Using Symbols in Stories: Arson and Fast Food

(On “Slow Roast,” a story from Mike Bahl’s Scenic Utah)

“What is the slow roast referred to in the title? Is this a reference to global warming, Vonnegutesque in that it’s extremist near future, ecological disaster, drought being the necessary component to foreshadow the story’s final fireball moment?”

I don’t know how old you are, so I don’t know if this will be the same for you, but I remember this drought, exactly like this. I distinctly remember a drought while I was in elementary school. It’s possible this was only actually a heat wave, but this is what I remember. I remember the arid desert in Wisconsin. I remember thinking we were all going to die because God would not bless us with rain (sometimes I push this recovering Catholic theme a little far, but at this time, I was still probably fairly devout as God had not yet abandoned me to the abyss of loneliness). I remember the apocalypse. Now that I live in California, in an actual, legitimately scary drought, I know that I was insane as a child. It’s actually, on a day to day basis, not scary at all. It’s not even noticeable. Which is what’s actually so scary about it. This lack of concrete data in front of your face at all times is what allows my neighbor to (literally) wash the gutter in front of my house with a huge stream of water, which would be crazy even in non-drought conditions.

Yeah, the drought is symbolic and foreshadows the conclusion (especially with all the bullshit flowery asshole metaphors I use throughout this one), but it’s also practical. A cigarette butt can’t start a fire in normal Nebraska conditions.

“His drunk dad feels happy his son got a fast food job. The son has a cig and then burns the house down. Ever worked at a fast food place?”

Yup. It was no worse than anything else, really. Other than the half-priced meals and my fat tits. I was employee of the year once and that shit was the primary feature of my resume forever. It was a Hardee’s, literally two lots away from home, while I was in high school. This short travel distance set me up for unrealistic expectations in terms of future job-related travel. I now have to drive half an hour (usually) to work and it is absolutely the worst. I think about veering into a retaining wall or off an overpass every single day because I hate driving this much. I swear it’s not self-loathing. Probably.

“Ambiguous ending. Should we expect he was offered grief counseling due to his father going up in smoke or that he was prosecuted for arson?”

I’ve literally never considered after.

This story sat inside me forever. The youthful obsession with the drought. And then when I started smoking, this clicked into a constant “what if?” situation. I’d say I had the skeleton of this in my head for three years before I managed to set one word to paper. This skeleton never had an after. It always ended right where it did. The fire happened. There was no coping, no after effects, just destruction. I suppose I was a little more nihilistic when I was in my early twenties than I am now. Even now, when forced to consider after-effects, I can come up with nothing. I have no idea what happens next. I guess you get to decide. A nihilist would just go on with his life like nothing ever happened.

“What about video games makes him a passive viewer of the scene where the house goes up?”

“[L]ike a kid playing a video game” isn’t meant to be the reason for his passivity. His passivity is more just who he is. “[L]ike a kid playing a video game” is where the narrator becomes a self-aware, conscious adult. It’s a subtle change within the text and there are only two sentences afterwards, but that was my intention. Throughout most of the story the narrator is telling the story in the past, but with the eyes of a child. There is no historical perspective/hindsight included. But suddenly he is “like a kid,” when a few sentences before he was most definitely actually a kid. It’s a coming of age in a trial by fire story (I couldn’t resist the pun; I’m sorry).

Mike wrote about the book’s evolution and publishing process here.

Scenic Utah is available for purchase here.

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