I have had some muddy moments in my life, and I am usually pleased to share them with people. But, some memories are harder for me to share than others, especially those that deal with the topic of death, and what I believe to be unjust deaths in particular. This story, When I Woke up in an Oven, is a puzzling story. It is not one I have completely figured out, nor one that I plan on ever understanding completely because of its nature. Writing about it has helped me in a lot of ways. Finally, for all of you to read, I have a first draft I am proud to display and begin to revise. Hopefully, you can read it and take its claims seriously, realizing that the humor employed is an attempt to make light of dark material. I hope I have done a good enough job of emphasizing the seriousness of what i experienced because I believe the thoughts I had are, in some way, universal. Enjoy!
When I Woke up in an Oven
I hadn’t intended to end up where I did. It just so happened that the only place that I ever tried to sleep while standing up was face down—in an oven.
It was an odd feeling: creepy, eerie, and comfortable. I didn’t wake up with an irritating ache in my back like I do when I try to sleep with my head down on planes or on my desk during class. I just yawned awake to the pulse that was hammering up against my forehead, the smell of warm cheese from yesterday’s pizzas and melted nachos, the feel of the greasy grill-box caked in burnt oil (which I imagined looked similar to the inside of smoker’s lung), and my boss, Pat, hovering over me with a look of concern and frustrated amusement on his blurry, blank face.
It had been a long night, Pat could tell. There was dry blood crusty beneath my nostrils, clinging to the fuzz of my moustache. I’m sure he didn’t get people sleeping in his ovens often—especially not hung over people who looked like they might have had their ass kicked the night before.
It didn’t take long for my eyes to focus and for me to realize that Pat’s expressionless glare meant, “get the hell out of my oven!” I pulled myself out head first, trying not to bounce my sensitive skull off any of the parts inside. My hands were slippery with oil, stained black and spotted by the sludgy pale-orange color of fat from where they rested on the racks. I looked up at Pat. My eyes broke from his and fell down to my feet. My sneakers fidgeted and squeaked and I tried cracking my slimy knuckles. With my head bowed slightly, my eyebrows attempting to act like a shield against Pat’s look, I glanced back up at him. “I’m sorry,” I said, and shuffled out of the kitchen.
I lumbered upstairs, my head deflated and limp, swinging heavy and drowsy on my neck. I snuck up to the isolated second floor away from Pat, away from the oven, away from the sound of silence as it crept through the restaurant and forced me to think.
A Terrible Beauty Irish Pub and Restaurant, once an old bank, now used an old vault for its storage room. Our boss even kept the heavy metal door. I pulled on it with all my weight until there was enough room for me to slip through. On the other side I threw my weight the opposite direction. It closed slowly, but still shut with a deep reverberating boom. I kicked aside some brown boxes full of St. Patrick’s Day decorations, and like the one-ton door, crumpled to the floor with a low groaning thud.
Over the loud sound of blood pumping through my brain, I tried to recall anything I could from the night before. I remembered short scenes, mostly from the beginning of the evening, but mainly it was hazy and kind of spotted. Inside my mind I had pictures of events, sometimes with sound and sometimes without. Often the pictures didn’t move. They would just be still frames, giving me little clues. It was a jigsaw puzzle kind of night, jumbled up and mixed around inside of my memory. 500 pieces all thrown about my brain in random corners and fissures of grey matter, 216 of them missing completely; stored in other peoples brains: people who laughed at me, protected me, punched me, and talked me out of things that I had no idea I ever wanted to do or think.
Some of the puzzle pieces that I dug out of the cracks of my memory I was able to fit together neatly and in order.
I began the night after my shift ended at 2:00 a.m. I lined up four pints of beer behind the bar. “Cheers to God and all His bullshit,” and I pulled the trigger and knocked back each glass, one after the other. Then I filled up four more and guzzled them down as quickly as I had the first round. Assembly line alcoholism—I could thank good genetics and Henry Ford for that.
I remember the transition to whiskey came some time after. The method didn’t change. Four glasses lined up like an execution. I poured a three count over the first shot glass, a three count over the second—and over the next two, a little stiffer—counting four.
From the comfort of the cold vault, I laid on the floor curled up in the “please don’t puke,” fetal position. My hands hugged my stomach as I consoled myself and went over my backward ABC’s. I imagined alphabet sheep as I counted down and drifted into a dazed sleep
After I had slept off some of the water torture that was happening in my brain and tossed back a couple mugs of scalding coffee, I began my investigation of the previous night. I started, still somewhat incoherently, with Darryl, one of the chefs and my close friend. My plan was to question everyone I worked with until I found out how I woke up in an oven.
