HauteLit from HotLanta: “Blindly, With Intentions”

In 2013, OriginalTitle will be presenting her interpretations of contemporary short stories in whatever way such interpretations happen to emerge as a result of the inspiration.  

This week’s featured short story is “Emergency,” by Denis Johnson and can be read here (the page numbers are slightly out of order.  After reading the first two pages, scroll to the last page and read back up to read it in the proper order.)

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Hot and red, pulsing in metallic spikes through every nerve right at the top of my leg where cartilage joins it to the rest of my body.  Or at least that’s how it felt.  I’m sure they can see it.  Them, with their shiny tools and note-ridden charts.  But they won’t admit it.  Instead they twist it all the way around, knee-in, then knee-out and poke at the flesh like I can’t feel it, but I can feel it worse than I ever felt anything.  They laugh.  Ok.  They don’t laugh, but it seems like there’s a whole chorus of nurses dressed in white singing around me, clicking their heels as they laugh their hospital breath onto my face.  They see it and won’t do anything to prevent me from feeling it.  So I have found several prescriptions of my own in various drawers, deep pockets and  tiny dixie cups.

He comes in, this recent one, Mr. Smock, all smiles with stethoscope slung round his thick, wrinkled neck.  “Nice hair,” he says, notices that at least.  I took all the powdered cherry drink packets out of the cafeteria and dyed my hair pink with one leg propped on the length of the bathtub, one of the floor and my head in the sink while the night shift nurse snuck a cigarette out the back door and made out with her motorcycle boyfriend.  I stuck my tongue out at Smock.  I want to believe it was my form of protest, but I think it just started to feel thick in my mouth.  It needed out.  “We’ve checked it all out.  There’s nothing wrong with your hip.  Unless you’d like us to just go ahead and replace the whole kit and caboodle.” HA. HA. He says, or I say.

I agreed to it.  Just to show them.  I knew there was something.  I wasn’t faking.  If they hacked me open they would see it.  Red and sharp, cutting me off from the inside at the top of the leg each second they say they don’t see it, each twist of the leg they use to prove they don’t see it.  I started it off with a scalpel from Smock’s deeper pocket.  One long, thin cut and I could already see a bit of it to pull it out.  The nurse woke me up when it was over.  I was in a new room, a white room.  With brown bracelets and a big, white bandage over the affected area.  They didn’t take it out completely.  I could tell.  I yelled for Smock.

He comes in.  No stethoscope.  No wrinkles.  No thick neck.

“You didn’t fix it.” I said.

He walks over slow.  Stirs powder into water until it’s cherry pink.  He hands it to me.  

“The problem is not in your hip.  It’s in your heart.”

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From the beginning of Denis Johnson’s, “Emergency,” it’s clear the reader is made to see through foggy eyes.  The timeline, the seasons, the different stories meshing together are all up for debate.  Maybe they happened, but not in that order, or maybe they didn’t happen that way at all.  Either way, the reader is hitched onto the crazy ride from the start and must hold on to whatever details they can until the conclusion.

The story begins with the narrator mentioning the orderly, Georgie as a pretty good friend in a sentence juxtaposed with another that mentions Georgie’s penchant for stealing pills from the cabinets.  Despite their friendship status and apparent drug use, one thing is clear: the narrator looks down on Georgie and sees himself as being either more coherent or somehow better than Georgie.  The reader might likely agree at first read.  So many of Georgie’s actions seem all at once haphazard, clueless and spontaneous.  At one point, he’s randomly mopping a clean floor and squishing around on his heels remarking how squeaky his shoes are or waving around a hunting knife and zig-zagging in reverse down the highway to retrieve roadkill.  With close reading, however, it’s clear that Georgie sees what other’s may not.  He might just have the best intentions, he may be the smartest of them all.

