lucky sanitation worker who identified deeply with Johnny Cash and accordingly dressed always and entirely in black, walked around the back of his truck one workday morning and stepped directly into the path of a very quietly oncoming Plymouth Fury. Bratton was thrown several feet into the air, his unscheduled flight prematurely concluding when the back of his neck collided with a telephone pole. The Furious driver, certain he had killed the garbage man, metaled his pedal and tried to disappear down the curving suburban street, but he was apprehended that evening at his sister’s home in the next county, where police found him hiding at the bottom of a large toy chest in a children’s playroom, weeping and begging the officers not to beat him with their belts.
Against every examining physician’s expectation, Bratton survived. He was completely paralyzed from the neck down, but his head bounced with life on the hospital pillow, joking with visitors and begging the nurses for beer as though the rest of his body was not prematurely mummifying below close-fitting sheets. After two weeks of relative jollity, Bratton’s mood began to change. Within a month, he was begging and then angrily demanding that the nurses end his life: Nicholson him with a pillow, Morrison him on morphine, bag his head and rubber band his neck like Jerzy Kosinski, speed dial Jack Kevorkian for an emergency consult, anything to release him from the cramped cage his head had become. Nurses ignored him; doctors sedated him. His head was eventually transferred to a nursing home (everyone in the ambulance assured him the body was attached, but he had no reason to believe them after the pretty nurse with the big dark sad eyes refused to open the back door and slide his gurney into highway traffic) where a new team of nurses ignored and different doctors sedated and during rare lucid moments the head demanded decapitation, release from its ragdoll body, and to a psychiatric resident it said, “How can it be suicide if most of you is already dead?” The man spoke of antidepressants and all life had to offer. The head replied, “Even licking pussy gets old after a while.” Its requests unacknowledged, the head lived stubbornly on and is probably still alive today out at the nursing home past the refinery, where everything smells like a bad car engine. But no one visits it anymore, no one mentions its former owner except to tell the tale. Bratton has died into fable.