With each interview I started to gain a vague clarity, a greyish outline of the night from beginning to end (save some minor and major details). However, there was nothing whatsoever about methodically brushing away the sands that covered the events of the night that felt satisfying.
I questioned the cooks as they prepared food on the line. They all answered similarly, telling me that one-minute I was sober and then the next I was slurring sentences. Then they piled their orders in wire baskets, drowned them in the bubbling oil, swept the sweat off their foreheads (which no doubt was generated in part by the intense heat of the pizza oven) and said, “Sorry, I left early. I don’t really know what happened after that.”
I moved on to the waitresses, talking to them sporadically as they cleared plates into waste bins at the back of restaurant. They answered in hurried frustration while trying to remember their orders and drinks and table numbers. “You seemed upset.” “Carl wanted to fuck you up.” “You passed out in the bathroom.” “Joe saved your ass.”
Again, they too had left early, giving me no information on how the hell I had gotten my head stuck in an oven. I talked to bussers, the dishwasher, and even one customer, a man who rarely left a lonely high chair in a darkened corner of the restaurant.
Eventually, my shift began. With my eyes dizzied and my motor skills still somewhat below fully functional, I made my inquiries behind the bar while pulling frothy pints for morning regulars. I picked a fellow bartenders brain for pieces of the night before. I poured slow, guilty shots of liquor into ice filled glasses and then spun them into cocktails with mixers from off the wand. I listened, as the 216 missing memories slowly became single digit amnesia.
There was still something missing from the picture. It wasn’t a damn corner piece or one of those arbitrary all one-color pieces that make up just the sky or the grass in a puzzle, it was something significant and necessary in order to complete the thing, like a nose or a mouth. Once I got it, I would be able to see what the whole puzzle was.
It wasn’t as if waking up feeling like I had been bulldozed and needing to clean up and rebuild everything the next day was some uncommon occurrence. It was, however, the unusual bit about waking up in an oven (a gasoline fume filled one I might add) that had me worried about the happenings of the previous evening.
The ironic thing about that morning is that all my searching came to an end in one moment that had me feeling worse than I did when I woke up with my head in the oven. How it all happened is fuzzy, more foggy and confusing than the night before. It all played out in slow motion, like an angel chorus backed epiphany with rays of golden light and life changing effects. I can hardly remember the details.
I can’t remember where I was or what I was doing when he walked in and the fog finally lifted. It was possible that I had given up prying my co-workers for answers and was instead somewhere mindlessly cutting limes with a thoughtless stare. It was possible that I was switching over an empty keg in the cluttered and cold walk-in. It was possible that I had watched him walk up to the bar and order a drink, but hadn’t recognized him—because he wasn’t the same youthful father he used to be.
I remember the bustle of brunch being served, the air dense with a bacon and sausage aroma. Saturday mornings usually were filled with Celtic classics, strummed out on a dulcimer and breathed out smoothly on a flute and bagpipes. I can’t remember if the music had ever begun, if it had been swallowed up by the loud voices of early morning liquor lovers, or if at some point it just died out completely.
My heartbeat was pulsing violently in my head as I splashed orange juice into glass flutes half full of champagne. The repulsive blend of Tomato juice and peppercorn assaulting my nostrils was the punch that kept me on my feet. I tottered behind the bar, taking orders from multiple patrons, cleaning glasses, and lazily restocking our small refrigerator with tropical juices.
The black rubber mat that partially soaked up over-filled and spilled drinks was slick. I lost my balance. I remember that. I can’t recall if I fell, so maybe I did and knocked my head good and hard on the bar or the wet floor. I remember that fuzzy eye feeling, the bright colored dots that swirl and loop in your field of vision and make you believe that you are looking at electrons or some other subatomic particles in the air. I remember tipping my head back to stare at the ceiling as I leaned with all my weight on the bar.
Everything fell into place as my nearly blacked out gaze traveled up to the ceiling. It never made it. My eyes stiffened, paralysis gripped my neck and poured itself down my spine, trickling into the rest of my body.
