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A few years ago, my 74-year-old mother came down from Minnesota to help me for awhile. My gall bladder had been removed and my body was none too pleased with the situation: a surgery gone wrong. I was wracked with pain and bruised from my ribs down to my knees. So much fluid had pooled in my groin that my younger cousin remarked during her visit, “It looks like you’re sportin’ a package.”
I stayed in my bedroom for almost a week simply because by the time I managed to crawl out of bed and pull some clothes on, I needed another nap. In the absence of my companionship, my mom decided to clean my garage.
She is a pro at cleaning and did such a great job that I wasn’t compelled to tackle the garage again until a few weeks ago, when the dead roaches lying around started to come back to life. I wanted them out, plus I wanted to walk around in there without tripping over stuff, and I wanted the graffiti on the sheetrock walls painted over. I had lived with it for six years, reminded of the Diamondback’s 2001 World Series win every time I came and went in my car. I imagined the bash that must have taken place in this garage that was now mine, a celebration where cans of spray paint were apparently handed out as party favors.
So I hired a handyman, Mando—short for Armando—and he got right to work. Our deal was simple: Mando would clean out the garage, fix some safety issues, paint the inside, and organize my junk and tools as he saw fit. I had seen another garage that Mando had overhauled and it was practically a work of art: meticulously arranged, everything in its place. On my end, I would pay him a fair wage and provide lunch.
Everything in the garage had to be removed. Before Mando hauled it all out to the driveway, I gathered the only items that I would need inside the house while he worked: my cats’ toys. Feathers connected to plastic sticks with a string, a long piece of twine with an earplug tied to the end, a furry yellow mouse I had attached to a piece of fishing line. Sara and Lucy need morning playtime like I need coffee.
The problem was that I didn’t have a good place to store these toys inside the house because Sara can open every cupboard, drawer, and closet. I knew she would find them immediately, drag them out, and then Lucy would eat them. Lucy would chew and swallow the string and the next day she’d drag her poopy butt all over the carpet trying to get the strung-together poop out. I’d seen it before and didn’t want to see it again. Nor did I want these toys in my fridge, so I settled on the oven since I never use it. The kitty toys would be safe in there until Sara started culinary school, Mando finished up, or both.
The first few days of garage renovation went smoothly. Mando worked hard outside, and I did schoolwork inside. For lunch we would have soup and sandwiches, easy fare. Lunchtime came around again one day and I stuck my head out the garage door: “Mando! Are you hungry?” He was. Both of us were tired of soup and sandwiches though, and I knew Mando wasn’t picky, so I decided to throw in a frozen pizza. I preheated the oven to 400 and went about my business.
A short while later I noticed that my house was filling with smoke. Something was burning. The cat toys! I rushed to the oven and opened it to find plastic sticks melting through the racks, a pile of scorched string, and burned feathers. The little yellow mouse had burst open and now resembled a yellow sea creature with its intestines hanging out.
I made pizza in there all the time, the kind that sits right on the rack, dropping ingredients onto the other racks and burners below. Why hadn’t I remembered that? I broil steaks in there once in awhile too, brown a crust of French bread, roast a chicken.
And I never used the oven? Had my brain misfired? Had I momentarily lapsed into remembering periods of time earlier in my life when I really didn’t use the oven? I felt a pang of sadness for the versions of me who had lived through those ovenless months, lonely days of fried eggs and spaghetti if I was lucky, not caring enough to cook a real meal. That’s what a hard divorce will do for you, or a death of some kind.
And then it struck me: It wasn’t that I didn’t use the oven for cooking so much that I didn’t respect it. I rarely cleaned it, so it was dirty in there already, not to mention that it wasn’t even my own oven really; it had come with the house. After six years, I still I had not befriended this range with its old-style coils and drip pans, its inability to stay level, the oven handle dented from something or someone running into it…maybe during that World Series party when the garage got tagged.
Why not store the cat toys in the oven? Now I knew.
I got the smoking toys out and wiped up the melted sticks as best I could. Even though the kitchen and the whole house reeked of burning plastic, I popped the pizza in anyway, hoping for the best, and it turned out just fine. My ghetto oven had come through once again. I sliced up the pizza and gave Mando more than half: he was doing real work.
I was just putting out fires I’d set myself.