23 pages 46 minutes read

Denis Johnson


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1991

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Emergency”

Denis Johnson originally published “Emergency” in the September 16, 1991 issue of New Yorker magazine and later as part of his critically acclaimed 1992 short story collection, Jesus’ Son. These linked, fragmentary stories, all narrated by the same troubled, drug-addicted character, examine themes of violence, addiction, loss, and friendship from an unreliable yet sympathetic narrative voice. This guide uses the 1992 version of Jesus’ Son published by Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“Emergency,” the sixth story in the collection, begins with an unnamed narrator—whose name is only ever revealed as “Fuckhead,” late in the story—describing his job as a clerk at an emergency room in the late summer of 1973. The narration is in past tense. As the narrator shares his recollection, he sometimes stops to wonder over his past self:

At the hospital, the narrator works with Georgie, an orderly who steals pills from the hospital and sometimes shares them with colleagues: the narrator, a jaded nurse, and a loathed Family Service doctor. The story begins as the narrator finds Georgie in the operating room, cleaning up nonexistent blood and crying. He does this for a long period; when the doctor asks the nurse where Georgie is, she replies that Georgie is not merely cleaning the operating room again but is “still” doing it. The narrator returns to the operating room to talk to Georgie and checks his pocket for pills. He takes them for himself but leaves Georgie with two of each kind.

Later that morning, around 3:30 am, Georgie walks in with a man who has a hunting knife lodged in one eye. The man, Terrence Weber, talks to the nurse, explaining that he walked to the hospital after his wife stabbed him in his sleep. He can still see out of the eye, however, and he doesn’t want to call the police unless he dies. (In contrast, he cannot see out of his other eye, which is prosthetic.)

The nurse calls the Family Service doctor, who decides that he needs a team of people to remove the knife. He tells the nurse and the narrator that he needs an array of specialists, noting that the situation is beyond his own capabilities. He calls for Georgie to help prep Terrence for surgery, and Georgie assents. The hospital’s operator locates specialists to come to treat Terrence, and the narrator takes more pills as they wait, listening to other doctors gathered in the emergency room discussing approaches to removing the knife. Eventually, Georgie returns from prepping Terrence—holding the hunting knife in his hand. Everyone is shocked and says nothing for a long time, until a nurse points out that Georgie’s shoe is untied, to break the silence. Georgie and the narrator are almost to the end of their shift, and when the narrator asks after Terrence, the nurse says that he’s doing well, with normal vital signs and no vision loss.

At the end of their shift, Georgie and the narrator leave together, both still high on pills. Georgie says he wants to go to church, but the narrator says he’d rather go to the county fair. They drive around, having fun and enjoying the day, and they see a man at the county fair advocating for LSD use. They continue to drive for hours, unable to find the road back to town, when they run over a rabbit. Georgie pulls over, jumps out, and cuts up the rabbit (with Terrence Weber’s hunting knife), planning to clean the roadkill for tomorrow’s breakfast. However, he finds a handful of rabbit fetuses inside. He brings them back to the narrator in the truck, declaring that they must feed and save the babies, and he asks the narrator to keep them warm. The narrator puts them inside his shirt, against the warmth of his torso.

The sunlight fades, and Georgie claims he cannot drive anymore, as he doesn’t have headlights, so he parks the truck. The narrator notes that this summer, an arctic chill moved over the Midwest, bringing early September snow. The two men realize it’s about to start snowing, and they get out of the truck to walk around, becoming lost.

Coming over a hill, they follow a distant light, and the narrator sees angels against the sky. He begins to have an emotional reaction to this revelation until Georgie points out that they’ve happened upon a drive-in theater; Frankie’s vision was only an outdoor movie screen. As they approach, they realize all the cars had left at the onset of the storm, but the movie still plays. The screen eventually turns off, leaving the two men in the dark. They leave and, fumbling through the dark, find their truck, and the narrator wants to go home, believing that they’ve traveled hundreds of miles. Georgie points out, however, “We’re right outside town, Fuckhead. We’ve just been driving around and around” (68).

As they wait out the storm in the truck, Georgie asks what happened to the baby rabbits, and “Fuckhead” admits he accidentally killed them, letting them slide around in his shirt until he squished them. He pulls them out, and the two men observe them. Georgie asks him if “everything [Fuckhead] touches turn[s] to shit” (69), and Fuckhead affirms it, saying, “No wonder they call me Fuckhead” (69). Georgie tells him that the name is going to “stick.”

As Fuckhead narrates the story, he admits that he may not be remembering events entirely correctly, but what matters most is his memory of the following morning, when he woke up in the truck and experienced a sense of beauty and appreciation for the duality of the world. He and Georgie go to work that afternoon, and Terrence is released from the hospital. Fuckhead and Georgie say goodbye to him, and Terrence shakes Georgie’s hand, but Georgie does not remember him.

As Fuckhead narrates the story’s final section, he recounts something Georgie said that clarified the difference between the two men. He says that on the way back to town, they picked up a hitchhiker, a boy named Hardee who had lived with Fuckhead the previous summer. Hardee says he’s on his way to Canada, dodging the draft, and Georgie promises to help him get there. The story ends with Hardee asking Georgie what his job is, and Georgie replying, “I save lives” (72).