READ LOCAL First is the world’s most extensive library of Utah-related poets and writers. For this final iteration of the series in 2021, we introduce Steven Johnson, who writes as RG Halleck.
Halleck lives in Utah with three others, two of whom share his DNA. Although he’s worked in three different sandwich shops, his fingers still type “sandwhich” every time.
Says Halleck: “I’ll cancel my plans if a magic show becomes available. I have a complicated relationship with the comma. I’m delighted and confused by the world.”
Sprint to that fence. Duck under the overgrown hedge. Inch to the corner and catch my breath.
Now hold still. Don’t breathe. Listen to the street . . . Nothing . . . Concealed completely in here. Pinch off the blood flow. The phone? Still in my pocket.
Big M Auto Body is a block away. Ransacked but not burned. The road between here and there is fully exposed. The mission now is field surgery, Zach would probably call it. Then get this phone back to base, back to Zach.
Can’t get any more fresh blood on me. Gotta look like another day in paradise. Cut off my T-shirt sleeves for bandages. Second time today this buck knife has come in handy. Now I’m just another scrawny macho doofus. Gonna be a cold walk back.
Goddamn. Hardly enough finger left to wrap. That doc at Bountiful—hope she can stretch the skin together over the bone—pull the stitches into a closed seam.
Okay, give it a ten-count. Heh. Better make it nine. Nine’s a luxury. Enjoy it for a few more moments.
Now wad up your nub, hands in pockets, saunter toward Big M. Take time to glance in every dumpster. Every car. I’m just a scavenger. No threat. Too small to bother with.
Same as the day they came to my studio. Thank Hades I saw them in there, leafing through my portfolio, before I went for my door. If not for the ground-floor apartment—if I hadn’t splurged for those big windows and patio—I would’ve walked in and been killed, eaten, raped, enslaved. All of the above in a different order?
Saw them and just kept walking. Blended in. Didn’t know what else to do. Fog of war. Zach’s favorite bromide. His ignorant, vacuous summary of this new world. I’ve taken up with—been taken in by—the paramilitary embodiment of Dunning-Kruger. Walked straight on—marched—to Camp Bountiful that day. Nine miles. Fourteen kilometers.
That soldier with his Clark Kent glasses, kicked back on my patio (their patio by then)—engrossed in my laptop. I wonder if I could’ve—
Don’t dwell on alternate timelines. It’s laughable. Never even held a gun. Still haven’t in this BYOG affair.
But what would’ve happened if I snatched his rifle? It was right there, lying on the ground, barrel poking under the fence. I’m quick and quiet—could’ve yanked it out. He was immersed. And I can admit to myself now—with that life two and a half years gone—I hope he was reading my graphic novel. Had to be. Twenty-two rejections before the world ended, but at least this guy liked it. One fan.
If only the big brains running Camp Bountiful could weaponize my raging, desperate vanity. I should’ve stopped . . . offered him an autograph.
He didn’t even see me. None of them did. Just trash blowing down the sidewalk. They didn’t know Zipper was barking at me, calling me home. And she didn’t know I was abandoning her.
That’s enough. Stop being so maudlin. By now starving and sleeping on the ground is no big thing. I’m freed of the agonizing pursuit of artistic approval. Over it.
That soldier’s eyes were on my work but his hands were on my laptop. Ingrid used to say she’d never survive an ultimatum against my beloved laptop, and I never disagreed. Building up our walls. Engulf and ignite the world if you must, but tapping another man’s touchscreen . . . unforgivable. My sleek, pulsing, enabler. My vault and portal, I miss you the most. You and Zipper.
Goddamn it, Zipper. Sorry girl. I failed you. Sixteen pounds of sweetness. Love to everyone immediately. Zipped up to anything on two feet, bouncing and whimpering, begging to give away her affection.
They’ve eaten her by now. For sure. It would’ve been the practical action, soon as they figured out she was no guard dog. Barked at everything. A hundred percent false positives, Ingrid used to say. That troop would’ve certainly sacrificed her perpetual electric glee for eight pounds of dog meat. Eight pounds according to that guide to field-dressing game. I illustrated that back in . . . Jesus . . . 2006?
Fifty percent yield of the animal’s total weight in boneless meat. Do I remember that right?
Stop this wistful, worthless schmaltz. She was just a dog. It’s just a finger. Precious little life plans change. Overcome by events. Another of Zach’s threadbare excuses. But this one comes with built-in advice to get on with it.
It wasn’t just my life, my studio, my dog. The whole city fell. Dozens of cities. Everyone’s getting on with it. Everyone except Zipper and that kid back at the bunker, I guess.
Maybe someday I’ll get on back to Calgary. Fourteen hundred miles due north. Fourteen kilometers per day. Until then, I have Zach. And nine fingers. And the photos Zach wants on this phone.
This is life now. A plucky nobody smuggling plans away from the enemy. An emaciated R2-D2. That’s me.
And stop referencing Zach and his videogame paramilitary pap. Practical action. Eat a dick, Zach.
This door to Big M—not the slightest squeak. Of course. It’s a body shop. Keep your moving metal oiled, boys. Never paid doors so much attention. Never been a sneak until now.
