Where the Line Is

There’s a short story by Denis Johnson, “Emergency”. Maybe you know it. If you don’t, let me tell you a little about its most compelling scenes, the ones I can’t seem to get out of my head lately.

The protagonist and Georgie are orderlies, and Georgie keeps mopping the floor of an otherwise spotless operating room because he can’t wipe the blood from his mind.

Later, a man comes into the ER with a knife through his eye and Georgie pulls the knife out while doctors deliberate and hem and haw.

Later still, there are rabbits. Baby rabbits. The protagonist crushes them to his chest and accidentally kills them trying keep them warm.

I can’t seem to get these scenes out of my head because they’ve become linked in my mind with what happened the other night, when a group I was a part of let a woman drive home drunk.

What I think this has to do with Denis Johnson’s short story is miracles, first of all. Then consequences. And waking up, or failing to, and what either costs a person.

You should know there were three of us beside the young woman.

The youngest of us was a colleague of this woman’s, and had forcefully yanked her keys from the ignition of the car.

She gave them to the other member of our band, a man my own age, a teacher and fellow LEGO enthusiast who explained to me, while we stood beside the woman’s car waiting for her father to arrive, how he had integrated computers and online modules and self-directed learning into his high school history class this past year.

He had tried to call the woman we had followed to her car back from crossing the street. It hadn’t worked; while she burled ahead through the parking lot he had tried convincing her that what was best would be for her to let him drive her home. Then she wouldn’t have to come back the next morning to retrieve her car.

I can’t remember the exact words he used, but I’ve been trying to for days now — not because of their lyric or rhetorical brilliance, but because of the assumptions supporting his thinking:

  • anyone at any time is capable of seeing reason;
  • pride is an engine a person can easily shut down; and
  • people behave generally in ways that are respectful of others’ well-being.

I find myself questioning these assumptions now. But at the time, I don’t know — I think I wanted to believe, too, that we could make a difference. I even think, had I been drunk, I might have turned around and said, “You know what? You’re absolutely right.”

This is what I hope I would have done, anyway. Probably I wouldn’t have.

This woman the three of us had followed to her car called her father because her friend, her colleague, insisted she do this.

While she spoke to her father (Grudgingly: “I need you to come get me,” she said. “They won’t let me drive home because they think I’m drunk.”), we waited.

The parking lot opened onto Broadway Street at one end and fed an alley running parallel to Broadway at the other, half a town block way from where we stood. We were within sight of the entrance to a drive-thru, the receiving entrances of a dentist’s office, a thrift store, and kitch clothing store, and a couple brick-sided warehouses that might have been abandoned. Cars pulled in and out, people walked by on their way in or out of the bar we’d just left; the air was thick with the sound of things moving.

In the middle of all this, I felt tense, like I should do more. But what more could any of us do? We had her keys. We’d offered to take her home. I had parked just around the block, and so I offered to be the one to follow the woman and her colleague or the other man back to her apartment. We’d drop her off, park her car and make sure she made it inside okay. Then we would get into my car and I’d drive us back to regroup with our other friends who were waiting for us at the bar.

I don’t think there’s any reason to feel like this woman was wrong. I certainly don’t mean to judge her. I’ve felt like she did myself. Something peels back the layers of filtering and self-delusion and suddenly there you are, all your recent actions and decisions exposed. You’re able to see yourself and read your behavior objectively, as others have seen and read it prior to that moment. Usually this winds up making you sick to your stomach, regretful, ashamed — winds up sobering you up right quick, too.

If you’ve got a little pride, this shame gets processed as frustration, anger. You push back a little. You deny, deny, deny. You insist you’re in control and wave away the past couple hours like they never happened.

Like you never happened.

“I’m not drunk,” the woman said to her father. “I told them I’m just a few blocks away. But they took my keys. They made me call you.”

