Richard Selzer tells the following story:
“In our city, garbage is collected early in the morning. Sometimes the bang of the cans and the grind of the truck awaken us before our time. We are resentful, mutter into our pillows, then go back to sleep. On the morning of August 6, 1975, the people of 73rd St. near Woodside Avenue do just that. When at last they rise from their beds, dress, eat breakfast, and leave their houses for work, they have forgotten, if they had ever known, that the garbage truck had passed earlier that morning. The event has slipped into unmemory, like a dream.
They close their doors and descend to the pavement. It is mid-summer. You measure the climate, decide how you feel in relation to the heat and humidity. You walk toward the bus stop. Others, your neighbors, are waiting there. It is all so familiar. All at once you step on something soft. You feel it with your foot. Even through your shoe you have the sense of something unusual, something marked by a special “give.” It is a foreignness upon the pavement. Instinct pulls your foot away in an awkward little movement. You look down and you see… a tiny naked body, its arms and legs flung apart, its head thrown back, its mouth agape, its face serious. A bird, you think, fallen from its nest. But there is no nest here on 73rd St., no bird so big. It is rubber, then. A model, a… joke.. Yes, that’s it, a joke. And so you bend to see. Because you must. And it’s no joke. Such a gray softness can be but one thing. It is a baby, and dead. You cover your mouth, your eyes. You are fixed. Horror has found its chink and crawled in, and you will never be the same as you were. Years later you will step from a sidewalk to a lawn, and you will start at it softness, and think of that upon which you have just trod.
Now you look about; another man has seen it too. “My God,” he whispers. Others come, people you have seen every day for years, and you hear them speak with strangely altered voices. “Look,” they say, “it’s a baby.” There is a cry. “Here’s another!” and “Another!” and “Another!” And you follow with your gaze the index fingers of your friends pointing from the huddle where you cluster. Yes, it is true! There are more of these… little carcasses upon the street. And for a moment you look up to see if all the unbaptized sinless are falling from limbo.
Now the street is filling with people. There are police. They know what to do. They rope off the area, then stand guard over the enclosed space. They are controlled, methodical, these young policeman. Servants, they do not reveal themselves to the public master; it would not be seemly. Yet I do see the pallor and the sweat that breaks upon the face of one, the way another bites the lining of his cheek and holds it thus. Ambulance attendants scoop up the bodies. They scan the street; none must be overlooked. What they place upon the litter amounts to little more than a dozen pounds of human flesh. They raise the litter, and slide it home inside the ambulance, and they drive away. You and your neighbor stand about in the street which is become for you a battlefield from which the newly slain have at last been bagged and tagged and dragged away. But what shrapnel is this? By what explosion flung, these fragments, that sink into the brain and fester there? Whatever smell there is in this place becomes for you the stench of death. The people of 73rd St. do not then speak to each other. It is too soon for outrage, too late for blindness. It is the time of a unresisted horror.
Later, at the police station, the investigation is brisk, conclusive. It is the hospital director speaking “… Fetuses accidentally got mixed with the hospital rubbish… Were picked up at approximately 8:15 AM. By a sanitation truck. Somehow, the plastic lab bag, labeled Hazardous Material, fell off the back of the truck and broke open. No, it is not known how the fetuses got in the orange plastic bag labeled Hazardous Material. It is a freak accident.” The hospital director wants you to know that it is not an everyday occurrence. Once in a lifetime, he says. But you have seen it, and what are his words to you now?
He grows affable, familiar, tells you that, by mistake, the fetuses got mixed up with the other debris. (Yes, he says other, he says debris.) He has spent the entire day, he says, trying to figure out how it happened. He wants you to know that. Somehow it matters to him. He goes on:
Aborted fetuses that weigh 1 pound or less are incinerated. Those weighing over 1 pound are buried at a city cemetery. He says this. Now you see. It is orderly. It is sensible. The world is not mad. This is still a civilized society.
There is no more. You turned to leave. Outside on the street, men are talking things over, reassuring each other that the right thing is being done. But just this once, you know it isn’t. You saw, and you know.
And you know, too, that the Street of the Dead Fetuses will be wherever you go. You are part of its history now, its legend. It has laid claim upon you so that you cannot entirely leave it – not ever.”
Richard Selzer “Abortion” Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976) 153 – 155Share on Facebook