Seems empty. I smell old oil. Good. Roof collapsed. Or shelled.
There’s what I need. God bless Mr. McKeown and his shop class at Lord Crossharbour High School. A sheet metal cutter, plenty big, fourteen gauge. It’s mechanical. Good. Hydraulic would’ve needed electricity. Foot pedal? Still here. A beast made for this job. What luck.
Sweet Jesus. This is going to suck more than anything has sucked before.
Still quoting Beavis. No. Butthead.
Stop! Deal with this bleeding.
There’s gotta be a waste oil drum. There. Dump some into that hubcap. Add rags. Lighter from my pocket. Prometheus.
Of course the tools were already taken. Wrenches would be perfect, but these scattered welding rods will have to do. Set them near the flames. Not too close. No use if they melt. Keep them out of the soot trails.
Damn. That short one, that little fighter, got red fast. Now. Grit teeth, but don’t scream—low-rent cautery isn’t close to the worst of the day.
Suck it up, buttercup.
Oh goddamn. The sizzle I expected. The snaps and pops? A provocative bonus. Not wonderful. Got a bleeder on the back side.
Even with pulsing pain—even while staring at it, smelling it, hearing it—I’m reminded of the emergency medicine wiki photos I used to scan.
More schmaltz. I think I’ve earned it. Earned a nine-count of reminiscing on the good times. Ten-finger times.
Earned a visit to my sketchpad and my medical textbook illustrations. Distal and intermediate phalanges of the little finger—the outer two bones—gone. Head of the proximal bone is intact. A phalanx alone, twitching, reaching out for cast off brethren . . .
Maybe I’m not R2-D2. Maybe I’m a poet. There once was an artist from Calgary. Nothing rhymes with Calgary.
No, I’m a sprouting philosopher and this burnt nub is my metaphor—emblematic of a world returning to its natural order, tearing me down, dwindling away, digit by digit. Ashes to ashes. My existent bliss, my blip, my before-life, even my addiction to Ingrid’s contempt . . . all of it was a temporary perversion, now being replaced by the organic.
How long since I stopped wondering about her? Was it a year ago when I decided she was a little fighter too? She made it out. She had to’ve.
Back then the air was clean. The ground was solid. Sketch those sketches. Send those proofs. Build that portfolio. Once the doyen of freelancers in art, now a stumped free agent in war.
Enough. Focus up. I’m no drain. Not a scavenger to be shoved outside the walls. I’m a scrapper. I’m mission oriented.
No one saw me leave the bunker and I got out of there with the photos. Not a total loss. Maybe . . . probably too risky to use now. Compromised, Zach’ll say.
With one dead soldier and two thirds of my little finger laying outside their bunker door, not just unlocked, but swinging open, they’ll assume we know. They’ll harden their security protocols. Regardless, I gotta get these to Bountiful. Maybe they’ll hold some tactical relevance for Zach’s bosses. The brass.
Zach’s a simmering psycho—talks way too much about meaningful ways to die—but at least he’s not pining for commandeered laptops and dead dogs. At least he’s forward-looking. As commander of Dunning-Kruger Company, we could do worse.
He’ll want to know how a middle-aged lightweight took out a soldier. Never lie to Zach, but prepare the truth. I was shutting the rusted door very slowly, keeping it from groaning. That soldier, a kid—twenty-one maybe—younger than my nephew would be now. He was certainly someone’s nephew. Dead nephews litter the landscape. Nieces too.
Keep it straight. No sentimentality. A little brutal. Zach’ll like that.
This kid threw his weight against the door. He thought he was keeping me out but I’d already been in. Already had the photos. There was a steel plate welded around the door, for security, so it couldn’t be kicked in. It caught my finger—grinding it behind the plate. He had me by the neck—both hands. With my free hand, I fished out my buck knife. Got in one good thrust. Aimed low, under his ribs. He fell. I fell. But I held on to the knife. Reaching for the hole I put in him, he craned his neck, exposed his throat, and that was it—his last mistake.
He was too big to move and blood was hosing out of him, so I set off running. That’s when I noticed my missing finger.
It must’ve twisted off when I fell. Ligaments and skin—the shit holding me together—disarticulates, just like that. It’s a finger, not a goddamn lizard’s tail.
Don’t use that word. Disarticulate is not a normal word. No one likes a show off. No one cares about my ancient arcana. We all have our own. No one needs to know about those thousands of biology and medical illustrations. Or that I still draw the bones of the hand in my dreams.
Makes sense my mind would zero in on that old orthopedic surgery textbook. Only needed a few pages reworked, including, “Disarticulation of the Shoulder: Separation of the bones at the joint rather than sawing through.”
Enough. I’m not an illustrator. That was then. Accept the now. Accept this meandering, ravenous war.
Maybe these photos will decide our next raids—our campaign—to restock our provisions. We need to restock. Costco is closed. Those tales from last year, from the northern companies, of enemy stew. That’d be me. And maybe not in the enemy’s pots. First to go unless I’m useful.
There’s no law and everything is offline. Former attorneys and IT people are infantry. But Zach saw utility in me, the nonthreatening waif artist: a spy. Blend, bluff the identical enemy if necessary. Slip in. Snap pics of their maps. Slip away.
