The Microwave Burrito Incident: Setting vs. Character as Story

Read the first interview with Mike Bahl about his short story collection Scenic Utah.


This interview is about the story, “The Microwave Burrito Incident.”

Any backstory with this one?

It started in a creative writing class. The initial draft ended when they fuck (but it was more ambiguous whether or not they fucked because I was scared in class). I felt it was missing pieces still, so, at some point, I added the rest. I’m not sure the added section (after sex) adds all that much except for the nihilistic ending, which I love.

The main character is based on an ex who would often say she loves little boys. Her intentions were ambiguous. She’d give a wholesome reason then a pedophiliac reason. So this was me making that sentence fun so I could justify continuing the relationship.

Setting plays a bigger part in this story: Convenience store, apartment, Custer’s, Lake Michigan. I am guessing maybe this story started with location as impetus (due to title)? Do settings ever inspire the story in you?

Almost never. The only time setting has taken me over to where I need to write it is the title story, Scenic Utah. You could make the case that Graeagle fits, too, but I’ll argue against that when we get to that story. I use setting a ton, but it’s normally a second thought. Or maybe not really a thought, but rather it’s implicit in my daily life. I thought about places a lot after I moved from Wisconsin. What makes a place different from another, is it different enough to call it an entirely new place?

I’m in my mom’s living room in small-town Southwest Wisconsin as I type this, and a piece of my brain is constantly devoted to what it would mean to be here all the time. I do this same thing at baseball games at Coliseum where you can see the hills on the walkway; on the train; driving to work when I see Mt. Diablo. Some part of me is always sure I am not where I should be, so I have to think about where I am and where I could be (what’s up, North Carolina) and if things are better somewhere else. Or, worse, crazier, if things will be better in five years here, ten years there, twenty years somewhere else. Not to mention, where should I be buried? I can’t be turned into a tree in Oakland because I have no yard.

Now, about setting and the story: I couldn’t have been in Milwaukee for more than a few months when writing this, so this was me falling in love with the city. I used to walk to the lake daily and just stand there and absorb and think. When I first moved to Milwaukee, I was coming off working graveyard shifts and my sleep was fucked. I walked the streets and alleys at three in the morning, summertime with fewer college kids around, and learned the city by crawling through its veins. I never said, “Milwaukee sucks,” or, “There’s nothing to do here,” or, “What scene?” like so many others. I just kinda left. I went for cigarettes and never came back and I’m sorry, city.

This is another story from a female POV. Is her personality the story here or the little relationship that sparks then dissolves?

I started writing about the relationship because it’s edgy or whatever, but its a character story. I had to try to find a way to make the relationship palatable, which means I had to populate a character.

We don’t know why she hates the world, but she seems to have a tender spot for this kid. What is her deal? Were you trying to set her up as in opposition to everything?

No one wants to hate everything. Us misanthropes would love to have someone come along and convince us the world is love, but it probably isn’t going to happen.

This is my anti-personality funneled through her. So, yeah, you’re right, it’s extreme, but barely noticeable to me.

I tend to enjoy alliteration but this is really almost overboard, like practically every sentence. Intentional?

The perils of a youth falling in love with the languages he creates.

Was the negative attitude of character and message set up to be in opposition to the beauty of the writing?

I write pretty because it’s interesting. I portray a negative attitude because I feel horrible. I suppose the writing has to be good to make a reader want to stay with a terrible-feeling message.

Excerpt from “The Microwave Burrito Incident,” short story from Scenic Utah by Mike Bahl

We ended up at a secluded spot on Lake Michigan. I don’t know how it existed. Like the few cultures that haven’t been touched below the belt by Catholic missionaries, it remained in its unexplored schoolboy state. It wasn’t some mystical spot unscathed by human interaction where you could go and have a Thoreauvian religious experience, but it was away from all those magazine cover girls who overpopulate most beaches. The green-brown seaweed crawled up there on the shore, pleading to die, clutching its last revenge against the world in the stench it feebly threw out at upturned noses.

We sat on a rock washed flat by years of high tides. Each time he tried to prod the silence, I hit him flat-palmed in the back of the head. I wanted to inhale the death of the city that suburbanites got to breathe daily. He wanted to convince himself he was a part of my existence. Once he learned to shut up and behold his surroundings, I held him between my arms and legs. Four eyes looked out across a lake without a horizon.

He kept fucking turning around to look at me, though. Those beady little green shitballs were expecting something from me. They were begging me. I tried looking longingly and deeply into his pupils, but only started laughing at the romantic comedy. I tried looking the other way, but his body refused to turn around and ignore mine. I tried slapping his pudgy cheek, but couldn’t bring myself to do it with any real violence. I tried kissing him, but the seagulls were watching and would call out my crime each time. No matter what, his little eyeballs stayed trained on me. I was being vacuum sealed and made ready for a freezer I wasn’t yet prepared to rot in. I got off the rock and walked back toward civilization.


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