Her colleague had been drinking water for several hours. While her friend haggled with her father on her phone and I talked teaching technologies with the other man, the colleague stood with her back to the car, squeezing her phone in one hand, staring back the way we’d come as if awaiting one of her other colleagues to come walking after us. Clearly she was struggling to contain her own frustration. I would later learn she had a long day ahead of her tomorrow, had been away from home going on sixteen hours at that point, and would have to endure a forty-minute drive home once she left us. Probably she was a little more than disappointed to have to be the one to help an older colleague, someone who she likely considered a friend, who clearly had no interest in doing what was safe and legal.

In “Emergency”, the protagonist and Georgie wind up walking into a drive-in movie park. It’s snowing, and in a haze which Johnson described as an almost supernatural fog, the pair mistakes carside speaker boxes as crucifixes. Grave markers. Then the movie starts playing huge and silent above them, and the pair experience a kind of quick-fading wonder at having the world turned right-side up for them.

I don’t know if that’s what I was hoping would happen for the woman when her father showed up, a similar clarity achieved. At best, I wished she would ride home with him. My father, in a similar situation, had asked me if that was really the way I wanted to live my life. Perhaps hers would do the same thing. I assumed he would see fit to.

When her father pulled up, we approached and spoke to him through his window. We told him we’d offered to drive her car home and that she’d kept insisting she was fine when clearly she wasn’t.

He asked who had her keys.

“I have them,” the colleague said.

I’ve thought about all the drunk-driving accidents I’ve heard or read about, and how people cope in the wake of such accidents. The perpetrator’s guilt haunts him or her for years while members of the victim’s family struggle through grief toward acceptance, forgiveness, and peace. Often there’s redemption of some kind for one of more of the parties involved. Eventually, people move on.

The young woman’s father sat a minute, watching his daughter return her registration and insurance cards to the leather pouch she’d taken out of her glove box.

It tears up the protagonist of “Emergency” to have crushed the life out of those young rabbits. It wakes him up, if only momentarily, to fragility and to guilt. It’s so much to take in that all he can do is tell Georgie what he has done exactly as he has done it. He can’t at that moment see beyond that moment.

I wonder what went through the woman’s father’s mind in the moment that passed between our asking what he wanted us to do and his answer.

“Give them to her,” he said. “If she wrecks it, she wrecks it.”


To make an already long story short: the woman made it home safely.

Just before the three of us she’d left behind crossed over Broadway and returned to the bar, I turned and watched her father follow her onto Second St.

I remember thinking: At least she doesn’t live far away.

And though the science explaining alcohol’s effects on the body would certainly suggest I was wrong, I couldn’t help but believe that all that anger and frustration the woman felt being held by us did help to clear her head some.

Still: she’d risked a great deal driving home.

And we’d let her take that risk.

A couple kids on bikes might have come zooming across the street in front of her.

A jogger or dog walker might have assumed she would slow to allow them to cross.

She might have tried to sneak through a yellow light and wound up T-boning a SUV.

Thank God these things didn’t happen.

But if they had, would we have been responsible? Would any of us, her father or the three of us, have had to share some of the guilt?

I think of Georgie, pulling the knife out of the man’s head while the doctors are weighing the risks of removing it quickly against extracting it slowly, methodically surgically.

Us letting her drive home: was it at all akin to what the doctors risked when leaving Georgie alone with the man?

Drugged Georgie. Traumatized, crazed Georgie.

The story ends with the two men in a truck giving a young hitchhiker they’ve picked up a ride to Canada. The rabbits are forgotten, and we never learn whether the man survived Georgie extracting the knife from his head. We left to wonder at the miracle of it.

I’m not sure miracle is the proper word.

There’s a line between what you can and can’t control, a line separating what you can and can’t be held accountable for. We all toed it, and got lucky.

It’s nothing to be proud of. If anything, it’s a wake-up call.


Image credit: Cole Patrick via Unsplash


2 Comments Add yours

  1. restlessjo says:

    Not a story I’ll be reading, but thank you for sharing, and for your visit to my blog. 🙂
    Best wishes!

    1. It’s a difficult story, that’s for sure. I may not have done it justice.

      I discovered your blog through a fellow blogger’s response to your Monday Walks challenge at Out ‘n About. Thanks for returning the attention and stopping by to read this post. I appreciate the comment. And best wishes to you. Looking forward to following your Walks series.

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