Asked for this job and got it—to stay relevant. Stay out of the stew.
That dead soldier looked like the editorial intern at Noughton Morris Northport who mistakenly uploaded the seventh edition of Introductory Biology. Fully editable. One last entry slipped in right before going to print. Page 612. The wily and elusive, and fictional Mendosoma lyssomanes.
Got away with that too. Stakes were lower then—just my illustration career—and like today, worth the risk.
M. lyssomanes, a jumping spider, mimics its prey, the adolescent telescope fish. A hybrid. Part fish, part spider. A mutant. Not my best work artistically, but without a doubt, the highlight of my career.
Of that career. Today is certainly the lowlight of this one. There’s always a lower place.
Even if there’s illustration after this, I’m forever a mutant too. An artist-operative.
Their commanders will issue the order. To get the spy, kill any scavenger missing his pinkie. Zach will reach the same conclusion because he’d give the same order. Thus, a pinkie’s not enough. More phalanges gotta go, so the enemy can’t identify me.
Their absence will testify to my brother’s penny-pinching do-it-yourselfism. He and I built a rabbit hutch for his daughters. It was amazing really—not the hutch—the accident. I didn’t even feel it at first. Table saw spun through ’em like hot butter.
To sell the story, say goodbye to the distal and intermediate phalanges of the ring and middle fingers. Keep the trigger finger. Zach may give me a sidearm after this. To advance my new career—to prove my mettle to Zach—they gotta come off now.
Luckily, the saw missed my nose picker, I’ll tell anyone who asks. These three had blood-soaked spikes poking out. It woulda made Clive Barker blush. Surgeons finished the job. Capped me off at the knuckles.
So line up those knuckles, Dr. Spy, at the point of disarticulation. Lay ’em under the blade. Already done this once today. No surprises here.
Hold on. Test that rusty pedal. Whoa. It’s stiff. Gotta get all my hundred and twenty pounds on top of it. Both feet. Don’t botch this. Line it up with one foot, stomp with the other. Then cauterize. Wait until dark and get back home.
Sure about this?
Why not open a central artery and go to sleep? Avoid the pain—the new pain—that lower place. Float away from this life of subsistence—drift on to nonexistence.
Should I at least get back and let my comrades have this wiry carcass? Will it yield sixty pounds of boneless meat? Should I offer Zach the chance to eat my dick for real?
No. To hell with them. To hell with me. Rube Goldberg this shop. Bleed out and fall into cleansing fire. Finish what those bastards started. Right here. Join M. lyssomanes, jumping around with Zipper in fantasyland. Why not?
Because we did build that hutch, I suppose. That was real once, wasn’t it?
Because years ago a violinist named Joanne scratched out the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth across my back with her broken fingernail. Maybe I can find Joanne again. Or another violinist in the wilds of Alberta. I’ll sneak away, take my free agency up north. All the way home. Me and my seven-ish fingers.
Maybe I’m not ready to have killed that nephew for nothing. Because I’m still a hybrid, not a fully ruined mutant.
Stop procrastinating. Face the music.
Hand under the blade. Step up, bring the blade down slow. Just kiss the skin gathered above the knuckles. Feel those ligaments? That’s the line. I’m going to pull away. No way my hand will voluntarily stay put. Maybe the looters missed some superglue in here. Come on, boys, where did you keep the adhesives?
Cabinet. Cabinet. Desk drawer. Hello, Penthouse. How’d you get overlooked? This’ll be worth something inside Bountiful’s gates.
Hallelujah. Two-part epoxy, unopened. Another miracle. Just cement the distals to the surface—just the parts past the line. The parts to leave behind.
Count to thirty. Don’t look at them. Don’t get attached. Disarticulate. Word of the day. Body and spirit.
I should’ve looked for a putty knife to scrape them off. I guess my buck knife will work. Whatever. Just don’t leave the evidence glued behind.
Wow. Already set. Immovable. This epoxy really delivers. Committed now.
The welding rods? Glowing red. Ready? Exhale . . . all of it, buttercup, so there’s nothing left to scream with.
Both feet. All your weight.
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Categories: Literary Arts | READ LOCAL First
How can an arts magazine run a spectacularly interesting (and very good) piece of artwork and only credit it as being created by “His talented daughter???” Really? Is she a Johnson, I assume, this daughter of the writer? And one of the two the writer lives with who share his DNA? Or has she married and changed her surname to something less common — as has her father for writing purposes? So unfair, it seems to me. But then women artists historically rarely have gotten their due. Sigh. Why am I having to play this guessing game? Shame on you, 15 Bytes. (Unless the parents prefer not to have their child’s name published. She deserves at least her initials, IMHO. )
The artist of the piece is my daughter, a minor at the time. We were leaving her name out of it for that reason. Now she’s an adult. Her name is Greeley Johnson. I’m so proud that you like her piece. Another of her pieces was selected to represent Utah’s 2nd Congressional District as part of the 2021 Congressional Art Competition. It’s hanging in Cannon Tunnel in the US Capitol. We’re awed by her talent.