Hardly Noticeable

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sexessential (it follows quintessential...)

What was happening outside with my father, I am not sure, but I can guess. I have thought about this numerous times in my life, and I think the picture that I have come up with is as close a version as can be created. Days later, when someone asked him, which many people did, it all happened because of the can of turpentine he forgot to put away.
My father set a large steel cauldron on the propane grill in the backyard. He emptied three bottles of canola oil into the pot. The gas hissed, and then the electronic spark from the igniter angered all the floating propane chains into flames. The chicken was on a plate on the oak picnic table located next to the grill. It was dusty white from the flour my father had splashed over it, and there was a piece of twine laced between where its head had been and a hole my father had gouged through the side with a paring knife. Overhead, vultures were circling. I’m kidding: they were crows.
After ten minutes, my father dipped the chicken into the cauldron. Nothing happened. He looked into the oil and noticed that there was no change: there were no bubbles forming around the carcass, no sound of popping and boiling. he stuck his finger into the oil, and it felt lukewarm. Wrapping the chicken’s twine leash around his hand, he ejected it from the oil pot and set it on the grill’s face. He attempted to set the pot of oil on the table, but instead set it tipped at a 25 degree angle with an edge on the table and the base itself on the plate that had held the chicken.
I remember him yelling to my mom. “Ridiculous. Fucking ridiculous. Honey,” he called into the house, “we have to get a new grill. This one is shit. With a capital shit.”
He turned dials, adjusted the knob of the propane container, twisting it on and off, on and off. Again, he pushed the igniter, hoping his adjustments could somehow change the physical properties of propane and cause the oil to heat faster, cause the world to bend to his will. Nothing. Hit the igniter again. Nothing. Closed the lid of the grill, pushed the igniter. Nothing. Turned dials, twisted knobs, popped the igniter. Nothing. Finally, he jogged around to the open garage, snatched a box of matches from the top of an abused file cabinet.
At this point, I think, it should be noted that he did not lift the lid back up when he jogged around to the open garage. Eminently important. Imminently important, as shall be seen.
Gripping the wooden handle on the lid of his propane grill, he opened it up. The chicken dripped cooking oil onto the propane jets. He took a match from the sliding cardboard box. They were nice, wooden matches, the kind one would take on camping trips and use for lighting gas fireplaces. He snapped the drawer of matches back into its sheath, then attempted to nimbly pull the match head across the rough brown ignition strip. The gases, which had been shooting out of the propane jets while my father was in the garage, were crashing, making weak bonds, cutting weak bonds. But when the match lit, they took out the rage that they felt at their confinement on the flame. A fireball erupted from the propane jets like a golden dragon, flying rapidly and swallowing the match and matchbook in one bite. My father, reacting quickly, had jumped backwards just as he had drawn the match head across its catalyst. I suspect that just as he drew it across he realized that he had left the lid down while he was in the garage. It started in slow motion, and ended in a blur as the flames and gases first met. The stench of burnt hair hung limply, was caught in his nose, and he realized that he’d probably just lost his eyebrows, but, luckily, not his eyes.
He looked at the grill, which was now burning normally—as though the golden dragon’s wings had not cut a swath in the air—and saw the chicken’s flesh burning and sputtering. Noticing the twine had miraculously escaped the flames, he wound it once around his hand and flipped the chicken off the face of the grill with the intention of putting out the fire crackling on its skin. But as he deftly popped it off the grill, the twine snapped, having been burned inside the carcass, and the chicken flew through the air toward the picnic table. The effect was something Rube Goldberg would have loved. The chicken’s heft was great enough to knock over the cauldron that was resting so dangerously on the plate. The cauldron continued its dangerous domino effect, toppling the aforementioned can of turpentine. The flames from the burning chicken met the spilled turpentine, and the can erupted in flames, which spread quickly across the picnic table.
Astounded, my father stood a moment looking at his picnic table burning. I’m sure he wondered if he had brought this all upon himself. He must have felt guilty about destroying my garden, thinking that this was his punishment. For a time he was probably tempted to call to me for help, maybe to apologize for wrecking something, to alleviate the tension between us. The way solving problems brings people together.
He did not call out, however. He ran around the house, grabbed the green bucket I had dropped my weeds into when I weeded my garden, dumped it out, and filled it with water from the hose. Turning on the balls of his feet, he ran back to the picnic table and attempted to douse the fire with a single bucket of water. The water flashed in the air, hanging together by its surface tension for a blink before it separated and splashed across the table. The fire seemed ready to die out, but by now the canola oil was heated by the turpentine’s flames, and it began to submit to the fire’s siren call. The water succeeded only in spreading the oil to parts of the table it had not yet visited. Undeterred, he again ran halfway around the house to the hose and filled the bucket. By this time the wood of the picnic table was burning along with the oil and turpentine on top of it. Black spots started to grow amoebically on the flawless oak surface. Black smoke was starting to curl a rumor in the sky, noticeably fouling the air. Again, he ran back to the hose, filled the bucket, threw it on the fire. Again, the flames laughed.


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