Dermot sat in a massive leather chair, his skin a skeletal white. His eyes no longer cast the reflection of the sun rising over Ireland’s misty emerald hills. They were dulled limes, squeezed and empty, sunken behind the shadows that swallowed them. He crossed one leg casually over the other; one hand calmly rested on his knee, the other loosely choked a pint glass full of untouched amber liquid. He didn’t move. Not even his eyes twitched thoughtfully.
Memories crashed into my mind like steady waves of crippling punches to my ears. I heard echoes in my brain of the entire night—and morning.
Dermot always worked on Friday nights. He had a five-year-old son to support, Shea, and as a single parent, needed the weekend shifts to make the big tips. As a rule of thumb for calling out of work at most places, never do it last minute—unless it is an emergency. Dermot’s call came ten minutes before his shift, on a private line, Pat’s cell phone.
Pat gathered us all, one by one, to tell us what happened.
Shea’s bus arrived at his stop earlier than normal that day. Usually, his dad would drive to the end of the block where they lived, to the bus stop, pick him up and then drop him off at his babysitter’s house before heading to work. They had a steep driveway that dropped down into a lower level garage. While backing up, the tail of Dermot’s SUV would stick high up in the air, his rear-view mirror pointed the same direction, catching only the grey of the Seattle sky. Shea waited around for his dad at the bus stop for several minutes before deciding that he could make the short, one block walk home all by himself. Dermot grabbed his black shirt and plaid tie off the sofa. Shea was a few houses away, walking slowly, and somewhat distracted on the sidewalk. Dermot nabbed the keys off the counter, and hopped into the car. The garage door opened. Shea passed the neighbors house, cutting across their yard, heading for his driveway. Dermot pressed hard on the gas to get enough torque to go from a dead stop, to steep hill conquering speed.
The vehicle jolted and slowed for a moment as it lifted slightly, speeding back up again as it dropped to the ground with a shock absorbed bounce. Dermot slammed on the brakes, hurled the car into park, and dashed around the vehicle.
Shea was dead.
I stared up at the calm man, a shadow of the man I once saw sit in the same chair, ruffling the honey blonde hair of boy as he colored mostly inside the lines.
Old memories attacked me all at once.
I watched myself load up on those eight beers and drown myself in those four shots—I knew I drank more. “Cheers to God and all his bullshit,” a toast I couldn’t forget. I remember sitting at the end of the bar, cursing, barely managing to get out words like: love, hate, God, I, the, evil, problem, of…each time I stammered over these mixed-up phrases, they built tension like a drumroll.
I remember feeling the betrayal of a promise being broken. A knife dug deeply into my back. “Et tu, God?” I finally had enough of patience and perseverance and trials of many kinds as an equation for better blessings.
I stumbled from somewhere (maybe the bathroom where I fell asleep for a while), pushing off walls to keep my momentum towards wherever I was headed. I broke through the plastic double doors of the kitchen and felt the allure of the warm oven beckoning me.
Somewhere along the way, I imagine I stopped picturing Dermot and Shea. I must have stopped asking, “Why God? He was only a boy” and started to hear the resonating Popsicle stick jokes of my grandpa as they rippled through my mind. I must have leaned on the occasional table or counter or wall, crying out, “Why God? He was the only person that ever loved me” or, “She was only twelve” “Why my sister?” “Why me?”
I imagine I had enough—of God and all his bullshit. The oven doors swung open and I popped my head in. I breathed in. I assume waking up wasn’t a part of the plan.
From where I stood, frozen to the floor behind the bar, I watched Dermot blink. He brought his glass, level, to his lips and pulled a thin sip from off the top, barely putting a dent in the pint.
Then the pain came back and everything that I thought was clear suddenly muddied itself up again. I couldn’t remember that morning: the Celtic music, the bacon, the faces of people, not even the regulars. I was like I was deaf the whole time. I was staring at mud all day.
Dermot set his glass down on the table. He only had one small drink. He pressed himself out of the chair using his knees as support. He didn’t even look at the glass in want before he strode, taller than before, toward the stairs. He bounced down the steps quickly, turned the corner and darted out the front door.
My eyes hung onto the moment, lingering on the closed door. One sip and his stride said everything was going to be ok. Ten beers and one hell of a night—and Shea wasn’t even my son.
I walked upstairs to clear Dermot’s table. I brought the full glass down with me to the bar. I peered down into the glass, and then poured all but a last tiny gulp down into the sink. “Cheers,” I said quietly, lifted the beer to my mouth and drained it of its last drop. Maybe I could handle this bullshit for a little longer.