Whether due to a combination of truly hapless individuals working at the hospital on the night shift or due the unbiased drug-laden honesty of the narrator’s perspective, the parties responsible for the care and health of patients within the hospital seem to be just as clueless as Georgie and the narrator himself.  A patient, stabbed in the eye by his wife for peeping on a neighbor lady, walks three blocks to the hospital.  The nurse halfheartedly accuses Georgie of being the culprit who stabbed the patient with the knife, then seems slow to act, prompted by the narrator finally to call the doctor.  The doctor on call admits to the staff that this seems above his reach.  No one, not even the patient, seems to act with real conviction that they know what to do, instead calling for specialists.  The reader is left to question the reliability of the narrator, puzzling if this situation seems odd because of the narrator’s laid-back perspective on the course of events or because it’s the actual modus operandi on this night shift.  The reader is thinking no one involved should really be allowed to work in a hospital, that this emergency is sure to end in tragedy, yet as the nurses and doctors fret over what to do and bide time till the people who actually know what they’re doing arrive at the hospital, Georgie simply takes out the knife himself and the patient is fine.  Or at least, this is what seems to have happened according to the narrator.  Here, it becomes clear that while everyone else was shocked and unable to act, Georgie saw the simplest solution and acted on it himself, healing the patient against what seems to be all odds and promptly forgetting all about him minutes later.  The theme of sight has also re-emerged in this scene.  Georgie mentioned at first that he couldn’t see what the patient was saying, that his face was apparently darkened.  It was as if Georgie had to remove the knife so he could see what the patient was saying, that he needed to protect the patient’s sight to be able to see and hear the patient.

After shift, Georgie wants to go to church to worship and the narrator wants to go to the county fair.  Again, Georgie’s needs, wants, character, etc. are downgraded in the eyes of the narrator and they go to the county fair, or at least that’s what the narrator relays to the reader.  At the fair, the narrator even comments on how silly a proponent of LSD looks being interviewed before realizing that he had probably taken just as many drugs.  It’s as if the narrator isn’t really able to see himself and how he must appear which allows him to judge the people around him freely.  Afterwards, Georgie can’t remember the fair.  The reader questions whether they actually went to the fair at all or if they went to the church after all and the narrator perceived it as a fair.

After hitting a jackrabbit, Georgie has idealistic visions of eating it in the morning and camping out.  He says to the narrator that they killed the mother so they need to save the babies.  The narrator is asked to take charge of them.  The two park the car and walk towards the horizon as a blizzard rains down and Georgie sees a drive-in that the narrator has mistaken for terrifying falling angels and gravemarkers. Again we see that Georgie and the narrator aren’t seeing the same things.   The narrator wants to desperately leave, thinking they’re far from town and this is where we discover that Georgie knows they’re only just outside of town and have been driving around.  We learn not long after that the narrator’s name is Fuckhead.  Georgie wants to get milk for the baby rabbits.  The narrator seems agitated and tells Georgie to forget about it.  The narrator knew he had accidentally killed the babies.  Georgie asks the narrator if this happens to him all the time, if he turns everything to shit.  This is the turning point where it becomes clear our narrator’s account may very well be completely unreliable.

By the end of the story, the reader realizes the narrator isn’t actually any more coherent than Georgie, even if during most of the story he’s characterizing Georgie as a crazed, clueless individual.  The narrator’s actually recently (or maybe not recently since the timeline is awry) AWOL after having been drafted.  Perhaps his drug use is a result of his terrible situation or what he experienced that made him want to go AWOL.  Perhaps this is why the “drive-in” seemed to be all grave markers and terrifying angels.  But where the narrator’s haphazard cluelessness in “emergencies”  leads him to destruct the things around him, Georgie’s random actions seem to save instead.  Georgie pledges to get Fuckhead to Canada.  When asked by a hitchhiker what he does for work, Georgie replies that he saves lives.  This orderly is no longer an ordinary orderly from this new perspective.  Even though most of Georgie’s actions seem random and that he’s simply getting lucky in cases where the narrator is not, in truth he seems to have intentions purer than the narrator’s and perhaps this is why things seem to work out for Georgie, why Georgie appears to be the unlikely hero.

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I highly recommend “Emergency,” by Denis Johnson.   I hope you will explore some of his other shorts in “Jesus’ Son” and novels as well.  Let’s start a dialogue about the story and what it brings to mind for you.  Comment below with any thoughts you have. 

About OriginalTitle: In addition writing her blog and contributing to Writer’s Club, OriginalTitle is also writing a novel and her work has been featured in Fanzine and most recently in Comb Magazine.

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